The Real Hackers

In November of 1988, Robert Morris Jr., son of a computer security specialist, wrote and released the first Internet worm. But Morris had made an error, and his `worm', which was only supposed to leave a single trace of its presence in each computer it entered, instead began to fill up all the empty space on every hard drive in its path. It effectively shut down significant portions of the Internet for a few days and intrigued as much as annoyed the computer professionals who dealt with it. The non-industry media reports were worse than useless, and misrepresented almost every aspect of what happened and what it meant. So I sent this to the Los Angeles Times, and they made it an op-ed piece.

For a few months, Robert Morris's name will be mentioned whenever someone speaks of computer hackers. But even though Morris is a hacker, what he did to gain celebrity was not truly hacking. It was certainly annoying and possibly criminal, but it was not what hacking is really about. Just as accountants can use their skills to embezzle funds, so computer hackers can use theirs for crimes from espionage to loitering. Most hackers, like most accountants, never get in the news.

In the early eighties you could depend on a half-dozen articles a month titled "Why Johnny Can't Compute," or "Computer Literacy: Another Failure in the Schools." Their primary effect was to terrify parents. The real influence of the microcomputer on the young was more varied, and much more interesting.

From the very first, a few kids found they could outclass the teacher and gain recognition if they could hack a decent line of code. While their teachers were taking night classes in PILOT and LOGO (two credits each toward the next salary step) or listening to a Honeywell-trained MIS director talk about data integrity, the kids were learning how to program to the limits of their machines. They learned random seeding and graphic string packing. They learned how to use symbolic logic and multi-dimensional arrays and sorts, and they found and used all the holes that Bill Gates left in Microsoft BASIC. They traded peek and poke points like baseball cards. They became competent. They became hackers.

Most kids are lucky enough to find their competence in skills that the system recognizes, and are satisfied with that. Hackers are not so fortunate. And more often than not they also aren't the most socially adept or academically successful kids in school. Exaggerate this mild truism and you have the stereotype of the Computer Nerd.

Stereotyping an exception to the norm is nothing new. Much the same thing happened a few generations ago, when the automobile was new. Maybe Ford made it, but only the weird kid down the block could fix it so it stayed fixed. And more likely than not he wasn't doing all that well in school. The handy stereotype for these kids was Grease Monkey. The schools quickly adopted this attitude, and taught their future auto mechanics in the shop classes, where you got dirty and weren't on the academic track.

At the beginning of this century, a few kids began to listen for the sounds between the commercial stations on their crystal sets. They translated the Morse code beeps and clicks into words and sentences, and even learned to recognize individual "fists," the characteristic rhythms of particular operators. Their first telegraph key was a drawer knob and two strips of copper, mounted on the back of a rat trap. Their first broadcast CQ ("Can anybody hear me?") was probably illiterate and certainly illegal, but it was heaven. Some of these ham operators became competent enough at building radios out of scrap (and repairing them with more scrap) to get jobs as radio operators on the great oceangoing barges during the first part of the twentieth century. They were the proud masters of the only weatherproof structures built atop the huge flat decks: the original Radio Shacks. Because their shack was the highest point on the ocean, and their whip and dipole antennae even higher, they were often the literal center of every passing lightning storm, which is why their generic name was Sparks. The stereotype inflicted on them was the excitable red-headed kid who could understand static and warn of pending disasters. His most recent incarnation was Corporal Radar O'Reilly, in M.A.S.H.

Every generation can be characterized, not only by its most typical aspects, but by the alternatives to the mainstream that it produces. For a few members of one generation that alternative was microcomputer Hacking. These were not the software pirates, the system crackers, or the phone phreakers -- criminals can be found in any group. They were the Hacker enthusiasts who came to love microcomputers not just for what they could do, but for their absolute honesty and infinite patience.

Eventually society incorporates its alternative styles into the larger images of an age, sometimes exaggerating their size (e.g., the Hackers) or deprecating their influence (e.g., the Hippies.) Very soon computers will be enough a part of the school curriculum so that good programming will merely elicit good grades. This does not mean that there will be no more Hackers. Just as, every day, some kid discovers the secrets of Morse code or the wonders of the internal combustion engine, another kid discovers that microcomputers, unlike their teachers or parents, do not judge them or make false promises. There will always be Grease Monkeys and Hams and, even though their first, glorious day is almost gone, there will always be Hackers.

© 1988 Eric Bagai