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    Greg and Beth

    the political and personal musings of two
    mountaineers living in west-central Florida
     
    Why Hackers Like Guns Comment
    Gregory Morris, 7/23/07 8:42:24 pm
    This article got me thinking about the hacker culture vs. the gun culture, and where they intersect. I commented previously about it, and how I disagree entirely with his premise, but sometimes that is all it takes to get the creative juices flowing. Ok, let’s begin.

    First of all, I figure for those who don't know, the term "Hacker" has a meaning beyond that supplied by the media. "Hackers" aren't evil because they are hackers. Rather, there happens to be a small minority of hackers who also happen to be bad people (which can also be said about any sub-culture in the world.) Movies and journalists often depict hackers as law-breaking punks who wreak havoc using computers. This is highly inaccurate, given the historical meaning of the term as well as the common use of the term among self-described hackers.
    A very general definition might be:
    Someone who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. (From The Jargon File)
    The term has been defined both narrowly, in terms of "computer hacker", but most self-described "hackers" more broadly define it as technology enthusiasts who come up with clever ways to solve problems and make things work. While seems obvious to equate "hacker" with "computer geek", I believe there are a lot of "computer geeks" who really don't possess the mindset of a hacker. Given that reasoning, all "hackers" may not necessarily be "computer geeks" either, although I'd wager there is a significant percentage of hackers who are. Now that I have that definition out of the way, I'll get to the meat.
    Guns are interesting machines. Technology enthusiasts have always been attracted to anything that can be invented, reconfigured, improved or re-purposed to solve a problem. My premise, simply put, is that a lot of hackers are also "gun nuts" and there is likely a meaningful correlation in the overlap of the two groups. Now for some history...

    The modern hacker culture really began in the 60s and 70s with amateur technology enthusiasts experimenting with new ways to use the technology that was quickly making its way into our society. They tinkered with phone systems, electronics, radios, and really anything they could get their hands on. A lot of their time was spent thinking up clever ways to pull off pranks, play games, or get around artificially imposed limitations on technology. However, this early hacker culture can trace its roots further back.

    In the late 40s and 50s, some techies got together and formed a model railroad club at MIT, simply because they found it fun to play around with complex and elegant mechanical and electronic systems. You can look back before that to the amateur radio clubs of the early 1900s to find people who were building radios from kits or from scratch. Going further even back, the "hackers" (although the term clearly wasn't in use) of the 1800s were the people designing complex industrial machines as well as tools to automate or mechanize everything from cutting lumber to weaving cloth. The collective feeling of the age was to make things cheaper, better, more efficient, more useful and more powerful.

    It was during this time that some of the most clever engineers of the day put their minds to improving firearms to make them more reliable, accurate, and useful. The 1800s saw a shift from the common smooth-bore muskets to mass-produced rifles, single-shot pistols to revolvers and black powder to cordite. Although large machines were in common industrial and agricultural use by this time, repeating firearms were among the first complex machines for sale to the average person, and certainly among the most popular. Among the greatest engineers of the 1800s and early 1900s were the firearms designers who created the standards and the technologies which are still used by many firearms in use today.
  • Paul and Wilhelm von Mauser developed the modern bolt-action rifle
  • Richard Gatling developed the first successful machine gun
  • Harim Maxim developed the first gas-recoil operated machine gun
  • Benjamin Tyler Henry designed one of the most popular lever-action rifles of all time
  • John Browning invented many modern firearm technologies, the famous m1911, the BAR, and the Auto-5 shotgun

    What did all of these people have in common? They were inventors and engineers. Many of them created other inventions of note, aside from firearms. They not only created new technology, but improved on old concepts. In fact, in the process of making guns better, they also improved industrial processes. The best and earliest example of this would be when Eli Whitney (of "Cotton Gin" fame) was contracted by the government to build 10,000 muskets in 1798. Eli was a supreme problem solver, and via this contract he was able to introduce the first musket design and manufacturing process which would result in parts that fit interchangeably on any of his muskets. This innovation had reverberations throughout every other manufacturing industry. Clearly, these men were among of the finest "hackers" of the industrial age. Each of their designs were created to address and solve a problem with existing firearms (reliability, ease of use, capacity, etc.)
    Before I discuss what all of that has to do with modern hackers, let me first ask a question. What is a "gun nut"? Someone who owns a large number of guns? Someone who has tweaked their century-old Mosin-Nagant to shoot sub-MOA? Someone who practices with their only gun, a revolver, once a week? Someone who keeps thousands of rounds of ammunition in vacuum-sealed boxes in their basement? Someone who knows every intricate mechanical detail about how their firearms function? Someone who studies ballistics, and loads their own ammunition? Someone who loves to provoke arguments about whether Glocks are better than XDs? How about someone who has modified their M1911 with every after-market accessory they can find? What about the antique firearm collector? It simply isn't possible to define the term using a lot of the common attributes given to self- and other-described "gun nuts". Rather, a general classification can be defined as “possessing a passion for the art, technology, and science of firearms.” (Quick note: although this is quite funny, it doesn't really work for me.) A hacker's interest in guns may not always lead them down the road to the common perception of gun-nuttery, yet given this more precise definition of the term, we may be able to understand how a hacker may easily find himself holding that title, regardless of his actual ownership of firearms.

