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22 Responses to “First Recorded Usage of “Hacker””

  1. Alex Railean on August 28th, 2008 6:01 am

    I think the definition of “hacker” should not be tied to computers or hardware.

    I use this word to describe someone who is very skilled in a field and can do all sorts of nifty tricks using non-standard approaches; devising these non-standard approaches implies that the person is intimately familiar with the low-level details of a problem in that particular field. (note how this is about devising your own approaches, not following steps described by someone else)

    For example, my father is someone I can call a “things_with_an_engine-hacker” because he can tell whether a vehicle is working properly just by listening to it; moreover he can tell what the problem is by analyzing the “anomalies” in samples of the sound of the engine of the vehicle taken at various RPMs.

    In other words, there can be chemistry hackers, math hackers, photography hackers or [spoken] language hackers, etc. The term must be field-agnostic.

    Regarding taking sides (dark or light), “bad people” can be hackers too; therefore the term “hacker” should only tell us about one’s skills in a field, bearing no information about the colour of their hat.

    The media tends to apply the term to black-hats, we tend to say “the term is for white hats only”, because a truly intelligent person will never do harm. But this approach is not good, because quite often the line between good and evil is very blurred and each of us has their own definition for “evil” (as a function of religion, location, age, sex, nationality, etc).

  2. Gustavo Duarte on August 28th, 2008 6:40 am

    @Alex: that’s an _excellent_ point. Dropping the hat color from the word does indeed make a lot of sense. As you point out, the line is blurred – what are we going to use? A legal sense? Then how about repressive regimes, where Internet access or even more fundamental rights are forbidden? Was Phil Zimmerman a black hat? I wouldn’t say so, regardless of the trial outcome.

    I don’t agree about “truly intelligent” people not doing harm though. I think by reasonable definitions of intelligent, historically we’ve had many who did much evil (even using their own definition of it).

    Regarding the other fields, I think there’s a strong push, at least online, to generalize “hacking” right? I like that too, I think the word embodies a nice mixture of ingenuity and intellectual pleasure that is certainly cross field.

  3. Isaac Z. Schlueter on August 28th, 2008 1:33 pm

    Ultimately, the speakers in a language all decide what words mean. “Hacker” has come to mean both the black-hat and white-hat connotations.

    Actually, that’s probably as it should be. The term ought to be fuzzy because the concept is a bit fuzzy. What “white-hat” hacker hasn’t *at least considered* using some less-than-authorized technique to gain access to something, even if completely devoid of any malicious intent?

    In college, I did IT for the academic staff. I knew the passwords of at least 5 different professors, and two sysadmins. There were servers that I was not “allowed” to access as a part-time employee, but had to access in the course of my job. The “correct” method was for me to call someone up on the phone, have them enable access for 20 minutes, and then do what I had to do. (Yay, bureaucracy!) Often, they weren’t around, which meant leaving a message and waiting for them to get back to me, only to find that the professor had taken their laptop home for the day. Frustrating.

    Changing the rule was not possible, so I decided to bump my productivity significantly by just shoulder-hacking a password, and doing what I had to do.

    I’ve also used my neighbor’s wifi (and in the process also protected them from malicious attacks that they were vulnerable to before.)

    Similarly, the term “hack” (as a noun) can mean either a brilliantly executed solution to a tricky problem, or an ugly half-assed patch job. These concepts are opposites. But they often look similar to one another. The thing that makes a hack brilliant is that it wasn’t obvious. If it was standard or pretty, you probably would have seen it already.

    Both the “tinkerer” and “cracker” meanings of “hacker” miss the core of the concept. “Hacker” captures what these two types of people have in common. There is a lot of overlap.

  4. Gustavo Duarte on August 28th, 2008 9:56 pm

    @Isaac: I thought about the ambiguity in hack as a noun too. It’s interesting to think of it as a significant deviation from the quality/execution/expectation norm, one way or another. hahah. This has got to be one of the coolest words in English.

    Also agree on speakers deciding meaning, and the inherent fuzziness of hack.

    However I do think we can draw a pretty solid line on the blackness of break-ins. In your job situation there was a gray area, but by and large break-ins are plain wrong, imho, even if they’re the only-curious-maybe-delete-the-logs type rather than the rm-rf (or worse) type.

    I think it’s important to remove fuzziness from this area where we can, so that as people come into the programming/Internet scene there’s a clear standard that break-ins are wrong, period.

