I turned in this essay in the spring 2013 semester in Expository Writing I (I am a CS student pursuing a bachelors degree), detailing the difference between the public concept of hackers, and the original vision, which began in the early 60′s. I post it here for your enjoyment.
Mention the word ‘hacker’ to most people, and it would be a good bet the first concept which springs to mind would be of a person who breaks into computer systems. It is little wonder this image persists in the mind of the general public, because it has been the one which has been championed by the media. The popular concept is that of a programmer who ‘hacks into’ a computer system. Most of the time, it is to cause general mayhem; other times, the chaos follows a specific course.
However, it may surprise the reader to know that malicious intent was not always associated with the hacker, and furthermore, much of the software we use today, and the infrastructure which utilizes it, was built by people who enjoy coming up with new ideas to solve problems. For example, the ARPANET, the predecessor to what we now know as the Internet, and Unix, both of which came into existence in 1969, were products of hackers. It is no secret among hackers, but little known by the general public, that Linux, the progeny of Unix, arose autonomously through collaboration between developers or groups of developers over the medium of the Internet, thereby flouting the common wisdom which held that collaboration could only occur locally.
In her essay “The Hacker Ethic”, Sarah Granger explained this apparently contradictory term. She notes that “the ‘hacker ethic’ can be a peculiar concept to those unfamiliar with hacking and what [it] really is”. She goes on to say that “in fact, the entire definition of ‘hacking’ is somewhat obscure. Hacking originated as a challenge between programmers…Individuals would ‘hack at code’ meaning that they would work at programming problems until they could manipulate their computers into doing exactly what they wanted” . This captures the original meaning of the word ‘hacker’ precisely. The kinds of problems these people would face were original in nature, meaning there was no example code they could look at and adapt to their problem. In order to surmount this programming obstacle, the developer would have to know the computer extremely well.
In 1961, when the term ‘hacker’ was first coined, computers were several magnitudes slower than a modern cell phone, big enough to fill the back of a room from wall to wall, and produced enough heat to require several tons of air conditioning; in the winter, the computer centers would not need to invest in a heating system at all. They would pipe the heat from the computer room to the rest of the facility. Programming them was challenging, to say the least. It required that a programmer knew his computer hardware very well before he could write a program; these were the days before Intel pioneered the x86, a family of processors that are ubiquitous today, and every manufacturer, be it General Electric, Honeywell, Data General, or Digital Equipment Corporation, implemented their hardware in different ways, meaning that their computers, while performing essentially the same function, did them in very different ways. A program written for a DEC computer, for instance, could not be run on a GE computer, and a program for a DG computer could not be run on a Honeywell.
If a programmer knew assembly language programming, he was considered merely adequate in the hacker community; if a programmer knew enough about the hardware of his computer and understood the problem well enough to be able to write the program small enough to tackle the task efficiently, he was good enough to be called a ‘hacker’. To be able to fully appreciate the significance of this accomplishment, some context is required. Computers in those days had memories which were measured in thousands of bytes, or characters. Modern computers routinely are fitted with a memory which is measured in billions of bytes. The computer on which I am writing this essay, for example, has a memory of 16 billion bytes, or gigabytes (GB). Computers can do a lot more today than they could in those days, but the tasks which they needed to do were much the same. Accordingly, some sacrifices needed to be made in terms of the way that a program presented itself to the user, received information from a user, processed that information, and stored the information.
Granger notes, “Several definitions for ‘hacker’ exist…1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities…8…A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around…the hacker most referred to in general is the hacker in definition no.8, whereas most programmers refer to hackers by definition no. 1”. Tom Cross agrees, stating that “The general public often has difficulty drawing a line between hackers who study computer security as a technical interest, and criminals who break into computers and deliberately cause damage”. In their paper, the authors of “The Autotelic Propensity of Types of Hackers” report a finding by Steven Branigan, who claims that those who get into computers first, and then start hacking, are motivated by curiosity, whereas those who have criminal tendencies to begin with and who later learn computer technology, figure out how to apply the technology to their trade. Thus two types of hackers have been identified: those motivated by education or curiosity, and those motivated by crime.
Clearly, the answer to the question “What is a hacker?” is not so easily defined; it depends on the person for whom computers are more than a passing obsession. It is a part of our depraved nature for people who consider the world as their enemy, or just has a grievance with another, to find applying their knowledge of computers toward that end desirable. On the other hand, some people who find their social skills lacking, who enjoy working and thinking in great detail, or a combination of the two, but who otherwise harbor no ill will toward anyone, would find the computer as thrilling to express themselves on as a blank easel would be to an artist, or a word processor to an aspiring writer. The two human types share an aspect in common: both of them find socializing rather challenging, and find a ready outlet for their passions on the computer. What, in my opinion, makes the hacker a criminal would be a person who, having perceived him or herself to be wronged, considers it a duty to right such wrongs. It is commonly known that ‘good news can’t make it across the street, but bad news travels the world.’ Hence the widely-held notion of the hacker as a malicious evildoer, whereas the more honorable and accurate definition, that of someone who enjoys using the computer to solve interesting problems, is known only to a few people.
