At some point in my youth I got very interested in programming, really interested, much more so than my peers. When I got to University, with access to the Internet (back when it was a largely text based affair) I met like minded people, and started identifying myself as a hacker. In the media hacking was exclusively illegal activity, but real hackers knew it was just about exploring possibilities with technologies. I read the alt.hackers usenet group. I bought a copy of the hackers’ dictionary, I read Stephen Levy’s book about the MIT hackers, and ran a telnet BBS. I felt some sense of belonging..
It’s frustrating then that the word has been hijacked by some strange characters with, from my perspective, uncomfortably right-wing agendas. Paul Graham wrote a piece nominally about Hackers and Painters, but actually about himself. It contains the following passage on computer science: “The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper.” Clearly Paul Graham doesn’t know much about the nature of computer science research (most certainly nothing about MIR), but he knows a lot about startups, indeed the thrust of his Hackers and Painters essay is actually to evangelise hacker startups. Paul Graham has a venture captial company, y-combinator, funding tech startups. Once, he ran a social news website called `startup news‘, which he one day decided to rename to `hacker news’. It’s become one of the more popular websites among programmers, but still carries a large proportion of news items about startups. I’d guess that among these people, hacking has come to mean being as much about becoming a millionaire as enjoying programming for the sake of it.
Eric S. Raymond is perhaps more of a right wing nutcase. ESR is the self-proclaimed editor of the jargon file, AKA the hacker’s dictionary. In 2003 he took it upon himself to make a number of edits to the jargon file to recast the hacker in his own image. The typical political position of a hacker was edited from “vaguely liberal-moderate” to “moderate to neo-conservative”, and the anti-war journalist Robert Fisk was given his own special entry in order to dismiss his opinions.
So I began to feel that the word ‘Hacker’ had been stolen from right wing entrepreneurs. But I’ve realised, that’s really not true. Considering those original hackers at MIT that Stephen Levy wrote about. They were privileged young white male model railway enthusiasts and phone phreakers, leading hidden lives working for the military while the Vietnam war flared, with a war game among their greatest accomplishments. Are they really great role models? There are some amazing groups of hackers around Europe doing wildly creative things. I feel totally inspired by these people, but unfortunately they don’t own the word Hacker any more than Paul Graham or ESR does…
It seems this word means nothing outside a specific community. So, for what it’s worth, these days, if anyone asks, I’m a dork..