Sexual Metaphors at Hacker Camp
In the past it’s not been my practice to read the business section of the newspaper but lately I’ve been paying more attention to it. Sunday, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s business section featured an article I just couldn’t resist: Hacker Camp: Computer programmers get to play attacker in order to learn how to do security better.
Early in the article we learn that all the “campers” are men. This is discouraging. I don’t know how attendees were recruited or selected but I’m guessing there wasn’t a lot of outreach to women. This is the part of the article that really woke me up, however:
The campers adopt a vaguely disturbing semisexual lingo.
There’s “violation” and “penetration.” When these guys form buddy teams, one “has to volunteer to take it first,” Evans, the counselor, said – meaning one is the hacker, the other the cracker.
It brought to mind Carol Cohn’s classic essay, “Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals“. (in Signs vol. 12, no. 4, Within and Without: Women, Gender, and Theory, [Summer, 1987], pp. 687-718. DOI: 10.1086/494362) Cohn’s paper is witty and jargon-free; it is a delightful read and I highly recommend it. I went back to it to help me think about sexual metaphors at hacker camp.
Cohn studied what she called “technostrategic” language among defense intellectuals. One of her insights was that technostrategic language shaped how it was possible for one to think about nuclear weapons; it also made it impossible to think and talk about certain concepts, such as peace.
Technostrategic language was vividly laced with sexual metaphors, and Cohn offered some cautions in thinking about this. It was too simplistic to just talk about men’s obsession with phallic imagery. It wouldn’t do to read individual motivations into language such as that quoted above from the newspaper article. That is, what is of interest, or importance, is not why those individual men are motivated to use such language. The language comes out of the broader culture and is available to the individuals. What is of interest is how does the language function? What purpose does it serve? Cohn notes that sexual imagery has long been a part of the discourse of warfare, and a warfare mentality is certainly present in the hacker camp. It is, in a sense, a war between those who want to crack computers and those who would defend against them.
Both the military and arms manufacturers are constantly exploiting the phallic imagery and promise of sexual domination that their weapons so conveniently suggest.
“Penetrate” is a word that appears with some frequency. Cohn asks, “how does [this imagery] function in their construction of a work world that feels tenable?” Her conclusion is that it offers a sense of control in a situation that is wildly beyond the individual’s control.
It’s possible that the sexual imagery at hacker camp functions in much the same way. Computer security requires eternal vigilance and never-ending creativity to keep up with the bad guys. It is a situation that can potentially feel out of control.
It’s not like the sexual imagery is required to describe what’s going on. There are other forms of imagery available: medical imagery (infections, viruses, immunity) or, as the Inquirer reporter noted, a game of chess. One could just break in to someone’s computer – is it really necessary to say that you penetrated it? But that imagery of sexual domination gives one such a nice feeling of being in control.
Cohn’s paper is a fascinating case study of the function and purpose of workplace language in one very unique workplace, but her insights and conclusions can help us understand language functions in other settings.