Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Hackers in Hiding: a Foucaultian Analysis


On several occasions Michel Foucault advocated a methodological turn towards what he called a ‘happy positivism’. Foucault’s emphasis on the surface does not deny the importance of structures of hiding, but understands it as a game in which the structures of hiding are viewed as contingently given. In this paper, I will analyse the conflict between the hacker movement and the field of corporate interests. I argue that the introduction of graphical user interfaces and the maintaining of copyright interests are the contingent background of the ongoing conflict. By bracketing the analyses of hidden intentional structures, the happy positivist is thus able to facilitate deeper understandings of the prevailing structures of hiding.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Critiques of Foucault’s positivist strain can be found in Habermas 1985 and Flynn 1987.

  2. 2.

    An example of this can be found in Schwartz 2008. For another reflection on the emergence of this narrative, see also Wark 2004, especially §§ 73, 271.

  3. 3.

    E.g. in Himanen 2001 and Wark 2004.

  4. 4.

    This is certainly not to say that the development of computing and the Internet was solely driven by hackers. Military interests were also important factors in the development (Abbate 2000). However, in this context we focus on the role played by hackers.

  5. 5.

    Monte Davidoff was also hired to program the mathematical routines.

  6. 6.

    In the present context, I take it that it is fair to conflate information and software, since I contemplate the social exchanges that happen through computers and the Internet. In that context, it makes sense to think of software merely as one among other kinds of information (such as texts, sounds, graphical expressions, etc.).

  7. 7.

    Historical events are never as simple as they appear in historical descriptions. It is thus probably not fair to claim that the tension between hacker and business ethics was born as a clear cut when Gates and Allen published the Altair BASIC. In this connection, the story, however, merely serves to illustrate the tension—not to give an exact account of its origin.

  8. 8.

    Snowden was originally a hacker of the (1a)-type (Drew and Shane 2013), but then used his skills to reveal information that the state authorities wanted to keep hidden.

  9. 9.

    This is the root of the classic public villainous image of the hacker, in which hackers are interpreted as ‘intruders’ into private properties and domains. Hackers themselves often distinguish between hackers and crackers, where crackers are the ones who commit illegal activities, while hackers are challenging the prevailing system of legal controls, but without actually committing crimes. (e.g. Raymond 1996). From a political perspective I understand the motive behind this distinction (legal hackers do not want to be viewed as criminals). From the philosophical perspective, I am pursuing, what counts is the common aspiration to ‘let information be free’—illegally or through the hacker commons.

  10. 10.

    Some of these gains and worries are articulated in Zittrain 2006 and Zittrain 2008, even though he does not explicitly relate it to the hacker cultures. Zittrain demonstrates that the generative character of computer and Internet technologies is threatened. Computer and Internet technologies have traditionally been generative in the sense that the hardware is left open to unforeseen uses due to the openness to new kinds of software. Zittrain demonstrates how control-oriented commercial players have diminished this aspect of the technologies.

  11. 11.

    The relationship between hackers and civil disobedience has been reflected on several occasions—e.g. in Taylor 1999; Klang 2004; Vegh 2003. See also Bedau 2002.

  12. 12.

    In the hacker literature, it is common to refer to the Morris Worm as the point where hackers lost their public innocence: on November 2, 1988, R.T. Morris launched an Internet worm that, apparently by mistake, infected many systems, with subsequent repair costs ranging from $200 to more than $53,000 for each infected system.

  13. 13.

    http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=496491, http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=697307, http://www.gartner.com/it/page.jsp?id=1031712

  14. 14.

    Examples of this can be found on the following links:

    Symantec: https://forums.symantec.com/syment/blog/article?blog.id=grab_bag&thread.id=98


    McAfee: http://www.avertlabs.com/research/blog/index.php/2008/01/07/a-banner-year-for-malware-digital-threats-and-the-security-industry/

    Trend Micro: http://blog.trendmicro.com/will-2008-really-be-the-year-of-the-rat/

    Kaspersky: http://www.kaspersky.com/news?id=207575629

  15. 15.

