Security

Hackers and crackers: a lesson in etymology and clear communication

The term "hacker" has a meaning older and more respectable than its common usage in mainstream journalism. Familiarity with that history and its implications can help you make sure your audience understands your meaning when you use the term.

The term "hacker" has a meaning older and more respectable than its common usage in mainstream journalism. Familiarity with that history and its implications can help you make sure your audience understands your meaning when you use the term.


The term "hacker" gets abused, misused, and overused regularly. Its roots in reference to computers reach back to the early days of the MIT Artificial Intelligence lab. The MIT AI lab shared a lot of members with the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, and borrowed the term from there.

A nominal "file" containing the collected wisdom of several generations of hacker culture has grown over the years under the name The Jargon File, and at one time a variant edited by noted and controversial Open Source Initiative co-founder Eric Raymond was published as The New Hacker's Dictionary. Raymond, also known widely as ESR, maintains his version of the Jargon File online for free public access. Within that Jargon File version, the most relevant definition of "hacker" reads:

A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.

A number of other definitions and comments follow, some of which refer at least obliquely to a heuristic common ethic within hacker culture, which tends to value elegant innovation, information freedom, and collaborative effort.

Some time three decades ago (give or take), the term "hacker" began to take on a different meaning in popular media -- including mainstream, nontechnical journalism, and eventually in movies and other fictional entertainments. Given the tendency toward sensationalism, many might consider mainstream nontechnical journalism to be "fictional entertainment" as well, particularly in cases where hackers in the sense defined in the Jargon File bristle at the insulting references in mainstream journalism to hackers as people who perpetrate criminal mischief using computers.

This misuse of the term "hacker" to refer to criminal mischief by way of information technologies probably came into being as a result of the fact that, occasionally, members of hacker culture at MIT and elsewhere would get themselves in a little trouble by letting their curiosity get the better of them. One can easily imagine that a couple of newspaper articles referring to a self-described "hacker" getting in trouble with university administrators (or even the law) could lead to the term taking on a kind of life of its own as more and more journalists made faulty assumptions -- or even conscious decisions -- about how the term should be used in sensationalistic reporting.

Reactions to this from the decentralized, amorphous hacker community have been many and varied, but perhaps most notable among them have been attempts to deprecate the misuse of the term in popular media by replacing it with terms that are either more appropriate or more insulting (or both), but are always distinct from "hacker" in some way. An early attempt was to apply the word "worm", and in retrospect it is easy to see how that would never make it into mainstream journalism. A slightly less early attempt, and one that is championed in the Jargon File, is "cracker", explained in some sources as a portmanteau of the phrase "criminal hacker". The latter is also described as appropriate due to its use in reference to criminals who break into safes: "safe crackers".

Unfortunately for such attempts, the effort has met with mixed success at best. In fact, technical journalists and similar technology media have been increasingly infected with this tendency to abuse the term "hacker" over the years, including the misuse of the term in articles right here at TechRepublic by subject matter experts in their particular fields. From such technically oriented media, it has also leaked into the fringes of hacker culture, such that some have started using the terms "white hat", "gray hat", and "black hat" to refer to various ethical classifications of people who possess the skills necessary to commit computer crimes, whether they use them to criminal ends or not. Such usage is still objectionable to many who feel that the broader uses of the term "hacker" are being marginalized while people unworthy of the term are being backdoored into it.

Of course, the question of whether a term specific to people who use computers to nefarious ends is even needed is an obvious point of contention. Just as we do not refer to mass murderers who commit their crimes with knives by a term different from those who do so with bombs (mass stabber?), there seems little need to refer to people who commit (for instance) fraud with computers with a separate specific term from that used for those who commit fraud with postal mail. Both are "fraudsters", and often "con artists" of some description. In fact, while there seems to be some almost pathological need to sensationalize criminals who use computers as their tools of choice with a romantic name, there seems no particular need in popular media to do the same for those who commit crimes with postage stamps.

Some of us have simply taken to referring to people who commit crimes, using computers, by purely descriptive terms. One of my favorites is "malicious security cracker", because it perfectly describes the breed: people who crack security with malicious intent. One need not have the skills and knowledge of a proper hacker to crack security; in fact, as demonstrated by those specimens many people call "script kiddies," who do nothing but use automated tools created by other people to enact some kind of juvenile mischief.

Occasionally, the more bland term "criminal" is still used as intended when referring to people who commit crimes, even when the crimes involve computer networks. This is a good choice far more often than it is actually used, particularly if you have any interest in avoiding insult to the very people who helped create the Internet itself: real hackers.

Some have argued that a purely democratic descriptivist approach should be taken to defining the term. Because more people (or so they claim) associate the term "hacker" with people who commit criminal acts with computers, we should just accept that as the standard meaning of the word, they say. The problem with this is one that academic linguistic descriptivists would recognize as significant, however: there is another use for the term that has no meaningful, really appropriate alternative. To simply assign the word a definition in line with journalistic misuse due to perceived popularity of that usage is to strip another definition of its word. Meanwhile, perhaps dozens of terms can be applied in cases of criminals using computers to malicious ends.

This topic has been addressed to some extent already in the article Hacker vs. Cracker here at TechRepublic. It is one of those topics that is never really settled, however, as proved in discussion following Deb Shinder's article Hiring hackers: The good, the bad and the ugly [sic]. Inspired in part by that article, and in part by community member Neon Samurai's comment that he would "like to see a rebuttal from any of the authors who does have an accurate understanding of the community," the purpose of this article is to make the topic fresh again in the minds of TechRepublic's readers (and contributing writers).

If you absolutely must use some hyped-up, thoroughly unnecessary, sensationalistic term, consider "cybercriminal" as an option. It seems that "cyber" as a prefix is all any term needs to make it exciting in the eyes of the gullible and ignorant. If such excitement is your aim, "cybercriminal" is certainly shinier, newer, and more delicious than "hacker".

