Medieval hackers

As part of our attempts as a species to understand what hacking is, this review of the book Medieval Hackers provides a clear commonality between hackers and information-hackers of earlier ages:

The basic premise of Kathleen E. Kennedy’s intriguing volume Medieval Hackers is that modern computer hackers are essentially the inheritors of the medieval copyist and translators who sought to freely disseminate information from original sources through their “derivative texts,” which often also abridged, expanded, or altered information in their exemplars. More specifically, hackers can be identified with those late medieval transmitters of information who came into conflict with authorities when, starting especially in the mid-sixteenth-century, efforts were increasingly made to control, limit, or prohibit the free diffusion and distribution of certain text types, despite the fact that such unfettered free license had hitherto had been an accepted and integral part of European intellectual culture.

Hacking has always been about liberating information from control. This does not extend to any and all information, but to that which others can use in constructive ways. During the 1980s, computer/telecommunications resources were hidden away in universities and at companies, and hackers “borrowed” those to experiment with, explore and develop the new technology. In addition, hackers documented the systems they found and spread that knowledge through g-files/t-files so that others could do the same. In the current time, hacking is mostly dead because resources are available and we are awash in information, most of it bad. As a result, many hackers are reverting to the medieval role of compiling and clarifying true information, branching out into fields like philosophy, politics, literature and the arts.

1 Comment

  • OlStatesman says:

    THIS IS CRAP, UNMITIGATED, GALLING CRAP – the theory expressed that is … I became interested in medieval linguistics in vivio – mom got her MA by FINALLY, in the late 1940s, providing Absolute Proof Positive that two French poets wrote L’Romance de La Rosa, translated in the 14th Century into London Middle English Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer was given credit for composing the work back then, despite glaring obvious evidence to the contrary. due to Anglophonic bias in the ‘States and a violation of what later became known as (Prof. Norman) Cantor’s Law (roughly, don’t read history books on anything medieval or pre-medieval written prior to 1936 unless you are deliberately seeking fantasy – for the most part, the Victorian era still loved the “real” King Arthur and Ys, the French Atlantis. Enough of that.
    As for the book, which I just learned existed a few minutes ago, this is SO much crap that I must give it a read and challenge the author.
    ADDITIONALLY – until many years into the post-Gutenberg era, copyright did not exist EXCEPT in terms of the battle to win a license to own or operate a printing press; people didn’t give a damn about intellectual property.
    ALL the hand-copy process did was introduce tons of dreck by each new generation of copyists, many who had NO knowledge of the subjects they were asked to copy. In university cities, books to be rented, a quire at a time, to students for the purpose of copying – and multiple students made copies from each ‘rental’ – the MAJOR problem was the introduction of error upon error, by ignorant copyists in a rush; And the rented copies? Many were made by scribes who didn’t understand anything about what they copied, some could only draw the shapes of Greek, Roman, Hebrew and Arabic type, but had no idea what the words, even the letters themselves, meant.
    This problem has plagued me every time I try to translate and redact a medieval artist’s or physician’s formula. What seems absolutely safe is best done under a chem lab’s explosion-resistant fume hood. Information was NOT “clarified” nor truth discovered by these poor copy practices. (if someone wants footnotes, write back here and I’ll hand you a foot of ’em).
    Generally, the OLDEST Ms. of a pre-Gutenberg work is the best, containing the real ‘information’ the author tried to communicate. The signal/noise ratio weakened the signal to the point where, many times, the third generation of a text had become almost useless! Talk about being “awash in information, most of it bad?”
    Want just one example? The Septuagint, the “70 translators” hired to hack what Christians call “the Old Testament” from Hebrew into the warped Greek then spoken by upper-class Romans, including a significant Jewish population. 70 translators made a few minor mistakes – They translated the Hebrew word for any kind of strong ‘leader’, of anything from a group of “freedom fighters”/”terrorists”, to political boss, respected teacher, etc., “messiah” into the Greek for religious “Savior” (letters romanized into) Christ of the year-god and other mystery cults of the middle days Roman Empire; the Hebrew for “young woman” into “virgin”. Even more errors were made when
    Paul, said born Saul arranged the books of The Bible, and then had it translated for the masses, the non-Citizen ‘vulger’, hence the name “Vulgate” of the initial edition, copied to the nth Generation before printing fixed the text, original intent now hopelessly missing.
    There are only a couple of errors to be found in the original book translated, the Jewish (romanized transliteration) T’an’ach, because of the ceremonial copy editing that checked and rechecked the copies – they are known, unchanged in the 3,000+year-old document, but the proper original words are substituted when its contents is read or explained (very silly, but it prevents the combination of books beginning with ha-Torah, including one of the greatest pieces of erotica ever written, the Solomonic/Davidic Court Poet’s “Song of Songs”, and, peculiarly, to make things familiar for the Persian Jewish population, the Book of Ishtar, er, Esther and Ishtar’s brother deity Marduk (de-deifyied by calling him ‘Mordochi’ – or Marduk-lives, therefore a human).
    While modern Christianity has spawned thousands of re-edited and original-information-reduced English Bibles, including the Reader’s Digest edition, outside of the Hebrew T’an’ach, there have only really been two major English translations – both by the Jewish Publication Society (JPS I, which when finished, was re-examined, compared with newly uncovered older originals to lead to JPS II, and I am sure computer-reconstruction of previously-unreadable older editions will lead to JPS III in a few years). There is also ONE peculiarity out there – a Bowdlerized edition in which, for instance in the Song of Songs, utterly fantastic erotica, not “smut” at all, the lover describing his beloved’s navel in its beauty and perfection, becomes “Your courtroom is so perfect in its roundness”. Or, as a very Orthodox Jewish friend says: “My hovercraft is full of eels.”

    The BASIC concept of “copyright”, patent and other intellectual property is very very modern invention that sprang to life ONLY in the post-Gutenberg era, when artists of all stripe no longer had to rely on hand-outs from patrons Chaucer’s no-show jobs, etc., artisans by sales to those with trade/money, or performers from a share of the gate.

    And the concept of the ‘perfect’ copy? Intel still estimates that with the best materials and shielding, cosmic rays still switch about three bits a day somewhere in the average PC, usually not critical – but the reason an OS slowly ‘decays’ causing the horror of rebuilding from scratch or a recent back-up.

    Information is rarely hidden by government – for long – our Great Hero information liberators were and are not hackers, Daniel Ellsberg walked out of RAND carrying the 6 volumes of “The Pentagon Papers” covering US involvement in Viet Nam from 1956 to 1968. And a lot is on the shelf. I once spent an enjoyable afternoon in the 1980s in a Government Depository Library reading the complete prints and operating instructions for the long-outdated Redstone rocket.
    And all the “good” stuff on one government is usually released by another unfriendly one. What scares me more than the criminal misuse of information gathering and militarization of local police and the destruction of the wall between FBI and CIA/NSA isn’t really the fact that there’s a pen register on everybody’s phone these days – it is the destruction of the PC, replaced by “the Cloud” and infotheft by marketers who can use it to sell us almost anything if we’re not careful. And the truth that anybody who can put up a neat website can con the average owner of one of these new wonder Glass TTYs that have replaced our beloved PCs for the most part, into buying almost any product or political line.
    Yes, most of the information we are awash in is not really “bad”, just evil.
    Shout-outs to the pre-FM WUSBs, Statesfolks, and the guy who turned the Polity copier into a wonderful quarterly.

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