    It may be objected against this list of references that they are not comparable, because they are taken from quite differing contexts, and Foucault often emphasized (e.g. in Foucault 1969, p. 28) that it was important to approach differing phenomena in differing ways. That is true, but still he did actually at some instances articulate methodological reflections, and the dispersion of references shows that this was a continuous aspect of his approach.

  16. 16.

    Unlike logical positivists, Foucault does not subscribe to Occams razor.

  17. 17.

    Translated by Alan Sheridan in The Archaeology of Knowledge, London: Tavistock Publications Ltd., pp. 8–9.

  18. 18.

    Even though Don Ihde to some extent draws on Foucault’s work, Ihde’s turn towards a material hermeneutics (e.g. in Ihde 1998) would thus probably not gain Foucault’s approval. And in the same vein with Andrew Feenberg: Even though Foucault might be sympathetic with Feenberg’s point that we should stay open for the search of different potentials of technology (Feenberg 2002); and that there is too much focus on ‘goals’ in the development of technology (Feenberg 1992), he would be more reluctant as to the claim that a interpretive search for meaning is the obvious theoretical approach when analysing technology.

  19. 19.

    The translation of the passage is taken from Kelly 1994, p. 35.

  20. 20.

    Foucault’s awareness of this is obvious in Foucault 1976 where he (among other things) discusses the logics of censorship (p. 111) and how ars erotica constitutes a knowledge that must be kept secret (p. 77).

  21. 21.

    This is a point elaborated in Thomas 2002, Chaps. 2 and 6.

  22. 22.

    An elaborated account of how the unknown builds anxieties can be found in Douglas 1992.

  23. 23.

    The complicated discussion about the fruitfulness of patents is related to these questions. See for example Fine 2001; Hall 2003; Stallman 2004; Stallman 2005; Lessig 2006.

  24. 24.

    The open source approach does not prevent meritocratic hierarchies. The interests and agendas of experts would, however, be diversified by the shift towards open source production.

  25. 25.

    Some open source software vendors chose to give away the code for free (i.e. without any payment for the licence as such), and then they gain revenue from selling services, such as training and support (the Red Hat model, Young 1999). In this case, Red hat is able to generate revenue because even though we all may download their software, they have (as developers) still some special informational insights, which make them qualified as supporters in cases of trouble with the software.

  26. 26.

    Which is not the same as rejection of normative institutions per se.


  1. Abbate, J. (2000). Inventing the internet. USA: The MIT Press.

  2. Bedau, H. A. (2002). Civil disobedience in focus. London, New York: Routledge.

  3. Douglas, M. (1992). Risk and blame: essays in cultural theory. New York: Routledge.

  4. Drew, C., & Shane, S. (2013). Résumé shows snowden honed hacking skills. The New York Times.

  5. Feenberg, A. (1992). Subversive rationalization: technology, power and democracy. Inquiry: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy, 35(3–4), 301–322.

  6. Feenberg, A. (2002). Transforming technology: a critical theory revisited. New York: Oxford University Press.

  7. Fine, G. S. (2001). To issue or not to issue: analysis of the business method patent controversy on the internet. Boston College Law Review, 42(5), 1195–1214.

  8. Flynn, B. C. (1987). Foucault and the body politic. Man and World, 20, 65–84.

  9. Foucault, M. (1977). Cours du 7 et 14 janvier 1976. In D. Defert, F. Ewald, & J. Lagrange (Eds.), Dits et écrits 1954–1988 (pp. 160–189). Paris: Galimard.

  10. Foucault, M. (1969a). L’archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

  11. Foucault, M. (1976). La volonté de savoir. Histoire de la sexualité I. Paris: Gallimard.

  12. Foucault, M. (1971). L’ordre du discours: Leçon inaugurale au collège de France prononcée le 2 décembre 1970. Paris: Gallimard.

  13. Foucault, M. (2004). In F. Ewald, A. Fontana, & M. Senellart (Eds.), Naissance de la biopolitique: cours au Collège de France (1978–1979). Paris: Gallimard: Seuil.

  14. Foucault, M. (1963). Naissance de la clinique: une archéologie du regard médical. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

  15. Foucault, M. (1990). Qu’est-ce que la critique? (Critique et Aufklarung). Bulletin de la Societe Francaise de Philosophie, 84(2), 35–63.

