Tuesday, 17 July 2007

"Hackers" and words

What comes into your mind when you hear the word "hacker"?

Even if you don't like the new definition of the term, isn't it what still comes into your mind? Isn't that what you are expected to understand when most other people use it and expect to be meaning when you use it in your everyday life?

Once upon a time there were some people who called themselves hackers because they either enjoyed computer programming or being really good at finding unconventional solutions to algorithm problems and add here every old good definition you may think of. Even before that, you didn't even need to sit in front of a computer to be considered a hacker. Hacking was the true spirit of playfulness, cleverness, creativity, invention and exploration regardless the kind of the activity. You might get it by also reading this article.

Nowadays, it seems that any computer activity that has enough coolness factor is capable of acquiring the "hacking" title. And usually what feels like "cool" to most of the people has something to do with criminality, destruction, arrogance, rebellism, etc. As a result, your modern hacker has to especially be a network security breaker but sometimes (for some people) also a software piracy cracker, maybe a virus writer or anyone else who engages into similar activities I haven't mentioned here. The motives and ethics don't make any difference for my definition here. Whether it's a script kiddie, some 1337 d00d, a network spy or anyone who thinks that he is fighting some sort of system by defacing websites, they are all activities bearing the same big ammount of "coolness" and actually controversy. And hacking is the act of performing those "cool" things. And there is a scene specializing into computer network security breaking which calls itself the "hacking scene".

When you hear the word "hacker", the thing I've just described in the previous paragraph would come in your mind first.

Even if you prefer the old definition what do you understand when someone comes and tells you "Do you know how to perform hacking?". Axing a furniture? Showing some programming tricks? Nope. The guy awaits that you break into some computer network and hopefully even replace a webpage with some sick prank telling jokes about the administrator's incompetence.

And even if you try to preserve the old definition, how would you describe to your boss in few words that some intruder broke the network security on your computer at work? Wouldn't that be something like "Shit!!! Someone hacked on my computer..".

The new definition is a part of our modern culture.

I have to admit that I wenr through some kind of fixation with the whole hacker definition controversy since a long. And someone would wonder why do I care? Pioneers of the early computer history who use to call themselves hackers because of their cleverness and technical expertise WOULD have to care because people would misunderstand them thinking they are "computer criminals" or something. These people breathed the spirit in hacking and it could be quite annoying to observe the history changing when the narrow definition were popularized through mass media in the eighties. I was only 3 years old when the deviation begun and only in the late eighties I bought my first computer. By then already, I would have only known and heared the late definition. So, since I never went through both channels of history, why am I still obsessed about it?

Because I had the sense that something is terribly wrong here. And I didn't need to know that there was an original definition of "hacking" to understand that then. Reading the history of the true hacking pioneers that had absolutely nothing to do with security breaking activities and how the whole confusion arised, was only a nice piece of information to clear up some things in my mind at that time. But there was something else bothering me. The thing was how could someone ever feel respect about the so called hacking scene with the modern definition of "hacking" at mind.

I could actually never get it. What would be so "cool" and "respectful" about breaking into computer networks with the main focus to vandalize a website, talking with leet language, saying naughty things about the administrator's mother and thinking it's all done for the sole purpose of fighting some sort of system or showing your friends how leet you are. Why producing such chaos and stupidity over the internet? What was so.. so.... respectful about that? Why was everyone talking about "hackers" and adoring them so much? Why would I ever have to feel respect about these acts???

The power of language.

The answer in a small sentence. And the fact which annoyed me (especially when I've learned more behind the term "hacker")

The breaking into computer networks and vandalizing webpages activity formed a community. It has it's own history. They called themselves "hackers" because in the early eighties the mass media decided for some reason to use the term to describe only a narrow side of the whole meaning of hacking, this of "illegal computer activities". Some youngsters were attracted by the new image of the "hacker" and used the term for their computer security breaking activities. A whole new culture was born. Having nothing to do with the old definition and history of it. BUT..

..they acquired the old respect and awe of the old definition. Just by using the same word for naming theirselves and their activities.

A nice analogy would be that of anarchy. I don't know much and haven't read anything about it but I think it came into a theoritical state at first. Some people wished to be individuals, not following the mass or depend on religion or authority or whatever is the meaning of anarchism is anyways (as I haven't read much to know). What comes into your mind when you hear the word "anarchy" however? Maybe that every sicko can decide when it's time to stand up and break stores and burn cars in the city to enrage in a fight without any true reason? That's what I think. Even though it might not be what I think about anarchy, I simply can't feel any respect and tolerate such actions whether these people are called "anarchists" or whatever.

That's what I felt about the so called "hacking" scene and the "hackers" as we all know them from the movies. Can you see the analogy? I didn't cared if anyone baring the label "hacker" was supposed to be ultimately respected. It felt so blatantly wrong to feel respect about someone who brings chaos on the net for no true reason. But everyone was talking about how great these bunch of people were and how they were fighting about ideals and stuff. Was I blind? No. It was the history of the true hacking pioneers, misused by the new definition, adding a fraction of coolness and rebellist destruction that everyone seems to adore..

