Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 32
3 May 1999

K I N O E Y E:
Elegant Solutions, Artful Anarchy
Christine Bader's Hacks

Andrew James Horton

In the information technology age, everyone has heard of hacking and has some idea of what it is. Watching Christine Bader's Hacks (Austria/Germany, 1997), you suddenly find out how little you actually know. Hacking encompasses not just a technical action, but also a way of life.

A "hack" is an elegant solution to a tricky problem. So, when the Chaos Computer Club hacked their way into the computer system of a major Hamburg bank, the simple method they employed for this electronic breaking and entering constituted a hack. But hacking by no means stops there. Hacks can be made in any area where there are tricky problems, and it's not just computer systems which are broken into. Hackers have infiltrated social, business and cultural systems, and the examples shown in the documentary feature equipment as diverse as keys, ships and even the humble telephone. What distinguishes hackers from your common, garden variety crook are the philosophical aspects behind the activity. Although the large array of hackers Bader interviews have different ways of expressing it, it all boils down to the same idea: hacking serves the purposes of information democracy.

And it is in the name of information democracy that hackers scorn the idea of personal profit and even the idea of subversion, which are two motives that we usually associate with hackers. "You betray your clients," says one angry hacker when speaking of corporations with fallible computer systems. Another hack finds that a simple key on his ring will open the moneybox on a telephone. To solve the problem of the lack of security, he installs his own padlock and leaves instruction on how the phone company can obtain the key from him. Hacking, in this situation, aims to force corporations to recognise their faults and to provide a better service for their customers. In the wider context, hacking exists to empower the individual in the face of larger economic and social structures. We should be "digital citizens" claims one hacker, and "not just consumers".

In more unusual examples of hacking, Bader shows us how computers have liberated handicapped people; how hackers have managed to infiltrate social and business world of mainstream computing experts; and how the radical Sea Shepherd movement has managed to "hack into" the environmental policies of Greenpeace and change them from outside. Even the Chaos Computer Club, it is stressed, was never intended to be about computers. Computers were merely a catalyst for social activities; people took priority over machines.

Bader certainly expands the stereotypical view of hacking and puts its central philosophical axioms in context. However, one important area which is lacking in the film is the implication for political democracy. Hacks is filled with talk of digital democracy, financial democracy and, phrased in the slogan "access for all", information democracy. What is neglected is the way that information systems, and particularly the World Wide Web, can aid democratisation in Central Europe. In an era in which information is being democratised, it is becoming more and more difficult to set up authoritarian regimes in the traditional sense of the term. It would have been interesting if Bader had attempted to gauge just how effective the Internet is in providing alternative news sources in countries such as Belarus, Serbia or Slovakia, which have, or have previously had, their domestic sources of information heavily controlled by their respective governments. The influence of "information democracy" on politics (or even its potential influence) is of far more weight than, say, the anarchic neo-dadaistic "culture hacks" of partiers on board the ship Stubnitz. In this respect, it is a major omission not to have discussed it.

Despite this, Bader's documentary is a provocative and stimulating exploration of attitudes and actions which are sure to spread in the years to come.

Andrew James Horton, 3 May 1999

Shown at the 21st Creteil festival of films by women.


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