PostsWhat Came First The Hacker Or The Hack
Posted 11/02/2014

The Hacker Or The Hack?

The word hacker implies the possession of certain qualities. Qualities that kindle and fuel a knack for problem solving. This ability makes hackers receptive to accomplish tasks which typically repulse others. An understanding of this unique blend of qualities surfaces when answering the following questions:

  1. What qualities define a hacker?
  2. How are hackers related to hacks?
  3. How do hackers become hackers?
  4. What comes first, a hacker, or a hack?

These questions are a means to diffusing a deeper understanding of hacking and hackers. This article delves into answering these questions, and bringing further understanding of the words. These answers shed light on the inner-hacker, and assist in framing our minds to leverage it.

Honing In

There's no sense in being precise when you don't even know what you're talking about. ~ John Von Neumann

The conventional definitions for hack and hacker are inadequate mainly due to two oversights:

  1. Misrepresentation: they are stigmatized with nefarious overtones
  2. Scope: their breadth is belittled to only computer security hack(ers)

In combination, these oversights warp the story of these words. Once the true meaning is uncovered one can grasp insights often overlooked by others. The essence of the conversation begins with the relation the words have to each other:

hacker: one constructs hacks
hack:   the culmination of a hackers effort

The relation of the words provide a vehicle for mutually defining each. They also show that both hackers and hacks rely on the other. However these definitions beg the question which comes first? We will answer that question toward the end of this article. But first, each word will need to be defined.

The Hack

It is hard to write a simple definition of something as varied as hacking, but I think what these activities have in common is playfulness, cleverness, and exploration. Thus, hacking means exploring the limits of what is possible, in a spirit of playful cleverness. Activities that display playful cleverness have "hack value". ~ Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman's is an acclaimed hacker, and perhaps one of the greatest of all time. In his essay On Hacking, he provides great insights on the meaning of both hackers and hacks.

For Stallman, a hack is composed of 3 elements:

  1. playful
  2. clever
  3. explorative

Stallman claims that something is a hack 'whether useful or not'. However, he does not mention an important caveat: 'a hack solves some problem'. Even if the problem something as trivial as Stallman using 6 chopsticks at the same time.

To summarize:

hack: A playfully, clever and explorative solution to a problem

The Hacker

"The true hacker can't just sit around all night; he must pursue some hobby with dedication and flair." ~ Brian Harvey

We can apply our insights about hacks to hackers as such:

Initial definitions
-----------------------------------------------
hack:   the culmination of a hackers effort
hacker: one who constructs a hack

Defined In Previous Section
-----------------------------------------------
hack: A playfully, clever and explorative solution to a problem

Applying Some Algebra
-----------------------------------------------
hacker: one who constructs a (hack)
hacker: one who constructs (a playfully, clever, and explorative solution to a problem)

But, there is more to a hacker than just creating hacks. The following qualities must also be present:

  1. unquivering passion for an activity
  2. continually build knowledge and use it to solve problems
  3. approach activities like a curious child e.g. always have fun

Round Up

So far 2 of the initial questions have been answered:

  1. What qualities define a hacker?
  2. How are hackers related to hacks?
  3. How do hackers become hackers?
  4. What comes first, a hacker, or a hack?

The information from the first questions can be used to answer the last.

Which Came First?

"Was his action, too, a hack? I think so. Is he therefore a hacker? That depends on how much he likes to hack." ~ Richard Stallman

Why did Stallman attempt to use 6 chopsticks at the same time? According to him: 'because using three in one hand is hard and ordinarily never thought of, it has "hack value"'. But, only a hacker would find 'hack value' in that. Non-hackers would most likely not find merit in attempting it. A key ingredient of hacking is an equal pleasure in both the process and the results. Due to this, a hacker will dig up value in activities others see no advantage.

Stallman says, a hacker then is quantified by how much they like to hack (how strong that passion is). That means one has to hack before becoming a hacker. However, certain hacks will only be attractive to hackers. A novice hacker may not find hack-value in activities experts find value in. This leaves us with an interesting catch-22.

Perhaps the answer is that hacker is a relative term. One becomes a hacker when they meet all of the criteria, but it does not mean that they cannot hack. Certain hacks require a hacker, but others may have more 'hack-value' to a non-hacker. In that sense, the hack comes first, but only very briefly.

Conclusion

  1. What qualities define a hacker?
  2. How are hackers related to hacks?
  3. How do hackers become hackers?
  4. What comes first, a hacker, or a hack?

These questions bring forth insights into hackers and their relationships to hacks. For aspiring hackers, these can be checkpoints to strive for. They expose that one should focus on more than hacks if they want to become a hacker. My advise for aspiring hackers is fake it until you make it. Keep hacking!!!

For hackers, understand that you cannot be a hacker in every domain. To become a hacker you have to curate the 3 features a hacker has for that activity.

Resources

  1. On Hacking by Richard Stallman
  2. Gina Trapini (Lifehacker) site
  3. Richard Stallman (Software Hacker) wiki, site
  4. Ramit Sethi (Budget hacker) blog, book
  5. Benny Lewis (Language Hacker) blog, book
  6. Kevin Mitnick (Security Hacker) wiki, book
  7. Rolf Potts (Travel Hacker) site, book
  8. Vanessa Van Edwards (People Skills Hacker) site
  9. Tim Feriss (Learning Hacker) blog, book
  10. Babak Nivi and Naval Ravikant (Venture Hackers) blog