The Hacker Ethic

Stephen Levy’s Hackers profiles computer luminaries from Richard Greenblatt to Steve Wozniak. When the book began, computers were batch processing monoliths with a priesthood of attendants who barred students and hobbyists from using the million dollar machines. Over three decades several computing movements led to the the personal computer, a new interactive entertainment medium, and the study of artificial intelligence. Hackers tells the stories of the people who built things that nobody had ever seen before. For the most part, hackers didn’t create through any sense of duty to society–they hacked for fun.

hackersComputers have come a long way since the 1960s. You can’t just build a modern operating system or even a modern application out of assembly code. Programmers today have to work together to build systems more complex than the original hackers could have imagined. Some aspects of hackerism seem at odds with modern software development. But the core principles of the Hacker Ethic remain intact:

“Access to computers–and anything that might teach you about the way the world works–should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!”

“Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.”

“You can create art and beauty on a computer.”

Computers are a great equalizer. That’s one of the aspects that drew me in back in the 90s. Not just because anyone can program, but because anyone who can program can be taken seriously by the larger community. When I was in 4th grade, I started programming to create my own video games. I taught  myself Visual Basic and created an online Pokemon battler played by dozens of people in AOL chat rooms. I created a sort of digital fanzine that I shared with PlayStation Underground Producer Gary Barth. Even though I was a rugrat with no formal training, I felt like I could make a difference in areas that I cared about. With computers, I felt like I could do anything.

Richard Greenblatt photograph

Richard Greenblatt, the ultimate 1960s hacker

“Mistrust Authority, Promote Decentralization.”

“All Information should be free.”

Other tenets of the hacker ethic have proven more difficult to adhere to. In the 1960s it was possible for hackers to build new worlds from scratch because nothing existed before. 50 years on, programmers create new worlds by standing on the shoulders of those who came before. The complexity of our endeavors requires us to come together to accomplish our goals. The Human Genome Project, SpaceX, Google: all of these major advances in technology required the work of a legion of hackers working together to multiply their abilities and accomplish things that no one person do alone.

To me, being a hacker is about doing what you want to do and not taking no for an answer. If a problem seems too difficult, break it down into smaller steps or enlist aid from your allies. If other people think your project is silly or pointless, ignore them. There is beauty in creation for its own sake.

What is the next technology frontier? Try synthetic biology. Applying technology to biofuels, medical cures, and agriculture is the next frontier for hackers looking for a way to change the world.

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