Hacker (programmer subculture)

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"Hacker subculture" redirects here. For other hacker subcultures, see Hacker (subculture).

A hacker is an adherent of the subculture that originally emerged in academia in the 1960s, around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC)[1] and MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.[2]

A hacker is one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of programming systems and who tries to extend their capabilities.[3] The act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media[4]) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed hacking. However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible,[5] thereby doing something exciting and meaningful.[4] Activities of playful cleverness can be said to have "hack value" and are termed hacks[5] (examples include pranks at MIT intended to demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness).

Richard Stallman explains about hackers who program:

What they had in common was mainly love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs that they used be as good as they could. They also wanted to make them do neat things. They wanted to be able to do something in a more exciting way than anyone believed possible and show "Look how wonderful this is. I bet you didn't believe this could be done."[6]

Hackers from this subculture tend to emphatically differentiate themselves from what they pejoratively call "crackers"; those who are generally referred to by media and members of the general public using the term "hacker", and whose primary focus—​be it to malign or benevolent purposes—​lies in exploiting weaknesses in computer security.[7]


The Jargon File, an influential but not universally accepted compendium of hacker slang, defines hacker as "A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary."[8] The Request for Comments (RFC) 1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, amplifies this meaning as "A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular."[9]

As documented in the Jargon File, these hackers are disappointed by the mass media and general public's usage of the word hacker to refer to security breakers, calling them "crackers" instead. This includes both "good" crackers ("white hat hackers") who use their computer security related skills and knowledge to learn more about how systems and networks work and to help to discover and fix security holes, as well as those more "evil" crackers ("black hat hackers") who use the same skills to author harmful software (like viruses, trojans, etc.) and illegally infiltrate secure systems with the intention of doing harm to the system.[10] The programmer subculture of hackers, in contrast to the cracker community, generally sees computer security related activities as contrary to the ideals of the original and true meaning of the hacker term that instead related to playful cleverness.[10]


The word "hacker" derives from the seventeenth century word of a "lusty laborer" who harvested fields by dogged and rough swings of his hoe. Although the idea of "hacking" has existed long before the term "hacker"—​with the most notable example of Lightning Ellsworth, it was not a word that the first programmers used to describe themselves. In fact, many of the first programmers were from engineering or physics backgrounds.

There was a growing awareness of a style of programming different from the cut and dried methods employed at first,[11][12] but it was not until the 1960s that the term hackers began to be used to describe proficient computer programmers. Therefore, the fundamental characteristic that links all who identify themselves as hackers are ones who enjoy "…the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of programming systems and who tries to extend their capabilities" (47).[3] With this definition in mind, it can be clear where the negative implications of the word "hacker" and the subculture of "hackers" came from.

Some common nicknames among this culture include "crackers" who are unskilled thieves who mainly rely on luck. Others include "phreak"—​which refers to a type of skilled crackers and "warez d00dz"—​which is a kind of cracker that acquires reproductions of copyrighted software. Within all hackers are tiers of hackers such as the "samurai" who are hackers that hire themselves out for legal electronic locksmith work. Furthermore, there are other hackers that are hired to test security which are called "sneakers" or "tiger teams".

Before communications between computers and computer users were as networked as they are now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker subcultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each other's existence. All of these had certain important traits in common:

  • Creating software and sharing it with each other
  • Placing a high value on freedom of inquiry
  • Hostility to secrecy
  • Information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy
  • Upholding the right to fork
  • Emphasis on rationality
  • Distaste for authority
  • Playful cleverness, taking the serious humorously and humor seriously

These sorts of subcultures were commonly found at academic settings such as college campuses. The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the University of California, Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon University were particularly well-known hotbeds of early hacker culture. They evolved in parallel, and largely unconsciously, until the Internet, where a legendary PDP-10 machine at MIT, called AI, that was running ITS, provided an early meeting point of the hacker community. This and other developments such as the rise of the free software movement and community drew together a critically large population and encouraged the spread of a conscious, common, and systematic ethos. Symptomatic of this evolution were an increasing adoption of common slang and a shared view of history, similar to the way in which other occupational groups have professionalized themselves but without the formal credentialing process characteristic of most professional groups.[citation needed]

Over time, the academic hacker subculture has tended to become more conscious, more cohesive, and better organized. The most important consciousness-raising moments have included the composition of the first Jargon File in 1973, the promulgation of the GNU Manifesto in 1985, and the publication of Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar in 1997. Correlated with this has been the gradual recognition of a set of shared culture heroes, including: Bill Joy, Donald Knuth, Dennis Ritchie, Paul Graham, Alan Kay, Ken Thompson, Richard M. Stallman, Linus Torvalds, Larry Wall, and Guido Van Rossum.

The concentration of academic hacker subculture has paralleled and partly been driven by the commoditization of computer and networking technology, and has in turn accelerated that process. In 1975, hackerdom was scattered across several different families of operating systems and disparate networks; today it is largely a Unix and TCP/IP phenomenon, and is concentrated around various operating systems based on free software and open-source software development.

