Thoughts on the meaning of hacking
There have always been many interpretations of the word hacking and the much maligned/revered hacker. In my childhood, I loved to take things apart. Anything that I found interesting, I would want to peek inside and see what I could see. In time I began getting a magazine called Radio Electronics, which would print articles on how to build all sorts of different electronics hobbyist projects every month.
As enamored as I was with these articles, they weren’t usually practical for me to attempt, owing to specialty parts that I couldn’t afford or find at the age of 10. However, tucked back in the pages of the magazine was a column called Hardware Hacker wherein the `Guru’ Don Lancaster would print his own thoughts on emerging technologies and prototyping techniques. The thing that made his articles unique was that he tracked technologies that could be repurposed or reused on the cheap. To him, something wasn’t viable until you could get your hands on it economically and play with it on your own bench. This mentality resonated with me since I typically had lots of random parts, but never exactly what the front-page articles prescribed. Don was the ultimate geek pragmatist. Carbon nanotubes? yeah right, if you have the equipment. Peltier junctions? He’d tell you the great things that would be possible once they were 10 dollar parts, and when they were, he’d be the first to list a source. For me at the time, this is what hacking meant.
Later on, after getting a Commodore computer, I was exposed to another meaning of the word. Exchanging disks with friends, sometimes I would see the intro screens that pirate groups put into games that they unprotected. Reading the greets and intro text gave me another insight to the meaning of hacking. To me, though this didn’t seem like the hacking that I had come to know before. Again, when I first got access to the internet, I was fascinated by all of the networking protocols and the associated tools. In my quest for tools, I again saw hacking used to describe the illegal use of computer systems and networks.
Now that I’ve been a software developer for some time, I’ve seen hacking reclaimed as a noble art. Seemingly led by the hacker messiah, Paul Graham, this movement is getting back towards the meaning of hacking that I used to know. I still think that it means different things to different people, but for me it is an approach to solving problems and reaching new levels of understanding. It is a way of thinking and a state of mind.