Hackers break rules to spur progress

The other day I was listening to some friends discuss how to get around USC’s ban on peer-to-peer file-sharing. One advocated simply going off-campus and finding another Internet connection, but the other talked about creating a program to go around USC’s firewalls that would allow him to download songs from the comfort of his dorm room.

While the conversation might have seemed innocuous to them, it made me realize how far hacking has come from subculture to mainstream practice, and how much hacking has contributed to the Internet and technological revolution.

When I asked another friend what he thought of when I said “hacker,” his first thought was Keanu Reeves in The Matrix — a cyberpunk-minded loner in black leather cracking into government systems and living by his own rules.

Sadly, that’s still how most people see hackers.

But the computer hackers of today are more likely to be in obscure pop culture-referencing T-shirts than black leather and more interested in modifying and amplifying their computer’s power than crippling government servers.

Yes, cyber warfare is on the rise, and it’s always good to have a strong firewall system, but these are not the people to be afraid of — these are the people to listen to.

The truth is that while some have used computer hacking for evil, it has mostly led to progress and innovation.

At its simplest level, hacking is improvising unexpected and ingenious ways of getting a more efficient system. When it comes to computers, it means people are constantly modifying and tweaking their hardware and writing new code for programs, using the existing material as a baseline for new improvements.

Just because hacking might not be liked by institutions in power, that does not mean some shady computer skills or an interest in hacking tactics can’t revolutionize how we use the Internet.

Take file-sharing, for instance. The Recording Industry Artists Association criticizes it, but it has done immense wonders for networking and communication. When programs like Napster started, the Internet was still new. These programs linked computers together in ways that had never been imagined before, and because of that, we now have extensions of that idea in social networking sites.

Even The Pirate Bay — an infamous file-sharing website — had an influence. While based in one country, it would put its servers in less restrictive countries to avoid being prosecuted or shut down. This became a model for other sites that might otherwise face persecution. Websites like WikiLeaks and other endangered sites use this global, decentralized method today.

What makes these people so effective is a do-it-yourself attitude and a desire to create more efficient, freer technology and software for the people.

They are the vanguard of an open source movement. They take what has been previously limited and closed off and open it up the masses, taking an idea and then increasing its potential. If something is a good concept, they build upon it and share it. That is why the Internet is how it is today.

If you doubt the influence of these hackers on the Internet, look no further than the heads of major web companies. Kevin Rose, who got his start on TechTV as the “Dark Tipper,” founded Digg.com. Mark Zuckerberg founded Facebook from his dorm room after a series of programming experiments. Jack Dorsey had been an open source programmer who took his interest in writing code to create Twitter.

Even the major companies were started by some of the earliest computer hackers. Bill Gates was once trying to engineer computers for more performance by taking them apart and putting them back together with a few tweaks. The results became the programs that would define Microsoft. The same is true for Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple. Thanks to their tinkering, we have many of the technological amenities we use today.

The way things are going, the future of the Internet lies within those who are willing to go outside the standards and try something new. The innovators are the people who want to customize their technology for better results. With each day, there is more evidence that we, college students, are those pioneers. We are the ones who are going to continue to revolutionize the online world.

Should everyone get off their e-mail and start trying to crack the Defense Department codes? No. This isn’t Wargames, and we aren’t Matthew Broderick. However, nothing new ever comes from remaining static. If it takes unconventional means to do it, what is the big deal? It might be shady, it might be unexpected, and it might even violate a few codes of conduct, but it’s all in the name of progress.

Nicholas Slayton is a freshman majoring in print journalism. His column “A Series of Tubes” runs Thursdays.