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Lingo, Loyalty, & Lambaste: The E-Zines of the Early French Hacker Scene

Kevin Gotkin
Rachel Ward*
New York University


“This is our world now . . . the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.”
–The Mentor

Introduction

Shortly after his arrest in 1986, “The Mentor” wrote a short piece for the American hacker e-zine, Phrack, entitled “The Conscience of a Hacker.” We can only assume the writer is a man because his penname masks everything about his true identity, including the arrest that apparently led him to write the article. In the piece, he tells stories of his childhood, of discovering the computer, and of reading newspaper articles about amateur hackers getting arrested. The piece is very short with only a handful of paragraphs that barely stretch to a second printed page, but at the end of each paragraph he repeats five words taken from the admonishing voices he hears all around: “Damn kids. They’re all alike” (1). Through his piece, The Mentor allows us a glimpse into some of the most personal parts of a hacker’s mind.

Yet his article illustrates some of the most complex external factors about the life of a hacker, too. It shows us the subcultural relationship to the perceived authoritative normal, the strong bonds between hackers via their e-zine medium, and the interplay of identity and anonymity that define the hacker scene. On a grander scale, the genre of hacker e-zines can teach us about the significance of the subculture historically and today. This paper examines the e-zines of hackers in another place and time: those of France in the 1990s. Via a close reading and critical contextual analysis of these e-zines, we find that the early French hackers developed their scene in ways both very similar and very different from those around the globe.

France and the Unknown: Hacking in a Vacuum?

The e-zines of the French hackers do not speak entirely for themselves. Their context is of equal importance to their content. The 80s in France saw the election and reelection (from 1981 to 1994) of its only Socialist president, François Mitterrand. With his 110 Propositions for France, Mitterrand brought about big changes in the role of government, including better social services, more public jobs, and the reduction of the workweek (“1981”). Despite this political climate, however, few acts of government affected the work of early hackers who were operating in the great unknown of the time. Before the early 1990s, Internet was not a household reality and there were few laws regarding the specific activities that occurred there. Serious regulation laws would not even come about until seminal court cases were tried in early 2000 (Trumbull 83). In a sense, it would have taken some psychic ability to write effective laws about technologies that were only just beginning to proliferate.

At the same time, the French government knew that major technological advances were taking place in the United States and Britain. As Gunnar Trumbull explains in his book Silicon and the State: French Innovation Policy in the Internet Age, France was quick with its rhetoric supporting the Internet and made several attempts to fund French innovation through many tax incentives for new start-up companies (68-74). What ensued was what Hugh Dauncey calls a “cultural battle” over the spread of new technologies (“A Cultural Battle”).

Dauncey was referring to the competition between American Internet and the French Minitel system, a nationwide videotex information infrastructure. Minitel was originally devised as a way for the French government to increase telephone traffic since the French telephone system was often referred to as the “joke of Europe” (Cats-Baril and Jelassi 3). The system was introduced to its first test market in July 1980 and by 1994 it reached six and a half million homes (Dauncey 74). The system allowed customers to use their phone lines to access information like stock prices, telephone directory, and even certain consumer product information via a screen and keyboard machine in their homes. As Dauncey explains, the success of the Minitel system came under serious threat from the more expanded American Internet services, leading to a major cultural standoff that was deeply political (83).

On the underground level, however, where curious and smart young hackers were happening upon loops in the new systems, these events were rather irrelevant. The early French hackers were working as any other type of hacker around the world: on the cutting edge of what they could find. While there was a small lag because the Internet arrived in France slightly after it originated in the United States, it is still safe to say that the most elite hackers in France were operating far above the level of average technological understanding.

This idea of the vast unknown, the elusive arena of hackerdom, is a concept that underpins all discussion of hackers. It was this aura of the unknown that caused public panic because hackers were thought to be anywhere, seeing anything they chose to. It was also what united the members into the tight subculture since it was only the lonely elite that found they were conversing on the highly technical systems they came to master. Paranoia and pride are the two main by-products of this vast unknown that marked the 80s and 90s of the early Internet Age.

Hackers as Hebgidean

Another important way to think of the French hackers is in the sociological terms coined by Dick Hebdige in his celebrated book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style in 1979. In it, Hebdige lays out some of the foundational aspects of subcultures. Most importantly is the perceived dominance of a “normalcy” over a “forbidden identity” that acts as the glue to bind distinct members of society into one subversive identity (5-17). Although French hackers were extremely varied in their tasks and variations, they were united by a sense of adventure to poke holes in the technological normal as a way to combat the unnecessary surveillance and power of authority.