About

Chad Perrin is an IT consultant, developer, and freelance professional writer. He holds both Microsoft and CompTIA certifications and is a graduate of two IT industry trade schools.

284 comments
YetAnotherBob
YetAnotherBob

There is a simple way to approach this. A hacker is a person who writes a computer program for his own use. That is the original meaning, and the meaning intended by most of the folks who fear them. But, A person who breaks into a computer to take information is no different than someone who breaks into a home to take jewelry. Call both "burglers". A cyberburgler is a self explaining term for most people. Breaking into a computer is not hacking the computer. It is cracking the computer. Just like a squirrel cracks (breaks open) a nut to get at the sweet stuff inside, a safe cracker breaks open a safe to get the valuables inside. A computer cracker breaks open a computer system to get at the valuables inside also. The law treats them mostly the same, and should treat them exactly the same. We should all be quite vocal to let others know that a criminal is a criminal, not something special. A stage magician will often pick a volunteers pocket to amaze the audience, but on the street, a pickpocket is just a thief. If tried, the crime is theft, not practicing magic. The same it true in computer use.

Ocie3
Ocie3

Quote: [i]".... Just as we do not refer to mass murderers who commit their crimes with knives by a term different from those who do so with bombs (mass stabber?), there seems little need to refer to people who commit (for instance) fraud with computers with a separate specific term from that used for those who commit fraud with postal mail."[/i] Only a hacker could commit "mass murder" with [i]knives[/i]! No one else would have enough imagination to figure out how to kill a [i]mass[/i] of people in a single act by using knives, would they? [i]Serial killers[/i] often use knives and/or other bladed instruments, sometimes in imaginative ways, but I do [i]not[/i] opine that we should include them among the elite known as "hackers". However, there are sound reasons to distinguish fraud that employs a computer system from fraud that employs the postal system. Basically, we need an overall strategy to defend against both insofar as both involve the unauthorized acquisition and/or misuse of information, but we need different tactics as appropriate to counter the method or medium. Then again, hacking mailboxes is not fundamentally different from hacking computer passwords. They just require different tools that are used with the same mindset. You win. ;-)

JCitizen
JCitizen

at righting what is wrong in the IT professional language. Even though some may feel they are tilting at windmills!! [_]3

Wunderbarb
Wunderbarb

We have the typical problem of communication. Whom are we speaking too? In the case of mainstream media, game over. We cannot fight the news that are simplifying the problem (as usually) or the images drawn by Hollywood (BTW how many crackers turning up into nice white knights to save the world/orphan/heroe in the scenarii?) Joe Six Pack will not understand nuances such as Ethical hacking or color of hats. In the case of specialized media (or niche as was said earlier), such as this forum, we should be careful to use the right vocabulary. The audience should understand the nuances.

neilb
neilb

Bloody Greeks gave us "macro" and "micro", "inter" and "intra" and "endo" and "ecto" and most people don't really pick up on the difference. Similar words and opposite meanings. "Hacker" and "cracker"? Hmm, OK, so one is inside pissing out and the other is outside, pissing in it's easy to forget which is which and - more to the point - the average person and most of those above average and ALL of those below average really couldn't care. The point about communication is it's not just one way. So, do you check that the person with whom you are communication knows the difference? I think not. You've lost the battle. The words are blurred together and nobody cares. :)

JCitizen
JCitizen

This is why I get upset with the "glorification" of criminals and anything of bad behavior by the media. Then they cluck their tongues in disapproval when the frustrated public ends up taking on matters at hand, on their own.

apotheon
apotheon

Mass murder with knives is more common and more easily accomplished than you think, evidently -- and seems especially prevalent in societies with prohibition on "equalizer" weapons for self defense, where individual physical prowess lends great advantage to a knife-wielder over unarmed (or even knife-wielding) people of lesser physical capabilities. Consider famous examples from Japan such as the Osaka school massacre of June 2001, and the Akihabara massacre of June 2008 where the killer first used a truck to mow down people in a crowd, then resorted to a knife to kill (and injure) more of them than he succeeded in murdering with the vehicle. The United States and Germany have also had their own knife-wielding mass murderers, even if we ignore non-knife edged weapons or cases where the knife was used to acquire control of a more deadly weapon (as famously occurred on 11 September, 2001 -- again, in circumstances where "equalizer" weapons that do not depend on physical prowess were prohibited). Knowledgeable police consultants and trainers take great pains to impress upon their clients and students that the ability of a knife-wielder to close distance and pose a lethal threat should never be underestimated. Some claim this obviates any benefit of a firearm, but of course that ignores the equalizing effects of such a weapon; others claim a close quarters weapon such as a knife is useless against a firearm, but of course that ignores the dangers of underestimating one's opponent. . . . but I digress. However, there are sound reasons to distinguish fraud that employs a computer system from fraud that employs the postal system. Basically, we need an overall strategy to defend against both insofar as both involve the unauthorized acquisition and/or misuse of information, but we need different tactics as appropriate to counter the method or medium. On the other hand, the techniques of computer fraud tend to vary much more widely than those of mail fraud -- and in many cases vary more widely than they do between mail fraud in general and certain types of computer-related fraud. The key is not so much to distinguish between mail fraud and computer-related fraud, but between different fraud methodologies, some of which apply to both snail mail and email, and others of which apply to neither. It's not really important to "counter the method or medium" so much as to "counter the method" in particular. Medium is just a side-effect of one's methodological choices, often enough. They just require different tools that are used with the same mindset. You win. Thanks. Discussion of such a topic in even a little depth can be a fun exploration, though, regardless of who "wins".

