Hacking after midnight

In the language of hackers a hack is "a quickly written short piece of code that makes something work" or "a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement", and a hacker is a person "who enjoys learning the details of programming systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary."

A hacker is one who "programs enthusiastically, or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming" (from the original jargon.txt at the AI Lab at MIT). In other words, a hacker is the computing equivalent of an artist or poet who sees beyond the mechanical art, and knows that programming is more than just plumbing with numbers or bricklaying with bits and bytes.

Hackers have been with us since the dawn of computing. Hackers were the innovators and explorers who saw beyond the physical limitations of the warehouse-sized computers of the 1950s, and saw instead a digital canvas on which they could draw a whole new world of ideas, a tilting universe beyond which new dawns beckoned. They designed the languages and invented the forerunners of the tools and games we use today. They sketched the universe of the computer, and went in search of the elegant exposition of the perfect solution for a given idea...

Hackers were the heroes of the computer revolution, but somehow things went wrong, and the word 'hacker', the slang description for a better kind of computer user, slipped into common usage as a pejorative term.

Happy Trails

In the B-movie westerns of the 20s, 30s and 40s, the goodies wore white hats and the baddies wore black. This convention endured through the early decades of the TV western, when the likes of Cheyenne Bodie and The Lone Ranger traversed a black and white terrain, feared by the bad, and loved by the good.

By the mid-60s both the film makers and their audiences were becoming more demanding. They expected their heroes and villains to inhabit a more complex psychological landscape. In the violent spaghetti westerns that derived their inspiration from Kurosawa's tales of the Japanese Samurai, or the blood-drenched existential epics of Sam Peckinpah, the motives and actions of the hero were often indistinguishable from those of the villain.

The hero was brooding and ruthless, chewed cigarillos, and cursed and spat. Sometimes he walked on the wrong side of the law, and his bullets didn't always hit their targets. The villain, on the other hand, was allowed to have a motive, the occasional endearing gesture, a gentle look or forgiving manner, and to wear a hat of another color - the difference between good and bad was no longer a simple matter of black and white, but a reflection of the realities of life outside the cinema.

More recently the metaphor of the man in the black hat has attached itself, without any sense of moral ambivalence, to those who break into computer systems for malevolent or vicarious reasons. But the tabloid cliche of the whiz kid 'hacker' in a black hat cracking his way into corporate or government networks, and the good hacker, dressed in white, who chases him down the wires, does little justice to the complexity of the issues that surround computer security.

The stereotypical image of the bad boy 'hacker' that has seeped into the popular imagination probably originated in the tabloid coverage of the exploits of Kevin Poulsen - who hacked his way into the US Department of Defense's ARPAnet, the precursor of the Internet, when he was 17, and was later labeled "the Hannibal Lecter of computer crime" - and Kevin Mitnick, who broke into the North American Defense Command (NORAD) systems in 1982 when the Cold War was at its height, a feat that inspired the 1983 film War Games and provoked any number of nightmares for the morally insecure.

In the contemporary mindset these unlikely individuals, teenagers breaking into defense systems, became "hackers", misfits with IQs they didn't deserve, or angels on the dark side of life, endowed with a knowledge of the world that the rest of us didn't have. This knowledge allowed them to break into secure networks and to steal data that belonged to others... or worse.

But Lee Felsenstein, one of the old school hackers who had learned his trade at Stanford, saw it differently. "The technology has to be considered as larger than just the inanimate pieces of hardware," he told Steven Levy. "The technology represents inanimate ways of thinking, objectified ways of thinking. The myth we see in War Games and things like that is definitely the triumph of the individual over the collective dis-spirit... To be able to defy a culture which states that 'Thou shalt not touch this,' and to defy that with one's own creative powers is... the essence."

Raising the Roof

The history of the mythification of 'hacking' is recounted by Bruce Sterling in Hacker Crackdown which tells the tale of the FBI's attack on the 'hacker underground' in 1991. Sterling makes the point that "the genuine roots of the modern hacker underground can probably be traced most successfully to a now much-obscured hippie anarchist movement known as the Yippies, who took their name from the largely fictional Youth International Party, and carried out a loud and lively policy of surrealistic subversion and outrageous political mischief. Their basic tenets were flagrant sexual promiscuity, open and copious drug use, the political overthrow of any power monger over thirty years of age, and an immediate end to the war in Vietnam, by any means necessary, including the psychic levitation of the Pentagon."

