Chad Perrin: SOB

12 September 2006

stalking the wild hacker

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 09:05

There’s a lot of half-baked and three-quarters-baked information out there about how to recognize a “great hacker”.

Eric S. Raymond, self-proclaimed anthropologist/historian of the hacker culture, pretty much uses the term “hacker” as such a term of honor that it is roughly synonymous with “great hacker” as used by anyone else. He has probably gone further in attempting to carefully codify the requirements of being a hacker in this sense than anyone else, at least among the dozen or so more prominent attempts out there. I have allowed myself, to some extent, to get caught up in some of his mania for the issue, and found myself absurdly reticent to allow myself to carry that title despite having it handed to me by people who surely fit the ESR definition better than I do.

Paul Graham comments eloquently on identifying great hackers — and, more specifically, on the difficulties inherent in identifying them accurately. His discussion of “great hackers” gives an interesting view of less singular hackers via induction and deduction.

By contrast, references to day coders and similar indictments of zombified corporate-cog programmers provide a handy counterexample when trying to pin down the identification of that elusive beast, the real hacker. Ultimately, however, it seems that the only really effective way to recognize such a specimen is to be one of those people who “know it when they see it”, and hang out with a test subject enough to get a feel for it. Conversation often helps in the process.

Tangentially, there is the question of self-identification. How do you know if you qualify? For some it’s relatively easy. Paul Graham certainly qualifies, as does anyone he identifies as a “great hacker”, I’m sure. Paul Graham’s business partner Robert Tappan Morris qualifies at least as certainly (perhaps moreso), as does his father Robert Morris, the cryptographer, I think. For the rest of us, it might be a little more difficult.

Tangentially, I’ve noticed something about intelligence, and the perception of one’s own intelligence: everybody thinks they’re above average. In fact, statistical studies have shown just that (no link at present, sorry). The truly intelligent in my experience (yes, including myself — IQ tests, years of reinforcement in the form of people telling me I’m “frighteningly intelligent” and the like, and other indicators that are difficult to ignore) tend to view themselves as above average as well, for a strict definition of average (if a notable percentage greater than 50 is stupider than you, you’re above average). They do not, however, often think of themselves as really brilliant. So far, nothing differs from the average individual.

Things change when one examines how they think of the intelligence of the rest of humanity, however. They (we) look around at the rest of the world and wonder how all those people out there can be so damned stupid. It’s not very politically correct, but it’s the truth about how really intelligent people tend to view the world and, from their subjective perspective, it’s accurate. Really intelligent people tend to view themselves as normal, but above average because of the dismaying frequency of subnormal intelligence in the world. This is usually not an explicit thought, but an implicit feeling that doesn’t get articulated, and still seems to be fairly universal amongst those intelligent enough that I’m sure they’re within a certain class of rare intelligence — call it the 98th percentile.

. . . and there’s the key. When 98 percent of the population is not as smart as you are, the rest of the world looks pretty dumb sometimes. So what about hackers?

Perhaps there’s a parallel there. After all, hackers tend to be at least near that 98th percentile intelligence as well. Add to that the notion that they have rare passion for their craft, talent, and a shared cultural leaning whether they’ve actually participated in the extant cultural community or not, and you’ve got the makings of an even stronger “I’m not better, I’m just not as bad as everyone else!” self image.

That may well be the most recognizable characteristic of the breed that is sufficiently universal to be useful as a means of identification, if it is as common as I suspect.

By that measure, I’m a pseudohacker: I probably don’t have the skills (I still tend to regard the majority of professional coders as having greater practical skill than me) to really qualify, but I sure as hell have the interest and the theoretical acumen (most coders are idiots about their craft and, worse yet, don’t recognize it as a craft at all). Give me time: I’m learning.


  1. Not sure if you intentionally didn’t link to it, but ESR has a blog, although he hasn’t updated in a few months.

    Comment by Alex — 13 September 2006 @ 05:43

  2. I’ve been called intelligent all my life, especially in my younger years, but nowadays I never use the term to describe myself.

    My discomfort with the term lies in the rather simplistic view a lot (or most) people have that intelligence is a scale, and the higher you are on this scale the better. The more I’ve grown, the more I’ve come to realize that the remarkable perception “intelligent” individuals have is simply experience, and the competence they show is through practice rather than some innate ability that makes them automatically good at whatever they touch.

    Perhaps we’d have more intelligent people around if people thought “Hey, if I work at it I can do the same” rather than “I wish I was intelligent enough to know how to do that.”

    Comment by Mina — 13 September 2006 @ 08:41

  3. There is also the flip side of the coin here. People tend to associate with people similar to them. For example, if I like to watch basketball and do not care for other sports, I will not spend much time with people who are really into watching baseball. Smart, educated people tend to spend a lot of time with other smart, educated people. When you are surrounded by the top 2%, you begin to think that is is “normal” and become quite baffled when you interact with the other 98%. Group dynamics are an absolutely amazing thing to watch in action. Look at SUV sales. Anyone can tell you that way too many people own SUVs in comparison to who actually needs one of those vehicles, but if you ask any SUV owner, they can come up with any number of reasons to own an SUV as opposed to a minivan or a station wagon, or some other more practical vehicle. Likewise, a group of normally rational, intelligent people become a mob in the right situations. There is a world of difference between 100 individuals and a group of 100 people.

    This is the failure of economics. They translate individuals as “rational agents” into groups composed of “rational agents.” It simply does not work.


    Comment by Justin James — 13 September 2006 @ 09:02

  4. Most day coders have only achieved their abilities through repetitive practice. It’s astonishing how little practice is required to exceed them if you have a theoretical foundation.

    Comment by SterlingCamden — 13 September 2006 @ 01:36

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  6. Joseph: I’m not linking to ESR’s blog because all he really talks about is the “war on terror”, which is entirely irrelevant to the topic of this SOB entry.

    Mina: I tend to agree that anyone can do anything, but intelligence as an innate quality does play a role — mostly in terms of accelerating the learning process and providing more ease of abstract thinking. It simply takes more work for some people to achieve the same things than other people must put into reaching the same ends. Unfortunately, in my experience, the more work something is relative to how easily others might achieve the same thing, the more likely someone is to just abandon his or her goals for achieving that thing — which, in this case, tends to involve working in highly skilled professions, effective and valid ethical reasoning, and similar pursuits.

    Justin James: That doesn’t really constitute a failure of economics. Economics usually deals with the activities of individuals in the aggregate, and not the activities of individuals in groups. There is a distinct difference here, in that economies as divorced from politics do not organize individuals into groups. It is the addition of political influences that creates grouping behavior (tribalism) within the same social system as (for instance) a market economy. The study of economics deals with what works economically, and one of the truisms of economics is that political influences introduce market failures (though there are always a few outlier economists who think they can meddle with the social machinery of a complex system like a market economy with impunity).

    Sterling: I tend to agree with that assessment of how easily skills are picked up. In my case, however, there does seem to be a barrier to progression past a certain point, and I have not yet identified its nature. C’est la vie.

    Comment by apotheon — 13 September 2006 @ 03:36

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