The authors of “The Autotelic Propensity of Types of Hackers” state that “the word, autotelic, derives from the words for ‘the driving force from the individual him/herself,’ without concern for external rewards or punishments”. Autotelism, while rarely used, is actually an accurate description of what drives a person to learn a machine which is horrendously complex; no person who does not think in detail would find learning how to operate a computer interesting, let alone be driven to learn the details of it. They note “individuals in an autotelic state are in a state of enjoyment where the individual forgets his or her troubles, has a sense of competency and control, and loses sense of time. In effect, the individual loses self-consciousness while perceiving a sense of control.” Most often, the hacker comes from a less than desirable background, and derives the same from a computer as another would from drugs; they are able to escape from their reality into a land of eternal bliss. Where the line between good hackers and bad hackers is drawn is that the good hacker, while troubled, does not have a desire to seek revenge for their being wronged upon the world (or society), whereas the bad hacker does. Every other factor is identical.
In fact, there are some people who question whether having the knowledge of how computers work is wise at all, stating that “knowledge is itself dangerous, irrespective of the motives of the people discussing it”, as reported by Cross. What is apparent is that computers, while having been accepted as a field of study for several decades now, is still very little understood. The most common reaction of people to the unknown is fear; fear leads to all kinds of behavior which normally would not occur, such as drawing up laws to “protect” themselves from the dangers which arise from the people who know computers in great detail.
Cross goes on to state, “Hackers believe that ethical questions generally apply to the application of knowledge rather [than] to the pursuit of knowledge…knowing how to do something that might be harmful is not the same as causing harm. Once you have knowledge you must decide what to do with it.” One has to have the intent to do harm to another before the harm can take place. Knowledge merely enhances the method one chooses to accomplish the deed. Other fields of study, such as writing, mathematics, architecture, construction, music, sports, etc., are centuries older and much better understood than computers, which have only a few decades behind them.
Cross argues that “hackers also believe that valuable new ideas do not always come from established institutions…it is widely understood that critical developments in computer science have come from garages and hobby clubs (most notably the Homebrew Computer Club, an early crucible of the personal computer revolution)”. This differentiates the “white hat” hackers, a commonly-used term for the good hackers, from the “black hat” hackers, some of whom believe that the only valuable information is locked up in a government institution, and it is their right to steal that information and expose it to the world.
Cross ends his article with the statements, “Most important, hackers believe the pursuit of knowledge is an inalienable right, tied directly to freedom of speech…the history of the hacker community is filled with people who have faced significant personal consequences for revealing truths powerful interests sought to suppress”. While it is a known fact that good hackers do not actively seek information from the establishment, if they perceive that information which should be made public is being withheld by powerful people to the detriment of the public, the hackers will be relentless in their drive to ensure that the information will be published, even at the cost of their freedom.
In the end, what are we to conclude about hackers? All of them are driven by an insatiable curiosity to learn more about the mysterious machine which is so little understood, but which simultaneously serves as an easel for those who are willing to take the time to paint a picture, much as a master artist learns his craft: the kind of paint he wants, the brushes, the way his hand sweeps across the easel as he expresses in vivid colors what he envisions in his mind. These people are learning their art in their spare time because, as David Bellin, in his essay, “High school hackers: heroes or criminals?” succinctly expresses it: “What’s going on in the schools if there’s no real learning about computers and no excitement in learning in school?”. Most of the older members of the educational system are comfortably ignorant about the complex machines on which so much of their lives depend; acknowledging that computers are essential to the way they conduct business, they would rather busy themselves with tasks which are more in their purview, such as biology, mathematics, or some field of science. Because of the constant barrage of the malicious type of hacker making his presence known, laws are drawn up to help bring these malcontents under some kind of control. Certainly, as Bellin states, “the politicians and government leaders find themselves with a handy emotional issue, one that is very exciting”. Politicians live and die by votes, and if these issues result in another term of office, so much the better. Because of the age of the article, the statement “We presently have a federal administration presently, which is emphasizing increased government controls on access to data”, most certainly refers to the Reagan era; nevertheless, the statement still holds true even today.
Bellin’s concluding statement to his article is comprehensive: ” A parallel question has been ignored. Why aren’t we discussing criminalizing negligence on the part of computer center directors? These are the experts who are supposed to know about computer security, who are supposed to run an operation in which unauthorized use cannot take place…If there is any criminality involved with unauthorized access to computer systems…the fault may well be in the negligence of computer center directors and the hypocrisy of our government leaders . “
So very true. Even knowing full well that breaches are a real danger, the inconvenience of securing their networks properly is enough to lead some of our supposed experts to procrastinate in following established security procedures, leaving their networks wide open to attack.
Granger makes mention of this in her report, stating that “the argument which a hacker who breaks into a system often uses is as follows: ‘If I can do it, and you have not taken the precautions to keep me out, then I cannot be held accountable for, nor punished for acts that have occurred because of your, or administrative/government omission or lack of safeguard’ ”.
Perhaps the best conclusion one can draw is that which was put forth by the authors of the article, “The Autotelic Propensity of Types of Hackers”, who state “because hacking is seen as an enjoyable activity by those in the hacking community, these individuals seek the enjoyment of hacking again and again, and over time it becomes self-motivated. They become deeply immersed in the activity, Also, due to the high concentration and strong self-motivation, learning takes place very quickly. The learner is eager to find the necessary sources and tools and spends time on the acquisition of skills, even if some aspects are not exciting in themselves, as long as they contribute to the autotelic activity.
The reader would be well-advised to take the reports of hacking with a grain of salt. It is well known that the media will champion the opportunistic tendencies of hackers, while the feats which benefit humanity, such as the Internet and the Mozilla Firefox web browser, are ignored. These accomplishments, rather than than the compromising of computer systems, should be the ultimate definition of what a hacker is. But let the reader heed this wise advice: caveat emptor.