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

What endeavour is more worthy of a knight's devotion, than one that seems impossible?

jeslurkin
jeslurkin

...there is 'Letters to the Editor'. Much more likely to be published than a missive to nationwide TV.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

It would be haxter (as per baxter : bake-ster =baker & spinster : spin-ster = one who spins (as per spinning yarn, i.e. making thread from cleaned up sheep's fur)). Less old would be hackateer (from french, not so appropriate). But no. Cracker is the problematic term, really. Not only is it too close to hacker, it's also loaded with an unfortunately common-use homonym. To top it off, it also has unfortunate macho connotations - making something crack can be a show of strength, rather than just vandalism. No, cracker is no good for taking the place of the undesireable misuse of "hacker". Instead of "cracker", they should be just called dumbfucks. That's a good term for it. If that doesn't fly with censors, then one of these, or others: booligans, terdbyters, assbyters, dumbyters, netwankers, eatsfloatypooanlaixits... something that's hard to use as a badge of infamy.

apotheon
apotheon

The words are blurred together and nobody cares. Judging by discussion here, I think that in technical circles at least you -- as someone who presumably doesn't care -- are in the minority.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

However, you have a point about the precision of Greek as a language. Our modern habit of carelessly tossing out words like spears hoping to hit something probably comes from our Germanic heritage.

apotheon
apotheon

I don't think I've ever seen a Latinized hypercorrective backformation and reformation of a Spanish word before. Do you practice such delightful perversion of language, or does it come naturally?

JCitizen
JCitizen

of that in several subjects! :)

neilb
neilb

circumscribed. The words have escaped your control and, much though [b]you[/b] might care, it makes no difference. You'll need to invent some new words if you want to regain the exclusivity of your vocabulary. And then be prepared to wave those goodbye, in turn. As for [b]me[/b], I do care about language but, much as it annoys me, I find myself forced to accept that language is dynamic.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

I'll remind you of the demise of the romans in the Teutoburg forest. The germanic mindset (which predates the prussian one) is one that, upon finding a weakness, exploits it brutally. So, that's not especially honorable, nor is it to be condoned in times of peace, but it is not a haphazard use of force as implied by "tossing spears hoping to hit something". :p :) I don't really take offence, but germanic and spear comes close to my nom de plume here :D

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I'm guessing Greeks where well educated or at least the people who's writing survived where. By contrast, there was a huge education deficit among the Germanic tribes and English whom the much of the language mixed with. Same thing happens today; specific word use in higher education and casual approximate use or intentional misuse in lower education.

apotheon
apotheon

I probably do the Dreyfus model a disservice with my gross simplification and definitely non-comprehensive knowledge of it. I'm actually reading about it in the context of consciously taking steps to improve one's autodidactic facility. A general understanding of the Dreyfus model is just one of several ingredients for improving one's learning (in a non-technical sense) that I've encountered thus far in the source material. It's interesting reading, if nothing else.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

that's one way to describe some learnings... specifically learning things that are taught. It's not, I think, so good for describing things that are acquired (stealing the term from "language acquisition" as opposed to "language learning"). But then, it's a model for skill learning, not skill acquisition, so I guess that's considered already. The way I see things, learning and acquisition are parallel processes, often simultaneous. Usage feeds acquisition, instruction feeds learning. The higher levels of dreyfus learning probably include a large amount of acquisition, but at that point they become inseparable; you can't get that good without lots of practical use. There are also individual differences to consider, f.x. I find that my mentality - for lack of a better word - somewhat impairs learning but facilitates acquisition. It's a pretty good deal most of the time - acquisition is effective and keys directly into "getting it right" rather than "knowing what to do" - but writing my thesis is a god-awful mess, in a thesis "it just is" doesn't much cut it :( :p

apotheon
apotheon

I rather enjoyed your reference to the Gordian knot when I first read it yesterday. That does, indeed, seem to draw heavily upon the hacker spirit in two senses of the term: the unorthodox solution, and the hacking motion with a blade, to "cut" straight through the center of the problem -- so to speak. The Dreyfus model of learning was developed by a pair of brothers who were AI researchers. They decided that, before they could properly start work on emulating human learning using a computer, they needed a theory of human learning to emulate. Much research, study, and analysis later, they had what has come to be known as the Dreyfus model. That model became the basis for a revolution in the training and advancement of the nursing profession some decades ago, at a time when that profession was in dire straights due to the negative pressures on learning, expertise, and initiative within that profession. By applying the Dreyfus model to training and management, the nursing profession was turned around and became an integral, important part of the medical care industry above and beyond "doctor's little helper". A good nurse can mean the difference between life and death for a patient, where previously the patient would likely have simply been SOL. The model itself, at its most superficial, classifies levels of expertise in five categories: 1. Novice -- needs "recipes" and close supervision to succeed, learn, and advance, and not an opportunity to work independently toward a goal so much 2. Advanced Beginner -- needs focus on technical, howto information plus clear goals to succeed, learn, and advance, and not the "big picture" so much 3. Competent -- develop conceptual models of the problem domain, can troubleshoot effectively and work on their own; need planning and past experience to succeed, learn, and advance, and not external context or a deep understanding of the underlying principles so much 4. Proficient -- understand underlying principles of the skillset and concern themselves with external context; need the "big picture", and to grok the fundamentals, to succeed; tend to be notable innovators in that subject area; benefit substantially from intuitive flashes that advance their work; chafe at rules and restrictions that stand in the way of their solutions to the problems they set out to solve 5. Expert -- a proficient practitioner who has internalized and habitualized so much of the understanding of the realm that the majority of their work is almost unconsciously accomplished, based on intuition, rather than having to think things through to arrive at the best answer; essentially innovate with every task accomplished, though they and those in their orbits may not even recognize some acts as innovative in their approach; utterly wasted in bureaucratic settings It seems normal for the best teacher or mentor for a given level of expertise to be one level, maybe two levels at most, above the level of the student. In programming, as in most other areas of expertise, the vast majority of "professionals" are advanced beginners or competents. Which is the larger group depends on the subject area and its culture.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Feel free to clue me in. Sounds like I'm hacking something similar though. I do feel that I can second-guess my intuitions - often, at least. I often don't think to ask though. The true lithmus test of my own true intuitions is that, on asking "why like that?", the answer is -at first at least- "it just is". It's an obvious sign that this knowledge has been compiled. A person can of course learn to be aware of their cognitions, and so, start to see how the true self skips and jumps, filtering out the stepping stones and how they lead to where they apparently lead. So, if you do both at the same time, you'll find these two capabilities doing a sort of arms race, the visibility clearing and obscuring as both vision and compiling finesse develop at their individual paces. We all do -to an extent- the kinds of things I did with Quixoti. Phonesthetics of the mother tongue is very intuitive, and very productive. Many* people can take a foreign word of a familiar-enough-seeming phonetic form, and make from that a nativized loanword. Also, people with a foreign language skill can learn to do it in reverse, and produce a source-word candidate for a potential loan-word of the second language. Even if that candidate is a not known word in that tongue. *saying "most" as I would like to, would be to go claiming something for which I don't have specific proof, unlike for "many". What do you think of the macedonian hacker-forebear idea I had? Not suggesting it's of etymological import, although it's not entirely impossible in academic circles, but as an example of the kind of thinking and the kind of solution - it's even crude and elegant all at once. http://techrepublic.com.com/5208-6230-0.html?forumID=102&threadID=334808&messageID=3348185&tag=content;leftCol

