ASCII by Jason Scott

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A Very Old Battle —

I’m bothered by the battle over the word “Hacker”. I’m most bothered by it because I consider the battle over.

While I don’t mind the energy poured into it, since it generates content and I like content, I do mind the characterization that it’s a relatively new battle, one that is just on a sort of tipping point. That’s a completely inaccurate idea.

And I don’t mean “Yes, we’ve been fighting it since the 1990s”. I mean this issue is at least 20 years old, with some aspects of it dating back 30 years.

I have an entire site dedicated to this and related issues, at hacker.textfiles.com. Some people know about it, some don’t.

Recently, I was sent a very precious document, a message from the bulletin board that ran at the Stanford Artifical Intelligence Lab. The poster is Richard Gabriel. Dr. Gabriel knows his stuff. He is a forward-thinking writer with a brilliant mind and decades of experience with both computers and the people related to them. Nowadays, a good website to learn about him if you haven’t heard of him is dreamsongs.com.

This document was sent to me by someone other than Dr. Gabriel, who wanted me to see how the battle was waging even back then. His belief (and mine) is this hasn’t been in public since it was written back then.

Like I said, new content is interesting to me, so feel free to keep waging the “battle”; just don’t pretend this blood on the swords in this battle isn’t caked with decades. I yield the floor to Dr. Gabriel.


Date: 09-Nov-83 1141 PST
From: Dick Gabriel
Subject: Hackers
To: su-bboards@SU-AI

About a month ago I became fed up with the way journalists and others had
changed the definition of the word, `hacker.’ I wrote the following essay,
which I am I am trying to get published somewhere or other. Enjoy:

`Hacker’: The De-Evolution of a Word

`Hacker.’ I’ve often wondered how new words arise and old words change
their meanings. Now I have experienced it. Most everyone now knows that
`hackers’ have something to do with computers, but the meaning has taken a
turn for the worse.

When I was growing up with computers, a `hacker’ was someone who was good
at constructing programs or computer systems. To be called a `real
hacker’ was a great compliment.

Now look at a recent news story on the Milwaukee “414s”:

Other experts, however, said it won’t be that easy to deter all
hackers, a term used to refer to people who gain access to
computer systems for fun . . . .

Time was, when I was introduced to some computer professionals and said,
“well, I’m just a hacker,” they’d smile with relief: I was just one of
the boys and not a stuffy academic. Now if I happen to mention, “oh,
spent the night hacking,” and a cop’s within earshot, I’m likely to find
a set of fingers around my collar and a couple of knuckles in my ear:
I’m off to jail on a felony count — 5-10 years, hacking.

A recent book on slang written by hackers, “The Hacker’s Dictionary,”
contains these entries:

HACKER n. 1. A person who enjoys learning the details of
programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as
opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum
necessary. . . . 6. A malicious or inquisitive meddler who
tries to discover information by poking around. Hence
“password hacker,” “network hacker.”

Even though definition 6 has negative connotations, it suggests a
mischievous prankster rather than an Al Capone or a Machine-Gun Kelly.
And the term `hacker’ is qualified, by `password’ for instance, if meant
pejoratively.

Where did the term originate?

Hacking is an activity in which one plays with programs, seeing what one
can do, exploring the limits of one’s abilities, not necessarily with any
particular goal in mind.

Hack around: To do nothing in particular; to wander about; to
idle.

This is from the “Dictionary of American Slang”; the phrase was popular
around 1965, when computer science was beginning to mature.

“What are you up to?”

“Not much, just hacking around with this program.”

The artist trying new techniques; the composer noodling on the piano; the
physicist toying with new theories. The hacker hacking around with his
program.

Some hackers ARE weird. The first hacker I ever saw — you couldn’t meet
this guy — worked at a prestigious Eastern university. He washed his
hair once a month, slept next to the computer, and sent his laundry
God-knows-how-frequently to his mother in New York City to wash and mail
back. But he was an expert and extremely productive programmer, certainly
not a criminal.

Why would the word `hacker’ change its meaning?

Recently certain people have been breaking into computers and doing
damage. I can easily imagine some impressionable cub reporter hearing
from a computer-center manager, “Some hackers broke into our system and
deleted the welfare-check files.” He thinks: Criminals break into things,
and the manager said ` . . . hackers broke in . . . ,’ so hackers are
criminals, right?

