HACKER... the word itself has an air of magic, and many connotations. Some associate it with computer crime, intrusion, and espionage. Others imagine a skinny and myopic teenager, whose acned face is constantly illuminated by the glare of a computer screen. Many immediately think of the information officer at work. In recent years, some have even embraced the hacker as a hero. Personally, I see the hacker as a messenger sent by humanity to explore the worlds of information. This mission may seem superficial and self-imposed - perhaps even foolish - but it will make more and more sense the more you read on.
The word originally applied to the people who spent their time crawling under the railroad tracks at the Tech Model Railroad Club's (TMRC) facilities at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950's, connecting switches and relays with cables. This model railroad was one of the first computer-like structures. A hack originally meant a prank of the kind that students and faculty played on their school (or rivaling institutions), such as wrapping the entire roof in tinfoil. A good hack would be very conspicuous, and also prompt the observer to ask him- or herself: "How in the hell did they do that!?". Later, the word became synonymous with a spectacular solution to a technical problem, or an ingenious computer program, or some other generally brilliant design. A hacker , therefore, was someone who created and implemented things of this kind.
A hacker, generally speaking, is a person who uses a computer for its own sake because it's fun. An author that uses a word processor all day is not a hacker. Neither is a graphic designer, inventory specialist, or computer instructor. Their professions simply require them to use a computer to simplify or improve the efficiency of some other task. However, a programmer that loves his or her work is a hacker. Likewise, an enthusiastic computer technician or microcomputer designer is also a hacker. Last but definitely not least, there are hobby hackers , who actually constitute the largest and most overlooked group of computer enthusiasts - probably because they don't use a computer in a professional sense. These amateurs do not have PR directors shouting their cause, nor do they have publishers or trade journals that print their opinions. Some elements of the media focus on this group, but they seldom speak for them; rather, the computer media generally focuses on "bringing up" the amateurs to the standards and norms of the professionals.
In the following section, I will try to summarize a variety of concepts, names, and ideas, all relating to electronic culture and especially the hacker culture. I will also attempt the rather difficult task of classifying these events and ideas from a historical perspective. This can be a risky venture, considering that the time frame is short and it is the type of thing that often generates lots of criticism. Nevertheless, I will proceed; I feel worthy of this task because I have grown up in this culture, and I consider myself to have a very personal relationship to it. I will even suggest that I have some of my information generation's spirit in my blood. Furthermore, I feel that it needs to be done
It is a tangled story primarily concerned
with young people in the 60's, 70's, 80's, and 90's. It is a history of
devotion, computer programs, authority and ingenious scientists. The tale
is about hippies, yippies, libertarians, anarchists and classical socialists
in one sordid mess, and the ideology that was born out of this mess through
a conglomerate of subcultures. We will be thrust between order and chaos,
from quiet computer rooms where the only the soft clicking of keyboards
can be heard, to high-octane decibels at techno-rave parties in European
Let us travel to MIT, sometime in the 60's,
for it is where the story begins...
A "Hacker Club" by itself was hardly anything new; like other student groups, both bad and good things came of the association. However, this club became more sectarian and devoted (read: fanatic) as it grew. The mood of the group came to resemble that of the group of students in the movie Dead Poets' Society , and the members increasingly neglected their studies in favor of the exploration of computers and computer technology. In particular, Digital Equipment Corporation's PDP-1 computer turned out to be incredibly addictive. This machine differed from the mammoth IBM machines that had been used by universities since 1948, in that you could work directly with the computer. You could see your program's execution, and you could correct errors (debug) while the program was running. In a flash, the hackers invented a number of new programming tricks and developed, among other things, the first computer game (Spacewar ) and the first joystick. The accomplishments of these hackers became so notable that they were asked to assist in the development of the PDP-6 computer, which became a huge hit for Digital. The company currently manufactures behemoths like VAX and DEC computers, and it owes a great deal of its success to the hackers at MIT.
If these hackers had been treated like other
students, they would have been expelled when it turned out that they spent
their days (and especially nights) hacking away on the school's computers
instead of studying for their finals. That would have been the end of
the story. However, by a stroke of luck, the American Department of Defense
developed an interest in MIT's resources through ARPA (Advanced Research
Projects Agency), which paid MIT to hire developers for a project named
MAC stood for Multiple Access Computing
and Machine Aided Cognition; the goals of these projects were to have
several users sharing a computer, and to make it simple for users to take
advantage of the computer's resources.
At MIT, the hackers progressed to developing networks, message systems (one of the worlds first time-sharing systems, which allowed users to share a computer by allowing it to process the requests of one user at a time), and above all artificial intelligence (AI), a research area in which MIT is still a world leader. The hackers speculated about the nature of intelligence, and could not understand what made it so difficult to capture even the simplest operation of intelligence within the circuits of a processor. In the late 70's, a computer science professor by the name of Douglas Hofstadter released a book with positively religious undertones called Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid , which has served as an articulated statement of the hackers' world view. This work is well-known among hackers, and is also considered a masterpiece by literary experts. Unfortunately, the book is challenging (but not hard to read), and it is found in the mathematics section in most libraries, which tends to scare off many potential readers.