Hebdige also wrote an ode to the “mundane objects” of these subcultural groups (2). He dissected the motorcycle, the pointed shoe, and the tub of Vaseline. Thus, the hacker e-zine is like the safety pin. It can be studied for aesthetic, symbolic meaning, appropriation, and, perhaps unlike the safety pin, content. Although the dichotomy between culture and subculture with hackers is not as easily defined as it is with the other case studies Hebdige uses, this creates an even more complex situation to unpack. As Hebdige explains, although subcultures are veiled in the air of chaos at times, their structure is extremely ordered. In this way, the use of e-zines by French hackers was very homological, symbolically representing the connection between lifestyle and values (113). For hackers, the use of the e-zine represented the way they interacted with each other as well as the principles by which they lived. The connection between values and lifestyle is where we begin to see the deeper significance of the French hacker scene.

The Birth of French E-Zine

An inevitable development in the hacker subculture in France was the spreading and sending of technical information in a similar way that trade publications are inevitable among people who work in the same industry. They were a way to share tips and secrets and to build reputations within the community. Before the widespread proliferation of the Internet, e-zines were distributed as text (.txt) files via the electronic bulletin boards that were usually run by groups of hackers themselves (Thomas 90) or else shared physically by floppy disk (Interviews with Members of TMP Lab). Because it took a significant amount of time to send and receive these files, by the time an article reached the larger underground, it was already obsolete or at least heavily dated, owing both to the slow rate of exchange and the fast evolution of new hacking techniques. Although the e-zines themselves constituted differences between groups of hackers, there was also an extensive network of hackers who met in person to share information (Interview with Members of TMP Lab).

In France, the very first known e-zines before 1990 were not very successful as they faced serious distribution obstacles. Only two e-zines are mentioned in existing accounts of the history of the French publications: Hackito and Chaos, neither of which were highly regarded (NeurAlien 3). But after 1990, there were about seventy-seven e-zines that came into existence with many different flavors and objectives. This approximation is only what can be found on various archival sites today and are not necessarily the full extent of what was being circulated; there were also many e-zines that contained such sensitive material they were protected from mass circulation. The first major e-zine, N0 Way, was edited by a famous hacker named NeurAlien who went on to found France’s first Internet Service Provider, WorldNet (Ankara 1). It lasted only a few months through the summer of 1994 and was followed by NoRoute, the first French e-zine to deal directly with Internet hacking. MJ13 became known for its technical precision in 1997, and HVU, a radio phreaking e-zine, continued publication from 1996 all the way to 2003.

Although the list of different e-zines goes on, this does not mean that they were well written, well made, or well read. In fact, interviews with today’s Parisian hackers have shown that these e-zines were not highly circulated at all. They were often written by “phreakers,” amateurs who did not, in fact, infiltrate deep into systems but instead attempted less technical and less successful means of poking holes in different media (Interview with Members of La Suite Logique). The content of these e-zines is also overwhelmingly dominated by poor translations of major English language e-zines like Phrack or writing about low-level technical skills. The best hacking was done either in small groups or in very closed-door personal meetings, where the danger of being caught by authorities was low (Langlois). But the fact that the e-zines were not representative of what was considered the “best” hacking does not mean that they were irrelevant to the hacking subculture. In fact, it might be the predisposition of modern hackers to pity their ancestors as a knee-jerk reaction to experiencing the massive evolution in technology since then. Even the amateurs who became the face of hackers via these e-zines say something very important about the larger role of hackers in the French information society.

Hope and Desire in Introductions

The introductions of the French e-zines, particularly those of the first issues in existence, have much in common. First of all, they all address a very wide audience. If the later content is increasingly specific, this is only in contrast to the catchall quality of the initial address from editor to reader. This is explained by the want of amateur hackers to become the face of the subculture (Ankara 1) and also by the amount of competition between the e-zines, hence the relatively high number of French e-zines for the community. Although they ostensibly speak to other hackers, all the introductions address non-hacker outsiders who would happen to come upon the magazine, illustrating that the e-zines were an important first primer for any novice hacker, therefore giving him his first glance into the hacker subculture.

Each e-zine’s introduction also defined the subculture in their justification for starting publication. For example, N0 Way’s first edition defines its community as “little representatives of generation X,” but goes on to say they are trying to “counterbalance . . . Big Brother” (Vol. 1, No. 1). MJ13 explains that the magazine wants to be “ultra liberal” (Issue #2). NoRoute specifically designed itself, at least at the outset, for the “newbies” (No. 1). Although each e-zine describes itself differently in relation to the perceived normal, it is important to note that they all have a similar disposition that distinguishes them from any other kind of subculture. On the pages of the e-zines, normalcy is only an imagined idea. Unlike the punks or the skaters who physically interact with authority, the hackers must dream them up without having direct contact. Hackers are already isolated in front of their screens, and therefore they have the power to create the image of what they are subverting. This is the cause for the radical and polemical nature of the e-zines’ content.