apotheon
apotheon

Veering just slightly off topic for a moment, I have been reading something that touches from time to time on the Dreyfus model of learning, and I'm repeatedly struck by the concept of internalization of knowledge that becomes "intuition" in people who reach that fabled realm of true expertise. In cases where I have recognizably reached something approaching that level of expertise (and yes, it's possible to lose it without occasional practice), I've typically found myself able to intellectually deconstruct the "intuitions" that drove me when I chose to do so. Judging by what I've read about the Dreyfus model, this seems to be rather uncommon. Anyway, when you intuit your way to statements like that, it's certainly a sign of skill.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Idiot Savant to my friends, plain idiot to others. To my enemies - something not fit for print. In this case I had a communicative intent first approximate to "knights quixotic" but that term was inappropriate for my intended style. So I took a preceding crossroads approaching the same, adjusting for phonaesthetics. Largely an intuitive production - but my intuition is tooled up, as Santee caught onto at some point.

apotheon
apotheon

No sarcasm intended in this case. I really do think that was a clever linguistic hack -- at least, if its full implications (or a significant majority of them) were intended. If accidental, it was at least accidentally brilliant, in which case still worthy of some recognition. You often mistake my aims, it seems.

apotheon
apotheon

That doesn't change the fact that I have not seen quite that perversion of language, to my recollection. I am perfectly willing to enjoy whimsy and cleverness, where it is not destructive and harmful. I do not let that willingness stand in the way of disapproval -- and attempted discouragement -- of the destructive and harmful, however.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

He's decided that I must be the stuff of evil itself, for were it any other way he'd have to ask himself if I could be right. So, his apparent delight is simple venom. Not that I mind, after all, I'm trying to help 0:)

santeewelding
santeewelding

That perversion of Latin known as Spanish? And, of course: he hacks, in this case, to your apparent delight. In other cases, join the swathes.

apotheon
apotheon

I appreciate the effort on your part to avoid (mis)using the term, and thus to avoid contributing to the problem, given your stated lack of interest in the results. As for McKinnon . . . it's kind of a stretch to call him a "hacker" even by the standards of the media-twisted usage of the term. They've sensationalized the case to the extent that the fact there was little or no security cracking involved at all has become a non-issue to the public audience. We might as well call a Representative in the US Congress a "hacker" if he sends sexually harassing emails to one of his aides, given this lax definition of "hacker". edit: typo

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The general public has often generalized negative connotations around a word. That's not stopped the positive connotations related to that word from combing back into the public's awareness. When someone does know the difference, people not knowing the difference does not justify disregarding the correct use of the term. In your case, you know the difference and it would be absolutely no effort for you to say "criminal" when what you mean is a criminal. But.. really, I was just pitching in info about the McKinnon case since that is a separate but interesting topic. I truly hope your countryman gets a fair trial and the medical help he'll need for condition and the additional affect the case will have on him.

neilb
neilb

except for those very few (relatively) inside your "true hacker" community and, given the prominence of the case over here, that is a LOT of people. That's what I've been trying to point out - over and over - that the word "hacker" has escaped your control.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

He used known vulnerabilities which Hackers have been warning the world about since first discovered. Default and empty passwords; that's a known risk. Nothing new or creative about it's re-use. Using a crowbar to break into a building doesn't make one a skilled blacksmith; they simply re-used a tool in a formerly well known manner discouraged by the majority of tool makers. He was only a "hacker" in the media that had a financial interest in sensationalization and in the publicized view of the military that had a political interst in redirecting attention from there administrative incompetence. (A military that leaves systems wide open to any idiot that can search a default password list is incompetent) In reality, he was not active within the hacking community. He was a UFO nut that under reduced capacity, knowingly breached computer systems looking for UFO related evidence. He used known methods which would never have been available to him had the US military put Hackers in charge of the network instead of bureaucrats. The media did not add any value or clarity to his story by calling him a "hacker"; to them, it was just a buzword to sell more viewer hits. Specifically with the case, I think he should have been allowed to serve time on British soil; extradition and the times in prison he was threatened with by the US amounted to excessive punishment. Granted, his real crime was embarrassing a military officer not breaking into military property. The US actually said to him "we're going to get you for the maximum time we can" which turned something about accepting responsibility and punitive action into a threat against his life.

