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On Hacking

In June 2000, while visiting Korea, I did a fun hack that clearly illustrates the original and true meaning of the word "hacker".

I went to lunch with some GNU fans, and was sitting down to eat some tteokbokki (*), when a waitress set down six chopsticks right in front of me. It occurred to me that perhaps these were meant for three people, but it was more amusing to imagine that I was supposed to use all six. I did not know any way to do that, so I realized that if I could come up with a way, it would be a hack. I started thinking. After a few seconds I had an idea.

First I used my left hand to put three chopsticks into my right hand. That was not so hard, though I had to figure out where to put them so that I could control them individually. Then I used my right hand to put the other three chopsticks into my left hand. That was hard, since I had to keep the three chopsticks already in my right hand from falling out. After a couple of tries I got it done.

Then I had to figure out how to use the six chopsticks. That was harder. I did not manage well with the left hand, but I succeeded in manipulating all three in the right hand. After a couple of minutes of practice and adjustment, I managed to pick up a piece of food using three sticks converging on it from three different directions, and put it in my mouth.

It didn't become easy—for practical purposes, using two chopsticks is completely superior. But precisely because using three in one hand is hard and ordinarily never thought of, it has "hack value", as my lunch companions immediately recognized. Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking.

I later told the Korea story to a friend in Boston, who proceded to put four chopsticks in one hand and use them as two pairs—picking up two different pieces of food at once, one with each pair. He had topped my hack. Was his action, too, a hack? I think so. Is he therefore a hacker? That depends on how much he likes to hack.

The hacking community developed at MIT and some other universities in the 1960s and 1970s. Hacking included a wide range of activities, from writing software, to practical jokes, to exploring the roofs and tunnels of the MIT campus. Other activities, performed far from MIT and far from computers, also fit hackers' idea of what hacking means: for instance, I think the controversial 1950s "musical piece" by John Cage, 4'33" (****), is more of a hack than a musical composition. The palindromic three-part piece written by Guillaume de Machaut in the 1300s, "Ma Fin Est Mon Commencement", was also a good hack, even better because it also sounds good as music. Puck appreciated hack value.

It is hard to write a simple definition of something as varied as hacking, but I think what these activities have in common is playfulness, cleverness, and exploration. Thus, hacking means exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. Activities that display playful cleverness have "hack value".

The concept of hacking excludes wit and art as such. The people who began to speak of their activities as "hacking" were familiar with wit and art, and with the names of the various fields of those; they were also doing something else, something different, for which they came up with the name "hacking". Thus, composing a funny joke or a beautiful piece of music may well involve playful cleverness, but a joke as such and a piece of music as such are not hacks, however funny or beautiful they may be. However, if the piece is a palindrome, we can say it is a hack as well as music; if the piece is vacuous, we can say it is a hack on music.

Hackers typically had little respect for the silly rules that administrators like to impose, so they looked for ways around. For instance, when computers at MIT started to have "security" (that is, restrictions on what users could do), some hackers found clever ways to bypass the security, partly so they could use the computers freely, and partly just for the sake of cleverness (hacking does not need to be useful). However, only some hackers did this—many were occupied with other kinds of cleverness, such as placing some amusing object on top of MIT's great dome (**), finding a way to do a certain computation with only 5 instructions when the shortest known program required 6, writing a program to print numbers in roman numerals, or writing a program to understand questions in English. (Hacking does not have to be without practical use.)

Meanwhile, another group of hackers at MIT found a different solution to the problem of computer security: they designed the Incompatible Timesharing System without security "features". In the hacker's paradise, the glory days of the Artificial Intelligence Lab, there was no security breaking, because there was no security to break. It was there, in that environment, that I learned to be a hacker, though I had shown the inclination previously. We had plenty of other domains in which to be playfully clever, without building artificial security obstacles which then had to be overcome.

Yet when I say I am a hacker, people often think I am making a naughty admission, presenting myself specifically as a security breaker. How did this confusion develop?

Around 1980, when the news media took notice of hackers, they fixated on one narrow aspect of real hacking: the security breaking which some hackers occasionally did. They ignored all the rest of hacking, and took the term to mean breaking security, no more and no less. The media have since spread that definition, disregarding our attempts to correct them. As a result, most people have a mistaken idea of what we hackers actually do and what we think.

You can help correct the misunderstanding simply by making a distinction between security breaking and hacking—by using the term "cracking" for security breaking. The people who do it are "crackers" (***). Some of them may also be hackers, just as some of them may be chess players or golfers; most of them are not.

Happy hacking.

* Pronounced like stuckbokekey minus the s (with an unaspirated t), if I recall right.

** Going on the great dome is "forbidden", so in a sense it constitutes "breaking security". Nonetheless, the MIT Museum proudly presents photos of some of the best dome hacks, as well as some of the objects that hackers placed on the dome in their hacks. The MIT administration thus implicitly recognizes that "breaking security" is not inherently evil and need not be invariably condemned. Whether security breaking is wrong depends on what the security breaker proceeds to do with the "forbidden" access thus obtained. Hurting people is bad, amusing the community is good.

*** I coined the term "cracker" in the early 80s when I saw journalists were equating "hacker" with "security breaker".

The campaign to reclaim the word "hacker" from association with security breaking is doing pretty well, as witness the widespread usage of terms such as "hacklab" and "hackathon".

**** The piece 4'33" is trivial in the mathematical sense. For each "movement", the pianist opens the keyboard cover, waits the appropriate amount of time, then closes it; that's all. It is a musical counterpart of the empty set.

Here are some examples of fun hacks. If they make you smile, you're a hacker at heart.

First, some of mine.

Other people's hacks.

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