The most visible of the Yippies was Abbie Hoffman, of whom Sterling says, he was a "gifted publicist, who regarded electronic media as both playground and weapon. He actively enjoyed manipulating network TV and other gullible, image hungry media, with various weird lies, mind-boggling rumors, impersonation scams, and other sinister distortions, all absolutely guaranteed to upset cops."

Hoffman was a prankster with a political purpose. He saw humor and satire as effective tools to embarrass the government, galvanize the anti-war movement, and effect political change. He described Woodstock, which took place within a month of the first moon landings, as "the first attempt to land a man on the earth", and was a defendant in the Chicago Conspiracy Trial of 1968, which was certainly the most noisy, if not the most significant, US domestic political event of that era, (documented by Norman Mailer in Miami and the siege of Chicago), and of which Hoffman famously remarked, "Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch."

Sterling recounts that "during the Vietnam War, there was a federal surtax imposed on the telephone service. Hoffman and his cohorts could, and did, argue that in systematically stealing phone service they were engaging in civil disobedience: virtuously denying tax funds to an illegal and immoral war." To this end Hoffman and his co-editor, euphemistically known as Al Bell, published a newsletter called Youth International Party Line, "dedicated to collating and spreading Yippie rip-off techniques, especially of phones," by using devices to trick switchboards into giving free access to calls by mimicking the telephone system's own signals, an activity known as phone phreaking. When Al Bell retired, he was replaced by the equally pseudonymous Tom Edison.

The Yippies and phone phreakers can be seen as antecedents of the modern day hacker of the public imagination - through a circuitous route that can be traced back through Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who designed and sold boxed devices that tricked Bell telephone systems into giving their users free long distance calls, before going on to found Apple Computers and become multi-millionaires. (These days, of course, Apple's main source of income is through black box downloads of music that use DRM to hinder public access.)

Phone phreakers, pranksters, and those who break into corporate and government networks just because they can, may or may not belong to the hacker tradition, because they often operate on the flip side of the law, and some like to assume a more law abiding, and more importantly, more creative definition of the hacker.

But the truth is that the hacker tradition always included a healthy disrespect for authority, and a reciprocal love of pranks. Every idea, every limitation, was another boundary to be explored, a means to an adventurous end that might upset the applecart, or translate into a better idea, especially if a higher moral reason could be found to justify the ends, and that reason was: "Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works - should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative!"

I am other

Further confusion is engendered by the popular fear of new technology, and the lingering mistrust of those who might understand how it works - who are conveniently painted into corners, sometimes by themselves, as dysfunctional nerds and geeks with acne, angry specs and broken lives, without a hinterland or an understanding of the broader arts, who live their lives vicariously through a computer screen, look like the gap-toothed nerd on the cover of Mad Magazine, and can only communicate through email and keyboard.

These people do exist. They are the equivalent of the fifth form poets of an earlier generation, who believed themselves possessed of something other - scribbled in the margins of their note pads in broken rhymes - they are not whole, and they are not part, and they haven't seen their God or a toothbrush since God knows when - but they know the absolute Truth and the Way to Enlightenment which has come to them through the Keyboard of Life, as they are liable to tell you at every opportunity. But like the absent-minded professor of another era, they are the stereotype and not the story.

Midnight to six man

The hackers of the late 50s and early 60s at MIT invented many of the ideas and tools that have passed down to the rest of us, preserving and projecting the ideal, during long late nights eating badly, damaging their eyesight, and promoting freedom along the command line. Programming may never be so interesting and adventurous again as it was in those days when the young prototypical hackers of the TMRC at MIT broke through the access barrier to the TX-0, when their mentor John McCarthy was developing the first Lisp machine, and they were developing the first computer games, the first music software, the first display hacks, and new and more inventive ways of stealing time on the machine in the hours after dark

It would be all too easy to paint them merely as nerds in bad specs who grew up with Popular Electronics and built radios and working models from kits on the kitchen table at home (although some of them were) - or the bright kids at school who over-achieved because they hadn't been distracted by girls or pop music at an earlier age, but had found another way of dancing once they got to college (although some of them did) - tapping their fingers to the flickering lights of the computer room, challenging each other to greater feats of art and trickery on the TX-0, or on the PDP-1 that first arrived in 1961.