neilb
neilb

according to your definition of misuse but the point about communication is that if the meaning of a word differs between you and your audience, you have a problem. From this point forward I will not use the word at all because of the ambiguity. That's the best that I can offer. I will, though, offer up a prayer to St Jude for your cause. The "logic gate" example doesn't quite scan, you know, because Ma would never have heard the term and she's quite bright (she is [b]my[/b] Mum, after all). Her answer would be "never heard of it". "Hacker", however, is a term that she's read as she was asking me questions about a recent story over here - Gary McKinnon. The BBC misuse the term - again, for a given definition of "misuse". http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8177561.stm although the US prosecutors follow suit - "the biggest military computer hack of all time". Neil :) p.s. By the way, she wasn't at all interested in what McKinnon did but was following the way the extradition panned out, with particular interest in the differing interpretations of the extradition "treaty" between our nations.

apotheon
apotheon

What precisely is out on a limb? Enquiring minds want to know.

apotheon
apotheon

If you said "logic gate" to your mother, she'd probably think you were talking about some kind of physical portal between two sides of a wall. If you said the same thing to an electronics engineer, he'd know you were talking about some device that performed the equivalent of a boolean logical function -- taking inputs and producing a single, consistent output. This is what I meant about the rest of the world not really mattering. If we could just get people like you and Deb Shinder to use the term correctly, within technical circles where it really matters whether it's used correctly, we'd be able to communicate about the subject without confusion and hurt feelings. Further, as I tried to suggest to you, there would be at least enough influence from the consistent technical circles leaking into the outside world to forestall the worst abuses of the term -- abuses that might have direct negative effects on the hackers themselves. Who cares if the people misusing the term have those using the term correctly outnumbered, as long as they're only abusing the term in circumstances where it doesn't really cause any problems? Who cares if they misuse the term when the people who know better don't give them any reason to think they're using the term in any manner other than as purely unofficial and non-technical slang? Sure, it would be nice if everyone used the term correctly, but I've given up on everybody refraining from saying "u" when they mean "you". Ur is an ancient city, not the possessive form of U, but at least Ur isn't regarded as an official, correct spelling of a possessive pronoun. Achieve the same for the word "hacker", and I'll be much happier; just get those who should know better to stop sabotaging the term. That means you, by the way. edit: missing S

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

In the article/discussion that instigated this one, I actually suggested that it would be nice to see TR do a "10 real hackers" and gave some names of current Hackers. I think a series on the original software Hackers and current Software/Computer/Security/DIY and others would be a very interesting read. I have seen "12 Hackers you should know" done as a profile picture and couple of paragraphs on who they work for and what they do but there are far more than 12. It's also why I mention the two humanitarian Hacker groups as there are out there and don't get the media attention. If it bleeds, it leads and if it's got a boogieman name too it then it's going front page in block letters. But the media seems to have little interest in reporting good news let alone good news about Hackers; regardless of it's availability. Here's hoping for more books like Steven Levy's work and ever growing conferences like Makerfair and Burning Man.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

People, good people like Neil too, hold their language and their customs very strongly, and weakly at the same time. They have great passion about words meaning what they themselves believe these words mean. But they have no great passion about keeping that meaning constant. It's a fine distinction, but an example will clarify it: A says to B "This shirt is blue" B, seeing the shirt being green, socks A in the eye. * Other situation * A says to B "Did you know that all the hip people are calling green things blue now?" B says "Really? Well, then that's a nice blue shirt you have there". All that's required for this problem begin resolution is a set of feature articles about the first hackers and their present day descendants in mainstream media. It's the right stuff for a coolhanded writeup, it's interesting and unexpected - great for Journalism. Great feature articles are ported worldwide, translated for use with other countries papers. All they have to say is; this is how it was, and it still is to these people. And these people are not those people that other media *polishes halo* refer to with this term. It's all very interesting and enlightening. They are open to a reversive redefinition, given the right stimulus.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Neil's mum: It's like Newton said; give me a single point from which to extrapolate, and I can make anything true, anything at all :p :) Now, as promised, The first documented hack, embodying both elegance, speed, brutal clarity, and a hewing motion with a sharp object. It's semi-mythological, as it was said to be carried out by one both historical and legendary; Alexander the Great. That's right, I'm talking about the Gordian Knot. That was one mother of a hack. A great great grandmother of a hack, actually.

santeewelding
santeewelding

"Like I said,.." is linguistic villainy. Used to be the proper, "[i]As[/i] I said,..", but I didn't get around to nipping that bud so long ago, shortly after the inception of language. Now, the hoi polloi have got hold of it, and they say, "Like I said,.." Loosen up, Samurai.

bergenfx
bergenfx

on this is that you are from the Commonwealth... But Anthony Hopkins is a Brit, but not English. Correct me if I am wrong, which I am sure you will. And by the way, Alan Rickman -- another wonderful villain, but completely different and not quite the same caliber as AH. Not as nuanced, but with much more relish.

bergenfx
bergenfx

If you meant Hollywood, as a global ecosystem of distributors, investors, studios, talent and parasites, (every good ecosystem has to have that), then you are probably okay. If you meant Hollywood, as in the system that has developed movies by Martin Scorcese, the Coppolas, Christopher Nolan, Jonathon Demme, the Coen brothers, the Anderson brothers (Okay, PT Anderson and Wesley Anderson are not brothers), Peter Weir, Ridley Scott, (believe me I could go on for awhile), Guy Ritchie may give you a pass. But if you meant the Hollywood name, that is commonly used in cliche form that only develops tired formula sequels, then Guy Ritchie may want your head for a prop in his next movie.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Actually, again, this information has been provided and the community has frequently and continues to take opportunities to correct the misrepresentation in the media and general public. You said you post for fun.. it's casual.. you know the history and willfully disregard it.. you openned by stating you don't really care and they continued promoting ignorance of the term for this long. Your ongoing posts are only meant to incite more conflict where there was more than ample opportunity to bow out or find middle ground. The very definition of forum trolling. Like I said, the overwhelming amount of information to the contrary of the negative connotations and claims that "no one cares" and the community has done nothing to correct public opinion remains. I'm out of here too, I'll return for any discussion that demonstrates itself to be more than troll fuel.

