True Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 1)

True Hackers (CSE40842 Reading 1)

2021, Feb 05    

What is a True Hacker?

A “True Hacker” as described by Steven Levy is someone who approaches the world through hands-on, practical learning. To others, devices such as a computer are means by which to reach an end, which could be their doctoral thesis or an accounting report. To “True Hackers”, the computer (and anything else that can captivate a “True Hacker” ascribed to the Hacker Ethic) is the end. A True Hacker will find joy in the process of creative something unique and imaginative, something that at first glance appears to offer no real benefit to the “real world” as the graduate students in Project MAC might think. Even if making a simple Spacewars game or coming up with a subroutine for printing a decimal number in the fewest amount of lines of code doesn’t add immediate value to the “real world”, it did encourage the True Hackers to continue exercising their curiosity. So long as you are doing “The Right Thing”, you will be considered a True Hacker. In the context that Levy provides, “The Right Thing” is seemingly arbitrary but is easily distinguishable from the wrong thing - take sharing your subroutine vs. not sharing it as an example. In addition to maintaining an internal barometer for “The Right Thing”, a True Hacker must follow the unspoken rules - the Hacker Ethic:

  1. Access to computers should be unlimited and total.
  2. All information should be free.
  3. Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.
  4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position.
  5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  6. Computers can change your life for the better.

A True Hacker believes in each of these tenants, sometimes to the point that they may shun those unwilling to (knowingly or unknowingly) adopt them. Each point in this code of ethics comes up in Part 1 of Hackers. (1) is seen through the relentless obsession of a True Hacker to get their hands on a computer - even if that means staying up until 3am in the hopes that some graduate student missed their shift on the PDP-6. Freedom of information (2) is seen in the culture of sharing every bit of information with one another, including over ITS (the sharing software the hackers developed) at the sacrifice of your personal privacy. The mistrust of authority (3) isn’t as clearly seen in action in the book - perhaps it is represented by the proliferant lockpicking - but the attitude for it is certainly there. Levy describes the disdain that the hackers held for those “suits” working at IBM. The Hackers only judged based on ability - which is a good thing if you are a 14 year old prodigy, but maybe not such a good thing if you are a novice hoping to learn from the Hackers. By manipulating the screen of the computers in the MIT Lab, the Hackers were able to create some imaginative artistic programs (5). Hackers often made graphical programs or hacks, and even Professor Minsky, who seemingly adopted these same rules of ethics, wrote a program to draw circles and other shapes seemingly at random. As for computers changing your life for the better (6), it’s clear to see this is the case for most if not all of the individuals mentioned in Part 1 of Hackers.

Am I a True Hacker?

Steven Levy’s True Hacker is not what I originally thought of as a hacker, but it definitely aligns with what I now consider to be hacker culture. Growing up, I thought of hackers as mysterious individual actors working to benefit themselves often through malicious activity. Now, thanks to learning more about software development and the open source community as a whole, I consider a True Hacker to be more of that described in Levy’s Hackers, someone who sits day and night in front of a computer, obsessively typing away at what might just be a program to draw a few interesting images. I certainly at one point aspired to be this person, and even took some steps toward that goal. In my sophomore year of college, I spent a good deal of time working on open source projects of my own and of others, actively participating in IRC chat rooms, and more. However, I personally felt a change in my social life. I wasn’t spending as much time with others (although technically I was, just virtually ). In my junior and (current) senior year, I’ve done a better job of striking a balance between my passions for software development / OSS and my social life, which I think has had a great impact on me mentally and socially. I still find the True Hacker tenants and ideals appealing, I just am not as cut out for the lifestyle.

This post is in response to Reading 1 of the Hackers in the Bazaar course offered at the University of Notre Dame.