20 November 2011

Hackers are Builders and Creators

A note to students on ethics in becoming a member of the Computing Science and Information Technology community.

Nowadays, news, media, and films like to say "hacking" to mean "gain access to a computer system illegally" --- but this meaning is used only by the main stream who don't understand what it means to program a computer.

To Computer Engineers and Scientists, "hack" is jargon to essentially mean "make something work".

Consider what these sentences mean:

"Hack something together"
- To shape or create something by crude or ruthless strokes (e.g. "hacking out new election districts" [3])

"He just couldn't hack it at the new job"
- He can't manage the new job successfully [3].

"Hack through it"
- Cut through with repeated irregular blows [3].

Those sentences use the older meanings of "hack" but are perfectly applicable to computer programming ... if you understand what it means to program.

If you don't, and if the only times you hear about programmers is when they do bad things, then it's understandable why you might think hacking is a bad thing.

This misunderstanding started in "Around 1980, when the news media took notice of hackers, they fixated on one narrow aspect of real hacking: the security breaking which some hackers occasionally did. They ignored all the rest of hacking, and took the term to mean breaking security, no more and no less. The media have since spread that definition, disregarding our attempts to correct them. As a result, most people have a mistaken idea of what we hackers actually do and what we think." (Richard M. Stallman) [6].

That's true especially when the main stream media starts making movies that portray hacking as negative and hackers as "computer-kid-as-elite-rebel" [4].

Films that propagate this include Hackers (1995), Swordfish (2001), and The Social Network (2010).

In response to the portrayal of himself in The Social Network, Zuckerberg says: "They [film makers] just can't wrap their head around the idea that someone might build something because they like building things" (Mark Zuckerberg) [2].

"When we say 'hacker', there's this whole definition that engineers have for themselves ... where to hack something means to build something very quickly.  In one night, you can sit down and you could churn out a lot of code and at the end you have a product" (Mark Zuckerberg) [1].

Hackers create and build things.

"There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades... The members of this culture originated the term 'hacker'. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work...

"There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers ... Real hackers call these people 'crackers' and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word 'hacker' to describe crackers...

"The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them." (Eric S Raymond) [5].

ESR is a rather famous author and advocate of open source software, which have been created by various hackers, including luminaries like Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds.

"Great hackers also generally insist on using open source software. Not just because it's better, but because it gives them more control. Good hackers insist on control. This is part of what makes them good hackers: when something's broken, they need to fix it." (Paul Graham) [7]

Hackers create, build, and fix things.

"A 'computer hacker,' then, is someone who lives and breathes computers, who knows all about computers, who can get a computer to do anything." (Harvey) [8].

But it's pointless to argue about the "true" meaning of a word --- meanings are not things that can be true or false.  But understanding the main stream meaning versus the jargon meaning amongst computer professionals should help you understand that the wider hacker community is interested in fixing, creating, and building things.

Sometimes, some of them build things that sell under brands like Apple, Microsoft, Google, or Facebook.

Hackers are generally bored by breaking or stealing other people's things because it takes time away from building or creating cool stuff.

The only "special case" is with computer security researchers who likes to break computer systems, but they do that to learn how to fix, create, or build stronger and better systems.  By the way, they break computer systems they create or control themselves, not other people's systems.

It's like automotive engineers performing crash tests on cars to learn how to build safer cars --- but they crash their own cars, not other people's!

Hackers who break into other people's computer systems are like automotive engineers who crash or break into other people's cars --- they're called criminals.


[1] Mark Zuckerberg --- Facebook, Part 1 - watch from 1:09 to 3:30 (video at YouTube)

[2] Zuckerberg strikes back at The Social Network

[3] Merriam-Webster Dictionary

[4] Gleiberman, Owen (October 6, 1995). "Hackers". Entertainment Weekly.

[5] How to Become a Hacker

[6] On Hacking

[7] Great Hackers

[8] What is a Hacker?


Jay Phoenix said...

I couldn't agree more with your synopsis about hackers creating and building. There is so much bad press out there only supporting the idea that cracking is bad, when in fact we owe so much of our society to those willing to try and break apart a problem in a way others may have never considered.

Jay Phoenix said...

I couldn't agree with you more about hackers helping to create and build more of society. Too many news outlets talk about how hackers are hurting society when really they are just out to fix the problems that come across their desks, regardless of what those may be.