Hacker is someone who hacks, and originally meant someone who makes furniture with an axe.
Here is a list of modern day uses of this word:
- A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users' Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.
- One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
- A person capable of appreciating hack value.
- A person who is good at programming quickly.
- An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
- An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
- One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
- A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.
This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab. We have a report that it was used in a sense close to this entry's by teenage radio hams and electronics tinkerers in the mid-1950s.
- 1 A Portrait of J. Random Hacker
- 1.1 General Apperance
- 1.2 Dress
- 1.3 Reading Habits
- 1.4 Other Interests
- 1.5 Physical Activity and Sports
- 1.6 Education
- 1.7 Things Hackers Detest and Avoid
- 1.8 Food
- 1.9 Politics
- 1.10 Gender and Ethnicity
- 1.11 Religion
- 1.12 Ceremonial Chemicals
- 1.13 Communication Style
- 1.14 Geographical Distribution
- 1.15 Sexual Habits
- 1.16 Personality Characteristics
- 1.17 Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality
- 2 Famous Hackers
A Portrait of J. Random Hacker
This profile reflects detailed comments on an earlier ‘trial balloon’ version from about a hundred Usenet respondents. Where comparatives are used, the implicit ‘other’ is a randomly selected segment of the non-hacker population of the same size as hackerdom.
An important point: Except in some relatively minor respects such as slang vocabulary, hackers don't get to be the way they are by imitating each other. Rather, it seems to be the case that the combination of personality traits that makes a hacker so conditions one's outlook on life that one tends to end up being like other hackers whether one wants to or not (much as bizarrely detailed similarities in behavior and preferences are found in genetic twins raised separately).
Intelligent. Scruffy. Intense. Abstracted. Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more hackers run to skinny than fat; both extremes are more common than elsewhere. Tans are rare.
Casual, vaguely post-hippie; T-shirts, jeans, running shoes, Birkenstocks (or bare feet). Long hair, beards, and moustaches are common. High incidence of tie-dye and intellectual or humorous ‘slogan’ T-shirts. Until the mid-1990s such T-shirts were seldom computer-related, as that would have been too obvious — but the hacker culture has since developed its own icons, and J. Random Hacker now often wears a Linux penguin or BSD daemon or a DeCSS protest shirt.
A substantial minority prefers ‘outdoorsy’ clothing — hiking boots (“in case a mountain should suddenly spring up in the machine room”, as one famous parody put it), khakis, lumberjack or chamois shirts, and the like.
After about 1995 hacker dress styles assimilated some influence from punk, gothic, and rave subcultures. This was relatively mild and has manifested mostly as a tendency to wear a lot of black, especially when ‘dressed up’ to the limit of formality. Other markers of those subcultures such as piercings, chains, and dyed hair remain relatively uncommon. Hackers appear to wear black more because it goes with everything and hides dirt than because they want to look like goths.
Very few hackers actually fit the National Lampoon Nerd stereotype, though it lingers on at MIT and may have been more common before 1975. At least since the late Seventies backpacks have been more common than briefcases, and the hacker ‘look’ has been more whole-earth than whole-polyester.
Hackers dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for appearance (some, perhaps unfortunately, take this to extremes and neglect personal hygiene). They have a very low tolerance of suits and other ‘business’ attire; in fact, it is not uncommon for hackers to quit a job rather than conform to a dress code. When they are somehow backed into conforming to a dress code, they will find ways to subvert it, for example by wearing absurd novelty ties.
Female hackers almost never wear visible makeup, and many use none at all.
Omnivorous, but usually includes lots of science and science fiction. The typical hacker household might subscribe to Analog, Scientific American, Whole-Earth Review, and Smithsonian (most hackers ignore Wired and other self-consciously ‘cyberpunk’ magazines, considering them wannabee fodder). Hackers often have a reading range that astonishes liberal arts people but tend not to talk about it as much. Many hackers spend as much of their spare time reading as the average American burns up watching TV, and often keep shelves and shelves of well-thumbed books in their homes.
Some hobbies are widely shared and recognized as going with the culture: science fiction, music, medievalism (in the active form practiced by the Society for Creative Anachronism and similar organizations), chess, go, backgammon, wargames, and intellectual games of all kinds. (Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons used to be extremely popular among hackers but they lost a bit of their luster as they moved into the mainstream and became heavily commercialized. More recently, Magic: The Gathering has been widely popular among hackers.) Logic puzzles. Ham radio. Other interests that seem to correlate less strongly but positively with hackerdom include linguistics and theater teching.
