Hackers “Hacking means creating new things with technology”

Talk about nerdy mavericks – they’re technology buffs with a penchant for experimenting and some are firmly convinced they can create art and beauty with computers. Four members of the scene talk about how they got into hacking and what hacking really means to them.

Gero Nagel, 23, Berlin, student of cultural studies

Gero Nagel, 23, Berlin, student of cultural studies Gero Nagel, 23, Berlin, student of cultural studies | Photo: Andreas Kiener I’m not exactly the nerdiest guy around. I did study computer science and I write programs too, but I’m more interested in the subcultural side of hacking. It’s a whole stance on life. What defines being a hacker is not being able to do incredible tricks or knowing code in ten different computer languages, but understanding a system so well that you can change it yourself. That may be a computer system, but it can also be a social system.

Hackers could be described as a combination of computer scientists, engineers and teachers. You can toil away by yourself for long hours, but getting together to share ideas and know-how is also important. Imparting know-how is the teaching side of it. The advantage of organizations like the C-Base in Berlin or the Chaos Computer Club [CCC, an international hackers meeting] is that lots of people with similar interests are involved. Apart from technical stuff, I delve into so-called “soft” subjects as well, into questioning how our society actually works. How come it’s still considered normal for women to take care of the children and household and not men? What nonsense! Even the way roles are assigned in the family can be hacked by deliberately reversing the roles. That can go as far as cross-dressing. Switching men’s and women’s fashion is also a way to challenge conventional gender roles.

Katharin Tai, 20, Le Havre, France, student of European and Asian politics

Katharin Tai, 20, Le Havre, France, student of European and Asian politics Katharin Tai, 20, Le Havre, France, student of European and Asian politics | Photo: privat I started taking an interest in Internet policy when I was doing voluntary service in China in 2011/12. Internet access is severely restricted there. Facebook and Twitter are blocked. Whether a given news site is available depends for one thing on the country the medium is from and, for another, on their coverage of China. Proxies to get round the ban are prohibited, but foreigners in particular use them all the same. I got in touch with the CCC at the time through a friend. To gain a more in-depth understanding of Internet policy debates, I started delving into the technical backgrounds as well. I’ve been using the Internet since I was 10. It’s a matter of course for me, I never had to think much about how it really works. The older generation, the people who didn’t grow up with the Internet yet, automatically had to grapple more with the technology. The Internet was not as omnipresent then. To my generation, dialling in on a modem already has something hackerish about it.

Sebastian Götte, 20, Berlin, physics student

Sebastian Götte, 20, Berlin, physics student Sebastian Götte, 20, Berlin, physics student | Photo: Andreas Kiener I’m from the country. I was the only one there who did anything with computers. I was about 9 when I first started working with electronics. I got more and more into it till in high school I started building my own EEG, i.e. an electroencephalograph for recording brainwaves. It was quite an eye-opener for me to come to Berlin after finishing high school and meet the hacker scene here: all people who not only do something with computers, but even some really off-the-wall stuff! What is commonly called hacking has nothing to do with real hackers. Hacking means creating new things with technology. Hackers use things in a way that isn’t stipulated in the user manual. Some even create art with technology.

I like working with hardware, with electronics. I make the software that runs on microprocessors, but also the colourful app interfaces. Once I had a project with 100 control relays made in East Germany, in other words electrically operated switches. Actually they can’t do a whole lot more than just clattering loudly. We made glowing pilot lamps of every colour out of them. My interest in technology will inevitably become my profession. The way hackers work is not particularly compatible with slow bureaucracy, however. I want to implement my ideas right away, that wouldn’t work in a big corporation.

Fiona Krakenbürger, 23, Berlin, student of European ethnology

Fiona Krakenbürger, 23, Berlin, student of European ethnology Fiona Krakenbürger, 23, Berlin, student of European ethnology | Foto: LinusNeumann I can’t define what hackers are. I can only talk about observations among my circle of friends and a little from research. I think that as a hacker you think differently about things. You see problems as challenges and try to find solutions. It all started when I was chatting on the Internet and after a beer or two I decided to learn Assembler – in other words, machine-level programming. I can’t say all that clearly whether I’m a hacker. Hacker is mainly an outside attribution. “You’re a hacker if other hackers call you a hacker,” is a tongue-in-cheek saying that describes it.

I certainly have lots of friends in the hacker scene and some know me from my blog. The scene in Berlin is small enough to get a handle on it, but not clearly delineated. So it’s a mix of programmers, bloggers and Twitter people. We meet at events, which can run the gamut between private and public. We hook up at conferences or go out for a beer. I’m not a good programmer; to me it’s not so much about writing great programs as understanding. Even so, I can put paid to the preconception that as a woman I wouldn’t be into it.