Hacker

glider

hackers

A hacker is a member of the computer programmer subculture originated in the 1960s in the United States academia, in particular around the MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Some members of the ‘hacker’ community most emphatically differentiate the term ‘hacker’ from malicious hackers (whom they very strongly prefer to call ‘crackers’).

Other hackers make no such distinction. The latter hackers’ view that hackerdom is not inherently moral/immoral or ethical/unethical is broadly similar to the concept or attitude of a ‘grey hat’ hacker. By contrast, ‘white hat’ hackers use their computer security related skills and knowledge to learn more about how systems and networks work and to help to discover and fix security holes, and ‘black hat’ hackers use the same skills to author harmful software (like viruses, trojans, etc.) and illegally infiltrate secure systems with the intention of doing harm to the system.

The Jargon File, an influential compendium of hacker slang, defines hacker as ‘A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.’ The Request for Comments (RFC) 1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, amplifies this meaning as ‘A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular. The programmer subculture of hackers, in contrast to the cracker community, generally sees computer security related activities as contrary to the ideals of the original and true meaning of the hacker term that instead related to playful cleverness.

Before communications between computers and computer users were as networked as they are now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker subcultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each others’ existence. All of these had certain important traits in common: creating software and sharing it with each other; placing a high value on freedom of inquiry, hostility to secrecy; information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy; upholding the right to fork (branch off); emphasis on rationality; distaste for authority; and playful cleverness, taking the serious humorously and their humor seriously.

These sorts of subcultures were commonly found at academic settings such as college campuses. The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University were particularly well-known hotbeds of early hacker culture. They evolved in parallel, and largely unconsciously, until the Internet, where a legendary machine at MIT, called AI, provided an early meeting point of the hacker community. This and other developments such as the rise of the free software movement drew together a critically large population and encouraged the spread of a conscious, common, and systematic ethos. Symptomatic of this evolution were an increasing adoption of common slang and a shared view of history, similar to the way in which other occupational groups have professionalized themselves but without the formal credentialing process characteristic of most professional groups.

Over time, the academic hacker subculture has tended to become more conscious, more cohesive, and better organized. The most important consciousness-raising moments have included the composition of the first Jargon File in 1973, the promulgation of the GNU Manifesto in 1985, and the publication of The Cathedral and the Bazaar in 1997. Correlated with this has been the gradual recognition of a set of shared culture heroes, including: Bill Joy, Donald Knuth, Richard M. Stallman, and Linus Torvalds.

The concentration of academic hacker subculture has paralleled and partly been driven by the commoditization of computer and networking technology, and has in turn accelerated that process. In 1975, hackerdom was scattered across several different families of operating systems and disparate networks; today it is largely a Unix and TCP/IP phenomenon, and is concentrated around various operating systems based on free software and open-source software development.

Many of the values and tenets of the free and open source software movement stem from the hacker ethics that originated at MIT and at the Homebrew Computer Club. The Hacker Ethics were chronicled by Steven Levy in ‘Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution’ and in other texts. Hacker ethics are concerned primarily with sharing, openness, collaboration, and engaging in the Hands-On Imperative. Linus Torvalds, one of the leaders of the Open Source movement, has noted that these principles have evolved from the Protestant Ethic and incorporates the spirit of capitalism, as introduced in the early 20th century by Max Weber.

The academic hacker subculture has developed a rich range of symbols to reinforce its group identity. GNU’s Gnu; the BSD Daemon; Tux, the Linux penguin; and the Perl Camel stand out as examples. The use of the glider structure from Conway’s Game of Life as a general Hacker Emblem has been proposed by Eric S. Raymond.

While the word hacker to refer to someone who enjoys playful cleverness is most often applied to computer programmers, it is sometimes used for people who apply the same attitude to other fields. For example, Richard Stallman describes the silent composition ‘4′33″’ by John Cage and the 14th century palindromic three-part piece ‘Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement’ by Guillaume de Machaut as hacks. According to the Jargon File, the word hacker was used in a similar sense among radio amateurs in the 1950s, predating the software hacking community.

Hack value is the notion used by hackers to express that something is worth doing or is interesting. This is something that hackers often feel intuitively about a problem or solution; the feeling approaches the mystical for some. An aspect of hack value is performing feats for the sake of showing that they can be done, even if others think it is difficult. Using things in a unique way outside their intended purpose is often perceived as having hack value. Examples are using a dot matrix impact printer to produce musical notes, using a flatbed scanner to take ultra-high-resolution photographs or using an optical mouse as barcode reader.

A solution or feat has hack value if it is done in a way that has finesse, cleverness or brilliance. So creativity is an important part of the meaning. For example, picking a difficult lock has hack value; smashing a lock does not. As another example, proving Fermat’s last theorem by linking together most of modern mathematics has hack value; solving the four color map problem by exhaustively trying all possibilities does not (both of these long-standing mathematical challenges have now in fact been proven).

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