Physical Activity and Sports
Many (perhaps even most) hackers don't follow or do sports at all and are determinedly anti-physical. Among those who do, interest in spectator sports is low to non-existent; sports are something one does, not something one watches on TV.
Further, hackers avoid most team sports like the plague. Volleyball was long a notable exception, perhaps because it's non-contact and relatively friendly; Ultimate Frisbee has become quite popular for similar reasons. Hacker sports are almost always primarily self-competitive ones involving concentration, stamina, and micromotor skills: martial arts, bicycling, auto racing, kite flying, hiking, rock climbing, aviation, target-shooting, sailing, caving, juggling, skiing, skating, skydiving, scuba diving. Hackers' delight in techno-toys also tends to draw them towards hobbies with nifty complicated equipment that they can tinker with.
The popularity of martial arts in the hacker culture deserves special mention. Many observers have noted it, and the connection has grown noticeably stronger over time. In the 1970s, many hackers admired martial arts disciplines from a distance, sensing a compatible ideal in their exaltation of skill through rigorous self-discipline and concentration. As martial arts became increasingly mainstreamed in the U.S. and other western countries, hackers moved from admiring to doing in large numbers. In 1997, for example, your humble editor recalls sitting down with five strangers at the first Perl conference and discovering that four of us were in active training in some sort of martial art — and, what is more interesting, nobody at the table found this high percentage at all odd.
Today (2000), martial arts seems to have become firmly established as the hacker exercise form of choice, and the martial-arts culture combining skill-centered elitism with a willingness to let anybody join seems a stronger parallel to hacker behavior than ever. Common usages in hacker slang un-ironically analogize programming to kung fu (thus, one hears talk of “code-fu” or in reference to specific skills like “HTML-fu”). Albeit with slightly more irony, today's hackers readily analogize assimilation into the hacker culture with the plot of a Jet Li movie: the aspiring newbie studies with masters of the tradition, develops his art through deep meditation, ventures forth to perform heroic feats of hacking, and eventually becomes a master who trains the next generation of newbies in the hacker way.
Nearly all hackers past their teens are either college-degreed or self-educated to an equivalent level. The self-taught hacker is often considered (at least by other hackers) to be better-motivated, and may be more respected, than his school-shaped counterpart. Academic areas from which people often gravitate into hackerdom include (besides the obvious computer science and electrical engineering) physics, mathematics, linguistics, and philosophy.
Things Hackers Detest and Avoid
Smurfs, Ewoks, and other forms of offensive cuteness. Bureaucracies. Stupid people. Easy listening music. Television (with occasional exceptions for cartoons, movies, and good SF like Star Trek classic or Babylon 5). Business suits. Incompetence. Boredom.
Ethnic. Spicy. Oriental, esp. Chinese and most esp. Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin (hackers consider Cantonese vaguely déclassé). Hackers prefer the exotic; for example, the Japanese-food fans among them will eat with gusto such delicacies as fugu (poisonous pufferfish) and whale. Thai food has experienced flurries of popularity. Where available, high-quality Jewish delicatessen food is much esteemed. A visible minority of Southwestern and Pacific Coast hackers prefers Mexican.
For those all-night hacks, pizza and microwaved burritos are big. Interestingly, though the mainstream culture has tended to think of hackers as incorrigible junk-food junkies, many have at least mildly health-foodist attitudes and are fairly discriminating about what they eat. This may be generational; anecdotal evidence suggests that the stereotype was more on the mark before the early 1980s.
Formerly vaguely liberal-moderate, more recently moderate-to-neoconservative (hackers too were affected by the collapse of socialism). There is a strong libertarian contingent which rejects conventional left-right politics entirely. The only safe generalization is that hackers tend to be rather anti-authoritarian; thus, both paleoconservatism and ‘hard’ leftism are rare. Hackers are far more likely than most non-hackers to either (a) be aggressively apolitical or (b) entertain peculiar or idiosyncratic political ideas and actually try to live by them day-to-day.
Gender and Ethnicity
Hackerdom is still predominantly male. However, the percentage of women is clearly higher than the low-single-digit range typical for technical professions, and female hackers are generally respected and dealt with as equals.
In the U.S., hackerdom is predominantly Caucasian with strong minorities of Jews (East Coast) and Orientals (West Coast). The Jewish contingent has exerted a particularly pervasive cultural influence (see Food, above, and note that several common jargon terms are obviously mutated Yiddish).
The ethnic distribution of hackers is understood by them to be a function of which ethnic groups tend to seek and value education. Racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon and tends to be met with freezing contempt.
When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and SF literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive — after all, if one's imagination readily grants full human rights to future AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can't seem very important any more.