I’m waiting for some other equally bright reporter to hear, “Three
entrepreneurs embezzled $930,000 from the company they formed, Megabucks
Inc.” Then the world will have a new synonym for a business criminal:
entrepreneur.

Has a nice ring to it, eh?

I first noticed the meaning of `hacker’ drifting in 1976 when Prof. Joseph
Weizenbaum of MIT wrote the book “Computer Power and Human Reason.” He
says:

I have already said that the compulsive programmer, or hacker
as he calls himself, is usually a superb technician. . . .
His skill is . . . aimless, even disembodied. . . . His
skill is like that of a monastic copyist who, though
illiterate, is a first-rate calligrapher.

Weizenbaum goes on to paint an exaggerated picture of compulsive, even
psychotic, behavior, belying a deep suspicion, if not hatred, of hackers.

That hackers are the masters of one of the great tools of science is as if
apes operated electron microscopes.

Donn Parker of SRI International isn’t just suspicious of hackers; he
seems to hate them openly and extremely. In his book, “Fighting Computer
Crime,” he makes a list of computer criminal types. In this list the
`system hacker’ is placed between the deranged person and the career
criminal.

In 1976 Weizenbaum wrote:

They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a
time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them:
coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots
near the computer. . . . [T]heir uncombed hair [testifies]
that they are oblivious to their bodies. . . . [Their]
excitement rises to its highest, most feverish pitch when
[they are] on the trail of a most recalcitrant error. . . .

Compare this with what Parker wrote in 1983:

Hackers are often addicted to their computer capers. They
will give up food, sleep, and other bodily functions sitting
at terminals for hours when they are on a hot trail to the
innards of an operating system.

Parker seems to be quoting Weizenbaum, but adds malicious intent at every
turn.

Parker talks to the press, and the press quotes away. People on the
outside using insiders’ jargon to ridicule insiders. Weizenbaum, Parker,
and others have taken the respectful term of the hacker and turned it
against him.

What have we lost through the misunderstandings of reporters or the
simplistic analyses of computer-crime detectives? We’ve lost a good word
for an expert programmer who is not necessarily well-trained or formally
educated in computer science, but who is enthusiastic about his work and
perseveres where others might give up.

I consider myself a `hacker,’ but I’ve legitimized it quite a bit: I have
a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University, and I recommend this
situation highly. I make part of my living by sitting across from a
businessman, placing my sheepskin on the high-gloss mahogany, sliding it
towards him, and carefully folding into my wallet the cash he pushes back.
Sometimes I have to ramble on about `continuation-passing semantics,’ but
usually it’s more like “That won’t work; try it this way.”

But now a hacker is merely a computer vandal. Instead of a useful word
for a new type of person, we have a colorful synonym for a mundane type of
criminal.

So now I tell the casual acquaintance that I’m a Computer Scientist, and
thus legitimize my hobby and passion. I miss being known as a hacker, but
don’t want to be misconstrued as a Bad Guy.

Maybe I’ll go into business and become an entrepreneur.


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4 Comments

  1. Ryan Russell says:

    Right, I also see no point in continuing the argue the definition of “hacker”, it means someone who breaks into computers. Just because you are a hacker, doesn’t mean you get to define the word.

    So, I have an alternate question: Show me some documentation that demonstrates that the word “hacker” didn’t always also mean breaking security.

  2. fuzz says:

    For the record:
    The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology (1986) (and that’s en-gb by the way) doesn’t contain ‘Hacker’, but it has three definitions for ‘Hack’:

    1) To cut with heavy blows
    2) A board for a hawk’s meat (?!)
    3) from the 17th century, “in various senses of ‘Hackney’ (esp. ‘riding-horse’ and ‘drudge’), of which it is a shortening. Hence vb. make a hack of, etc.”

    The ‘drudge’ it talks about in the context of hackney, is another way of saying prostitute, so, in the 17th century, it’s possible that the work ‘hacker’ meant someone who enjoyed prostitutes (or liked riding a lot).

    And you thought the modern meaning was bad ;)

  3. Anonymous says:

    There is a great book called “Hackers”, published 10 or 12 years ago, that goes into the hacker culture from the earliest days at the Tech Model Railroad Club all the way to more recent times. a “hack” back in the 50s was an elegant solution to an engineering or computing problem. So a “hacker” was one who was able to come up with such solutions.

  4. Lazlo says:

    “Hackers” was published 22 years ago, thank you very much.