Meaning of Hack

This post dedicated to Olga, who went missing a few days ago. (she came back, after three weeks out in the snow, much thinner but very happy.) ((sadly Olga never really recovered her mental and physical health, and is now at rest in our garden))

At some point in my youth I got very interested in programming, really interested, much more so than my peers.  When I got to University, with access to the Internet (back when it was a largely text based affair) I met like minded people, and started identifying myself as a hacker.  In the media hacking was exclusively illegal activity, but real hackers knew it was just about exploring possibilities with technologies.  I read the alt.hackers usenet group.  I bought a copy of the hackers’ dictionary, I read Stephen Levy’s book about the MIT hackers, and ran a telnet BBS.  I felt some sense of belonging..

It’s frustrating then that the word has been hijacked by some strange characters with, from my perspective, uncomfortably right-wing agendas.  Paul Graham wrote a piece nominally about Hackers and Painters, but actually about himself.  It contains the following passage on computer science: “The way to create something beautiful is often to make subtle tweaks to something that already exists, or to combine existing ideas in a slightly new way. This kind of work is hard to convey in a research paper.”  Clearly Paul Graham doesn’t know much about the nature of computer science research (most certainly nothing about MIR), but he knows a lot about startups, indeed the thrust of his Hackers and Painters essay is actually to evangelise hacker startups.  Paul Graham has a venture captial company, y-combinator, funding tech startups.  Once, he ran a social news website called `startup news‘, which he one day decided to rename to `hacker news’.  It’s become one of the more popular websites among programmers, but still carries a large proportion of news items about startups.  I’d guess that among these people, hacking has come to mean being as much about becoming a millionaire as enjoying programming for the sake of it.

Eric S. Raymond is perhaps more of a right wing nutcase.  ESR is the self-proclaimed editor of the jargon file, AKA the hacker’s dictionary.  In 2003 he took it upon himself to make a number of edits to the jargon file to recast the hacker in his own image.  The typical political position of a hacker was edited from “vaguely liberal-moderate” to “moderate to neo-conservative”, and the anti-war journalist Robert Fisk was given his own special entry in order to dismiss his opinions.

So I began to feel that the word ‘Hacker’ had been stolen by right wing entrepreneurs.  But I’ve realised, that’s really not true.  Considering those original hackers at MIT that Stephen Levy wrote about.  They were privileged young white male model railway enthusiasts and phone phreakers, leading hidden lives working for the military while the Vietnam war flared, with a war game among their greatest accomplishments.  Are they really great role models?  There are some amazing groups of hackers around Europe doing wildly creative things.  I feel totally inspired by these people, but unfortunately they don’t own the word Hacker any more than Paul Graham or ESR does…

It seems this word means nothing outside a specific community.  So, for what it’s worth, these days, if anyone asks, I’m a dork..


  1. I agree with your views, even if I am younger and never been in the hacker “scene”. But I did observed the phenomenon and the constanly changing meaning of the word hacking or hacker, obviously adapted to their own image/purpose… It’s like people proclaiming themselves as punks because they dress like the punk prototype, ignoring the freedom/absence of style this kind of wave contains. Self-proclaimed titles are senseless… Just another way to try to fit/misfit into society or a subculture. If they care about freedom they should do they own thing and not follow a file, dictionary or etiquette and label themselves just to ‘be a part of it’.

  2. This is a really good post, which I suspect I may cite in the future!

    One thing that struck me is that it seems like all of the hackers you mention are American (or at least in America). This certainly would play a role in how they identify politically and their general position on things, as the centre in the US is fairly far to the right in comparison to Europe’s centre. For example, the glorification of startups seems to be ideologically neutral in the US. (They need constant glorifying because they have terrible hours, pay and benefits and only excitement / chances of riches could justify the work.)

    How do you feel about Richard Stallman? He also seems fairly right/libertarian to me, but is much less a nutcase than Raymond.

  3. Hey Les,

    Yes good point about US politics, my post is definitely from the point of view of a left wing European heavily influenced by North American culture.

    I thought about mentioning Stallman but he’s an interesting character and I didn’t want to make this post any longer. I love Stallman. I haven’t looked into his broader politics, but his emphasis in free software on collective responsibility, his distrust of corporate control, and his disinterest in money makes me think of him as a socialist. I could be wrong. Whatever, what Stallman has achieved, through sheer determination and without a jot of compromise, is simply incredible. ESR has watered down free software into his open source twaddle, but Stallman is still pushing for freedom.


  4. Yes true Edgar. I’ve had a great time at Cyberpipa and c-base, and heard good things about the London hackspace. Also great that orgs like MzTek exist to work towards more diverse communities…

  5. sweet post alex.

    apparently u also have to develop a liking for chinese food, be good at crosswords / puzzle-solving, vi or emacs etc etc

    oh well i will never be a hacker.

  6. I find it interesting that you accuse Paul Graham of ignorance regarding academic research. I would hesitate to levy such criticism, as he does have a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Harvard. He has spent a good chunk of his life swimming in academic water. Read “On Lisp” to see his more theoretical self.

    Also, if I have to choose between you and ESR on political leanings of the hacker community, I think I’ll have to go with him. There is a strong libertarian bent to much of the hacker community, which probably balances out the strong communist wing. I don’t really think “moderate” means anything, since the standard deviation is pretty wide from my vantage point.

  7. Perhaps Paul Graham was in some closed community of computer science research isolated from the cross-disciplinary, collaborative communities I have seen, where incremental advance is the norm. I’m afraid I can’t explain it better than that, despite owning a copy of ‘on lisp’.

    Well done for being a libertarian, I’m afraid you’re looking at a very large, diverse and global set of communities through some rather strange glasses though.

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