neilb
neilb

I did point out that I don't really care. And I don't. So the concept of "making it worse" doesn't really figure, either. I post for fun. Sometimes I care, sometimes I believe and sometimes both or neither. There you go. I'll leave you to your rightful indignation at my woeful inability to get excited about a single word. I cast no stones at the community and its ethics and only a little one at their inability to communicate outside of that community. I'm out of this thread. Neil Unless I change my mind. Again.

neilb
neilb

I'm quite happy to be part of a nation of pirates. As for "hacker", there has been plenty of opportunity to change the word. Not my problem if no-one took the opportunity to set the rules when they could. Now, they can't.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

You suggest that it was an active meeting that sat around and selected "Hacker" with your "why would they choose a word that sounded like a machete" as if there was no history before this suggested commity meeting. Your having knowledge of the history actually makes it worse that you take so much time to refer to "hack" only with the interpretation of rough cutting motions. That you've chosen to ignore even your own knowledge and happily using the pejorative form when in company of people you know it insults. Your having knowledge actually gives this a greater air of trolling when you could instead clearly demonstrate recognition of the differences. There is a difference between "I know the historical context and positive interpretations of the word but recognize that the general public do not" and "I don't care if add multiples of factual information on top of what I already know, I'm going ti ignore it and keep recognizing only pejorative regardless" - the dismissive second example being what you've done. Anyhow, not a topic we're going to find a middle ground on though not for lack of trying. Even in my recognizing that the public opinion may be lost but at minimum, tech folks should consider better use of language. This is most definitely an agree to disagree ending.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Sure, because it was a commit that sat around with a list of twenty words and picked one. There was no organic adoption of the word from earlier user by Hams and such right? Ah.. what am I saying.. it's not like providing more relevant information is going to help your chosen interpretation. A closed mind gathers no knowledge. But, I see that you agree that English are more frequently portrayed by Hollywood as villains regardless of the reality. Please report back when you've completed the selection of a new word and updated all historical references.

neilb
neilb

I KNOW all about the history of this. I've been in computing for a very long time. None of this is new to me. You have no idea of what I know and don't know. All I'm saying is that, in my opinion, you are not going to rescue the word "hacker" from the general US public so long as the media have such a splendid and (mildly) frightening little word to describe all and every aspect of computer crime. By all means, try. I wish you luck. I truly do but it's been too long out of your control. You really, really need to calm down a little.

neilb
neilb

because the Brits can act and it takes an actor to play a villain. there isn't an actor in the US who could have played Hannibal Lecter like Anthony Hopkins. If you think that the US regards us coming from LS&TSB then I make you wrong from every visit there. So your example is a bit naff - to lapse into politer LS&TSB-speak. As for renaming the hacker subculture, not my problem. I'll tell you why... I'm looking down the tunnel of time to MIT or wherever the word acquired the "elegance" and "self-teaching" aspects and seeing these presumably intelligent guys defining their subculture and saying "OK, lets use a word that we'd also use for cutting up a tree with a blunt machete." Yes...lets...

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

You where the one suggesting that the correct term is lost and porting the subculture to a new term would be no big deal; so suggest a new appropriate term. To fall back on the cultural example again; Hollywood teaches us that English are comical criminal thugs based on Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and similar movies. Since a majority may believe hollywood's protrail and ignore any information to the contrary. Please have the English select a new word to replace English/British/UK descriptors for the country and culture. Please insure that all historical reference to England with positive connotations is retroactively updated with the new term. It's an equally rational request as your making towards Hackerdom.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I counted 26 sites based on the hackerspaces not the cities they where located in. I also mentioned that some locations have multiple spaces. 30 seconds of clicking on the provided link and looking at the UK listings would have clarified that. "Hack" may bring images of swinging a large bladed knife or a carpenter creating rough furniture with an axe based on your personal knowledge base but based on knowledge of computer history and hacking, a Hack was an elegant solution to a programming problem and a Hacker was one who produced hacks. I'm simply giving you the history of the language as documented. This topic is well and truly beaten to death though. You've made it clear that your not open to new information and in general, we're just repeating information already discussed several times here. I'm fine with agreeing to disagree on this one. I just hope the links and information provided end up in the hands of lurkers who are open to new information and realities of the culture.

neilb
neilb

Why should I bother? I don't "hack" much in either sense now. I used to many years ago; re-write BIOSes, all sorts of stuff but I still didn't think of myself as a hacker. I though of myself as me. The community can find its own name and hopefully this time they won't pick one with the "machete" image. I would happily change my name but my real name, Neil B Formy, is just so good.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

There are a number of different accurate terms which embody malicious intent. What word would you suggest we use for the positive connotations which embodies the history and subculture. How would you account for the shedload of documentation referring to the positive connotations and have future readers interpret it correctly? A similar example, I know a number of people that know a local guy named Neil and he's a bit of a dooffis; this is not at all to suggest that our local Niel is representative of you also being a "Niel" or the majority of people with said name. But, since I know a majority of people who have negative connotations regarding your given name, please change it; no big deal right? What's in a name?

neilb
neilb

It's like insulting the Prophet in a mosque. I'm expecting someone to declare a Jihad and explode my hard drive... Neon, your list of 26 places in Britain repeats itself rather a lot. And "Mullion" isn't any place that I know but I accept your assertion that there are thousands of true hackers in Europe. I'll be so happy for you if you can spread the word about hacking into popular culture over here and over there but that isn't happening. AnsuGisalas: I extrapolated from my Mum. Are you suggesting that I can't do that? "Language change is unpredictable". Well, then neither of us can have it on our side. You do have to admit that languages change, though. And rarely the way that you and I want.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

