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.