What is a hacker?

In our use, a hacker is a member of an international subculture of computer programmers, hardware designers and others who subscribe to a certain aesthetic, people who understand to appreciate a certain kind of beauty.

The word is also often used by us to signify a very gifted computer expert who programs for enjoyment, not necessarily for payment or other rewards, but being a hacker is not limited to programmers or even hardware designers. One might be a molecular biology hacker, for example.

Some distinctive qualities of a hacker are:

The word hacker, however, has many meanings. See below for a discussion.

The Confusion

The English words “hack” and “hacker” have been the subject of a heated debate for some time. Some feel “hacker” is almost a synonym with computer geek or enthusiast and some believe it to mean a specific kind of criminal. However, the same word describes two different sets of people in different subcultures, although sometimes overlapping.

The words have a long history, probably originating with “to hack” meaning to physically cut at something with repeated blows, but it was probably also used metaphorically very early. “Hacking” might also be interpreted as riding a horse for enjoyment rather than work and “hack” has been used to describe someone doing a sloppy job, as in “a hack writer”.

Beginning in the 1950s and the 1960s a subculture of computer enthusiasts sprang up at academic sites with early access to computers. These enthusiasts, especially some associated with the MIT AI Lab and the Tech Model Railroad Club, came to use “a hack” to mean both “a quick and possibly ugly solution” all the way to “a wonderfully beautiful solution to a complex problem”, while at the same time meaning “a beautifully executed student prank”. They used “hacking” as meaning “working, especially programming, on something for pure enjoyment”. The people who executed these hacks and spent time hacking became known as hackers within this subculture.

This use of “hack”, “to hack” and “hacker” spread through the use of early computer networks. An early amateur dictionary of hacker slang was created in 1975 at the Stanford University AI Lab and then edited by volunteers at both Stanford and MIT, keeping the dictionary shared over the ARPANET.

By some strange misunderstanding, probably due to articles published in the 1980s, the word “hacker” came to have the additional meaning of someone interested in breaking into other people's computers. Unfortunately, this meaning became widespread in media and the entire subculture of old-school hackers, as described above, was tainted by the new meaning.

Many have no idea that there are many older meanings of the words and that there is an entire subculture formed around them. Hackers, in this subculture, are the good guys. These hackers should not be confused with computer criminals.

Regardless of what we call them, it is important to recognize this subculture of programmers and hardware designers for what they are. Members of this subculture have done marvellous things. We should all be thankful.

How Can I Become a Hacker?

If you would like to become involved in this culture and/or become a good programmer or hardware designer here are some helpful texts you may want to read:

Other Sources

For an interesting view into this hacker culture, see Steven Levy's book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (ISBN 0-385-19195-2). The first two chapters of this book are available from Project Gutenberg.

See also The Jargon File, a hacker's dictionary, edited by the rather controversial Eric S. Raymond. It is available on paper as The New Hacker's Dictionary from MIT Press (ISBN 0-262-18154-1).

An earlier version, that some say was the last definite version before ESR butchered it, was published in 1983 as The Hacker's Dictionary by Harper & Row (ISBN 0-06-091082-8). It can be found in an online version.

Several versions can be found in the Jargon File Archive.

The Jargon File has also inspired Jargon Files in other languages. Specifically there is a Swedish Hacker Slang Dictionary (in Swedish). The latter is severly out of date and abandonded but might still be interesting to some.

Last updated: <2020-06-21 13:38:16 MEST>