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Hacker culture

The hacker culture is the voluntary subculture which first developed in the 1960s among hackers working on early minicomputers in academic computer science environments. After 1969 it fused with the technical culture of the pioneers of the Internet, after 1980 with the culture of Unix, and after 1987 with elements of the early microcomputer hobbyists. Since the mid-1990s the hacker culture has been almost coincident with what is now called the open source movement.



As the above implies, it was not always appropriate to speak of a single hacker culture. Before the computing world was as networked as it is now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker cultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each others' existence. All of these had certain important traits in common:

  • placing a high value on freedom of inquiry; hostility to secrecy
  • information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy
  • upholding the right to fork
  • playfulness, taking the serious humorously and their humor seriously

These sorts of cultures were commonly found at academic settings such as college campuses. The MIT AI lab, the University of California, Berkeley and Carnegie-Mellon University were particularly well-known hotbeds of early hacker culture. They evolved in parallel, and largely unconsciously, until the Internet and other developments such as the rise of the free software movement drew together a critically large population and encouraged the spread of a conscious, common, and systematic ethos. Symptomatic of this evolution was an increasing adoption of common slang and a shared view of history, similar to the way in which other occupational groups have professionalized themselves but without the formal credentialling process characteristic of most professional groups.

Over time, the hacker culture has tended to become more conscious, more cohesive, and better organized. The most important consciousness-raising moments have included the composition of the first Jargon File in 1973, the promulgation of the GNU Manifesto in 1985, and the publication of The Cathedral and the Bazaar in 1997. Correlated with this has been the gradual election of a set of shared culture heroes; first and arguably foremost Richard M. Stallman, also (in alphabetical order) Bill Joy, Eric S. Raymond, Dennis Ritchie, Ken Thompson, Linus Torvalds, and Larry Wall, among others.

The concentration of hacker culture has paralleled and partly been driven by the commoditization of computer and networking technology, and has in turn accelerated that process. In 1975 hackerdom was scattered across several different families of operating systems and disparate networks; today it is almost entirely a Unix and TCP/IP phenomenon, and is increasingly concentrated around Linux.

see also the Timeline of hacker history

Artifacts and customs

The hacker culture is defined by shared work and play focused around central artifacts. Some of these artifacts are very large; the Internet itself, the World Wide Web, the GNU project, and the Linux operating system are all hacker creations, works of which the culture considers itself primary custodian. The Wikipedia itself can be considered an artifact of hacker culture.

Since 1990 the hacker culture has developed a rich range of symbols that serve as recognition symbols and reinforce its group identity. Tux, the Linux penguin, the BSD demon , and the Perl camel stand out as examples. More recently, the use of the glider structure from Conway's Game of Life as a general Hacker Emblem has been proposed and appears to be gaining acceptance. All of these routinely adorn T-shirts, mugs, and other paraphernalia.

Notably, the hacker culture appears to have exactly one annual ceremonial day—April Fool's. There is a long tradition of perpetrating elaborate jokes, hoaxes, pranks and fake websites on this date. This is so well established that hackers look forward every year to the publication of the annual joke RFC, and one is invariably produced.

Hackers, crackers, and phreaks

Press and popular accounts of the hacker culture often confound it with an unrelated subculture of software cracking and security-breaking, with historical roots in the early phone phreaks of the 1970s and the microcomputer BBS scene of the 1980s. But the hacker and cracker cultures are dramatically different; as one well-known hacker has put it, "Hackers build things. Crackers break them." Nor do they overlap in population, though the brightest among the (largely adolescent) cracker population do show some tendency to cross over (leaving cracking behind) as they mature.

This confusion is encouraged by the fact that many crackers insistently describe themselves as hackers. While some who do this are honestly in error, others are attempting to appropriate the prestige that hackers have accumulated by building useful things like the Internet. One easy way to distinguish these cultures is that crackers normally use identity-concealing aliases; hackers, on the other hand, almost never do.


  • The Jargon File has had a special role in acculturating hackers since its origins in the early 1970s, and is probably the culture's single most important touchstone.

See also

External links

  • A Brief History of Hackerdom - more depth on the history of hackerdom
  • How To Become a Hacker , by Eric S. Raymond

Last updated: 02-10-2005 18:56:11
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12