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A Gendered View On The Hacker Community

Gender and Technology
Hong Lin

A Gendered View on the Hacker Community

When I was eight or nine years old, I remember watching the news and wondering why the vast majority of robbers and murderers were men while a much larger proportion of the victims were women.  My mother said it was because men were stronger and thus more physically capable of violence.  My grandmother said it was because women in general had terrible karma, and were thus born into this world to receive their just punishment.  My father didn’t offer any actual explanation, but reminded me that men were not to be trusted.  I didn’t believe any of them at the time, but with the coming of adolescence, when boys my age outgrew me one by one and physical differences became more and more marked, I grudgingly accepted my mother’s explanation.  It wasn’t until a recent run-in with an aggressive computer hacker I began to question this belief.

The encounter itself was strangely sexualized considering the technological medium in which it took place.  At the beginning of fall semester, I was approached on MSN Messenger by a Tyler White from Bentonville, Arkansas, which I assume is a pseudonym.  He had found my old MySpace page from high school, discovered my Hotmail account through less than legitimate means, and began to ask me for very personal information.  I blocked him within minutes of meeting him.  After about an hour, my programs started closing randomly.  When I restarted, I found my taskbar locked, and lewd pictures of what I assumed to be him posted on my desktop, and scattered all over My Documents.  After that, I started getting attacks regularly, so that eventually, I had to reinstall.

Out of a desire to understand the mentality of “Tyler”, I did some research on the hacker community, and what I found was that they are strangely reminiscent of cowboys in the wild wild west: highly independent and capable, with a common disregard for laws and authority.  Similar to the heroes and outlaws we see in the old western films, the attitute toward them from the rest of the online community seems to be a colorful mixture of fear, resentment, curiosity and awe.  There are black hats such as “Tyler” who break into other people’s computers for selfish reasons and malicious intent, white hats who protect the innocent non-hackers from black hats, and grey hats, who are somewhere in between.  There are also big names of famous hackers – all online monickers of course – that anyone who bothers to read up on the community will likely stumble across.  Superheroes.  Supervillains.  Mysterious rogues with hidden agendas.  I felt like a civilian in a comic book city.  The only difference was: most comic books nowadays have key female players.  In the hacker community, every distinguishable character identified as male.

Suddenly, the most logical explanation for why most violent criminals were men seemed overly simplified and inadequate.  If it only came down to physical strength, then logically speaking, the hacker community should neither be distinctly masculine nor distinctly feminine – but this is not the case.  Despite the fact that computer hacking is a highly technological crime that does not require any sort of physical fitness, the hacker community is strongly male-gendered.  I have thought of several reasons for why this could be.

Perhaps my mother’s explanation could be applied here as well: perhaps men generally have a greater mental capacity as well, and are thus more capable of technological violence.  As insulting as that may sound, there are quite a few people I can think of who would probably agree with that.  But I can draw from many different personal experiences to disprove this hypothesis.  In high-school and in college, I have never noticed a difference between the ability of men and women to thrive in an academic and intellectual environment.  Highly prestigious and intellectual careers (doctors, professors, writers, politicians) may statistically hold a higher percentage of men than women, but in no way is it anywhere close to the hypermasculinity of the hacker community.

Perhaps a more psychological approach could be used to view the act of hacking.  When I really think about it, what “Tyler” did to me felt strangely similar to rape – in a non-physical sense.  He used his knowledge of computer programming to break into my safe space, thereby accessing some very personal information without my consent, and in the process, he chose to lewdly expose himself.  In a way, I feel that he has made technology an extention of his sexuality, a means by which he can commit acts of sexual aggression in a psychological form.

A third explanation came to me when a classmate talked about her experiences in a class on computer science.  She described the environment as unfriendly and largely geared toward boys.  She didn’t feel supported as a student in the class, and ultimately felt discouraged about advanced technological learning as a whole.  I recall that a couple of other students shared the same experience.  So, perhaps it’s not a mental capability or a twisted, Freudian characteristic of the male psyche, so much as a general sense of discouragement women are subjected to in the technological learning environment, which may or may not stem from a collective perception on the part of society of higher technology as inherently masculine.

Most likely, it is a combination of all of the above, and I’m certain that there are other factors I have not taken into account.  Hopefully as I learn more about the complex interaction between gender and technology, my view on this will become more educated.