What is a Hacker?

Brian Harvey
University of California, Berkeley

In one sense it's silly to argue about the ``true'' meaning of a word. A word means whatever people use it to mean. I am not the Academie Française; I can't force Newsweek to use the word ``hacker'' according to my official definition.

Still, understanding the etymological history of the word ``hacker'' may help in understanding the current social situation.

The concept of hacking entered the computer culture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A ``tool'' is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight As. A ``hacker'' is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who in fact sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursuing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

What does this have to do with computers? Originally, nothing. But there are standards for success as a hacker, just as grades form a standard for success as a tool. The true hacker can't just sit around all night; he must pursue some hobby with dedication and flair. It can be telephones, or railroads (model, real, or both), or science fiction fandom, or ham radio, or broadcast radio. It can be more than one of these. Or it can be computers. [In 1986, the word ``hacker'' is generally used among MIT students to refer not to computer hackers but to building hackers, people who explore roofs and tunnels where they're not supposed to be.]

A ``computer hacker,'' then, is someone who lives and breathes computers, who knows all about computers, who can get a computer to do anything. Equally important, though, is the hacker's attitude. Computer programming must be a hobby, something done for fun, not out of a sense of duty or for the money. (It's okay to make money, but that can't be the reason for hacking.)

A hacker is an aesthete.

There are specialties within computer hacking. An algorithm hacker knows all about the best algorithm for any problem. A system hacker knows about designing and maintaining operating systems. And a ``password hacker'' knows how to find out someone else's password. That's what Newsweek should be calling them.

Someone who sets out to crack the security of a system for financial gain is not a hacker at all. It's not that a hacker can't be a thief, but a hacker can't be a professional thief. A hacker must be fundamentally an amateur, even though hackers can get paid for their expertise. A password hacker whose primary interest is in learning how the system works doesn't therefore necessarily refrain from stealing information or services, but someone whose primary interest is in stealing isn't a hacker. It's a matter of emphasis.

Ethics and Aesthetics

Throughout most of the history of the human race, right and wrong were relatively easy concepts. Each person was born into a particular social role, in a particular society, and what to do in any situation was part of the traditional meaning of the role. This social destiny was backed up by the authority of church or state.

This simple view of ethics was destroyed about 200 years ago, most notably by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). Kant is in many ways the inventor of the 20th Century. He rejected the ethical force of tradition, and created the modern idea of autonomy. Along with this radical idea, he introduced the centrality of rational thought as both the glory and the obligation of human beings. There is a paradox in Kant: Each person makes free, autonomous choices, unfettered by outside authority, and yet each person is compelled by the demands of rationality to accept Kant's ethical principle, the Categorical Imperative. This principle is based on the idea that what is ethical for an individual must be generalizable to everyone.

Modern cognitive psychology is based on Kant's ideas. Central to the functioning of the mind, most people now believe, is information processing and rational argument. Even emotions, for many psychologists, are a kind of theorem based on reasoning from data. Kohlberg's theory of moral development interprets moral weakness as cognitive weakness, the inability to understand sophisticated moral reasoning, rather than as a failure of will. Disputed questions of ethics, like abortion, are debated as if they were questions of fact, subject to rational proof.

Since Kant, many philosophers have refined his work, and many others have disagreed with it. For our purpose, understanding what a hacker is, we must consider one of the latter, Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855). A Christian who hated the established churches, Kierkegaard accepted Kant's radical idea of personal autonomy. But he rejected Kant's conclusion that a rational person is necessarily compelled to follow ethical principles. In the book Either-Or he presents a dialogue between two people. One of them accepts Kant's ethical point of view. The other takes an aesthetic point of view: what's important in life is immediate experience.

The choice between the ethical and the aesthetic is not the choice between good and evil, it is the choice whether or not to choose in terms of good and evil. At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterises it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises. [MacIntyre, p. 39]

Kierkegaard's point is that no rational argument can convince us to follow the ethical path. That decision is a radically free choice. He is not, himself, neutral about it; he wants us to choose the ethical. But he wants us to understand that we do have a real choice to make. The basis of his own choice, of course, was Christian faith. That's why he sees a need for religious conviction even in the post-Kantian world. But the ethical choice can also be based on a secular humanist faith.

A lesson on the history of philosophy may seem out of place in a position paper by a computer scientist about a pragmatic problem. But Kierkegaard, who lived a century before the electronic computer, gave us the most profound understanding of what a hacker is. A hacker is an aesthete.

The life of a true hacker is episodic, rather than planned. Hackers create ``hacks.'' A hack can be anything from a practical joke to a brilliant new computer program. (VisiCalc was a great hack. Its imitators are not hacks.) But whatever it is, a good hack must be aesthetically perfect. If it's a joke, it must be a complete one. If you decide to turn someone's dorm room upside-down, it's not enough to epoxy the furniture to the ceiling. You must also epoxy the pieces of paper to the desk.

Steven Levy, in the book Hackers, talks at length about what he calls the ``hacker ethic.'' This phrase is very misleading. What he has discovered is the Hacker Aesthetic, the standards for art criticism of hacks. For example, when Richard Stallman says that information should be given out freely, his opinion is not based on a notion of property as theft, which (right or wrong) would be an ethical position. His argument is that keeping information secret is inefficient; it leads to unaesthetic duplication of effort.

The original hackers at MIT-AI were mostly undergraduates, in their late teens or early twenties. The aesthetic viewpoint is quite appropriate to people of that age. An epic tale of passionate love between 20-year-olds can be very moving. A tale of passionate love between 40-year-olds is more likely to be comic. To embrace the aesthetic life is not to embrace evil; hackers need not be enemies of society. They are young and immature, and should be protected for their own sake as well as ours.

In practical terms, the problem of providing moral education to hackers is the same as the problem of moral education in general. Real people are not wholly ethical or wholly aesthetic; they shift from one viewpoint to another. (They may not recognize the shifts. That's why Levy says ``ethic'' when talking about an aesthetic.) Some tasks in moral education are to raise the self-awareness of the young, to encourage their developing ethical viewpoint, and to point out gently and lovingly the situations in which their aesthetic impulses work against their ethical standards.


MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981.

Note: This is an appendix to "Computer Hacking and Ethics," a position paper I wrote for the ACM Select Panel on Hacking in 1985.