My Fellow Hackers, What’s in a Name?

In regard to the term Hacker, it would seem an association with malignant computer savants persists.


The term Hacker defines, or should define, more than just a particular skill set with computers.

The idea of hackers as “law breaking” computer programers is played out.

The term hacker has been around at least since WWII, we’ll talk more about that in a second. First let us take a look at a few current definitions of the word.

Merriam Webster’s online dictionary


1: one that hacks

2: a person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity <a tennis hacker>

3: an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer

4: a person who illegally gains access to and sometimes tampers with information in a computer system

The Urban Dictionary get’s right to the point…

Hacker: A person skilled with the use of computers that uses his talents to gain knowledge. Three classifications of hackers:

White-hat (hacking for the enjoyment of exploration)

Black-hat (hacking to find exploits and system weaknesses, see cracker)

Grey-hat (someone who is a little of both)

I like the idea of calling one who uses their computer skills for illicit gain a Cracker.


At first Wikipedia seemed to be more of the same…

  • Hacker (term), is a term used in computing that can describe several types of persons

… but then I saw the last two bullet points, which refer to the hobbyist and programmer subculture. Eureka!!

Innovative customizations and exploration.

Making a way when none other exists, that’s is what hacking means. This is the spirit found at hackathons and in civic hacking collectives.

The idea that someone added these last two bullets to the Wikipedia definition, and they were not removed by the Wiki-editors for this page, gives me hope that we are beginning to move away from the image of hacker as modern day virtual criminal and internet pirate.

Stereotyping hackers or any group is a type of problematic bias. Hackers, in this reporters opinion, often do not to fit a particular stereo type. Hackers, ironically, are shockingly law abiding and honest individuals. They can be shy and reserved or gregarious and outgoing. They can be computer geeks or sports nerds. Lawyers or Web Developers. Things hackers do have in common it seems are the facts that they tend to be bright, loyal, sincere, inquisitive and cultivate an accepting, non-judgmental environment that’s based on collaboration and mutual respect despite a wide variety of personality quirks and passionate opinions.

Another thing to mention about the term hacker is that in order for one to be a hacker they really need not be able to write program code. Programming is simply one way Hackers turn an idea into reality.  Also not every computer geek considers themselves a hacker. Which brings me to my favorite story of the word’s origin:

This story of the origin of the term Hacker was relayed to me by my friend Chris Alfano, founder of Code for Philly, a ground breaking civic hacker collective in Philadelphia PA.

According to Chris, the word hackers’ first use was not by some guys at MIT, but in World War II. In Europe, the American naval mechanics were forced to fix planes damaged by enemy fire. To do this, they often took to cobbling together parts from other more severely damaged planes. To cut through the aluminum structure of a plane apparently it takes a lot of hack-sawing. Eventually these mechanic crews became known as hacking crews or hackers.

The term hacker today, though it is sometimes used as a pejorative, means much more than it did when it was a reference to the act of hack-sawing planes and bolting them back together.

It would be great to see Hacker continue to evolve. Perhaps it will mean much more one day, and come to refer to something profoundly positive. Such as : Hacker1. The spirit of collaborative effort, using one’s ingenuity to create something entirely new from existing resources, that makes the world a better place. 2. One who enjoys bringing the impossible to life directly. To Hack: The act of riding the wave created by the impact between what is impossible and what is becoming real.


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