What is a Hacker?

Genius? Vandal? Wizard? Trickster? Problem-Solver?Maker? Thief? Here’s how some special people define that radioactive word.

Steven Levy
Nov 21, 2014 · Unlisted
Photo by Alex C.

John Draper (Captain Crunch)

Famous phone phreaker and programmer.

Photo by jeanbaptisteparis.

Stewart Brand

‘Whole Earth Catalog founder, chronicled early hackers

Sherry Turkle

MIT Professor, author

Photo by Pat Greenhouse.

Hacker is a contested word. Just as it was starting to mean a poet, an artist of digital materials, it became associated with cybercrime. So, it is a word whose meaning depends entirely on context. When I speak about the early MIT hackers, about the Apple founders in their garage, about Bill Gates and his dream, I know people hear visionary — these are the people without whom we would not have digital culture as we know it. Change the context only slightly, and people hear a word associated with their greatest fears about the security of their money, their privacy, their core institutions.

Bruce Sterling

Author and cyberpunk bard

Photo by Carla Sedini.

Thirty years ago, a “hacker” was some bright young guy scrambling to get access to expensive, obscure, difficult “mainframe computers.” Getting “hands-on” was an existential triumph, often life-transforming.

Once he had his access, those crude computers worked pretty badly — but that was okay, because the hacker had no set goal in messing with them. He just burned to immerse himself in the sandbox of programming. Life was rich and full.

The modern hacker is different. He is not young, has access to vast, formless clouds of computers, and possesses a distinct modern cultural sensibility. To his eye, all the works of mankind — and maybe even the very laws of nature — are contraptions, just like computers once were. Law, ethics, society, the economy: they’re not sacred, they’re not proper ways of life. They’re codes. All systems of code can be disrupted, upgraded, improved without permission. Everything’s hackable.

People who realize this about our world are in the right. Lesser people are obscurantists, since they’re forced to rely on instructions, regulations, patents, ethics, public opinion and similar unhackerly crutches.

Obscurantists should be grateful when hackers point out the limits in their worldview. But the normals lack the hacker sensibility, and rarely are happy about being corrected. This creates friction.

Normal people aren’t hackers. They lack direct, hands-on experience with system minutiae. They do not exhaust every possible systematic variant in a search for vulnerabilities. They show little interest in exploring arcane opportunities for diverting the activities of complex systems. There has always been something direly wrong with normal people.

The year 2014 has black-hat hackers galore. Their numbers are amazing, they’re socially organized, they travel in packs and their fraud is in every email inbox round the clock. Hackers have become a large, remarkably prosperous, thoroughly globalized, electronic criminal class. Black-hat hackers are not “bad guys” who hack. On the contrary: they’re hackers who are bad.

It’s not that hackers used to be good, and they somehow turned bad. No; it’s that hackers have always been human, and, at first, they just didn’t have many real temptations. Nowadays they do. After three ardent decades of digitizing the planet, alluring opportunities abound to fleece the ignorant and helpless.

To be fair, it’s actually the off-shored, ultra-wealthy oligarchs who set this example of global misbehavior — black-hat hackers didn’t invent all that. But they get it, and boy do they every deploy it.

It took a while to drift from the free, bright, open-ended enthusiasm of early hacking to the frank, amoral nihilism of contemporary cybercrime, cyberwar, and cyber-spying. However, thirty years was long enough. The hacker ethic could never control its unethical dark side. Ethics can also be hacked.

In depression-ridden, warlike 2014, we’re getting the “hackers” we deserve. The situation’s bad because our times are bad. However, the clock still ticks. One of these days, it’ll be 2034.

Phto by Fred Benenson.

Gabriella Coleman

Anthropology professor at McGill University and author

Hacking in its different manifestations is where craft and craftiness converge: building a 3-D printer that can replicate itself; stealing a botnet — an army of zombie computers — to blast a website for a political DDoS campaign; inventing a license, the copyleft, that uses the logic inherent to copyright itself to instead guarantee openness of distribution; showcasing a robot that mixes cocktails at a scientific-geek festival devoted entirely to, well, the art of cocktail robotics; inventing a programming language called Brainfuck which, as you might guess, is primarily designed to humorously mess with people’s heads; and the list goes on. The alignment of craft and craftiness is perhaps the best location to find a unifying thread which runs through the diverse technical and ethical worlds of hacking.

Photo by Daniel Gies.

Ted Nelson

Author, creator of Xanadu

“Hacker” is a word whose meaning forks both positively and negatively, like “fuck” — many of those who call themselves hackers are brilliant programmers with ideals, others are brilliant programmers with nefarious intent. The public will never understand.

Jennifer Granick

Director of Civil Liberties for the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School

Photo by Quinn.

Hackers are huge. The head of US Cybercommand says that Cyber Pearl Harbor is around the corner. The only reason it hasn’t happened yet is luck. But one day, our luck will run out, and people will die. You might not have missed the $445 billion a year that hackers stealing intellectual property drain out of our economy, but that’s how much richer the government says we’d all be if we cracked down. There’s a security crisis, and economic crisis, and the government, or more accurately the military wing of our government, is here to help. Step one, surveil the entire network looking for signs of bad guys.

