The Computer Priesthood and the Culture of Happy Hacking (2)

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By the early 1960s, the hackers had gradually become a discrete community congregated around local computer centers with its own subculture. In the dictionary that Samson compiled in 1959 according to the subculture of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) of MIT, which was one of the major origins of the hacker community, “hack” and “hacker” were already defined. “Hack” meant:

1) an article or project without constructive end; 2) work undertaken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce, or attempt to produce, a hack.[24]

Further, hacker was simply: “one who hacks, or makes them.”[25]While the informal hacker’s dictionary continued growing in the following years, the hacker community continues to honor the self-motivated practices of stretching the machinery capabilities for fun. In 1975, Raphael Finkel at the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory extended the TMRC dictionary to an online Jargon File to collect more inputs from the hacker community.[26] When Guy Steele transformed the Jargon File into a 136-page paper publication, The Hacker’s Dictionary (THD), in 1983, the image of “hacker” became clearer. A lengthy citation here is necessary to understand how hackers identified themselves:

HACKER noun.

1. A person who enjoys learning the details of computer systems and how to stretch their capabilities—as opposed to most users of computers, who prefer to learn only the minimum amount necessary.

2. One who programs enthusiastically, or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.

3. A person capable of appreciating HACK VALUE.

4. A person who is good at programming quickly. (By the way, not everything a hacker produces is a hack.)

5. An expert on a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it. Example: “A SAIL hacker.” (This definition and the preceding ones are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)

6. An expert of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

7. A malicious or inquisitive meddler who tries to discover information by poking around. For example, a “password hacker” is one who tries, possibly by deceptive or illegal means, to discover other people’s computer passwords. A “network hacker” is one who tries to learn about the computer network (possibly because he wants to improve it or possibly because he wants to interfere—one can tell the difference only by context and tone of voice).


Hackers consider themselves somewhat of an elite, though one to which new members are gladly welcome. It is a meritocracy based on ability. There is a certain self-satisfaction in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be and are not, you’re quickly labeled BOGUS).[27]

Notably, only the last definition of “hacker” is close to what the general public thinks a hacker is today. Hackers, for the most part, saw themselves as an elite group of people who were very capable of programming and proud of that capability. On the other hand, nowhere in THD did hackers show any disapproval or need for further clarification to the practice of applying “deceptive or illegal means.” Compared to laws and common ethics, hackers followed their own “hack value,” which was defined as:

HACK VALUE noun. Term used as the reason or motivation for expending effort toward a seemingly useless goal, the point being that the accomplished goal is a hack. For example, the MACLISP language can read and print integers as Roman numerals; the code for this was installed purely for hack value.[28]

It was not until The New Hacker’s Dictionary (TNHD) compiled by Eric S. Raymond in 1999 that hackers finally attempted to clarify their fame.[29] According to TNHD, hackers coined the term “cracker” around 1985 “in defense against journalistic misuse of hacker.”[30] While hackers described themselves as having a “huge open poly-culture,” a cracker was “one who breaks security on a system.” Furthermore, hackers considered crackers’ practice of “gather[ing] in small, tight-knit, very secretive groups” as “a lower form of life.”[31] At the end of TNHD, Raymond even included a sample letter so that the readers could complain to their favorite newspaper when “cracker” should be use in place of “hacker.”[32]

24. Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT, Abridged Dictionary of the TMRC Language, 16 March 2003 <> (21 March 2003).
25. Ibid.
26. Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary, 3d ed., 5.
27. Guy L. Steele, The Hacker's Dictionary: A Guide to the World of Computer Wizards (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1983), 79-80.
28. Ibid., 76.
29. The first edition TNHD (1991) corresponded to the 2.9.6. version Jargon File. TNHD 2d ed. (1993) corresponded to the 3.0.0 version, and TNHD 3d ed. (1999) the 4.0.0. version. As of September 2002, Jargon File was at version 4.3.3. Eric S. Raymond, “Jargon File History,” Jargon File 4.3.3 Resources, <> (8 May 2003).
30. Raymond, The New Hacker’s Dictionary 3d ed., 130.
31. Ibid.
32. Ibid., 532.