Not far before or after the introduction is usually a disclaimer about the e-zine, an unexpected occurrence in a publication that flaunts its illegality. N0 Way’s disclaimer is particularly interesting. It begins by explaining, “This electronic publication may contain information, data, and articles that are prohibited in certain countries.” But then it goes on to say it is the responsibility of the reader to verify he is not violating any laws, followed immediately by: “(ahahahaha :-).” It continues to oscillate between a serious urgency to exonerate itself for any wrongdoing and poking fun at the authorities that might be reading it. It concludes by saying, “We don’t guarantee you anything and if you want you can go read something else! Hahahahahahahahahaha…” (Vol. 1, No. 1). The disclaimer norm might be due to a habit that became commonplace among all e-zines, but it still demonstrates a real threat of being caught, even if the merit of the disclaimer never came to be challenged in court.

Many of the e-zines use the singular, informal “tu” as opposed to “vous” when speaking directly to the reader. It shows a relaxed nature between writer and reader, but it also assumes that the reader is alone, indicative of the larger subcultural bond that all hackers are destined to be reading and working alone. In interviews with Parisian hackers, almost all greeted friends and strangers alike with the equally informal “salut,” further proof of the assumed bonds between hackers (Interview with members of La Suite Logique).

Aesthetic

The visual elements of the e-zines are also important in understanding the significance of the publications. Because the issues were first written in .txt formats, the only available font was the Courier one. Even after font choice was diversified, however, editors still chose to use the old-fashioned font, which is also overwhelmingly used in mainstream media’s depictions of the hacker culture. A Hebdigean reading of this finds it to be “intentional communication,” because the hackers found and claimed their stake to a style that acts to distinguish and unify the subculture. The font has become synonymous with the perceived stereotypes of hackers.

Many e-zines also reference their own typos (“des fauts d’orthografe”), which were accepted as a common part of e-zine writing. Not only were many e-zine articles poorly translated into French from English, the French writing itself was full of spelling errors, a forgivable fault since hackers unified themselves around supporting each other’s weaknesses (and because being too conscious of spelling mistakes is reminiscent of the school teachers many of the hackers reference as quashing their creative intelligence). Interestingly, even in the French e-zines, many writers inserted tidbits of English in parentheses, usually at the end of their writing (and even some German in one issue of the e-zine 13). For example, N0 Way’s first issue included many English insertions: “shame on u!”, “READ IT NOW & GET STONED !”, “greeting for CSA: ‘FUCK!’”. As these quotes demonstrate, English was a way for writers to say even more shocking and damning statements than they would in French. The “greeting,” written by NeurAlien, was to France’s media regulation body, the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel.

Similarly, emoticons are used closely with English phrases. Smileys were just making their debut in these magazines and often the art of creating whole pictures or illustrations out of ordinary letters or symbols was being created in the e-zines themselves, where hackers could show off their skills to others. Where print magazines have advertisements and physical pieces of paper to separate between articles, e-zines have section dividers, which are sometimes uniform and sometimes elaborate and creative.

Anonymity

Returning to the idea of the perceived normalcy of society, we can ask in what other ways does the solitude of being a hacker manifest itself. An obvious answer is in the anonymity found in the virtual pages of the e-zines. Logically, the ability to mask one’s identity on the Minitel system or on early Internet systems allowed for hackers to invent a new identity. This concept has not gone away; we see it in virtual world sites like Second Life and even on social networking sites where the opportunity to craft a virtual profile allows people to color outside the lines of their real identity.

Anonymity is also the root of the profanity and mature content found in the e-zines occasionally in the way it is the root of vulgar and derogatory terms found in the stalls of public restrooms. Profanity is less a problem in the American e-zine, Phrack, which was widely read and carried a particular kind of prestige. But the French e-zines had far fewer readers, many of whom were unknown to the editors, and thus the urge to spew and say anything was greater. For example, a writer named “Sick Alien” depicted a penis and a vagina in symbols before beginning a rather crude article about sexual engineering (Vol. 1, No. 1).

The most obvious manifestation of the anonymity, however, was in the names of the writers and editors, who created fake aliases (and many editors, fake e-mail addresses). This tradition still exists in today’s hacker spaces. When asked why, one hacker from Paris’s TMP Lab responded: “It’s the norm . . . to use a nickname,” and another responded: “That’s just convention that said [sic] early.” These names are also used interchangeably in person with the person’s real name. But interestingly, immediately following the above responses, one hacker said, “It’s pointless to try to hide your identity with a nickname anyway” (Interview with Members of TMP Lab). Although the hacker did not clarify, we can assume that the level of transparency and the connectedness of hackers today renders these names useless, but this was not the case in the 1990s in France.

Ethics & Globalization . . . ?

