Not *that* kind of hacker

Two articles that crossed my desk today described the difference between the two kinds of hackers. Howard Rheingold offered this distinction in his memoir of the WELL:

(when “hacking” meant creative programming rather than online breaking and entering)

The New York Times chose to explain it in a story about “hacker hostels” 1Incidentally, fellow Iron Blogger Rich Jones provides another perspective on what hackers would really want in a “hacker hostel” on his own site. this way:

the Mark Zuckerberg variety, not the identity thieves

Obviously both of these descriptions are simplistic, and maybe necessarily so, given the requirements of the overall pieces. But the New York Times distinction is just silly: the only “good” hacker is a capitalist hacker, I guess. Rheingold for his part may simply be acknowledging an evolving and warped perspective perpetuated by the media. As my colleague Molly Sauter explained in a piece about the hacker as a modern folk devil,

The hackers who dominate news coverage and popular culture — malicious, adolescent techno-wizards, willing and able to do great harm to innocent civilians and society at large — don’t exist.

The playful curiosity that actually defines a “hacker” to me seems to be a hard thing to understand for many people, and the polysemy of the word doesn’t help.

1 Incidentally, fellow Iron Blogger Rich Jones provides another perspective on what hackers would really want in a “hacker hostel” on his own site.

Published by Parker Higgins

I'm the Director of Special Projects at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, and previously led copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I live and work in Brooklyn, New York. more »

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  1. To me there have always been two kinds of “hackers” – the good and the bad – which differ primarily in their intent. Trying to find a new or better way to achieve something is entirely distinct from trying to steal or cause harm. It’s a shame that the same term is popularly used for both.

  2. What about people who do both? One can’t obtain the skills to do truly malicious actions without practice. And there are all kinds of activities that fall into a gray area that folks you would probably consider “good” habitually participate in.

    Also, one can find a “new or better way” to “steal or cause harm”.

    “Hacker” is an identity like any other: there is a wide spectrum of those who belong to it, and those outside try to understand it through their lens, which is of course incapable of being close to accurate in the length of an article.

    Bertrand summed it up well:

    If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts, he will scrutinize it closely, and unless the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance to his instincts, he will accept it even on the slightest evidence. The origin of myths is explained in this way.

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