Back to listing

Hacker Is Not A Dirty Word

I want to get something clear for people out there: ‘hacker’ is not a dirty word. For most people today it conjures up some hoodied techno-villain, a shady figure doing digital voodoo down the phone line to people from darkened rooms at 3am. This is, unfortunately, a huge misrepresentation of what a hacker really is and has been since the late 40’s, when it was used to describe ham radio operators who used unconventional methods to boost their signal strength, and at the MIT ‘Tech model railroad club’ founded in 1946 by their ‘Signals and Power Subcomittee’ who built automated circuits based on telephone relays which would run their trains without any human involvement: It was called the ARRC (Automatic Railroad Running Computer). It could run a train over the entire set of track, in both directions, without manual intervention, throwing switches and powering tracks ahead of the train. A mainframe program was used to compute the path, and all modifications to the layout had to be compatible with this ability. It was sometimes used to clean the tracks with a track scraper car while the club were all sound asleep at home, ready for the next day's tinkering.

Just as Guglielmo Marconi was beginning to show his wireless telegraph to the world in 1903, a man named Nevil Maskelyne (father of famous WW2 illusionist Jasper) came along to exploit its vulnerabilities. The same year that Marconi successfully sent a morse code message from Teddy Roosevelt to the King of England, he also gave a public demonstration and boasted about the technology’s secure nature. Maskelyne subverted the demo and took over the radio waves to make the telegraph spit out this insult via dots and dashes:
“There was a young fellow of Italy, who diddled the public quite prettily.”
'The First Pwning' - 1903

Maskelyne was one of the first ‘Hacktivists’ ever; trying to make the point that people shouldn’t believe everything they were told by scientists, and wanting to release the technology to the common man to adapt and use for himself rather than have rich people get richer through patents and guarding their secrets. This is a battle that hackers of all colours are still fighting today. Let me drop some knowledge: If you go and look at The Jargon File, an online dictionary of computer and programmer slang which has been around in some form or another since 1975 at MIT and Stanford University, you’ll find the entry for ‘hacker’ reads thus:
hacker: n.[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]
1. 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. RFC1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.
2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing [sic] about programming.
3. A person capable of appreciating hack value.
4. A person who is good at programming quickly.
5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.”
From The Jargon File: Hacker 

 If you count, only one of those 8 possible definitions is negative. The rest all use terms like ‘expert’, ‘enthusiast’ and ‘enjoys exploring’, things which are lauded in education today. I think my favourite one is #7 though: “One who enjoys the challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.” It sounds rakish and cheeky at the same time, and hopefully the kind of hacker I try to be. I’m not an ace programmer, or an amazing robot engineer… but I love coming up with solutions based on what I have to hand.

That’s another thing I have to thank my Dad (an OG hacker, but more on that later) for, apart from my understanding that machines are just tools (something my generation seem to have forgotten somewhere); my ability to assess an obstacle in discrete parts and devise a systematic solution to overcome it. And what’s really cool; I use it every single day for everything. What’s the most efficient way to make a cup of coffee, brush my teeth, pack my bag then cycle to school… all at once? (Turns out; it’s swallow your toothbrush, leave your laptop at home and have a cold cup of coffee waiting when you get in from school in the evening...)

Hack On!