    The modern usage of the term “hacker” is almost exclusively in reference to technology or computers. Many of the brightest people I've personally met who work (or play) in the field of technology are also gun nuts. Of course, there are a lot of non-computer savvy gun nuts as well as hoplophobic technophiles. Still, hackers universally have a wide range of interests, especially when it comes to "interesting machines".
    Contrary to stereotype, hackers are not usually intellectually narrow; they tend to be interested in any subject that can provide mental stimulation, and can often discourse knowledgeably and even interestingly on any number of obscure subjects...(also from The JF)
    One of those interests that seem quite common amongst the world's technical elite is the satisfaction found in propelling objects at high speed. That can include anything from archery and building medieval era machines of war to potato cannons and airsoft/marshmellow/rubber-band/nerf guns. The sheer inventiveness of the hacker's mind leads to all manner of devices such as these, as well as improvements on old designs (browse through Make! for examples.) Hackers are never happy with the technology that already exists. A hacker will modify their potato gun to shoot further just as a hacker will rewrite an entire program to make it behave precisely how they want. Likewise, gun nuts will upgrade their sights, polish their feed ramps, and tweak their triggers (among various other things) to obtain optimum results.

    The shear diversity of firearms technology is astounding, which makes the study firearms something many hackers would find worthwhile. Firearm technology ranges from simple muskets to the most ridiculously high-tech concepts you can imagine. (One quick thought and complete digression: don't think that "smart guns" will ever be "hacker-proof". Although the technology might be interesting, any hacker will be able to tell you what many of the possible vulnerabilities are... but that is another post.) Even among common modern firearms, the range of mechanical complexity is astounding. Since I am not a firearms operation expert (just an enthusiast) I will direct you to this fantastic primer on how many modern semi-automatic firearms work. The differences in operation between visually similar firearms are intriguing to the technically-minded individual. Of course, there are also a plethora of various single-shot, revolving, or manually operated firearms out there that also beautifully manifest man's ingenuity. In addition to the actual mechanics of firearms are the nearly infinite variables that determine everything from reliability to accuracy. I won't go into ammunition and ballistics, except to mention that there are all kinds of electronic gadgets out there for loading and testing your ammunition's performance. Things like that make a hacker's ears perk up.
    Geekiness aside, there are perhaps more compelling reasons for hackers to be drawn to firearms. Politically (according to the A Portrait of J. Random Hacker as well as my own experience), hackers tend to be socially liberal yet fiercely anti-authoritarian. Of course, that mentality ranges from simple dislike of the government, to conspiracy theories to calls for completely dissolving the government. Regardless of the extremes, there is a strong technocrat-leaning libertarian contingent within the hacker culture. Hackers demand good information and sound logic, rather than political feel-good arguments. This meshes extremely well with a majority of gun enthusiasts who feel strongly that gun control not only damages our liberty, but also fails to stop violence. The hacker culture is generally skeptical of the government's involvement in matters of technology, feeling that only those who understand it should have the power govern it. Gun nuts often say the same thing about guns! Besides, when it comes to gun control, the ever-curious hacker is more likely to be interested in something once the government says he can't have it.
    I’ve tried to offer a semi-organized discussion on where the hacker world meets the gun world, and why they seem to be so compatible. As I’ve shown, there are many parallels between the worlds of John Q. Gunowner and Random J. Hacker. It all boils down to the joy that comes with tinkering, and the endless pursuit to discover how things work.

    Some extra evidence:
  • Item One: The DEFCON hacker conference has had a "shoot" ever since the 5th conference (although it was cancelled this year.) Imagine, a bunch of nerds in the desert shooting all manner of firearms.
  • Item Two: Eric S. Raymond, often considered the quintessential uber-hacker, is in fact a self-professed gun nut. He has written fantastic essays on the subject as well.
  • Item Three: An Engineer and Gun Expert
  • Item Four: Geeks with Guns
  • Item Five: Geek blogs like guns

    Note: this is not meant to be scholarly work. This is simply my opinion. If I use someone else's ideas, I try to credit them where appropriate. I also reserve the right to change my opinion when provided with better information, as any half-intelligent person should do.

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