Agnostic. Atheist. Non-observant Jewish. Neo-pagan. Very commonly, three or more of these are combined in the same person. Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare though not unknown.
Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular. Many enjoy ‘parody’ religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.
Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly) Taoism, and blend them easily with their ‘native’ religions.
There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen. Hacker folklore that pays homage to ‘wizards’ and speaks of incantations and demons has too much psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.
Limited use of non-addictive psychedelic drugs, such as cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, nitrous oxide, etc., used to be relatively common and is still regarded with more tolerance than in the mainstream culture. Use of ‘downers’ and opiates, on the other hand, appears to be particularly rare; hackers seem in general to dislike drugs that make them stupid. But on the gripping hand, many hackers regularly wire up on caffeine and/or sugar for all-night hacking runs.
Though hackers often have poor person-to-person communication skills, they are as a rule quite sensitive to nuances of language and very precise in their use of it. They are often better at writing than at speaking.
In the United States, hackerdom revolves on a Bay Area-to-Boston axis; about half of the hard core seems to live within a hundred miles of Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Berkeley (California), although there are significant contingents in Los Angeles, in the Pacific Northwest, and around Washington DC. Hackers tend to cluster around large cities, especially ‘university towns’ such as the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina or Princeton, New Jersey (this may simply reflect the fact that many are students or ex-students living near their alma maters).
With the rise of the Internet, hackerdom has gone global, and more decentralised.
Hackerdom easily tolerates a much wider range of sexual and lifestyle variation than the mainstream culture. It includes a relatively large gay and bisexual contingent. Hackers are somewhat more likely to live in polygynous or polyandrous relationships, practice open marriage, or live in communes or group houses. In this, as in general appearance, hackerdom semi-consciously maintains ‘counterculture’ values.
The most obvious common ‘personality’ characteristics of hackers are high intelligence, consuming curiosity, and facility with intellectual abstractions. Also, most hackers are ‘neophiles’, stimulated by and appreciative of novelty (especially intellectual novelty). Most are also relatively individualistic and anti-conformist.
Although high general intelligence is common among hackers, it is not the sine qua non one might expect. Another trait is probably even more important: the ability to mentally absorb, retain, and reference large amounts of ‘meaningless’ detail, trusting to later experience to give it context and meaning. A person of merely average analytical intelligence who has this trait can become an effective hacker, but a creative genius who lacks it will swiftly find himself outdistanced by people who routinely upload the contents of thick reference manuals into their brains. [During the production of the first book version of this document, for example, I learned most of the rather complex typesetting language TeX over about four working days, mainly by inhaling Knuth's 477-page manual. My editor's flabbergasted reaction to this genuinely surprised me, because years of associating with hackers have conditioned me to consider such performances routine and to be expected. —ESR]
Contrary to stereotype, hackers are not usually intellectually narrow; they tend to be interested in any subject that can provide mental stimulation, and can often discourse knowledgeably and even interestingly on any number of obscure subjects — if you can get them to talk at all, as opposed to, say, going back to their hacking.
It is noticeable (and contrary to many outsiders' expectations) that the better a hacker is at hacking, the more likely he or she is to have outside interests at which he or she is more than merely competent.
Hackers are ‘control freaks’ in a way that has nothing to do with the usual coercive or authoritarian connotations of the term. In the same way that children delight in making model trains go forward and back by moving a switch, hackers love making complicated things like computers do nifty stuff for them. But it has to be their nifty stuff. They don't like tedium, nondeterminism, or most of the fussy, boring, ill-defined little tasks that go with maintaining a normal existence. Accordingly, they tend to be careful and orderly in their intellectual lives and chaotic elsewhere. Their code will be beautiful, even if their desks are buried in 3 feet of crap.
Hackers are generally only very weakly motivated by conventional rewards such as social approval or money. They tend to be attracted by challenges and excited by interesting toys, and to judge the interest of work or other activities in terms of the challenges offered and the toys they get to play with.
In terms of Myers-Briggs and equivalent psychometric systems, hackerdom appears to concentrate the relatively rare INTJ and INTP types; that is, introverted, intuitive, and thinker types (as opposed to the extroverted-sensate personalities that predominate in the mainstream culture). ENT[JP] types are also concentrated among hackers but are in a minority.
Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality
Hackers have relatively little ability to identify emotionally with other people. This may be because hackers generally aren't much like ‘other people’. Unsurprisingly, hackers also tend towards self-absorption, intellectual arrogance, and impatience with people and tasks perceived to be wasting their time.
