Oh no! Hackers!

June 17, 2009

That’s right. Hide your floppies and cover your Ethernet ports. Virus-laden hackers are coming to take over your computer, steal your passwords, and do terrible things! Like hack your MySpace! Oh noes!

I guess I’m getting over the fact that we probably won’t be able to undo the damage done with the public’s perception of what a “hacker” is. Perhaps, though, we can overload it to the point of ambiguity, so there’s at least some question of context whether it’s the good kind or the bad kind.

The problem is that positive connotations aren’t enough. The people that would venture to understand “hackers” the slightest bit more than what they hear in the headlines are going to pretty quickly find the “good hackers” … they’re white hats, right?

The other day I was questioned by somebody (that should know better) if I hacked somebody’s website that was recently compromised. Seriously? My response was “I barely have enough time to do important things, let alone something that would be a waste of my time.”

I self-identify as a hacker. I invite my friends over to “hack.” I started a party for “hackers and thinkers” (a very intentional choice of words). I’m co-founding a community center called Hacker Dojo. What are we doing at all these functions? Building and learning.

We use the term perhaps too liberally, but always implying tribute to the true hackers that, as Steven Levy put it, “regard computing as the most important thing in the world.”

These people push the envelope of what’s possible through hands-on exploration, driven by relentless curiosity and a desire to challenge the status quo. Steve Wozniak, Lee Felsenstein, Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners-Lee, John Carmack …

Hell, there’s something big behind this idea, why stop at computing? Buckminster Fuller, Nikola Tesla, Richard Feynman, Alfred Kinsey, Ben Franklin …

Perhaps we’re generalizing too far. Perhaps we’re rendering “hacker” meaningless. Or are we giving it more meaning? Getting down to its essence. I wouldn’t be defending this idea so strongly if I didn’t think it had some great significance to humanity.

What upsets me is that many who would identify as hackers in this sense seem to be afraid to claim it. Most likely in fear of confusing the layman that has the media’s myopic view of hackers. You’ve never heard of the canonical conference for real hackers. No, it’s not DefCon. (Just get up and leave.) It’s a conference called Hackers. You’ve never heard of it because they keep it secret!

This conference was started to gather everybody together that was mentioned in Steven Levy’s book Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (one of the last good publication on hackers, and it came out in 1984!). This conference holds all the values of true hackerism and it’s been happening for 25 years. But they won’t promote it! It goes by a fake name and even has all mentions of “hacker” on their website replaced with an image so it won’t be indexed. Seriously??

Trying to supplant public perception of hackers by just saying they’re something different and providing a better name nobody uses (“crackers”) is not going to work. It hasn’t worked. They need something to replace those visions of crackers with. We need tangible examples and stories. We need heroes. Heroes willing to wear the title.

Luckily, we have a new generation of hackers. One that has started a global movement called hackerspaces, probably one of the biggest things for hackers in years. Our local hackerscene fostered by Silicon Valley culture and events like SuperHappyDevHouse have led to a hackerspace we hope will have a big impact. One that proudly wears the name hacker: Hacker Dojo.

10 Responses to “Oh no! Hackers!”

  1. verbal Says:

    my main problem with the term “hackers” used to be the confusion with people thinking it meant “crackers”, but more recently i’ve seen it used way too liberally. you will hear people talking about hacking out a blog post, an email, or some mundane piece of code. to me, this is a slap in the face for everyone who is actually hacking. it would be like if everyone started banging their hands on a piano and called it “music”.

    btw, congratz on hacker dojo. i hope there could be future collaborations between it and noisebridge.

    • Jeff Lindsay Says:

      I’ve seen that over liberal use, too. But I don’t think it’s that bad of a thing. At least it’s recognizing it for roughly the right thing (just to a far less extreme). I’d rather they were using it too much than not being aware of it at all.

      Plus, I don’t see it as a slap in the face, but a subtle homage. Are they really trying to bring hacking down to mundaneness? Or are they wishfully applying hacker values to everything they do? I don’t think they’re saying it out of malice or ignorance so much as subconscious aspiration. Particularly if they have any idea where it came from.

      In any case, the solution still stands. Set examples of what hacking truly is. Recognize and reward. This is why I wanted to do some sort of Hacker Awards (http://hackerawards.pbworks.com ).

  2. Ben McGraw Says:

    I prefer the term ‘Software Fungineer’.

  3. Hey, as someone who’s attended Hackers a couple of times, I don’t think it “carries all the values of true hackerism.” It’s pretty awesome in lots of ways, but its obsessive secrecy is antithetical (IMO) to the basic hacker ideals, and it’s not as playful as it ideally ought to be.

