Hacker: A (re)definition

I feel the term hacker is up for a retroactive redefinition. I have two principles in mind to justify this:

First, as our understanding of any technology deepens and our familiarity with certain concepts grows, so does our vocabulary around them. It might even feel as if new terms are being introduced at a breakneck pace, at times. However, more accuracy, flair and nuisance is usually introduced by this process as well.

There are many cases in which a subject matter is revisited and terms are redefined retroactively, based on new advances. A simple example would be the multi-core processor in computing. The advent of cores necessitated an update to the term of what a processor is; up until then, the term “CPU” and “processor” were interchangeable. Not anymore. A processor could now have multiple CPUs, or cores, based on this new nomenclature.

Secondly, it is reasonably common for certain specialized terms to be introduced to a wider audience, typically through mass media. Such terms, previously only used in specialized communities, e.g. scientific or financial circles, might escape these constraints and reach the general populace, promulgating as time goes by. What then follows is a progressive employment of such terms in more abstract contexts, or in non-literal applications. The Japanese sourced term tsunami illustrates this, which literally means tidal wave, but has since then also been used figuratively to indicate significant amounts or massive quantities.


Applying the above principles, I would say a true hacker is a person which is able to persevere, or be brilliant enough (or both) as to solve problems in unconventional ways, frequently compelling a shift in our perception in the process. I like to think that the term was introduced with the proliferation of computing, simply because computing was, and still is, largely uncharted territory, compared to other disciplines; it leaves a lot of room for innovation and creative thinking. I would have no qualms qualifying Nikola Tesla or Albert Einstein as true hackers.

If you’re still with me, let me close this rant by listing some of the essential characteristics a true hacker should have, even if we’re discussing a person engaged in activities unrelated to computing:

  • Grit
  • Resourcefulness
  • Lateral or out of the box thinking
  • Curiosity
A good representation of a quintessential hacker in that sense, would be M̶a̶t̶t̶ ̶D̶a̶m̶o̶n̶ Mark Watney, the hero of Andy Weir’s The Martian.
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