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hacker (n.): one who hacks
There's a term being bandied about in the media, and being used
improperly, with dismaying regularity. This term is one that relates to
IT professionals and enthusiasts and their shared culture. It is a term
that helps to set us apart from the rest of the world's population by
our appreciation of a certain ethic, a certain aesthetic, and a certain
metasociety that cannot be understood without exposure to, and (perhaps
more importantly) enjoyment of, the computer geek's world.
The term I'm talking about, of course, is "hacker". In the news
media, in the press releases of corporations like Microsoft, and in
mainstream cinema, the term "hacker" is divested of its real meaning
and granted instead only the sinister characteristics of the computer
criminal. This has, I think, come to pass because those outside of
hacker culture probably never bother to notice any hacking going on
around them unless it affects them directly and, once in a while, that
hacking might consist of someone testing and even penetrating the
security of computers and computer networks. To assign the term
"hacking" only to such activities, though, is the same as assigning the
term "pilot" only to terrorists who fly jumbo jets into skyscrapers,
"golfer" only to those who cheat at the game of golf, "driver" only to
those who drive while intoxicated and end up killing pedestrians, or
"parent" only to those who molest their children.
It's worse than that, actually. Not all child molesters are parents,
not all killers are drivers, not all cheaters are golfers, not all
terrorists are pilots, and not all who crack security on computers and
computer networks are hackers. Many, in fact, are script kiddies whose
closest brush with actual hackers is using a network security auditing
script some hacker wrote eight years ago. Remember that little problem
with Newsweek inaccurately reporting the contents of an FBI memo,
sparking a riot that killed 16 people? They're just as wrong, and far
more often, in the way they report computer crime.
The term "hacker" is used at times to refer to people outside of
computer system enthusiasts, and that's fine. I've yet to see a
non-computer-person misuse the term when referring to what they do.
I've even seen people refer to themselves as hackers of "reality",
meaning of course that they're screwing with the common perceptions of
the dominant paradigm. Good for them. Let's comfort the disturbed and
disturb the comfortable, and call ourselves saints and hackers for
having done so. It's pretty difficult to find any true hacker culture
outside of enthusiastic computer users, though.
The term arose with the tech model railroad club (TMRC) at MIT in
the 1960s, particularly amongst a group of members of the club who were
also involved in the goings-on of the MIT AI (artificial intelligence)
lab. From there, it began to be applied to other computing enthusiasts
unrelated to TMRC, and a vast culture of hacking arose, including its
own jargon, ethics, value system, and worldviews. As RFC 1392 ,
the Internet Users' Glossary, defines it, a hacker is "A person who
delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings
of a system, computers and computer networks in particular. The term is
often misused in a pejorative context, where 'cracker' would be the
correct term." There's also a reference to the term "cracker" in RFC
1392, not to be confused with the racist insult usage of the term, nor
with that usage of the term that denotes a snack food.
Early hacker history is loaded with the stories of giants who walked
the earth. Somewhere in the middle, there was a distinct paradigm shift
coinciding with the move from OSes and computers that were wedded to
each other to unix, the first really modular, portable separation of
the OS from the hardware ? or, at least, the first one that really
caught on. This can be blamed, of course, on the concurrent creation,
or synchrogenesis (to coin a term), of the C programming
language and the Unix operating system. While the Internet was already
underway before unix began to play a substantial role in it, it was
unix that gave it the first major push toward being a public
environment. The various unices have been the primary OS of choice for
hackers in general ever since. There are those few true hackers that
simply don't use the unix environment, of course, but they are an
exceedingly rare breed. Most people that work with computers outside of
the realm of unix are professionals or end-users without the real
essence of the hacker, or are strictly hardware hackers, a strange
breed indeed. Even those hackers that have created their own OSes along
the way generally came from unix and eventually came back to it, too.
In the late '70s and early '80s, the growth of the PC industry began
to see the independent and convergent evolution of a new class of
computer users. They weren't a culture, yet, though. They had terribly
underpowered little "toys" that didn't even have the ability to
effectively communicate with each other over the Internet. This is one
reason many people don't realize just how old the Internet is: if they
know anything about the history of computer networking with PCs, they
probably think back to the bad ol' days of dial-in BBSes before PCs
could touch the Internet. It was the ISPs like Prodigy and AOL that
ultimately brought the Internet to the masses (thank goodness we've
moved on to better options now), by giving PCs something to dial into
that would then connect them to all the wide world of the Internet, and
it was the web browser and email that made it something worth doing.
Then, in the early '90s, just before the release of Windows 3.11,
hacker culture met the scattered PC enthusiasts, and that convergent
evolution finally came to its merging point. Linux and BSD for the 386
were created, almost simultaneously. Both were made open source, as
well, which suited the hacker ethic perfectly. The hacker's home OS was
born, and it was twins.
Generally, one does not decide to become a hacker and pursue any set
of required tasks to get there. It's not a profession with certifying
authorities, though there is a certain amount of semi-official
recognition that cements one's place in the culture. It's not a skill
set that one acquires at school or on the job, though one is never a
hacker without skill. It's not an attitude, though without the right
attitude all you'll ever be is a programmer, or a script kiddie, or a
network administrator, or an end user, or a wannabe, or perhaps worst
of all a suit . Hacker culture is something of a meritocracy,
but mere ability isn't everything: there's also the ethic and the
aesthetic sense, for instance. It's all something you can't just study
and understand. You have to grok it.
That's not to say that hackers never disagree. They not only
disagree, but can do so very noisily, obstinately, at great length.
They even disagree regularly on subjects as fundamental as what exactly
it is to be a hacker. Find two hackers and ask them what being a hacker
means: if they don't just quote RFC 1392 or the Jargon File at you,
you'll get two different answers. You might even get three. Put them in
a room together, and they may argue it to death, and they may both end
up with different opinions than those they had when they started, but
they'll still probably disagree on some fundamental points. If both are
real hackers, though, they'll surely recognize each other as such by
the time a truce has been called and the dust has settled.
For my part, I've been called a hacker by several people who know
what the term really means, independently and without prompting. These
are people who recognize that I have some skill, and that I grok the
hacker life ? and I really do understand it on that visceral level.
It's commonly accepted (if usually unspoken) tradition in hacker culture that it's better to
be identified as a hacker by someone else, someone that knows what he
or she is talking about, and among my credentials is recognition by a
bona fide rocket scientist who's been as much a real hacker as anyone
I've met for longer than I've known there was such a thing as Linux
(and she has been using Slackware since version 1.x). Guess what: I
dispute their claims. I'm not sure I qualify. It's that pesky skill
thing, you see. I have the enthusiasm and the interest and all the rest
of it, but somehow I've just never really gotten immersed enough in
certain key activities (programming, foremost among them) to develop
more skill than that of a dabbler in hacking. I mean, really, there's
an assumption in the term "hacker" that, to be one, you have to "hack".
I've had some close brushes with activities that carry that name, and
I'm even the recent founder of a very small hacking club, of sorts, but
as for real experience in hackish activity ? well, it's a little sparse.
Some of these people who have thusly granted me title certainly know
more than I do about the matter. Perhaps I should defer to wiser heads
than mine. I know I don't want to be the wannabe that self-identifies
without proper justification, though. I'm not comfortable accepting
that apellation at this time. I may never be.
I know I get annoyed when some idiot reporter or Microsoft marketing
executive uses the term to describe something lower than the scum on
the soles of my 14-hole Doc Marten boots, though.