“Hackers are unruly”

Last August, I briefly posted on hacking as troublemaking. This morning, in a tweet commenting on the loss of a great American activist and genius, Aaron Swartz, I found a link to a 2004 article, The Word “Hacker.”:

I still don’t time (yet) to really think through the various ways that hacking can be understand as a virtuous form of troublemaking, but I thought I archive this hacking article for future reference. After quickly skimming it, I have some problems with the author’s ideas about American exceptionalism and hacking as valuable because it makes the U.S. rich and powerful (“it is the people who break rules that are the source of America’s wealth and power”), but I appreciate the connections he draws between intellectual curiosity, breaking rules and hacking.

Here are a few key passages that I might want to return to:

On ugly vs. imaginative rule breaking:

the noun “hack” also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It’s called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that’s also called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more common than brilliant ones.

Believe it or not, the two senses of “hack” are also connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that’s merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean space).

Hacking is motivated by intellectual curiosity:

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Disobedience leads to new (often better) ways of doing and being:

Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can’t be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other.

It is by poking about inside current technology that hackers get ideas for the next generation.

Hackers are unruly:

Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of Americanness.

Hackers’ sense of humor is key:

It is greatly to America’s advantage that it is a congenial atmosphere for the right sort of unruliness—that it is a home not just for the smart, but for smart-alecks.