Thursday, May 5, 2011
A hacker is an aesthete?
A ``computer hacker,'' is someone who lives and breathes computers, who knows all about computers, who can get a computer to do anything. Equally important, though, is the hacker's attitude. Computer programming must be a hobby, something done for fun, not out of a sense of duty or for the money. (It's okay to make money, but that can't be the reason for hacking.) In one sense it's silly to argue about the ``true'' meaning of a word. A word means whatever people use it to mean.
The concept of hacking entered the computer culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. Popular opinion at IT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A ``tool'' is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight As.
A ``hacker'' is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who in fact sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursuing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground. What does this have to do with computers? Originally, nothing but there are standards for success as a hacker, just as grades form a standard for success as a tool. The true hacker can't just sit around all night; he must pursue some hobby with dedication and flair. It can be telephones, or railroads (model, real, or both), or science fiction fandom, or ham radio, or broadcast radio. It can be more than one of these. Or it can be computers. the word ``hacker'' is generally used among IT students to refer not to computer hackers but to building hackers, people who explore roofs and tunnels where they're not supposed to be.
There are specialties within computer hacking. An algorithm hacker knows all about the best algorithm for any problem. A system hacker knows about designing and maintaining operating systems. And a ``password hacker'' knows how to find out someone else's password. Someone who sets out to crack the security of a system for financial gain is not a hacker at all. It's not that a hacker can't be a thief, but a hacker can't be a professional thief. A hacker must be fundamentally an amateur, even though hackers can get paid for their expertise. A password hacker whose primary interest is in learning how the system works doesn't therefore necessarily refrain from stealing information or services, but someone whose primary interest is in stealing isn't a hacker. It's a matter of emphasis.
Throughout most of the history of the human race, right and wrong were relatively easy concepts. Each person was born into a particular social role, in a particular society, and what to do in any situation was part of the traditional meaning of the role. This social destiny was backed up by the authority of community or state. Each person makes free, autonomous choices, unfettered by outside authority, and yet each person is compelled by the demands of rationality to accept ethical principle of a hacker. Disputed questions of ethics, like abortion, are debated as if they were questions of fact, subject to rational proof. The choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is not the choice between good and evil, it is the choice whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, it is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The life of a true hacker is episodic, rather than planned. Hackers create ``hacks.'' A hack can be anything from a practical joke to a brilliant new computer program. But whatever it is, a good hack must be aesthetically perfect. Ethical Hacking, this phrase is very misleading. What he has discovered is the Hacker Aesthetic, the standards for art criticism of hacks.
In India most of the hackers are mostly undergraduates, in their late teens or early twenties. The aesthetic viewpoint is quite appropriate to people of that age. An epic tale of passionate love between 20-year-olds can be very moving. A tale of passionate love between 40-year-olds is more likely to be comic. To embrace the aesthetic life is not to embrace evil; hackers need not be enemies of society. They are young and immature, and should be protected for their own sake as well as ours. In practical terms, the problem of providing moral education to hackers is the same as the problem of moral education in general. Real people are not wholly ethical or wholly aesthetic; they shift from one viewpoint to another.
Some tasks in moral education are to raise the self-awareness of the young, to encourage their developing ethical viewpoint, and to point out gently and lovingly the situations in which their aesthetic impulses work against their ethical standard.
The term hacker, most having to do with technical adeptness and a delight in solving problems and overcoming limits. If you want to know how to become a hacker, though, only two are really relevant. There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest net experiments. 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. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.
The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music actually; you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them hackers too and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term hacker.
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 and phreasking the phone system. Real hackers call these people are 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; this irritates real hackers no end.
The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.