To the popular press, "hacker" means someone who breaks
into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer.
But the two meanings are connected. To programmers,
"hacker" connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone
who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer
wants to or not.
To add to the confusion, the noun "hack" also has two senses. It can
be either a compliment or an insult. It's called a hack when
you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something
so clever that you somehow beat the system, that's also
called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than
the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more
common than brilliant ones.
Believe it or not, the two senses of "hack" are also
connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in
common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual
continuum between rule breaking that's merely ugly (using
duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking
that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean space).
Hacking predates computers. When he
was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to
amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents.
This tradition continues today.
When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much
time around MIT had
his own lock picking kit.
(He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)
It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would
want to do such things.
Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for
breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared
a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative
technique didn't work. Police investigation apparently begins with
a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex,
revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on
the FBI's list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to
Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers'
general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is
a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers.
They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate
newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them
a certain problem can't be solved.
Suppress one, and you suppress the other.
This attitude is sometimes affected. Sometimes young programmers
notice the eccentricities of eminent hackers and decide to
adopt some of their own in order to seem smarter.
The fake version is not merely
annoying; the prickly attitude of these posers
can actually slow the process of innovation.
But even factoring in their annoying eccentricities,
the disobedient attitude of hackers is a net win. I wish its
advantages were better understood.
For example, I suspect people in Hollywood are
simply mystified by
hackers' attitudes toward copyrights. They are a perennial
topic of heated discussion on Slashdot.
But why should people who program computers
be so concerned about copyrights, of all things?
Partly because some companies use mechanisms to prevent
copying. Show any hacker a lock and his first thought is
how to pick it. But there is a deeper reason that
hackers are alarmed by measures like copyrights and patents.
They see increasingly aggressive measures to protect
as a threat to the intellectual
freedom they need to do their job.
And they are right.
It is by poking about inside current technology that
hackers get ideas for the next generation. No thanks,
intellectual homeowners may say, we don't need any
outside help. But they're wrong.
The next generation of computer technology has
often—perhaps more often than not—been developed by outsiders.
In 1977 there was no doubt some group within IBM developing
what they expected to be
the next generation of business computer. They were mistaken.
The next generation of business computer was
being developed on entirely different lines by two long-haired
guys called Steve in a garage in Los Altos. At about the
same time, the powers that be
were cooperating to develop the
official next generation operating system, Multics.
But two guys who thought Multics excessively complex went off
and wrote their own. They gave it a name that
was a joking reference to Multics: Unix.
The latest intellectual property laws impose
unprecedented restrictions on the sort of poking around that
leads to new ideas. In the past, a competitor might use patents
to prevent you from selling a copy of something they
made, but they couldn't prevent you from
taking one apart to see how it worked. The latest
laws make this a crime. How are we
to develop new technology if we can't study current
technology to figure out how to improve it?
Ironically, hackers have brought this on themselves.
Computers are responsible for the problem. The control systems
inside machines used to be physical: gears and levers and cams.
Increasingly, the brains (and thus the value) of products is
in software. And by this I mean software in the general sense:
i.e. data. A song on an LP is physically stamped into the
plastic. A song on an iPod's disk is merely stored on it.
Data is by definition easy to copy. And the Internet
makes copies easy to distribute. So it is no wonder
companies are afraid. But, as so often happens, fear has
clouded their judgement. The government has responded
with draconian laws to protect intellectual property.
They probably mean well. But
they may not realize that such laws will do more harm
Why are programmers so violently opposed to these laws?
If I were a legislator, I'd be interested in this
mystery—for the same reason that, if I were a farmer and suddenly
heard a lot of squawking coming from my hen house one night,
I'd want to go out and investigate. Hackers are not stupid,
and unanimity is very rare in this world.
So if they're all squawking,
perhaps there is something amiss.
Could it be that such laws, though intended to protect America,
will actually harm it? Think about it. There is something
very American about Feynman breaking into safes during
the Manhattan Project. It's hard to imagine the authorities
having a sense of humor about such things over
in Germany at that time. Maybe it's not a coincidence.
Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it
is also the essence of Americanness. It is no accident
that Silicon Valley
is in America, and not France, or Germany,
or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside
I lived for a while in Florence. But after I'd been there
a few months I realized that what I'd been unconsciously hoping
to find there was back in the place I'd just left.
The reason Florence is famous is that in 1450, it was New York.
In 1450 it was filled with the kind of turbulent and ambitious
people you find now in America. (So I went back to America.)
It is greatly to America's advantage that it is
a congenial atmosphere for the right sort of unruliness—that
it is a home not just for the smart, but for smart-alecks.
And hackers are invariably smart-alecks. If we had a national
holiday, it would be April 1st. It says a great deal about
our work that we use the same word for a brilliant or a
horribly cheesy solution. When we cook one up we're not
always 100% sure which kind it is. But as long as it has
the right sort of wrongness, that's a promising sign.
It's odd that people
think of programming as precise and methodical. Computers
are precise and methodical. Hacking is something you do
with a gleeful laugh.
In our world some of the most characteristic solutions
are not far removed from practical
jokes. IBM was no doubt rather surprised by the consequences
of the licensing deal for DOS, just as the hypothetical
"adversary" must be when Michael Rabin solves a problem by
redefining it as one that's easier to solve.
Smart-alecks have to develop a keen sense of how much they
can get away with. And lately hackers
have sensed a change
in the atmosphere.
Lately hackerliness seems rather frowned upon.
To hackers the recent contraction in civil liberties seems
especially ominous. That must also mystify outsiders.
Why should we care especially about civil
liberties? Why programmers, more than
dentists or salesmen or landscapers?
Let me put the case in terms a government official would appreciate.
Civil liberties are not just an ornament, or a quaint
American tradition. Civil liberties make countries rich.
If you made a graph of
GNP per capita vs. civil liberties, you'd notice a definite
trend. Could civil liberties really be a cause, rather
than just an effect? I think so. I think a society in which
people can do and say what they want will also tend to
be one in which the most efficient solutions win, rather than
those sponsored by the most influential people.
Authoritarian countries become corrupt;
corrupt countries become poor; and poor countries are weak.
It seems to me there is
a Laffer curve for government power, just as for
tax revenues. At least, it seems likely enough that it
would be stupid to try the experiment and find out. Unlike
high tax rates, you can't repeal totalitarianism if it
turns out to be a mistake.
This is why hackers worry. The government spying on people doesn't
literally make programmers write worse code. It just leads
eventually to a world in which bad ideas win. And because
this is so important to hackers, they're especially sensitive
to it. They can sense totalitarianism approaching from a
distance, as animals can sense an approaching
It would be ironic if, as hackers fear, recent measures
intended to protect national security and intellectual property
turned out to be a missile aimed right at what makes
America successful. But it would not be the first time that
measures taken in an atmosphere of panic had
the opposite of the intended effect.
There is such a thing as Americanness.
There's nothing like living abroad to teach you that.
And if you want to know whether something will nurture or squash
this quality, it would be hard to find a better focus
group than hackers, because they come closest of any group
I know to embodying it. Closer, probably, than
the men running our government,
who for all their talk of patriotism
remind me more of Richelieu or Mazarin
than Thomas Jefferson or George Washington.
When you read what the founding fathers had to say for
themselves, they sound more like hackers.
"The spirit of resistance to government,"
Jefferson wrote, "is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish
it always to be kept alive."
Imagine an American president saying that today.
Like the remarks of an outspoken old grandmother, the sayings of
the founding fathers have embarrassed generations of
their less confident successors. They remind us where we come from.
They remind us that it is the people who break rules that are
the source of America's wealth and power.
Those in a position to impose rules naturally want them to be
obeyed. But be careful what you ask for. You might get it.
Thanks to Ken Anderson, Trevor Blackwell, Daniel Giffin,
Sarah Harlin, Shiro Kawai, Jessica Livingston, Matz,
Jackie McDonough, Robert Morris, Eric Raymond, Guido van Rossum,
David Weinberger, and
Steven Wolfram for reading drafts of this essay.
(The image shows Steves Jobs and Wozniak
with a "blue box."
Photo by Margret Wozniak. Reproduced by permission of Steve