Hackers derived a philosophical foundation for their culture from Hofstadter, and speculations about self-referential intelligent systems (self-referential means "learning from mistakes", or simply: learning ) figured heavily in this philosophy. Parallels were drawn to such varied subjects as paradoxes among the ancient philosophers, Bach's mathematical play with harmonies, Escher's mathematically inspired etchings and drawings, and Benoit Mandelbrot 's theories of order within chaos (which are physically illustrated by computer-generated chaos images, also known as fractals ). The arguments in the book eventually lead to an understanding of Gödel's Theorem, which proves that every complete mathematical system, by virtue of its characteristics, contains errors - i.e., there must exist statements that are true, but cannot be proven inside the system.
Hofstadter's book culminates in an argument regarding self-reference and artificial intelligence, which is designed to describe human and machine intelligence as a function of mathematical systems. As mentioned, MIT housed the pioneers in artificial intelligence, and many of its hackers were convinced (and remain convinced) of the possibility of building intelligent machines. However, it is sufficient to establish that this early generation of hackers were very concerned with mathematics, mathematical philosophy, and classical natural sciences. This MIT-born philosophy, centered around intelligent systems, became the mainstay of the hacker generation. It also became important for hackers to display their own cultural identity. According to Sherry Turkle , a Harvard sociologist and the author of the book The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit , the hackers that she has interviewed prefer listening to Bach in particular, and avoid more romantic composers such as Beethoven because of a lack of order in these compositions.
That the hackers formed a tight core, with their own esthetic and philosophical values, was also a result of their voluntary seclusion. Among all university students, technology majors tend to keep the most to themselves, and an overwhelming majority are male. Among technology majors, computer science students are the most reclusive, and they are even more disproportionately male. If you happen to be a "reject" from the beginning, it is not hard to start re-evaluating your view of society and your environment in general. If you also happen to be Army buddies, this process is almost inevitable. The hackers mostly associated with each other, preferably by computer. In essence, they formed a government-sanctioned subculture.
The original hackers at MIT were, among others, Alan Kotok, Stewart Nelson, Richard Greenblatt, Tom Knight, and Bill Gosper . They were known to pull thirty-hour shifts in front of the computer and then crash for twelve hours. They found the machines so fascinating that they forgot about everything else while they were working. At the same time, they nurtured an ideology that held that all information should be free, ate Chinese take-out, and taught themselves how to pick every lock in the computer science building - which they justified with their devotion to putting all available equipment to its best use. Many considered this behavior to be careless and disrespectful, but the hackers considered it necessary to get the job done.
The fact is that the hackers constituted a homogeneous group that should be the envy of any teacher: they were interested in the subject of their studies, and they spent all day and all night solving problems related to their field. The faculty did not try to constrain them.
At this time, the history of networks began. Two computers were connected, then three, then many - and shortly, an entire network was created. Communicating by computer removes a host of irritating particulars present in real life: you don't have to dress up while punching on a keyboard, you can be totally anonymous, nobody will notice you belching or eating with your hands, and no one will know what the color of your skin is. Another user forms his or her opinion of you solely based on your written communication. Social status identifiers are virtually erased, and your opinions are just as valid as anyone else's. Nobody can beat you, fire you, or repress you if you decide to be insolent or speak from your heart. People who communicate by computer tend to be surprisingly honest and forthright, since the discussion is created by everyone and anyone can participate.
MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and other major American universities were the pillars of the American defense project ARPAnet , which became the core of what is today known as the Internet. Through this network, MIT hackers came into contact with hackers at other universities, laying the groundwork for an national hacker culture which would later spread to Europe and, in particular, Sweden. Many of the slang terms that can be found in The Jargon File (a widely available file that includes a dictionary of hacker terminology) stem from this period. Some of the most venerable expressions can be traced to the original model railroad club, TMRC. In addition to the dictionary, the file contains anecdotes and observations on the nature of hacking, making it perhaps the most important written work of the original hacker culture.
When hacker culture spread from MIT through ARPAnet, it first reached the other large American universities that performed computer research, including the prominent Stanford and Berkeley schools on the other side of the continent. Thanks to ARPAnet, the hackers were not hindered by geographic distances, and could cooperate and exchange all kinds of information across this vast expanse - a privilege that normal people would not enjoy until the 90's. In San Francisco during the late 60's and early 70's, hackers were influenced by hippie culture, and this influence spread throughout the hacker communities of the entire world through ARPAnet. This was the first interaction between the hacker community and the hippie culture.
The hacker culture first reached Sweden in 1973, when the Linköping School of Technology (LiTH) started specializing in computer technology. The students formed a computer association called Lysator, which still claims to be the oldest computer club in Sweden (which is true), and the origin of the true Swedish hacking tradition (which is more questionable). Lysator will play a part in later sections of this book.
Hacker culture not only has its roots in the academic realm; these university hackers only constitute a small part of the digital culture scene. Now and then someone comes along and states that only the hackers that attend college and basically live in the computer labs are "real" hackers. Such a statement is ignorant and stupid. The meaning of a word is, naturally, defined by its users, and anyone who chooses to call him- or herself a hacker has the right to do so.
If we now allow the 60's to roll into the 70's, we will observe a monumental event: the introduction of the high-tech amateurs, who were just as much hackers as Bill Gosper and his MIT buddies.
Design and formatting by Daniel Arnrup/Voodoo Systems