As cynical as hackers sometimes wax about the amount of idiocy in the world, they tend by reflex to assume that everyone is as rational, ‘cool’, and imaginative as they consider themselves. This bias often contributes to weakness in communication skills. Hackers tend to be especially poor at confrontation and negotiation.
Another weakness of the hacker personality is a perverse tendency to attack all problems from the most technically complicated angle, just because it may mean more interesting problems to solve, or cooler toys to play with. Hackers sometimes have trouble grokking that the bubble gum and paperclip hardware fix is actually the way to go, and that they really don't need to convince the client to buy that shiny new tool they've had your eye on for two months.
Because of their passionate embrace of (what they consider to be) the right thing, hackers can be unfortunately intolerant and bigoted on technical issues, in marked contrast to their general spirit of camaraderie and tolerance of alternative viewpoints otherwise. Old-time ITS partisans look down on the ever-growing hordes of Unix and Linux hackers; Unix aficionados despise VMS and Windows; and hackers who are used to conventional command-line user interfaces loudly loathe mouse-and-menu based systems such as the Macintosh. Hackers who don't indulge in Usenet consider it a huge waste of time and bandwidth; fans of old adventure games such as ADVENT and Zork consider MUDs to be glorified chat systems devoid of atmosphere or interesting puzzles; hackers who are willing to devote endless hours to Usenet or MUDs consider IRC to be a real waste of time; IRCies think MUDs might be okay if there weren't all those silly puzzles in the way. And, of course, there are the perennial holy wars — EMACS vs. vi, big-endian vs. little-endian, etc., etc., etc. As in society at large, the intensity and duration of these debates is usually inversely proportional to the number of objective, factual arguments available to buttress any position.
As a result of all the above traits, many hackers have difficulty maintaining stable relationships. At worst, they can produce the classic geek: withdrawn, relationally incompetent, sexually frustrated, and desperately unhappy when not submerged in his or her craft. Fortunately, this extreme is far less common than mainstream folklore paints it — but almost all hackers will recognize something of themselves in the unflattering paragraphs above.
Hackers are often monumentally disorganized and sloppy about dealing with the physical world. Bills don't get paid on time, clutter piles up to incredible heights in homes and offices, and minor maintenance tasks get deferred indefinitely.
1994-95's fad behavioral disease was a syndrome called Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), supposedly characterized by (among other things) a combination of short attention span with an ability to ‘hyperfocus’ imaginatively on interesting tasks. In 1998-1999 another syndrome that is said to overlap with many hacker traits entered popular awareness: Asperger's syndrome (AS). This disorder is also sometimes called ‘high-function autism’, though researchers are divided on whether AS is in fact a mild form of autism or a distinct syndrome with a different etiology. AS patients exhibit mild to severe deficits in interpreting facial and body-language cues and in modeling or empathizing with others' emotions. Though some AS patients exhibit mild retardation, others compensate for their deficits with high intelligence and analytical ability, and frequently seek out technical fields where problem-solving abilities are at a premium and people skills are relatively unimportant. Both syndromes are thought to relate to abnormalities in neurotransmitter chemistry, especially the brain's processing of serotonin.
Many hackers have noticed that mainstream culture has shown a tendency to pathologize and medicalize normal variations in personality, especially those variations that make life more complicated for authority figures and conformists. Thus, hackers aware of the issue tend to be among those questioning whether ADD and AS actually exist; and if so whether they are really ‘diseases’ rather than extremes of a normal genetic variation like having freckles or being able to taste DPT. In either case, they have a sneaking tendency to wonder if these syndromes are over-diagnosed and over-treated. After all, people in authority will always be inconvenienced by schoolchildren or workers or citizens who are prickly, intelligent individualists — thus, any social system that depends on authority relationships will tend to helpfully ostracize and therapize and drug such ‘abnormal’ people until they are properly docile and stupid and ‘well-socialized’.
So hackers tend to believe they have good reason for skepticism about clinical explanations of the hacker personality. That being said, most would also concede that some hacker traits coincide with indicators for non-hyperactive ADD and AS — the status of caffeine as a hacker beverage of choice may be connected to the fact that it bonds to the same neural receptors as Ritalin, the drug most commonly prescribed for ADD. It is probably true that boosters of both would find a rather higher rate of clinical ADD among hackers than the supposedly mainstream-normal 3-5% (AS is rarer at 0.4-0.5%).
Main article: People
- Matthias Ettrich - Creator of the K Desktop Environment KDE.
- Miguel de Icaza - Co-founder of Ximian, the GNOME project and the Mono project. He has also been a kernel and Wine contributor.
- Linus Torvalds - Founder of the Linux kernel.
This article is based, in whole or in part, on entry or entries in the Jargon File.