It was dissapointing to argue about that in the past. And since I wasn't yet aware of the different meanings of the term, I meaned different things for some with the use of it. Someone even accused me that it was me who helped raising up the confusion and supporting the false image of the mass media about hacking. When I said "I don't like what the so called hackers do here. No respect about breaking into security networks to do their dirty works. How can someone adore that mess?" they understood "I don't like the activities of those computer enthousiasts experimenting with things and acquiring knowledge. What they do is illegal!". Obviously it's just words and how everyone understands them. Now see the deviation in understanding words brought.

Whoever controls language, controls the future.

Words can do more. They can create a new culture. A whole new generation might grow up with the feelings they afford. They are stuck in our heads. They change the way we see the world forever. Even if words are just identifications of what is really there, removing the word would be like forcing a whole generation to remove their feelings about the thing that is.

Two little stories..

In a little country just above Greece, some people decided to call themselves Macedonians. Though, Macedonia is a greek region of land known from ancient history. Long before their version of history. Of course, this brought up several reactions and only greeks still disagree with the name and use something like FYROM or Skopje or whatever. Once upon I was in contact with some fellow scener from that little country and decided to ask his opinion about this matter. His answer was rather interesting but what he insisted on, is that Macedonia was the name of their region of land since a long and even older people than him had been living with that in mind. How nice would it be if someone suddenly disagreed with that and forced you to remove the name and thus the feeling and definition you have been raised with?

Instanbul was once the capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was called Constantinopole before it was captured. Since I was never been raised in the city, my early life and feeling never connected with either the old or the new name of the city and so I couldn't care less. There are two greek soccer teams named AEK and PAOK. K stands for Constantinopole really (Ok,. in greek it's K not C). I only laughed out loud by some request from Turkey to change them to AEI and PAOI. Who would dare to force me undo from my memory the way the greek soccer teams sound since the first time I ever watched a football match?

I am not going to judge whose side of story is right or not here. The most important thing is how the sounding, feeling and definition of certain words remain in our subconscious forever. Imagine being born among them. Imagine them having an important meaning in your life. Imagine someone trying to remove them or their definition from your mind.

Now imagine someone who was born in the nineties. For some reasons he was amazed by the new so called "hacking" community. For other reasons, he didn't felt that something is very wrong here as me, but thought it was cool to be called a "hacker" and take part in "hacking" activities. It was a way of life for him, to make pranks, deface websites and think how cool he is. He needed self-respect, admirance, to feel that he is doing something unique and different, maybe escape from (or fight) reality. It had an impact on him, the way the mass media portrayed it had an impact on him. And calling himself a "hacker" was everything! Manifests, hacker ethics, hacktivism, a whole new culture that formed his personality.

Imagine me arguing with him that this shouldn't be called hacking.

Now imagine the early pioneers of computer history, grown up with the definition and spirit of the word hacking, not as a specialized community but as a diferrent way of thinking, experimenting, inventing, problem solving, analyzing, learning, enjoying their activities. And imagine the time when everything went to hell. When someone for some or no apparent reason posted something or released a film on TV that created mass hysteria and popularized the network breaking security trend. And then several youngsters, not aware of the old history of true hacking, used the term as it was first presented on TV in their own new fashion, new culture. Calling themselves "hackers". Imagine how pissed the pioneers would feel about this confusion. Being unable to do anything to change it.

Those are the two sides of the story. Would you force anyone to change their definition? The one that was grown up in their mind and feelings since youth?

It's a dileema. And with this one I've decided to quit. I can't insist on that anymore. The "hacking" scene with the new definition exists. It has it's own history, ethics, culture, community no matter if I find their acts controversial. In fact I cared more about the later rather than the name itself. The name just added into the confusion. And I respect the old true hackers with their one unfortunatelly lost definition. They still are true hackers.

Whatever the name for anything is, there is true spirit in hacking and true controversy in "hacking". One word for two different worlds.

It will take so long since I'll get fixated with the same matter again. I feel like this article says everything I wanted to say in a way I like.

p.s. Strangely enough, after searching for similar terms in wikipedia, I encounter one splitting hacking in 3 parts. The breaking security hacking (new version), academic hacking (old pioneers of computer history) and hobbyist hacking (younger computer enthousiasts). I am happy to see the demoscene community mentioned in the last one :)


  1. About the word hacker, it is my understanding that even the old definition includes those who broke in to computers. But I think the difference between the old and the new definition has to do with ethics. As a member of the old hacking scene you might or might not have broken in to computers. But I think the pivotal difference is that those of the old school never did it for personal profit, but only to sport with their technical brilliance, alas their way of solving a problem with a smart algorithm. A member of the "new" school is just looking for coolness or economic profit rather than actual intellectual status.

  2. msg to james: I have read your interesting posts and especially the "whole that is not merely a sum of its actual parts" thought is a central point of thought cycling through my head that is very interesting to me. Of course, as you understand, it may take few days to reply so don't worry I've read your posts and will reply soon. I am also wondering whether you prefer that we talk about this through email or in this blog. I like email better so that I don't have to search in the old posts to see if you posted something new but I don't care much, I can do the blog way too..