The Computer Priesthood and the Culture of Happy Hacking (3)

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However, either it was already too late to make such clarification acceptable to the public, or the distinction between “hacker” and “cracker” was still too vague to outsiders. Hackers felt their behaviors were “some playful cracking” or supported by “practical reasons”—the necessity to “get around some security in order to get some work done”—but a non-technical person had no means to judge how “playful” or “practical” their behaviors were.[33]In TNHD, “hacker ethic” was defined as:

1. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible. 2. The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.[34]

Notably, the entry on hacker ethic did not appear before the 1999 edition of TNHD. Moreover, the editor Raymond had to admit that the second definition of hacker ethic was controversial, and that these ethical principles were “widely but by no means universally accepted among hackers.”[35]

Hackers knew that their salvation would never come from the computer priesthood. In the name of serious research and business, the mighty calculating power of computers was used to replace humans, not to serve them. According to the ideology of the computer priesthood, if the computer were a servant, it would exist only for the institution, not for the individual—and certainly not for fun. It was not in the computer’s job description to play music, so none was equipped with speakers! Hence it was more than a technical miracle that Peter Samson made a mute machine sing. With ingenious programming skills, hacker Samson would stretch the capability of computers for entertainment rather than become an obedient programmer under the direction of the computer priesthood.

However, hackers did not bring a reform to the computer priesthood. Hackers resisted letting the computer priesthood confine their individual talents, but they interpreted their actions primarily as enjoyment. Furthermore, there was little evidence that the hacker community had yet developed a more aggressive approach to reform the computer priesthood. After all, the hackers’ passion was for computers, not for human interaction.[36]

The direct connection between the hacker culture and the computer liberation movement in the 1970s also seems vague. For instance, the innovators of personal computers preferred the user friendly programming language BASIC more than the powerful assembly language favored by the hackers.[37] Furthermore, while most hackers subscribed to the belief that “information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible,” such a hacker ethic has not been adopted by the mainstream among practices in the personal computer industry.[38] Later discussions will show that the idea of providing free software was gradually replaced by selling computers with the lure of bonus applications. However, before reaching these subjects, it is necessary to analyze idealist Ted Nelson, who was famous for presenting his vision about what computers should do.


33. Ibid., 130.
34. Ibid., 234.
35. Ibid.
36. See, for example, the “hack mode” entry in Raymond’s The New Hacker’s Dictionary. Described as “one of the most important skills,” a hacker in “hack mode” prioritizes the interaction with computers over that of other people.
37. BASIC is the acronym for Beginner’s All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code. BASIC is one of the earliest and simplest high level programming languages. The Random House Personal Computer Dictionary (1991), s.v. “BASIC.”
38. Raymond, The New Hacker’s Dictionary, 3d ed., 234.