Hackers: Good – Crackers: Bad
It’s interesting how those urban stories become urban legends (no, Bill Gates is not going to give you his fortune if you pass on that e-mail — sheesh) and how myths become become truths when repeated often enough.
Last week, the paper at which I work had a headline on a story that said that the U.S. had the most hackers in the world. Under my definition of hacker this would be welcome news, but the article continued to implicate those who “hacked” as people who did illegal things via computers.
Those aren’t hackers. Most of you know who Eric Raymond is, but for those of you who don’t, the author of “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” — arguably a defining book regarding open source software — has something to say about hackers; real hackers, that is.
Raymond says that hackers — “a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing mini-computers and the earliest ARPAnet experiements” — originated the term as a positive one. Hackers built the Internet, Raymond continues, made Unix what it is today, run Usenet, and generally make the World Wide Web work.
He continues later to say, “There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren’t. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers . . . . Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them . . . .”
Raymond continues later: ” . . . [B]eing able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer.”
Hackers build things, and crackers break them.
I think about this every time I look at the Free Software Foundation business-card disk that doubles as my membership card, especially at the signature by Richard Stallman (I asked him to autograph it, sheepishly, after the stellar speech he gave at the University of California last month) which says, “Happy hacking!” To be a hacker would be a badge of honor I’d gladly wear.