My 03/16/08 Missoulian column
Because I’ve mentioned hackers so often in this column, I think it’s time to give them – whoever they may be – a fair shake. Why would I give a computer criminal a fair shake? Because a hacker isn’t necessarily a criminal.
The word “hacker” has taken on a less-than-savory meaning, and in some ways I have perpetuated that because in the past I thought it would be confusing to a reader to make a distinction between what different hackers might do in different situations.
It’s always easier to describe things in black and white instead of trying to flesh out something in a shade of gray, but I should make the distinction and point out that there are different kinds of hackers who claim different definitions of the word. And to make things more interesting, the word hacking itself has over the years been “hacked” – you’ll see what I mean.
So, who is a hacker and what is a hack? First, let’s see what’s happened to the definition of the word over the past 400 years. A good place to start is the Oxford English Dictionary because it’s the gold standard for the English language. (Most hackers would appreciate the OED for what it is, anyway, but that’s another story.)
According to the OED the origins of the word hacker trace back to 1620, when it best fit this example:
“One good hacker … will at good ease hack or cut more than half an acre of ground in a day.”
Doesn’t have much to do with computers, does it? Not yet.
One of the next citations is from 1879, and is a definition:
a hacker is a “short, strong, slightly curved implement of a peculiar kind, for chopping off the branches of fallen trees, etc.”
That makes more sense in terms of how the word is sometimes used today, but it still doesn’t apply to computers. The definition, though does involve a kind of tool, maybe custom made by the owner, so we’re getting closer to the modern usage.
When we arrive at the late 20th century, we find two different but related definitions of hacker that remain relevant today. The first, from Byte magazine in 1983, gives an indication of how the definition evolved.
From the OED: ” ‘Hacker’ seems to have originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The original German/Yiddish expression referred to someone so inept as to make furniture with an ax, but somehow the meaning has been twisted so that it now generally connotes someone obsessed with programming and computers but possessing a fair degree of skill and competence.”
I can only guess, but I suppose “hacker” must have sounded good to the students at MIT and taken off like so many other slang terms.
With much energy and talent for things on and off the class syllabus, MIT students are known for hacks, although the definition of the word has changed yet again. Use of the term there now has more to do with pranks and practical jokes. Some of the hacks have become famous, and there’s a Web site dedicated to them: hacks.mit.edu.
At nearly the same time, hacker picked up a different meaning, one with a connotation of mischief and criminal activity, as shown in this second example from the newspaper USA Today in 1985:
“A gang of 23 teen-age computer hackers has done ‘significant damage’ to Chase Manhattan Bank’s records.”
It’s the same activity and the same skill set, but with a different motive and outcome. This is the usage of hacker many of us are familiar with. Hackers today are thought of as whiz kids or criminals who break into computer systems, send phishing e-mails, steal identities and wreak havoc just because they can.
In my experience, the most pertinent definition of a hacker – one who likes to analyze things, take apart things, fix things and generally know how things work in a great level of detail – is not the one used in newspapers and on television, and it’s one that has made it to the OED. That definition and usage of the word hacker is value-neutral.
Essentially that’s what a hacker is – someone interested in how things work to great detail, and who loves to makes things work better in clever ways. And a hack is a way of solving a problem, or making something work or work better. Hackers can apply their skills to computers, but also fly-fishing gear, car engines, blenders and on and on. (If you watch “The Red Green Show” on PBS, hacks usually involve using duct tape to make things work far outside of their intended purpose. But they usually work, and they’re fun.)
This brings me to my point about the word hacker itself being hacked, evolving from the usage of chopping out rough furniture with an ax to finding a quick-and-dirty way to fix a computer. In the end, I think hackers love the Oxford English Dictionary because it’s a deep source of information that shows word usage that continues to change through language hacking.
We’re not done with the word hacker yet. These days, good hackers wear “white hats” and not-so-good hackers wear “black hats,” and then there are the “gray hats.” Next week, I’ll explain these different variations. Update: that article is Hackers In Black, White And Shades Of Gray.
If you want to dive into an extensive Wikipedia entry, read Hacker (term) at Wikipedia and read about the controversy over the fine points of the definition of hacker and the gray areas in between the black and whites.