    Regarding common ground… Software cracking/reversing in general can require a lot of ingenuity and talent. So can complex break-ins and exploits. I mean, the recent DNS vulns, or a book like “Subverting the Windows Kernel”, heck, if those aren’t hacks what is? Because they are research, I see these as white hat endeavors, though some would disagree (fuzzy), but the same type of activity can be used in what is a clearly black-hat way in my book.

    So there’s common technical ground for sure, but the actions themselves, while they can’t be absolutely judged as Alex points out, are sometimes widely and unambiguously regarded as moral or immoral. Ehh, “widely and unambiguously” of course, hahah, implicitly calls for a well-defined group. It is not easy to speak of these things, no wonder Leibniz was after “symbolic thought.” Look, a three-headed monkey!

    It’s too much to ask of poor ‘hack’ though to embed all this judgment, so let it be fuzzy.

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  7. Oscar Pereira on August 31st, 2008 5:51 am

    I definitely agree on not tying hackers and computers/software together, and that reminds of what Bruce Schneier wrote in his Secrets and Lies:\ Richard Feynman was a hacker; read any of his books

    :D

  8. Gustavo Duarte on August 31st, 2008 11:43 pm

    @Oscar: That is such a great quote! Thanks for posting it. The only Schneier book I’ve perused is Applied Cryptography, maybe I should check out his other stuff. “Richard Feynman was a hacker” hahah, had I known that, especially right after posting about Feynman again, I’d have worked that quote in here :)

  9. Rodolfo on September 16th, 2008 2:28 pm

    Nevermind my last comment! I just found how to do it using RSS in Google Reader (never used that)…

  10. First recorded usage of “Hacker” from MIT paper in 1963 on October 3rd, 2008 9:11 pm

    […] October 4, 2008First recorded usage of “Hacker” from MIT paper in 1963 Source: Gustavo Duarte […]

  11. christopher on October 5th, 2008 3:09 pm

    i thought the term ‘hacker’ came from the tmrc, which pre-dates any of the computer uses of the term (and at least gives it white-hat historical origin).

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  14. TruePath on November 22nd, 2008 1:17 pm

    I’m afraid that those of use in the geek subculture don’t get to set broader linguistic usage. What you’ve described is the status of the word in this subculture but often words in a subculture can have very different meanings than they do to the broader society. For instance the term “inferior good” has a related but quite different meaning in discussions between economists than it does to the public at large.

    Frankly, if you look at broader usage patterns I doubt that the number of people who use hacker to mean anything but someone who breaks into computer systems will be exceptionally small. I mean hell a majority of the geeks I know tend to use hacker almost exclusively to mean someone who breaks into computers while occasionally, when the context is clear, using it to describe someone who makes hardware or software behave in some other fashion than it was intended.

    A word is just a sequence of sounds/letters. We need a word that describes people who break into computer systems and we also need one to describe more general tinkering and exploratory modifications. Given that we aren’t going to stop the widespread usage of the word hacker to mean the former, and even if we could it would be much effort, why bother trying. It’s not like there is any harm in just using some other term.

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  21. Anonymous on February 16th, 2014 7:41 pm

    I strongly disagree on your statement in “The MIT article dispels the common notion that “hacker” was a purely white-hat term later corrupted by the media. The black-hat connotation was there early on […]“.

    This is nonetheless a potentially corrupted usage. If you take a second look and take into account the very period of time, it really sounds like a typical journalist interviewing a grumpy professor that calls those young pests hackers and whatnot, and then the reporter accepts it as reality. Notice that there’s no mention of any research or questioning any students – hackers or not.

    The exploit was a hack? Surely. Made by hackers? Most probably.\ Does it define what a hacker is? Absolutely not. This might have been the only one hack with malicious consequences in the creator’s entire career(s).

  22. Gustavo Duarte on February 17th, 2014 8:10 am

    @Anonymous: that’s an interesting point. It’s true that the corruption of the term could have happened in the very first publication concerning “hackers.”

    However, the article does show that the black hat side _was_ part of our culture from the earliest times. That is really my point. People often whitewash that fact, and advance a history where we were all cuddly white hats for decades until some degenerates came along and gave us a bad name in the press. That’s not the case at all. Black hat stuff has always been a part of hacking.

    Of course the media _did_ corrupt the term. They did so in the other direction, painting us all as black hats and missing the nuance and complex nature of hacking.

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