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How the word 'hacker' got corrupted

Fairfax NZ (via SMH) | July 10, 2013
Hackers were once revered computer experts rather than digital terrorists.

Photo: AFR

Hacker: It sounds vicious and destructive, just like the malevolent electronic villains it is used to describe.

The more we rely on computers the more we fear attacks on those computers and it's hardly surprising that the news is full of hackers hacking into computer systems and generally disrupting the online world with their hacks.

Yet this sense of the term is surprisingly new and, what's more, is completely at odds with the original meaning that arose within computer science.

What is generally called "hacking" today was originally called "cracking" in technical circles - as in cracking a safe. Hacking, in its original meaning, has nothing to do with malicious behaviour.

Somewhere along the way the word "hacker" escaped into the wild but with its meaning twisted.

There seems little point trying to turn back the tide now. The hacker as a bad guy has caught on and hacking is definitely perceived as a bad thing by the public at large. But it is unfortunate for those who grew up using "hack", "hacking" and "hacker" without the bad connotations. The speed with which the new definition has swept in has left those in the know missing a word, and a useful one at that.

The term "hacker" seems to have originally developed decades ago at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, a fabled source of geek wisdom and wizardry. There a hacker was a fairly general term for any kind of enthusiastic amateur expert. A computer hacker was someone who really knew computers, loved computers, and threw their time wholeheartedly into exploring them and their possibilities.

The term evolved a bit over the years. Before the word was usurped, calling someone a computer hacker meant that they were an agile, seat-of-the-pants developer, knocking out one ingenious thing after another. "Hacking" described the gleeful programming style of such people or, quite often, could be just a synonym for any kind of programming. And the term "hack" is commonly used by programmers to refer to a quick-and-dirty (but not destructive) fix for a problem. Companies like Facebook openly promote their "hacker way" of doing business, meaning they search for creative ways to solve problems and develop products.

Not everyone approved of the hacker approach, but it wasn't considered malicious. Hackers - in the traditional sense - are no more malicious than hipsters. Not everyone wants to be one, but they aren't intrinsically evil. In fact, some of their flair may be coming back in fashion, ascompanies and government agencies lash on to "hackathons" as ways to solve technical and marketing challenges.


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