[Hpr] What's a "hacker"?

epicanis+hpr at dogphilosophy.net epicanis+hpr at dogphilosophy.net
Wed Mar 20 13:37:44 PDT 2013

I actually get the impression that we probably aren't much in disagreement over
what "hacking" is, so I'm just going to nitpick instead :-)

> > I wouldn't use those sources because...well, for one thing, they're not
> > definitions.> 
> I disagree, as do you, two sentences down.

Okay - bad wording.  What I was trying to convey is that one source is not a
"definition" at all, and the other is not "a definition" but rather 8 different "definitions"
(several of which overlap). And then you mention a THIRD ESR essay in your reply :-)

My basic problem with defining "hacker" as "what Eric S Raymond says a hacker is"
is not so much that I have a problem with ESR or even that I think he's "wrong",
but more that he doesn't really get around to actually DEFINING it in a useful way.
Instead, I think his writings both over-emphasize "computer programmers"
(perpetuating the idea the a "hacker" is someone hunched over a computer
in a dark basement or something) and amount more to "examples of hackers"
rather than some definition someone can look at to understand the concept better.

One reason I've shifted to defining "hacking" rather than "hacker" is to get away
from some of the baggage around the term, and avoid some of the self-identification
angst that might come up as a result of trying to define "hacker" ("He's trying to define
what I am! What if it ends up being a definition that I don't fit? Then he's trying to take
away my Hacker badge!") - though I don't THINK the definition I use (and that
I'm proposing others might want to use) would end up kicking any actual hacker out of
the "hacker" category.

I'm suggesting just that a "hacker" is defined by what they DO, therefore defining the
act is important and not the actor.  For example:

> > I think 7 is an almost-mandatory characteristic of "hackers", but doesn't
> > seem like an appropriate definition (this is like defining an "athlete"
> > as "someone who is strong".)> 
> I disagree. Strength is something that can be acquired even when not
> enjoyed. However, "enjoying the intellectual challenge of creatively
> overcoming or circumventing limitations" is not something that is a
> quality of the person itself. Enjoyment is key in this definition, and
> is why your rote example person is not a hacker.

Definition #7 was "One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations." My issue with that one was not that a hacker wouldn't fit that definition, but that there are people who'd fit that definition who would not really be "hackers" - this definition does not say that a "hacker" actually ever DOES "creatively overcome or circumvent limitations", only that they "enjoy" it.  Shoving aside my somewhat flawed "athlete" analogy - imagine a six-year old child who one day comes up with a truly unique way to combine glue, macaroni, and glitter to make a completely unexpectedly brilliant representation of a duck. For purposes of this discussion, lets assume that this combination is sufficiently brilliant and clever that everyone involved would agree that the making of this macaroni duck counts as a "hack" and that the child in question really enjoyed coming up with it.

Then, this hypothetical 6-year-old gets caught up in the "No Child Left Awake" (Uh, I mean "Behind") program and spends the rest of his or her school career learning to memorize crap for tests and never gets around to indulging in this enjoyment ever again. 30 years later, this hypothetical child has a BA in Accounting and works 50 hours a week in a moderately-well-paying job putting numbers into pre-made spreadsheet templates for a living and never gets around to indulging their enjoyment of creative problem solving ever again.

Dang, that's depressing...but the point is - this fictional accountant I've just described still meets definition #7, but I think most of us would agree that one act of genuine "hacking" 30 years ago does not mean we should now call this person a "hacker".

tl;dr: my contention is you can't be a "hacker" unless you regularly engage in "hacking" (and by extension it is possible to be a "former hacker", e.g. "JoeSchmoe used to be a brilliant amateur radio hacker, but these days he just sits around all day playing 'FarmVille'...")

> I, arguably an expert computer programmer, found the coleman, urban
> camping and cooking episodes of great interest.[...]
> > Now I kinda don't know where I was going with this. Probably something
> about a 'hacker' and 'expert computer programmer' being very much alike.

My point here was that although those topics were of interest, they were NOT
of interest because you were an "expert computer programmer", but because
you were a "hacker" (or at the very least possess or desire a substantial amount
of "the hacker nature", which I have intentionally avoided trying to define in
any specific way so far...), and that the two concepts are unrelated although they 
are often associated with each other. (Nearly all truly EXPERT computer programmers 
are probably also hackers, but not all hackers are expert computer programmers is what I'm
trying to get at...)

(I fundamentally maintain that one has not truly "mastered" any subject until one can "play with" that subject, and one CAN not "master" a subject unless one DOES "play with" it - for any subject at all, and 
"playing with" things seems like not a bad description of the way hackers interact with their
respective fields of endeavor...)

To crunch it all back down to my central point, I'm contending that being a "hacker" isn't
about what you ARE, but what you DO and how you do it (hence, defining "hacking" 
rather than "hacker").

I'm curious whether anyone objects to my proposed definition (and, separately, whether
anyone LIKES it or not).  Can anyone think of an activity that meets my definition
but should not be counted as "hacking", or an activity that DOESN'T meet the definition
but SHOULD count as hacking?

> > (Oh, and I like the idea of a round-table discussion - if everyone who
> > wants to participate is willing to use the current release-candidate
> > client so I can try/promote Opus support, I'd even be willing to set up
> > and host a murmur server of our own to host it on. I would like to get it
> > rolling in writing first though so I can try to get my own thoughts on it
> > together...)> 
> I want!

I should clarify that my offer of a murmur server shouldn't be taken as dismissal of
the existing murmur servers that people have already kindly set up for HPR use, just
me looking at an opportunity to push "Opus" and encourage people to use current
Mumble clients so we don't all have to downgrade to Speex all the time...

I had another thought - how does this sound?
While continuing this discussion in email, everyone who is interested goes and
records (individually) a short essay/episode on "what 'hacking' means to me and 
why I care". Then, at some deadline, we exchange these episodes with each
other (and submit them to the HPR queue - want some more episodes, Ken?)
and listen to them all individually.  THEN we have a combined roundtable discussion
(also recorded and then submitted).  This way we get both "how we felt before we 
started exchanging ideas on the subject" AND "what we think after discussing it together"
and see if it made a difference...

(Seems to me this format could work for a lot of topics, come to think of it, and generate
a few additional "mini-series" episodes for HPR.)

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