Keywords for the Age of Austerity 29: Hack/Hacking/Hacker

“Hacking,” according to Evgeny Morozov, is the art of “exploiting existing resources to produce more.” The MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, a student club credited with coining the technophilic meaning of the word, defined a “hack” in its 1959 dictionary as “something done without constructive end,” an “entropy booster.” For the TMRC, hacking is less like cyber-warfare and more like “pranking,” a subversive but not malicious demonstration of intellect and curiosity. Meanwhile, insists the Daily Kos, Russia “hacked the election” by “undermining people’s faith in democracy.” In her book Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tick to Turbocharge Your Day, Gina Trapani writes that a “lifehacker” “uses workarounds and shortcuts to overcome everyday difficulties of the modern worker: an interrupt-driven existence of too much to do and too many distractions to keep you from doing it.”

As other historians of the term like have observed, the meaning of “hack” vacillates between two poles: either mischief or malice, rebellion or authority, the dark side and the light. This duality was apparent in one of the first investigations of “hacking” to appear in the New York Times, in August 1983. In a lengthy interview, Geoffrey Goodfellow, a computer security researcher in a town called Menlo Park, CA, described the hacker this way:

A hacker is someone who programs computers for the sheer fun of it rather than, say, just theorizing about programming. A hacker could be described as a person capable of appreciating the irony and beauty—or as we refer to it, the ‘hack value’—of a program. But another part, unfortunately, is a little bit on the dark side. There is a malcious of inquisitive hacker, or meddler, who would like to discover information by poking around.

The article was illustrated by what may be the first appearance of the stock-photo caricature of the hacker (more on this below): a grinning masked catburglar, cracking a computer depicted as a safe.

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“The World of Data Confronts the Joy of Hacking,” The New York Times, Aug. 28, 1983

The verb’s current meaning—to covertly access  a complex technological network, in order to manipulate it for some end unintended by its designer or owner—originates with the telephone. The first “hacks” invaded telephone switchboards, and from there, the word expanded to other kinds of communication networks. If this meaning has any relationship to the other meaning of “hack”–to attack aggressively with a heavy or sharp object– it would seem to be ironic, since the hacker’s dangerous allure comes from his secrecy and ingenuity. The rhyme with “crack”–as in to crack a code–seems important here, though maybe I’m just swayed by that illustration.

Let’s leave the etymology aside and move onto the heavier stuff. Do you with to proceed? If yes, click the video link below.

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