    I think the term “hacker” is still pretty malleable. It’s only been around in the mainstream for 20 years; another 20 years from now, it’ll have a different meaning. That meaning depends on how we use it.

    • Jeff Lindsay Says:

      Yeah, you’re right about the conference. The secrecy is my mine gripe with it, too. My point is that it was founded around the idea of hackers portrayed in Steven Levy’s book.

      I agree with the malleability. Most language is quite malleable in the long term. But you can’t force it. Influencing by example and creating stories are how we can mold it.

  4. Mark Says:

    The misguided public perception of “hacking” as connected solely with breaking security is a bit unfortunate, but it does come from a kernel of truth, and I think it’s interesting to think about the ethic in that kernel. Many of the best-known and most interesting early hacks involved gaining unauthorized access to various systems, discovering flaws, finding ways around restrictions, and so on. Woz was famous for his blue-box pranks, for example.

    More fundamentally, I think the ethic involves a fundamental aspect of DIY subversiveness: finding a way around what’s “supposed” to require someone else’s permission, some large company’s turnkey solution, etc., etc. That doesn’t have to involve security, of course; Woz’s other bit of fame, building a computer in his garage and disseminating instructions to others, in an era when computers were something you were “supposed” to have to buy for a lot of money from large corporations, has that DIY subversive spirit too.

    I’m personally a little more worried about a misappropriation in the other direction, as an empty term that’s little more than a synonym for “programming”, or maybe in a wider context, “doing anything that involves technology”. Is rolling out a website, primarily driven by a profit motive, really “hacking”, even some PHP had to get written along the way and a few bits of technology banged together?

    • Jeff Lindsay Says:

      I don’t want to really get into splitting hairs, but I don’t care what you’re doing or what all your motives are. If you do anything with the hacker spirit, that’s hacking. If you self-identify as a the kind of hacker I’m talk about, you probably are.

      It’s true though, not all programmers are hackers. I commend non-hacker programmers for having at least some interest in programming … but that’s why I don’t fully identify with “programmers.” I don’t get up for a 9 to 5ish job to engineer some Java at Ebay for a paycheck.

  5. 1h4x0r Says:

    TL;RD – Stop using the word “cracker”. Hacker means exactly what hollywood thinks it means. Quit sounding like douches.

    Alright, bare with me a moment, but I really have to speak my mind on this issue because I see it popping up all too commonly on tech related sites and blogs.

    The word “hacker” has changed in practical meaning over the years. The same way “bastard” and “nigger” no long mean the same things as they used to (forgive me, the first examples that came to mind were profanity). Anyone who tries to correct someone and say that the proper team is “cracker”, and that “hacker” is a title for… well, the programmer definition, is… an uptight douchebag? Sorry that’s the best I’ve got.

    Perhaps I should give a bit of back-story to my position. I am hacker in the traditional sense. Sure, I still “hack away at code” and tinker with things… I am a programmer after all. But along side that, I am a hacker. I associate with other computer hackers, and I break into websites for fun. I pretty much do all the typical things a hacker would do, which is why I (and my internet friends) identify ourselves as hackers. Some may look down on us, some say we waste our time, whatever – it’s what we do.

    Now, I try not to have any sense of entitlement to the name “hacker”, but for whatever reason, it really bugs me (and most every hacker I know) when people say or imply that the word hacker does not mean exactly what society believes it to mean. This is certainly true when you (and so many others) use the word “hacker” in quotations, as if to imply that the title is somehow misleading.

    Again, I’m trying not to sound like a mouth-breathing troll who is getting infuriated by your grammar, but it really is a pet-peeve of mine.

    Oh, and on a quick side note: The word “cracking” in hacking context can mean one of two things; it can mean cracking a program (keygen, patch, w/e), or it can mean cracking a password hash (or any other type of blunt computation). Neither of these terms really identify with most hackers I know. This is probably the reason that the word “cracker” sounds so retarded to me.

    That is all.

    • Jeff Lindsay Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I understand your position. I guess my point is not about the word so much as the culture behind the meaning myself and those that identify in that community give it. I really hate the semantic arguments about this word, but it’s unavoidable if you want to actually talk about the less popular use.

      Anyway, I agree about “cracker” and how language evolves. I’ve gotten a number of comments from people that just blow up because they think I’m bringing up this argument again and don’t realize these things. They were pointless, strangely aggressive and detracted from my point. I just wanted to frame future posts on this blog that will be using the word a lot in the way I use it.

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