  16. Foucault, M. (1984). Qu’est-ce que les Lumières? In D. Defert, F. Ewald, & J. Lagrange (Eds.), Dits et écrits 1954–1988 (pp. 562–578). Paris: Galimard.

  17. Foucault, M. (1969b). Qu’est-ce qu’un auteur? In D. Defert, F. Ewald, & J. Lagrange (Eds.), Dits et écrits 1954–1988 (pp. 789–821). Paris: Galimard.

  18. Foucault, M. (1998). The history of sexuality. London: Penguin.

  19. Galloway, A. R. (2004). Protocol: how control exists after decentralization. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  20. Habermas, J. (1985). Der philosophische Diskurs der Moderne: zwölf Vorlesungen. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

  21. Hall, B. H. (2003). Business Method Patents, Innovation, and Policy.

  22. Hansen, E. (2005). The foucault-habermas debate: The reflexive and receptive aspects of critique. Telos, 130, 63–83.

  23. Himanen, P. (2001). The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age. New York: Random House.

  24. Hoglund, G., & Butler, J. (2005). Rootkits: subverting the Windows kernel. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Addison-Wesley.

  25. Ihde, D. (1998). Expanding hermeneutics: visualism in science. Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press.

  26. Kelly, M. (1994). Critique and power: recasting the Foucault/Habermas debate. Cambridge: MIT Press.

  27. Klang, M. (2004). Civil disobedience online. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 2(2), 75–83.

  28. Leigh, D. (2011). Wikileaks: inside Julian Assange’s war on secrecy (1st ed.). New York: Public Affairs.

  29. Lessig, L. (2006). Code: version 2.0. New York: Basic Books.

  30. Perens, B. (1999). The open source definition. In C. DiBona, S. Ockman, & M. Stone (Eds.), Open sources: Voices from the open source revolution (pp. 171–188). Beijing: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

  31. Raymond, E. S. (1999). A brief history of Hackerdom. In C. DiBona, S. Ockman, & M. Stone (Eds.), Open sources: voices from the open source revolution (pp. 19–29). Beijing: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

  32. Raymond, E. S. (2001). The cathedral and the bazaar: musings on Linux and open source by an accidental revolutionary, revised edition 2. Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

  33. Raymond, E. S. (1996). The new hacker’s dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

  34. Ross, A. (1991). Hacking away at the counterculture. In C. Penley & A. Ross (Eds.), Technoculture (pp. 107–134). Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

  35. Saco, D. (2002). Cybering democracy: public space and the internet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  36. Schwartz, M. (2008). The trolls among us.

  37. Stallman, R. (2005). Patent absurdity.

  38. Stallman, R., 2004. The dangers of software patents.

  39. Stallman, R. (1991). Why software should be free. Available at: http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/shouldbefree.html [Accessed December 7, 2011].

  40. Stallman, R.M. (2002). Free software, free society: selected essays of Richard M. Stallman J. Gay, ed., Boston, Mass.: GNU Press.

  41. Taylor, P. A. (1999). Hackers: crime in the digital sublime. London: Routledge.

  42. Thomas, D. (2002). Hacker culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  43. Vegh, S. (2003) Classifying forms of online activism: The case of cyberprotests against the world bank. In M. McCaughey & M. D. Ayers (Eds.), Cyberactivism: online activism in theory and practice (pp. 71–96) New York: Routledge.

  44. Wark, M. (2004). A hacker manifesto. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

  45. Young, R. (1999). Giving it away. How Red Hat software stumbled across a new economic model and helped improve an industry. In C. DiBona, S. Ockman, & M. Stone (Eds.), Open sources. Voices from the revolution (pp. 113–125). Sebastopol: O’Reilly Media, Inc.

  46. Zittrain, J. (2008). The future of the internet: and how to stop it. New Haven Conn.: Yale University Press.

  47. Zittrain, J. L. (2006). The generative internet. Harvard Law Review, 119, 1974–2040.

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to Ejvind Hansen.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hansen, E. Hackers in Hiding: a Foucaultian Analysis. Philos. Technol. 29, 5–19 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13347-014-0182-7

Download citation


  • Michel Foucault
  • Hiding
  • Hacking
  • Business ethics
  • Open source