The Computer Underground


Gordon Meyer and Jim Thomas
Department of Sociology
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, IL 60115
(5 March, 1990)

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the American
Society of Criminology annual meetings, Reno (November 9, 1989). Authors
are listed in alphabetical order. Address correspondence to Jim Thomas. We
are indebted to the numerous anonymous computer underground participants
who provided information. Special acknowledgement goes to Hatchet Molly,
Jedi, The Mentor, Knight Lightning, and Taran King.


The criminalization of "deviant acts" transforms social meanings
into legal ones. Yet, legal meanings are not necessari- ly social
meanings. The legitimacy of statutory social control generally requires
that one accept the realist textual readings of those with the power to
interpret and stigmatize behaviors as inappropriate. "Moral crusades"
that lead to definitions of criminalized deviance tend to reduce the
meanings of polysemic acts to unidimensional ones that limit
understanding of both the nature of the acts and their broader
relationship to the culture in which they occur. This has occured with
the criminalization of computer phreaking and hacking. In this paper, we
examine the computer underground as a cultural, rather than a deviant,
phe- nomenon. Our data reveal the computer underground as an invisi- ble
community with a complex and interconnected culture, depen- dent for
survival on information sharing, norms of reciprocity, sophisticated
socialization rituals, and an explicit value sys- tem. We suggest that
the dominant image of the computer under- ground as one of criminal
deviance results in a failure to appre- ciate cultural meaning. We
conclude by arguing that there are characteristics of underground activity
that embrace a postmoder- nist rejection of conventional culture.

- ii -

"nothing more than high-tech street gangs" (Federal Prosecutor, Chicago).
Transgression is not immoral. Quite to the contrary, it reconciles the law
with what it forbids; it is the dia- lectical game of good and evil
(Baudrillard, 1987: 81). There ain't no sin and there ain't no virtue.
There's just stuff people do. It's all part of the nice, but that's as
far as any man got a right to say (Steinbeck, 1939:31-32).

The criminalization of "deviant acts" transforms and reduces social
meanings to legal ones. Legal meanings are not necessari- ly social
meanings. Most deviancy research tends to reproduce conventional social
ideology and operative definitions of normal- ity within its concepts and
theories. On occasion, these mean- ings represent a form of "class
politics" that protect the power and privilege of one group from the
challenge of another:

Divorcing moral crusades from status group competition while denying
that cultures are linked to social class- es has undermined attempts
to link lifestyle politics to group struggles (Beisel, 1990: 45).

Once a category of behaviors has become defined by statute as
sanctionably deviant, the behaviors so-defined assume a new set of
meanings that may obscure ones possessed by those who en- gage in such
behaviors. "Computer deviants" provide one example of a criminalized type
of "lifestyle politics."

The proliferation of computer technology has been accompa- nied by
the growth of a computer underground (CU), often mistak- enly labeled
"hackers," that is perceived as criminally deviant by the media, law
enforcement officials, and researchers. Draw- ing from ethnographic data,
we offer a cultural rather than a criminological analysis of the
underground by suggesting that it reflects an attempt to recast,
re-appropriate, and reconstruct the power-knowledge relationship that
increasingly dominates the ideology and actions of modern society. Our
data reveal the com- puter underground as an invisible community with a
complex and interconnected cultural lifestyle, an inchoate
anti-authoritarian political consciousness, and dependent on norms of
reciprocity, sophisticated socialization rituals, networks of
information sharing, and an explicit value system. We interpret the CU
cul- ture as a challenge to and parody of conventional culture, as a
playful attempt to reject the seriousness of technocracy, and as an ironic
substitution of rational technological control of the present for an
anarchic and playful future.

Stigmatizing the Computer Underground

The computer underground refers to persons engaged in one or more of
several activities, including pirating, anarchy, hacking, and phreaking[1].
Because computer underground participants freely share information and
often are involved collectively in a single incident, media definitions
invoke the generalized meta- phors of "conspiracies" and "criminal rings,"
(e.g., Camper, 1989; Zablit, 1989), "modem macho" evil-doers

1988), moral bankruptcy (Schwartz, 1988), "electronic trespas- sers"
(Parker: 1983), "crazy kids dedicated to making mischief" (Sandza, 1984:
17), "electronic vandals" (Bequai: 1987), a new "threat" (Van,