The True Origin of Hacking

September 13, 1995

(Postscript: This actually started out as a review of the movie Hackers, a fairly loathsome piece of exploitation product I wanted to give as little publicity to as possible. I was quite successful in that regard, if only because I never actually had gotten around to mentioning the movie in the first place. I'm quite pleased that this might have been the only movie review ever that never actually names the movie being reviewed, but I digress.

By the way, for those who want to learn how to *become* a hacker, I'd advise jumping to Eric Raymond's definitive How To Become a Hacker.

"DID YOU KNOW? If a hacker successfully penetrates your telephone system's security, you could be billed for OVER $10,000 PER HOUR for FRAUDULENT CALLS?"

The above quote was taken from an AT&T sales letter hawking security systems to businesses. It was reprinted in the quarterly publication 2600, a sort of Popular Mechanics for, um, midnight technicians.

These days, most people think of hackers as anti-social types who break into business phone lines, ATM machines, cable, and government computers. Hackers are the new hi-tech outlaws.

Though the idea of hacker as outlaw has some truth, much of it is certainly hyperbole ($10,000 an hour?). The overuse and misuse of the word hacker has been chafing against me of late. I've always understood a more benign definition.

Time for some schooling. According to Steven Levy's seminal 1984 book Hackers, the idea of a "hack" came from the M.I.T.'s Tech Model Railroad Club. In the late 1950s, the members of the club would use the term to denote any project that was undertaken just for the "wild pleasure taken in mere involvement." Those who took pride in building better connections between relays were called hackers.

Wireheads that they were, it's no surprise that when a new mainframe computer, the TX-O arrived on campus, many from TMRC were instantly drawn to it.

To most people then, computers were bulky unfriendly machines that took up entire rooms and crunched numbers for insurance companies or scientists. They had no relation to the public at large.

To these hackers though, these computers presented a whole new realm of possibilities. In the ensuring decade, they prodded the TX-O, and, later, the PDP-6 to play chess, hum Bach, emulate ping pong, act as a adding machine, and play space war games.

All these applications were called hacks. Such work was seen as frivolous. These programs were written for no other reason than to be simply to have them be admired and improved upon by other programmers. In hindsight, its obvious these hackers were radically rethinking the way computers could be used.

But hacking provided an addictive high. As Levy writes,

When you programmed a computer you had to be aware of where all the thousands of bits of information were going from one instruction to the next, and be able to predict--and exploit-- the effect of all that movement. When you had all that information glued to your cerebral being, it was almost as if your own mind had merged into the environment of the computer. Sometimes it took hours to build up to the point where your thoughts could contain that total picture, and when you did get to that point, it was such a shame to waste it that you tried to sustain it by marathon bursts.

To better suit such cerebral thunder runs, these misplaced geniuses would slip into 32-hour days fueled by cokes and lemon jelly wedges. For a dedicated few, outside norms were considered irrelevant - fashion, college degrees, even personal hygiene. One particularly notorious hacker, Richard Greenblatt would get so caught up in projects that he'd neglect to bathe. As a result, whenever Greenblatt would rub his hands together over the keyboard, little chunks of dirt fell on the keys, called "blatties" by other annoyed users.

Eventually a philosophy emerged from M.I.T. known as the Hacker Ethic. The one and all-holy central tenet was this: information should be free. Hackers believed in free information the way hippies believed in free love.

And oddly enough, at the time, it made sense. The way information works is strange. Keep it for yourself, and no one else will expound upon it, use it, or employ it in their own designs. If it's obscure, it's worthless.

But if you leave information for others to tinker with, say a program you wrote, it will take hold, become stronger, better, and, at least in some small way, add to the collective knowledge of humankind.

This is why for years so much software was placed in the public domain. If anyone saw a way to improve, say Xmodem, a program for downloading, they were free to do so. Copyrighting a program was considered heresy. In those early years at M.I.T., programs were left around for others to tinker with, the creators admitting someone could easily improve upon their design.

The idea made perfect sense in the collegial atmosphere of M.I.T.. Outside the campus, however, this ethic has since caused headaches for companies, such as Bell Atlantic, that don't particularly appreciate people taking a curiosity in how their systems work, having them improved upon, or having it hacked for free phone calls.

The hubbub you hear these days is sound of the Hacker Ethic rubbing against corporate propriety.

As maligned as the word means, its easy to forget how valuable hacking is. It has made the Internet largely what is today: People doing stuff with no promise of financial gain, but simply because it would be interesting to do it. The word has been tagged with an unfair rap. I just hope curiosity and inventiveness won't be taken out with it.

--Joab Jackson

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