Ethics and principles[edit]

Main article: Hacker ethic

Many of the values and tenets of the free and open source software movement stem from the hacker ethics that originated at MIT[13] and at the Homebrew Computer Club. The hacker ethics were chronicled by Steven Levy in Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution[14] and in other texts in which Levy formulates and summarizes general hacker attitudes:

  • Access to computers-and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works-should be unlimited and total.
  • All information should be free.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.

Hacker ethics are concerned primarily with sharing, openness, collaboration, and engaging in the hands-on imperative.[14]

Linus Torvalds, one of the leaders of the open source movement (known primarily for developing the Linux kernel), has noted in the book The Hacker Ethic[15] that these principles have evolved from the known Protestant ethics and incorporates the spirits of capitalism, as introduced in the early 20th century by Max Weber.

Use outside of computing[edit]

While using hacker to refer to someone who enjoys playful cleverness is most often applied to computer programmers, it is sometimes used for people who apply the same attitude to other fields.[7] For example, Richard Stallman describes the silent composition 4′33″ by John Cage and the 14th century palindromic three-part piece "Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement" by Guillaume de Machaut as hacks.[16] According to the Jargon File,[8] the word hacker was used in a similar sense among radio amateurs in the 1950s, predating the software hacking community.

The book Inside Narcotics, a semi-clandestine work appearing in 1990 and in its fifth English edition as of 2007 which is a compendium of scientific, historical, and cultural information about the opiates and related drugs and includes historical and scientific research on more than 150 drugs of this type, includes a discussion of the term in its Introduction. After making the above-mentioned distinction betwixt crackers and hackers ("a hacker is simply an autodidact, someone who doesn't feel satisfied with the information spoon-fed to the masses by the grey forces of mediocrity...") it goes on to say "it is therefore possible to be a phone hacker [ phreaker ], music hacker, sex hacker, drugs hacker, politics hacker, religion hacker..."

Hack value[edit]

Hack value is the notion used by hackers to express that something is worth doing or is interesting.[17] This is something that hackers often feel intuitively about a problem or solution.

An aspect of hack value is performing feats for the sake of showing that they can be done, even if others think it is difficult. Using things in a unique way outside their intended purpose is often perceived as having hack value. Examples are using a dot matrix impact printer to produce musical notes, using a flatbed scanner to take ultra-high-resolution photographs or using an optical mouse as barcode reader.

A solution or feat has "hack value" if it is done in a way that has finesse, cleverness or brilliance, which makes creativity an essential part of the meaning. For example, picking a difficult lock has hack value; smashing it does not. As another example, proving Fermat's last theorem by linking together most of modern mathematics has hack value; solving a combinatorial problem by exhaustively trying all possibilities does not. Hacking is not using process of elimination to find a solution; it's the process of finding a clever solution to a problem.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ TMRC - Hackers
  2. ^ Words to Avoid (or Use with Care) Because They Are Loaded or Confusing (gnu.org)
  3. ^ a b c Gehring, Verna (2004). The Internet In Public Life. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. pp. 43–56. ISBN 0742542335. 
  4. ^ a b The Hacker Community and Ethics: An Interview with Richard M. Stallman, 2002 (gnu.org)
  5. ^ a b On Hacking (stallman.org)
  6. ^ Richard Stallman: interview as shown in Hackers — Wizards of the Electronic Age
  7. ^ a b Raymond, Eric (2008-01-08). "How To Become A Hacker". Thyrsus Enterprises. Retrieved 2008-03-16. 
  8. ^ a b Raymond, Eric, ed. (2003-12-29). "hacker". Jargon File (version 4.4.7 ed.). Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  9. ^ Internet Users' Glossary (Request for Comments 1392), January 1993
  10. ^ a b [1] Definition of "Cracker" in the Jargon File
  11. ^ "Introduction to Functional Programming Systems Using Haskell". 
  12. ^ "A History of Modern Computing". During the time one of these machines read a card, it could execute a sequence of up to forty-eight steps. More complex sequences-within-sequences were also possible. One computer scientist later noted that this method of programming demanded "the kind of detailed design of parallel subsequencing that one sees nowadays at the microprogramming level of some computers." 
  13. ^ "The Hacker's Ethics". Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  14. ^ a b Levy, S: "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution", Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. ISBN 0-385-19195-2
  15. ^ Himanen, Pekka; Linus Torvalds, and Manuel Castells (2001). The Hacker Ethic. Secker & Warburg. ISBN 0-436-20550-5.
  16. ^ Stallman, Richard (2002). "On Hacking". Retrieved 2008-03-16. 
  17. ^ Definition of 'hack value' in the Jargon File

Further reading[edit]

The Jargon File has had a role in acculturating hackers since its origins in 1975.[citation needed] These academic and literary works helped shape the academic hacker subculture:[citation needed]

External links[edit]