One: These tens of millions - you know them and their lexicons personally? :p Two: Language change is unpredictable. Sometimes an iceberg turns over, and then, sometimes it changes direction mid-turn. You can only see it 20/20 in hindsight. :) That's my two cents.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

The word may have been first used in the US but the attributes of the subculture are not remotely unique. The European Hacker Camps make US conferences look like underpopulated backyard BBQs by comparison. Hackerspaces also started in Europe which is home to some of the biggest and most interesting including one that managed to get itself an old bomb shelter. http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_Hacker_Spaces 26 in United Kingdom alone. Leeds Mullion Birmingham Cambridge Manchester Cambridge Greenwich Brighton and Hove London Southampton Northampton Brighton Leeds Manchester Glasgow Sheffield Glasgow Swindon Salisbury Edinburgh London Belfast London Exeter All have one or more for your convenience. It's not like the community is hiding the information from the public. They'll all have open houses. Hackerbusses are a newer development which I believe also started in Europe. It's basically a hackerspace on wheels that can tour around and do community days with activities like teaching soldering and such. My first introduction was this years HOPE talk on hackerspaces. I believe a hackerbusses.org type website is in the works but not up yet. Being educated by US TV, let alone mass media, is not something I'd admit too. Especially given the amount of factual relevant information available.

neilb
neilb

Anything that we know about hackers over here comes from American media, Hollywood in particular so it is, indeed, a loan word (which they can have back, if they want it). However, I wasn't making any capital out of the several tens of millions of English speakers over here who know only the pejorative meaning of the word but the tens of millions of people over [b]there[/b] who only know that perjorative meaning. Given that, I was merely attempting to point out that there is no chance - repeat, no chance - that the word will be rehabilitated. Don't show the world, show the people who use the language. They are the ones who decide in the end. Swift said, "some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our language for ever (...) it is better a language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing" Dr Johnson said some 30 years later on completion of his dictionary, "Those who have been persuaded to think well of my design, require that it should fix our language and put a stop to those alterations which time and chance have hitherto been suffered to make in it without opposition. With this consequence I will confess that I flattered myself for a while; but now begin to fear that I have indulged expectation which neither reason nor experience can justify." I reckon Dr J had it right.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

If you speak UK english and not US english as a native speaker, then you're talking about a different word /hacker/#UK# than their /hacker/#US#. A loanword is not the same as the corresponding word in the donor language :p So, they're trying to show the world that /hacker/#US# means other things than is often supposed. You can't block that with talk of /hacker/#UK#. It's interesting that we disagree on this Neil, it's a first :)

santeewelding
santeewelding

My point was your mention of "key" and how you arrived with it. Answer: you are doing what you would have us believe they are doing. I have no doubt about your subjective "key". I have no doubt, either, that you externalize and foist it as objective.

neilb
neilb

I'm not the one trying to roll back the tide. These guys should take a lesson from Canute. Nonetheless, should they achieve the global rehabilitation of the word "hacker", then I will be the first to yawn.

santeewelding
santeewelding

If enough people care. If not, you are out there on your lonesome, like your opponents.

neilb
neilb

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Neil :) Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

neilb
neilb

"do enough people care?". I would suggest - as I have been for most of my posts on this thread - that the answer is "no", given the number of people who follow the media's portrayal of the hacker and have done so for the last twety-odd years. That is the reason why *I* don't care, because the battle is lost and was lost before some of today's hackers, crackers or whatevers were born.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

That's a fair opinion since it is limited to yourself and your own choice. It's "everyone doesn't care" that I take more issue with when clearly, some do care.

neilb
neilb

No. I know what hacker means, where it came from and how the word has taken on new meanings. I've been in this business since the 70s. You, that part of the technical community so obsessed by this, are NOT going to get the word back from the wider language. You can quote attendances of hundreds, thousands, even millions of those for whom the word "hacker" clearly defines that which you desire and it STILL won't get anywhere near the attendance for "War Games", crap though that was. And I STILL don't care.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

