The term hack has existed for quite a long time in various forms. MIT uses the term to describe playful pranks some members of the community have played. These tricks are intended as benign although they have sometimes played out in unexpected ways. If you want some samples, you can find summaries around the net (for example, click here) or you can see the movie Real Genius, which is a lot more true to life in many respects than you might imagine.
When I arrived on the MIT computer scene in the latter part of the 1970's, the term “hack” had taken on an even more generic meaning than this prank sense. For all intents and purposes, a “hack” was simply a synonym for “do”, often with a sense of cleverness or inventiveness, though at MIT that aspect was so taken for granted that it was rarely spoken. Not surprisingly at an engineering school, it was all about doing things, leading someone later on to coin the phrase “hackito ergo sum”—that is, presumably, “I hack [or do], therefore I am.”
Note: The New Hacker's Dictionary will describe the meaning of the term slightly differently, but not in what I think is a material way. Even so, since I lived through the era, I'm exercising my right to describe things as I perceived them directly and not to be burdened by references written by others.
In that era, which was still that of an older, non-public network called the ARPANET that preceded the public Internet, someone might routinely be heard to ask, as a simple greeting and with no intent to challenge, “what are you hacking?” It meant, literally, “what are you doing?” but really in a more figurative and non-confrontational way, as if the speaker had asked just “what's up?”
A hacker, then, was just someone capable of doing something, and the term was often used with great reverence as in a doer of great deeds. Our online profiles on one of the computers contained the fill-in-the-blank “Hacking task-name for supervisor” where you would fill in the task-name and the supervisor, where mine might have said “Hacking the time/space continuum for the future of mankind.” (We weren't always very good about putting in actual supervisor names.)
Of course, as these things go, the computer community got bigger and not all deeds done (not all hacks hacked) were good. After a while, there were people doing bad things, too. I was around when this happened generally, but did not witness whatever event it was that caused the sudden shift of the use of the name. I've only managed to piece together what I think must have happened.
I imagine that one day someone finally did something bad with computers, and someone from outside the community asked who had done it, my bet is that a terminological confusion resulted from someone responding “probably one of those hackers,” leading the listener to believe that the purpose of being a hacker was to do something destructive, perhaps with a machete, rather than that the purpose of being a a hacker was merely to do things and that some things one might do are good and some things one might do are bad.
I do know that it was around the time of the movie Wargames and that I was working at the MIT AI Lab as a programmer. I had gone out for a walk around Boston, as I often did in the afternoons then. I returned to the lab and a bunch of people rallied around me and said, “Kent, Kent, Ted Koppel called. He wants to interview a hacker about the movie Wargames. We said they should talk to you.” (To this day, I don't know why in such a community of much more talented folks than I, they picked me, especially since I wasn't to be found, but so it goes.) I tried to call back, but we couldn't get them on the phone. I later figured out they'd gotten someone from Carnegie-Mellon University (CMU) and so didn't need me any more. Ah, the chance for fame can be so fleeting.
But it was just as well because they were apparently operating under this new meaning of “hacker” and I would have been totally thrown by the questions they were asking, which seemed to presuppose that if I was a self-identified hacker, I was the sort who'd be breaking into computers or something. That wasn't what hackers I'd known did, and I didn't either. We had things to build. So they interviewed this guy from CMU. It was someone I knew of, I just don't now recall his name.
This is how we came to the belief they don't do those things live, because we saw he was logged in to his console in the interview and we all quickly scrambled during the broadcast (hackers came out at night, so we were all watching from the Lab) to try to send him a message (the equivalent of an instant message) hoping it would come out on his screen while he was on the air. But it didn't. Another chance at fame lost.
Fortunately for ABC News, this person seemed to know the new meaning of “hacker” and gave them a competent interview. But we were all saddened at the tarnishing such an important word had taken. It was part of our daily vocabulary and veritably wrenched from us for this stupid use.
There was an attempt by a number of hackers to get the media to use the term “crackers” instead, but it failed. And the term was essentially lost. From time to time, you'll still see someone of my generation refer to themselves as a “hacker (original meaning)” in some wistful attempt to reclaim the memory of a time when hacking was just doing.
The moniker “netsettler” that I use in some discussion forums (such as Slashdot) harkens to that era. I often feel an empathy, even if the experience is only metaphorically equivalent, with the displacement Native Americans must have felt when the modern world moved in and took their land. The net, and indeed the whole world, was such a different place before it was the Internet. Most people see the arrival of the Internet as the beginning of something, but some of us saw it also as the ending of something.
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This article was originally published November 16, 2008 at Open Salon, where I wrote under my own name, Kent Pitman. A discussion thread is attached there which I did not port forward to here, but you can still read by clicking through to the version on the Internet Archive's “Wayback Machine.”
Tags (from Open Salon): hackito ergo sum, hackity-hack, hacks, hack, cracker, hacker, clever, programming, technical, prank, pacific tech, caltech, mit, history, linguistic evolution, linguistics, language, terminology, jargon