Hacker (programmer subculture)

Hacker (programmer subculture)

In one of several meanings of the word in computing, a hacker is a member of the programmer subculture originated in the 1960s in the United States academia, in particular around the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) and MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. Nowadays, this subculture is mainly associated with the free software movement.

Hackers follow a spirit of creative playfulness and anti-authoritarianism, and sometimes use this term to refer to people applying the same attitude to other fields.


The Jargon File, a compendium of hacker slang, defines "hacker" as "A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary." Citation
year = 2003
date = 2003-12-29
contribution = flavor
contribution-url = http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/F/flavor.html
editor-last = Raymond
editor-first = Eric
editor-link = Eric S. Raymond
title = Jargon File
edition = version 4.4.7
url = http://catb.org/jargon/
accessdate = 2008-03-02
] 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." [ [http://www.rfc-editor.org/rfc/rfc1392.txt Internet Users' Glossary] (Request for Comments 1392), January 1993] These hackers are disappointed by the mass media and mainstream public's usage of the word "hacker" to refer to security breakers, calling them "crackers" instead.


Before communications between computers and computer users was as networked as it is now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker subcultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each others' 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 their 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 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.

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 "The Cathedral and the Bazaar" in 1997. Correlated with this has been the gradual election of a set of shared culture heroes: Bill Joy, Donald Knuth, Dennis Ritchie, Alan Kay, Ken Thompson, Richard M. Stallman, Linus Torvalds, and Larry Wall, among others.

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 open-source operating systems.

Ethics and principles

Many of the values and tenets of the free and open source software movement stem from the Hacker ethics that originated at MIT and at the Homebrew Computer Club. The so-called Hacker Ethics were chronicled by Steven Levy in and in other texts.

Hacker ethics are concerned primarily with sharing, openness, collaboration, and engaging in the Hands-On Imperative [Levy, S: "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution", Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. ISBN 0-385-19195-2] .

Artifacts and customs

The academic hacker subculture is defined by shared work and play focused around central artifacts. Some of these artifacts are very large; the Internet itself, the World Wide Web, the GNU Project, and the Linux operating system are all hacker creations, works of which the subculture considers itself primary custodian.

Since 1990, the academic hacker subculture has developed a rich range of symbols that serve as recognition symbols and reinforce its group identity. Tux, the Linux penguin, the BSD Daemon, and the Perl Camel stand out as examples. More recently, the use of the glider structure from Conway's Game of Life as a general Hacker Emblem has been proposed by Eric S. Raymond. All of these routinely adorn T-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia.

Notably, the academic hacker subculture appears to have exactly one annual ceremonial day—April Fool's. There is a long tradition of perpetrating elaborate jokes, hoaxes, pranks and fake websites on this date. This is so well established that hackers look forward every year to the publication of the annual joke RFC, and one is invariably produced.


The Jargon File has had a special role in acculturating hackers since its origins in the early 1970s. Many textbooks and some literary works shaped the academic hacker subculture; among the most influential are:

*"", by Steven Levy
*"Gödel, Escher, Bach", by Douglas Hofstadter
*"The Art of Computer Programming" (TAOCP), by Donald Knuth
*"The Mythical Man-Month", by Brooks
*"" ("the Dragon Book"), by Aho, Sethi, and Ullman
*"Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs" (SICP), by Abelson and Sussman
*"The C Programming Language" (K&R), by Kernighan and Ritchie
*"The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", by Douglas Adams
*"The Tao of Programming", by Geoffrey James
*The "Illuminatus!" Trilogy, by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson
*"Principia Discordia", by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley
*"The Soul of a New Machine", by Tracy Kidder
*"The Cuckoo's Egg", by Cliff Stoll
*"The Unix System", by Stephen R. Bourne
*"Hackers & Painters", by Paul Graham
*"The Cathedral and the Bazaar", by Eric S. Raymond

The hacker attitude outside of computing

While the word "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. cite web
title=How To Become A Hacker
authorlink=Eric S. Raymond
publisher=Thyrsus Enterprises
] 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. [cite web
title=On Hacking
authorlink=Richard Stallman
] According to the Jargon File, the word "hacker" was used in a similar sense among radio amateurs in the 1950s, even predating the software hacking community. More recent examples of this usage are:
* reality hacker, a person who explores the underlying reality of existence using any tools available;
* wetware hacker, someone who experiments with biological materials to advance knowledge;
* media hacker, someone who uses media in innovative ways.

ee also

*History of free software
*Hacker (computing)

*Hacker Artist
*Hacker Ethic

External links

* [http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/hacker-history/ A Brief History of Hackerdom] - more depth on the history of hackerdom


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