Most of the times when I introduce myself as a hacker, people ask me whether I can break a website, computer program, or a network/server, and I have to explain how a hacker is not necessarily a cracker. I should always mention that I’m a hacker, not a cracker. Those who break security are crackers.
I enjoy playing with computer programs and making new ways to do things, or exploring the various ways certain stuff can be done. I enjoy breaking and fixing software, and find out how I can use tools to make what I need; that’s the kind of hacker I am.
A hacker is someone who enjoys playful cleverness. This can be unrelated to computers or networking, simply doing stuff in other ways than usual to make things easy, or hard, or simply different.
For example, I connect few USB hubs to be able to connect more USB devices to my computers. Or I remember once I used my driving license to open my home’s locked door. Those were some hacks I’ve done.
Let me give you another examples. I found out that if I hold my finger against my phone’s microphone, the one on the other side can’t hear my voice so I can speak with others around me without the one I’m speaking with on the phone knowing it. There’s also a mute button on my phone which stops transmitting my voice. What I do, holding my finger against the microphone, may be very inefficient comparing to what that mute button does, but it’s still a hack.
The hacking community developed at MIT and some other universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Hacking included a wide range of activities, from writing software, to practical jokes, to exploring the roofs and tunnels of the MIT campus. Other activities, performed far from MIT and far from computers, also fit hackers’ idea of what hacking means: for instance, the palindromic three-part piece written by Guillaume de Machaut in the 1300s, “Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement” was also a good hack.
Hacking basically means exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. Activities that display playful cleverness have “hack value”.
The concept of hacking excludes wit and art as such. The people who began to speak of their activities as “hacking” were familiar with wit and art, and with the names of the various fields of those; they were also doing something else, something different, for which they came up with the name “hacking”.
Thus, composing a funny joke or a beautiful piece of music may well involve playful cleverness, but a joke as such and a piece of music as such are not hacks, however funny or beautiful they may be. However, if the piece is a palindrome, we can say it is a hack as well as music; if the piece is vacuous, we can say it is a hack on music.
Hackers typically had little respect for the silly rules that administrators like to impose, so they looked for ways around. For instance, when computers at MIT started to have “security” (that is, restrictions on what users could do), some hackers found clever ways to bypass the security, partly so they could use the computers freely, and partly just for the sake of cleverness (hacking does not need to be useful).
Many people are hackers, or may do very cleaver hacks daily without realizing that they are hackers, as well as those who make computer programs or break security or do computer network stuff. Someone who opens a bag of milk and pours it to a glass without needing a holder without splashing it anywhere can be a hacker.
If you’re a hacker and just found out about this, welcome to the community. Please share your stories and hacks with other people, so we can all learn and enjoy them, and have a happy hacking.
Part of this post is taken from Richard Stallman’s article “On Hacking“. If you share this work, please give credit to RMS as well.