At the same time, the head of the NSA (this is actually the same office, the same person) promulgates back doored encryption, hacks into routers and data center transfers, and develops a catalog of awesome network attacks. He recruits analysts by telling them that inside the agency they can do hacks that would be illegal anywhere else. Security is insecurity. The protagonists in Orwell’s 1984 would be at home with this.

Mark Zuckerberg calls himself a hacker and lauds the hacker way. The hackers I met at DEFCON3 back in 1995 are now CEOs, CSOs, CISOs, founders of multimillion dollar companies. Security is an industry, not a hobby. Coding is the new Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. Most of the major companies now have bug bounty programs. Hackers are the people who break the Internet, the people who make the Internet, and the people who can do both at the same time.

The Hacker Ethic that Steven described back in 1984 infuses our culture. But we’re still not living up to it. Copyright law, the Right to Be Forgotten and overclassification in the name of national security stops the publication of truthful information. DRM, terms of service, warrantees and design choices interfere with the Freedom to Tinker. Platforms, not people, have too much control over what happens to us and to our information online. Women and people of color are woefully underrepresented — in some cases affirmatively unwelcome — in the online, hacker and gamer worlds.

Hackers still operate in a world circumscribed by money, race, gender, economic power, and government control. Thirty years on, the computer revolution is on the path towards dingy middle-aged complacency. But “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing,” said Thomas Jefferson. Now is probably a good time for that bit of rebellion. Hackers definitely will be part of it.

Photo by campuspartycolombia.

Kevin Mitnick

Former cracker turned security consultant

Photo by JD Lasica.

Matt Mullenweg

CEO of Automattic

Richard Stallman

Led development of the free/libre GNU OS, often referred to as “Linux”

Photo by Kevin Nixon.

In June 2000, while visiting Korea, I did a fun hack that clearly illustrates the original and true meaning of the word “hacker.”

I went to lunch with some GNU fans, and was sitting down to eat some tteokpaekki (*), when a waitress set down six chopsticks right in front of me. It occurred to me that perhaps these were meant for three people, but it was more amusing to imagine that I was supposed to use all six. I did not know any way to do that, so I realized that if I could come up with a way, it would be a hack. I started thinking. After a few seconds I had an idea.

First I used my left hand to put three chopsticks into my right hand. That was not so hard, though I had to figure out where to put them so that I could control them individually. Then I used my right hand to put the other three chopsticks into my left hand. That was hard, since I had to keep the three chopsticks already in my right hand from falling out. After a couple of tries I got it done.

Then I had to figure out how to use the six chopsticks. That was harder. I did not manage well with the left hand, but I succeeded in manipulating all three in the right hand. After a couple of minutes of practice and adjustment, I managed to pick up a piece of food using three sticks converging on it from three different directions, and put it in my mouth.

It didn’t become easy — for practical purposes, using two chopsticks is completely superior. But precisely because using three in one hand is hard and ordinarily never thought of, it has “hack value”, as my lunch companions immediately recognized. Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking.

I later told the Korea story to a friend in Boston, who proceeded to put four chopsticks in one hand and use them as two pairs — picking up two different pieces of food at once, one with each pair. He had topped my hack. Was his action, too, a hack? I think so. Is he therefore a hacker? That depends on how much he likes to hack.

Copyright (C) 2002–2014 Richard Stallman Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is preserved.

Andy Hertzfeld

Mac wizard, Google engineer

Andrew Bosworth

Director of Engineering, Facebook

At its core, hacking is an approach to problem solving. It is both humble and optimistic in its conviction that anything that has been built, including by the hacker herself, can be improved. It is skeptical of complex solutions. It believes in people and thus assumes that if lots of people are working in one direction without success then the answer must lie in another direction. It believes that a good solution today is better than a great solution tomorrow. It does not believe that done is better than perfect so much as it believes that being done sooner is the best path to eventual perfection, though it is also skeptical that perfection exists. It believes in failing fast and sharing both successes and failures openly so that others can build on what has been done. Having conquered one problem, it doesn’t linger but rather moves quickly to the next challenge.

Let us consider a concrete example. When we are getting close to launching products at Facebook we often move the product team out of our usual open floor plan and into a room so they can coordinate in even tighter loops. As a rapidly growing company, it can sometimes be hard to find the space for these so-called war rooms. Before the launch of our games platform we needed to move more people into a war room than could possibly fit in any floor plan. Not to be defeated, the team came in over the weekend and built a loft which could support desks on two levels. This is classic hacking. The team solved a problem on a dimension, quite literally, that was unexpected: when you think of a floor plan you think of width and depth, not height.

Not to be outdone, a few years later when the Messenger team needed to move 15 people into a war room but the largest room we had could only fit 10 people any way you arranged it (including vertically), they cut a hole in the wall and made a bigger room. This example isn’t illustrative for its cleverness but rather for its power as a metaphor. As humans when we walk into a room we are inclined to perceive the four walls around us as permanent, immovable constraints. Some of them are — we should avoid demolishing structural walls — but most of them probably are not. The hacker, by being skeptical of even the most basic accepted truths, sees through walls in a way that others do not.

(Reprinted from Boz blog.)

Cover photo: Canonical MIT hacker Bill Gosper, by Michael Beeler.

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Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and…



Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.

Steven Levy

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Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.


Mining the tech world for lively and meaningful tales and analysis.