The following is imported from a now effectively defunct weblog of mine called ITLOG. It is reproduced here with some modifications.
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 them apart from the rest of the world’s population by their 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 so far 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. The problem isn’t only that not all hackers are malicious security crackers: 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? The mainstream news media is just as wrong, and far more often, in the way it reports 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 non-computer-people misuse the term when referring to what they themselves 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 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 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 any form of the pseudo-platonic ideal 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 — or created a new implementation of the unix ideal.
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 Unix 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 an absorbed 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’ve even founded 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 fully 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.