What is a Hacker?


This weekend I attended a “hackathon” and was surrounded by folks who didn’t really understand the word hacker. They struggled to get through the pejorative meaning to which it has so popularly become attached. I’ve long been a fan of IETF RFC 1392, in which the fine folks at the Internet Engineering Task Force (those hackers largely responsible for the early formation of the Internet and its mechanics) attempted to formalize a definition of the word.

As an old, grey-haired, life-long hacker, let me lend my perspective to it here.

A hacker is someone who delights in the construction, deconstruction, or reconstruction of things in the world around us. Those things might be abstract (software, philosophy, business, ideas), they might be technological (electronics, materials), they really could be anything. The activity that is hacking is the sometimes careful, often clumsy, always playful journey.

You see, hacking gets its name from this clumsy playfulness.

We find delight when we discover something new. This may be a new way to put two things together that we’ve partially or wholly disassembled. It may be something we tripped over trying to create something else.

We find frustration when we don’t fully understand what something is. We turn it around, try increasingly silly things to align our mental model of it with the observations we make. If we solve the puzzle, find the right mental model, discover truth, the frustration is shoved aside by elation and pure joy. If we don’t, we try differently, we talk to others, and we learn from it..

The pejorative meaning has stemmed from when people hack for nefarious outcomes. When they take the results of their hacking and do harm. It is this activity, after hacking has been done, that may be harmful or illegal. Though these days some companies would make the act of hacking itself illegal to protect their secrets.

There is much to be discussed about a society that seeks to transfer the pursuit of knowledge from a personal activity for the benefit of human beings, to a profit-seeking activity for the benefit of a business. This may sound like an odd statement from an entrepreneur, but this is a long and tedious topic best approached with healthy amounts of liquor and when your optimism reserves are running high.




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