Hacker Trouble goes back to…
November 25, 2011
The notion of hacking penetrated the computer society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s. Accepted belief at MIT was there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A ``tool'' is somebody who attends class on a regular basis, is at all times to be found in the library when no class is gathering, and gets straight A’s. A ``hacker'' is the reverse: somebody who by no means goes to class, who in truth sleeps all day, and who spends the nighttime trailing leisure activities rather than studying. In 1986, the word ``hacker'' is by and large used amongst MIT students to refer not to computer hackers, but to building hackers, group who walks around roofs and tunnels where they're not believed to be.
What does this have to do with computers? At first, not anything. However, there are principles for achievement as a hacker, just as grades shape an average for triumph as an apparatus. The factual hacker can't just sit around each and every one night; he ought to chase some pastime with enthusiasm and panache. It can be telephones, or science fiction fandom, or broadcast radio. Or it can be computers. A ``computer hacker,'' then, is a name who lives and breathes computers, who knows all on the subject of computers, who can contract a computer to do whatever thing. In the same way important, nevertheless, is the hacker's mind-set.
Somebody who sets out to crack the security of a system for monetary gain is not a hacker at all. ‘It's not that a hacker can't be a thief, but a hacker can't be a professional thief.’ A hacker must be essentially a recreational, despite the fact that hackers can get remunerated for their capability. A password hacker whose principal attention is in wisdom of how the system works doesn't as a result essentially abstain from pinching information or services, but somebody whose chief concern is in theft isn't a hacker. It's a matter of importance.
The original hackers at MIT-AI were more often than not undergraduates, in their late teens or early twenties. The roots of the hacker culture can be traced back to 1961, the year MIT took delivery of its first PDP-1 minicomputer. The PDP-1 was one of the earliest interactive computers, and (unlike other machines) of the day was inexpensive enough that time on it did not have to be rigidly scheduled. It attracted a group of curious students from the Tech Model Railroad Club who experimented with it in a spirit of fun. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [Levy] entertainingly describes the early days of the club. Their most famous achievement was SPACEWAR, a game of dueling rocketships loosely inspired by the Lensman space operas of E.E. “Doc” Smith.
Several of the TMRC experimenters later went on to become core members of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, which in the 1960s and 1970s became one of the world centers of cutting-edge computer science. They took some of TMRC's slang and in-jokes with them, including a tradition of elaborate (but harmless) pranks called “hacks”. The AI Lab programmers appear to have been the first to describe themselves as “hackers”.
After 1969 the MIT AI Lab was connected, via the early ARPANET, to other leading computer science research laboratories at Stanford, Bolt Beranek & Newman, Carnegie-Mellon University and elsewhere. Researchers and students got the first foretaste of the way fast network access abolishes geography, often making it easier to collaborate and form friendships with distant people on the net than it would be to do likewise with colleagues closer-by but less connected.
Software, ideas, slang, and a good deal of humor flowed over the experimental ARPANET links. Something like a shared culture began to form. One of its earliest and most enduring artifacts was the Jargon File, a list of shared slang terms that originated at Stanford in 1973 and went through several revisions at MIT after 1976. Along the way it accumulated slang from CMU, Yale, and other ARPANET sites.
Technically, the early hacker culture was largely hosted on PDP-10 minicomputers. They used a variety of operating systems that have since passed into history: TOPS-10, TOPS-20, Multics, ITS, SAIL. They programmed in assembler and dialects of Lisp. PDP-10 hackers took over running the ARPANET itself because nobody else wanted the job. Later, they became the founding cadre of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and originated the tradition of standardization through Requests For Comment (RFCs).
Socially, they were young, exceptionally bright, almost entirely male, dedicated to programming to the point of addiction, and tended to have streaks of stubborn nonconformism — what years later would be called ‘geeks’. They, too, tended to be shaggy hippies and hippie-wannabes. They, too, had a vision of computers as community-building devices. They read Robert Heinlein and J. R. R. Tolkien, played in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and tended to have a weakness for puns. Despite their quirks (or perhaps because of them!) many of them were among the brightest programmers in the world.
They were not Unix programmers. The early Unix community was drawn largely from the same pool of geeks in academia and government or commercial research laboratories, but the two cultures differed in important ways. One that we've already touched on is the weak networking of early Unix. There was effectively no Unix-based ARPANET access until after 1980, and it was uncommon for any individual to have a foot in both camps.
Collaborative development and the sharing of source code was a valued tactic for Unix programmers. To the early ARPANET hackers, on the other hand, it was more than a tactic: it was something rather closer to a shared religion, partly arising from the academic “publish or perish” imperative and (in its more extreme versions) developing into an almost Chardinist idealism about networked communities of minds. The most famous of these hackers, Richard M. Stallman, became the ascetic saint of that religion.
After 1983 and the BSD port of TCP/IP, the Unix and ARPANET cultures began to fuse together. This was a natural development once the communication links were in place, since both cultures were composed of the same kind of people (indeed, in a few but significant cases the same people). ARPANET hackers learned C and began to speak the jargon of pipes, filters, and shells; Unix programmers learned TCP/IP and started to call each other “hackers”. The process of fusion was accelerated after the Project Jupiter cancellation in 1983 killed the PDP-10's future. By 1987 the two cultures had merged so completely that most hackers programmed in C and casually used slang terms that went back to the Tech Model Railroad Club of twenty-five years earlier.
But TCP/IP networking and slang were not the only things the post-1980 hacker culture inherited from its ARPANET roots. It also got Richard Stallman, and Stallman's moral crusade.
Richard M. Stallman (generally known by his login name, RMS) had already proved by the late 1970s that he was one of the most able programmers alive. Among his many inventions was the Emacs editor. For RMS, the Jupiter cancellation in 1983 only finished off a disintegration of the MIT AI Lab culture that had begun a few years earlier as many of its best went off to help run competing Lisp-machine companies. RMS felt ejected from a hacker Eden, and decided that proprietary software was to blame.
In 1983 Stallman founded the GNU project, aimed at writing an entire free operating system. Though Stallman was not and had never been a Unix programmer, under post-1980 conditions implementing a Unix-like operating system became the obvious strategy to pursue.
In 1985, RMS published the GNU Manifesto. In it he consciously created an ideology out of the values of the pre-1980 ARPANET hackers — complete with a novel ethico-political claim, a self-contained and characteristic discourse, and an activist plan for change. RMS aimed to knit the diffuse post-1980 community of hackers into a coherent social machine for achieving a single revolutionary purpose. His behavior and rhetoric half-consciously echoed Karl Marx's attempts to mobilize the industrial proletariat against the alienation of their work.