You ignore the masses who do care to justify your prejudice for how you've decided things should be. Your essentially stuffing your thumbs in your ears and going "lalalalalal.. no body cares.. lalalalala.. I can't hear what your saying.." Try not to think about the increasing number of Hackerspaced popping up around the world or increasing attendance numbers at Hacker Confs and Camps. Don't think about those pesky Hackerbusses turning up and teaching kids great evil like how to solder. Don't dare consider that some of the most gifted IT people are Hackers from whom there employers benefit constantly. I also wouldn't think about the metric ton of information being offered or activities of Hacker community or humanitarian groups; surely, non of them care right? Don't think about any of these inconveniences when re-affirming your opinion since you've made up your mind and any relevant information to the contrary be damned.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I'd look at it more of correcting the usage within technological circles where people really should be aware before insulting the entire history of why they now have an IT industry to work within. Computer history and Hacker history really is inseparable given the amount of advancement Hackers are responsible for and continue to be responsible for (all those security researchers trying to make your computer safer; Hacker 98% of the time). If tech folk can at least get it right then that will leak over into the general population and non-tech media (including tech media in "tech folk"). Your mum, respectfully assuming good health, has the capacity to learn still. Have you ever said "you know mum, that word does not refer only to bad guys, the tv news people are using it incorrectly the most of the time" or some similar respectful but correcting explanation. Personally, I do find ways to point out the correct use of the term in person but it does depend on the value of enlightening the person and what brief description or provided media works for the situation. It may actually be that there is no reason to correct your mum for lack of her using the word regularly or spreading the misconception to others. I would make a point of discussing the topic if it was her an the rest of the bridge club constantly talking about "those darn Hacker hooligans" or some such thing. But still, at minimum, people who claim to be technology folk should be able to get it right and use the correct terms especially when they happen to be writing for technology focused media. We don't see health industry professionals and media suggesting that anyone pushing the state of chemistry forward is nothing more than a criminal bent on illicit drug trade or malicious harm for compound consumers. Why is it acceptable for the tech media to brand an entire subculture as criminal because of a distinct minority and copycats who simply use the previously discovered methods for malicious ends. It's even codefied in the Hacker ethic. These are attributes that evolved naturally from the people within the community not comandements imposed on them for joining. With the maturing of the community and consolidation of non-computer hackers into it, "computer" can be exchanged for any given subject of Hacker focus. The one to consider here is this: "Computers can change your life for the better" or in it's more general form "Improve the world". Part of this is the distinct feeling that causing harm or profiteering from your Hacking is extremely bad form. "extremely bad form" being the 60s polite version of the sentiment. This is a primary reason that being associated with malicious intent is so reviled by real Hackers. - If your focus is politics than improve government (eg. US founding fathers forming government based on the not yet codefied hacker ethics). - If your focus is making stuff than improve the world by making better stuff or ways for non-Hackers to make stuff (eg. homebrew 3D printers for civilian fabrication). - If your focus is security than improve security (eg. bug and vuln reporting and public disclosure to force profiteers to fix things that "outsiders" can't). - If your a brain hacker, you explore ways to make your own meat computer work better and consider how others could also benefit should they choose. Heck, I'm surprised there's not yet a bumper sticker that says "Sex Hackers do it better." I know there is a shirt that says "Hackers do IT better." The ethics are listed here among many other places; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_ethic I'll will make one note for clarification on the first ethic; "Access to computers?and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works?should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!" This does not justify breaking into systems or trespassing. It has the qualifier "should be". The original Hackers from under the railroad table scheduled there time on the TX-0 and PDP-1. They found lack of access to the IBM 704 and later 709 intolerable but it didn't justify breaking and entering. Prior to the TX-0, the did experiment with there own plug-boards on the accounting machine in the basement but this was unguarded in an unlocked room in a building they freely had access to. There was no cracking security or exploitation in doing so and the practice seems to have stopped dead with the delivery of the TX-0 which completely dwarfed any potential of the electro-mechanical accounting calculator. (The wiring under the table was so complex they where trying to use the accounting machine to keep track of all the switches and connection.)

neilb
neilb

except a select few. To them I use the quaint American expression, "get over yourself". Lost cause. "Hacking" always was the wrong word for the type of activity that Chad would like it to describe. It's been a lost cause for at least twenty years! The "spirit of hacking" is simply going to have to find another name. I have been in computing a long, long time and I just don't use the word "hacker" or "hack" when talking to anyone even from a technical background as, although *I* know what it [b]used[/b] to mean, I cannot be sure of those with whom I communicate. Many, many words are like that but, because I speak English, I'll always find another word that I can use. I regret the pejoration of words but I can't fight it. I twitch every time I hear someone describe a trivial achievement as "awesome" and I speak out when the word is used to me but I'm just wasting my time. There are alternatives. I'm done. I find that I don't care very much after all. :)

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

A person's opinion of the meaning of a word is of little import if that person does not communicate it. That's why the computer's monitor is called "the monitor" and not "the computer", despite the swathes of office workers referring to it as such. The media doing what they do is one thing, but the media is very superficial. What it says is usually far less important than what it doesn't say - as can be seen from the Russian political media discourse, or the Italian for that matter. Silence is golden. I don't think this battle is lost, far from it. In fact, I don't think there is a battle anymore, the last bastions of the priesthood are sitting in their ivory towers thinking they won, but at the same time we see generation after generation embracing freeform to an ever increasing degree. To fulfill Godwin's law in a non-destructive way: They're like Hitler in his bunker, listening to fairytales of eastern victories, trying to ignore the sound of stalin's organs pounding the fugue and toccata in D-minor up above. We just need to show the world the real spirit of hacking, steadily, in widening inclusive circles.

neilb
neilb

I'll post it again: Your words have escaped and there is nothing you can do about it. My mum thinks that hackers are bad guys and she wouldn't know linguistic descriptivism if it chewed off her leg. OK, so she [b]doesn't matter[/b] to you but the couple of billion or so like her have you and your technical circle just slightly outnumbered. Meanings change - in the case of hacker, not for the better. It's a perfect example of pejoration. It can happen to the very best words. It's what language DOES.

apotheon
apotheon

If technical circles at least could get its own terms correct reliably, I'd be happy with that. . . . and if they'd hold fast, the rest of the world wouldn't have a chance. All it takes is for technical usage to be strong, precise, and consistent. Alas, too many in technical circles seem ready to wave the white flag at the first sign of resistance amongst those who don't matter within technical circles. The irony would be delicious if it were not laced with cyanide.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

*ghaaaaaaaasp* Whoa, colours. Hypoventilation rocks, but damn, the headaches that follow...

neilb
neilb

Showing off. But I blew it with the inter and intra. :) Hey, calm down. Try a bit of hypoventilation.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

you left out hypo and hyper! How could you?!? HOW?!? WHY!?! Sorry; I got carried away with indignation. :p

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

About the only thing positive about it was that Roman (if not Greek) slaves could become full citizens. More recent examples of slavery have had to be outright abolished to even begin allowing those people to move toward equal citizenship (and I'm not entirely sure how far that movement has progressed).

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

And a boon climate giving bountyful harvests. The greek world was one of the few exploiting the many, in order to live lives of idle debauchery, idle sophistry, idle poetry, idle education. Like us, now, here. It does achieve great things, but it also achieves horrible things. Like us, now, here.

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