It isn't necessarily so, that they were lost souls who failed to get the girls or to share in the good times because they were too fixated on assembler or Lisp or on breaking a problem on the machine to get a life. Like the brightest arts or humanities students of their time, who dropped out because they were distracted for other reasons, because of their art, because of their politics, or because they weren't functioning in the social milieu of the time, many of the hackers who had been distracted by the lure of the machine also flunked their exams because they were having too good a time, hacking machines.

One of the stars among the hackers at MIT, Bob Saunders, later described himself and the others to Levy as "an elite group. Other people were off studying, spending their days up on four-floor buildings making obnoxious vapors or off in the physics lab throwing particles at things or whatever it is they do. And we were simply not paying attention to what other folks were doing because we had no interest in it. They were studying what they were studying and we were studying what we were studying. And the fact that much of it was not on the officially approved curriculum was by and large immaterial."

The art, politics and social mores of the hackers revolved around the life of the machine. Richard Greenblatt who, in the context of the role he invented for himself at MIT, was sometimes described as 'the hacker's hacker', flunked his course because he was getting a better education and having too much fun obsessing on the machine to go to lectures or pass exams, working through the night and sleeping through the day, when he was supposed to be at lectures. It is said that Greenblatt wasn't too much into personal hygiene and that he was notoriously shambolic in his dress, but he also famously wrote the first computer chess program, and created Maclisp, a dialect of Lisp for Project MAC on the PDP-6. He was co-author of the revolutionary Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) operating system that became the vehicle for hacker software development, and was largely responsible, with Tom Knight, for the invention of MIT's Lisp Machine, which became the first commercial single-user workstation.

The lure of computing was not so different to the other exciting things that were happening in the world at that time. The world was changing, and the hackers at MIT had found a new medium and a new perspective. The lure of the machine was in the discovery of other ways of doing things, of finding the superior hack, of stretching the possibilities of what you could do, of testing yourself against your fellow hackers to come up with more elegant and efficient solutions. The possibilities were endless, the rules were flexible, and the hacker code of behavior, which encouraged pranks and laughter, made for a life-changing experience.

The road to nirvana

The pleasure that the wayward hackers at MIT found in programming was similar to the pleasures that can be found in any art form. And if nobody else saw it that way, they certainly did. The good programmer is strong willed and self motivating, and depends upon his art and craft and powers of concentration. Every element in the picture contributes to the whole, and any missing element represents a failure in the whole creation. It is easy to see why the determined hacker is unwilling to be separated from his or her work until it is finished. Hence, the legend of the programmer landlocked to his console through the midnight hours, high on caffeine and nourished by noodles, pummeling the keyboard with bleeding fingers.

And at MIT, the young hackers, without any overarching commercial responsibility, were inventing new forms of creativity in a medium that hadn't been tested before, exploring the possibilities of the code and the machine. Any arts student who knew the score would have been envious, but few were aware of what was happening because it was happening in a rarefied environment, and because then as now, people are afraid of technologies they don't understand (sometimes with good reason).

The ethic of the hacker demanded that, as long as the end result was creative and morally desirable, anything was permissible, and hacking was fun. Despite the myths, those who call themselves hackers and trace the roots of their craft back to those early hacker communities, are rounded social beings who see computer programming as an exploratory art, a voyage of discovery through the great oceans of bits and bytes and binary landscapes, on the road to the ultimate nirvana of the elegant solution, to which we all aspire...

There were no rules, and no distinctions between white or black, good or bad. Those came later from the spokesmen of a later generation, who were keen to claim the triumphs of those who went before them.


Richard Hillesley

See also:
Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible
trainspotting
Roads to the GPL



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