Steven Levy’s classic 1984 book, Hackers, paved the way for many academic studies on the hacker subculture. One idea he pays particular attention to is the Hacker Ethic, a set of quasi-rules that were circulated in America in the early 1980s. They included things like “All information should be free,” and “Mistrust authority – Promote decentralization” (Levy 44-49). The Ethic reads both as a handbook for hackers to live by, but also a set of values that define the subculture generally. This fundamental document was even further propagated by McKenzie Wark’s famous book in 2004, The Hacker Manifesto, which expanded each point of the Ethic and added many more (Wark). Harper’s Magazine, in 1990, organized a group of famous global hackers to answer whether there still exists a Hacker Ethic. Most said that indeed, the Hacker Ethic is not only an ode to the founding fathers of hackerdom, but simply logical (Hitt & Tough). Many of the tenets of the original Ethic can be seen even in France, notably the activist approach to keeping information free, as demonstrated in Bruce Sterling’s seminal book, Underground, which is available entirely free online (Langlois).

Yet, there seems to be a new principle that has emerged from modern hacking. In his article, “Hacking Goes Pro,” published in February 2009, Nils Gilman writes, “What’s driving the growth and transformation of the hacker industry? In a word: globalization” (1). What he means is that because the same technology has been used by diverse people all over the world beginning with hackers in the 80s, we have developed similar traits that make us able to communicate with distant people. Of course, this was an idea borne out of the early e-zines of hacker culture, for, as The Mentor writes in “The Hacker Manifesto:” “We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias” (1). While technology began globalizing hackers, hacker also began globalizing technology.

Conclusion

The subcultural analysis of the early French hackers says many things about the media society of the time. In most cases, technologies are closely dependent on the social, political, economic, and cultural atmosphere in which they were developed. The printing press being developed in Germany, for example, has led to very high levels of professionalism in media careers there (Hallin & Mancini 170-178). Hacking, as its own form of media, however, is divorced its contexts in ways that newspapers and radio and television cannot be. The aim of hackers is to subvert the normalcy of society through a hobby of poking holes. Illegality on the underground can therefore not be tied to a certain context. Hacking has, and will continue to be, an activity on the periphery.

While e-zines have become blogs and closed-door meetings have become open-door free culture rallying points, the fundamental nature of hacking remains the same. There is a saying within the hacking community: hackito ergo sum, which is a play on the traditional: I hack, therefore I am. As real as hacking was in the 1980s and 1990s, it will continue to push the limits of technology and innovation today. Along with it, of course, will be the subculture and their publications.

Works Cited

“1981: Les 110 Propositions.” L’Office de Recherche Socialiste. Web. 1 Dec. 2009.

Ankara, Nicholas. “A Personal View of the French Underground (1992-2007).” Phrack Magazine. No. 64, file 15 (27 May 2007). Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

Assange, Julian. Underground: Hacking, Madness and Obsession on the Electronic Frontier. Kew: Random House International, 1997. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

Cats-Baril, William and Tawfik Jelassi. The French Videotext System Minitel: A Successful Implementation of a National Information Technology Infrastructure. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.

Dauncey, Hugh. “A Cultural Battle: French Minitel, the Internet and the Superhighway.” Convergence. Vol. 3. (1997): 72-89. Web. 27 Oct. 2009

Gilman, Nills. “Hacking Goes Pro.” E&T Magazine. The Institution of Engineering and Technology Online, 16 Feb. 2009. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

Hallin, Daniel C. and Paolo Mancini. Comparing Media Systems: Three Models of Media and Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. Print.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen & Co., 1979. Print.

Hitt, Jack and Paul Tough. “Is Computer Hacking a Crime?” Harper’s Magazine March 1990: 45-47. Print.

HVU Magazine. NeoDieu Project. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.

Langlois, Philippe. Hackers. New York University in France. 56 Rue de Passy, Paris, France. 29 Oct. 2009. Guest Lecture.

Levy, Stephen. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Doubleday, 1984. Print.

Members of La Suite Logique. Personal Interview. 1 Dec. 2009.

Members of TMP Lab. Chat Board Interview. 27 Nov. 2009.

MJ13 Magazine. NeoDieu Project. Web. 29 Nov. 2009.

NeurAlien. “French Scene.” Phrack Magazine. Vol. 47 (1995). Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

N0 Way Magazine. NeoDieu Project. Web. 19 Oct. 2009.

NoRoute Magazine. NeoDieu Project. Web. 24 Oct. 2009.

Phrack Magazine. 1985-2009. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

Sterling, Bruce. The Digital Underground: Law and Disorder on the Electrical Frontier, TexInfo Edition 1.0. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1994. Web. 21 Oct. 2009.

The Mentor. “The Conscience of a Hacker.” Phrack Magazine. 25 Sept. 1986. Web. 27 Oct. 2009

Thomas, Douglas. Hacker Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. Print.

Trumbull, Gunnar. Silicon and the State: French Innovation Policy in the Internet Age. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institute, 2004. Print.

Wark, McKenzie. Hacker Manifesto. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

 


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