In defense of the hacker credo 

Last week, I mentioned that the extreme sports culture is similar in some ways to the hacker culture. Both enjoy exploring the fringe, developing new techniques, and, in general, doing what very few have done before.

More to the point, as with extreme sports, popular portrayals of hackers usually involve some element of mischief, and brash disrespect for authority. That's because Big Media has characterized hackers as techno-thugs interested only in destroying, altering, or vandalizing the contents of other people's computers.

So what's the real story?

The horror stories are, at least in part, true. There are devious scofflaws striving to corrupt corporate intranets, confiscate your credit card number, and befoul your Internet service. These malicious individuals, however, are more appropriately referred to as "crackers." High on their own egos, crackers strive to finagle their way through computer security and then leave their mark-break something, in other words.

In so doing, crackers have given hackers a bad name. While crackers break things, hackers build them. True, most good hackers have plumbed the capabilities of security systems, exploring and searching for items of interest and utility.

For instance, a good hacker may break through a security firewall rather than wait to go through established channels in order to accomplish a specific legitimate task. If they alter anything at all, usually it's only to erase their own digital fingerprints.

Hackers believe that the world is filled with fascinating puzzles. Every problem, from how to gather information about visits to a web page to encrypting email messages to creating smarter missiles, can be solved given enough information. This is why hackers also believe that all information should be free.

In order to assure this free flow of information, hackers regularly update their community with bug fixes, work-arounds, and other sorts of elegant, often mathematical solutions. They even code new software applications and give them away for free, because everyone's time is precious, especially other hackers'.

If one person discovers a more efficient technique for solving a problem, there is a moral duty to inform everyone else. This reveals a hacker tenet: Nobody should ever have to solve a problem twice. Sociologists might say hackers belong to a "gift culture," in which high status is attributed to those who give the most away. In other words, when a solution is discovered or a new application developed, one should distribute it freely, rather than horde it.

Standing in the way of such goals and ideals are government and industry forces, who develop solutions to problems and subsequently keep the details secret or sell them at a premium.

Such behavior is abhorrent to hackers.

Competence is another valued attribute among hackers. After all, the more competent a hacker is, the more he or she has to offer the community. In order to achieve high levels of competence, hence status, hackers will often digest volumes of technical manuals from a diversity of fields, assuming that someday, the information will become useful. Indeed, hackers may pride themselves on the diversity and depth of the esoterica they can digest.

Many hackers are intelligent, dedicated, creative people. Once past the so-called "larval stage," which involves at least one 36-hour compulsive programming binge, hackers lose interest in cracking security and other mischief. They want desperately to learn, understand, and eventually solve all computer conundrums. Hackers truly believe-and this is yet another hacker tenet-computers can change your life for the better; you can create art and beauty on a computer.

Hackers have been around as long as computers. Hacking is not about creating problems for anyone; it's about finding solutions for everyone. Hackers built and now run the Internet. So next time Big Media reports on "hackers" stealing credit card numbers, remember that it is the greedy crackers being referred to. The hackers, on the other hand, will probably be called in to catch the thieves and plug the holes.

Extreme jocks and hackers share an unbridled passion for exploration and excitement. They're generally representatives of youth culture-and they reflect the revolutionary impulse of the young. Big Media and corporate America are the parents. The rest of us, remember, are pretty much just rowdy kids, creating a scene and looking for a little freedom.

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