1. 5

This is the last version of ESR personal take on hacking.

    1. 10

      A.k.a. How To Become An ESR.

      1. 2

        Is that the worst thing in the world? We could use a few more good hackers-as-defined-by-ESR in the community, at least by my reckoning.

        1. 4

          Lots of things mentioned aren’t really typical. Met tons of hackers who don’t play any instruments, and hardly know anyone involved into martial arts except a couple sysadmins. Bit of painting by numbers there.

      2. 1

        It’s easy to take potshots at an old and sick man and his work a decade after the fact.

        As horribly cringey as a lot of his stuff is, some documents of his (like this one) are an honest and decent attempt to make the world a better place, and I don’t think it’s particularly useful to throw them aside without something much better to replace them with.

        1. 3

          You have a point, I should have expressed myself perhaps in a more civil manner. My opinion of the piece, however, didn’t change since it was published.

        2. 1

          It’s easy to take potshots at an old and sick man and his work…

          Honestly, I think this call to human pity is out of place.
          I think we should be able honestly analyze a work without losing human solidarity for the man who did it.

          …a decade after the fact

          The last revision is from 06 October 2017.

          an honest and decent attempt to make the world a better place

          I think “honest”, “decent”, and “better place” largely depends on how much you align with his values.

          I don’t think it’s particularly useful to throw them aside without something much better to replace them with.

          As influentials as those texts have been, they need a serious critical read if we want to hack something better.

          Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

      3. 0
    2. 5

      I’ve read this for the first time when I was 17, almost 21 years ago. It was somewhat useful, but not formative.
      I was able to program in Pascal back then, and I was a sort of black hat (or maybe a yellow hat :-D) as I hacked all my school pcs to boot with an interactive homage to girls on International Women’s Day (yeah… I know… that’s geek!).

      Back then however, ignorant as I was about the hackers’ culture, I completely missed the deep cultural biases that the text spreads. Worse, while it give kids some useful hits, it completely misses the point.

      It does not even cite curiosity, the core value of hackers’ ethics that lead their behaviour.

      A good question from @tome reminded me of it and made me give it a more critical read.

      ESR cultural biases are pretty evident in the Historical Note:

      • it suggests the reader to “skip straight to the FAQ and bibliography from here” as if the history of a movement was not that important to understand the movement itself
      • it calls closed-source hacking “prehistory” despite having defined Peter Norvig as a Google’s top hacker
      • it blames the “free software” movement for its ideological baggage but then fosters Groupthink around the “open source” (lack of) ethical values (that is just a different ideology).
      • it declare the ethical issue closed, as if hackers all over the world had settled around his own values.

      Today there is little point in attempting to distinguish between these categories, and it seems unlikely that will change in the future.
      It is worth remembering, however, that this was not always so.

      It would be important to note that, instead, it has never been so.

      More subtle, however, are the bias spread in the other sections of the text:

      There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term ‘hacker’. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers make the World Wide Web work.

      Wow… everything the hackers did spread from the USA! What a chance!

      It’s indeed funny to read his concerns about the English language as cultural imperialism, while hackers should learn English even just to enjoy The Tempest of Shakespeare!
      The cultural imperialism is spread all over the text, and while historically connected to imperialism, the language we use to communicate is not an issue.

      If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you’re a hacker.

      Why? So, I do need your permission to hack?

      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 and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.

      The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.

      This is deeply false. And still, back when I was 17, I trusted these lines.

      Hacking is about experimenting.
      Experimenting at times means breaking things to understand how they work.

      The difference is the goal not in what they do.

      Hackers pursuit knowledge.
      Crackers pursuit something else, be it success, visibility, money, power or anything else.

      Both can create and/or break things as it fits.

      How To Become A Hacker was not an hack.

      ESR was just exploiting his position to impose his own vision and interests on a nascent self-aware group.
      He’s basically a cracker himself.

      OTOH, most phrack’s authors were hackers, as they were lead by curiosity.

      1. 4

        An excellent breakdown! I agree as well. Curiosity is the key to it all. It’s not just the pursuit of knowledge. Knowledge is the road to pursue your curiosity! It’s secondary and picked up along the way to satisfying the question.

      2. 2

        re spread from USA

        Most of it did in tech or built on stuff that was US-centric. Specific universities, companies like Burroughs/IBM/Xerox/Apple, Silicon Valley, and the Strategic Computing Initiative collectively created the foundations for much of what you see in tech and the Net depends on. It seemed to be a combination of cultural environment, funding, and similar-minded people in close proximity to bump into each other a lot. For a long time, these factors existed in America in ways they didn’t exist in other places. The American companies aren’t doing much of the fundamental innovation they did in 1960’s-1980’s, though. Environment changed.

        The big ones now mainly acquire startups to integrate their innovations and get any patents. Most of the startups making these techs look to still be in America, though, again due to the environment that makes them successful. I think this is the best article I’ve seen on why America, especially Silicon Valley, is an excellent environment for tech innovation. And why there might not be another unless a country can recreate the things that led to it and sustain it.

        1. 2

          The issue here is not to negate (nor denigrate) in any way the USA for the innovation they spread.

          The term “hacker” itself and the original jergon file were born at MIT.
          But hackers existed before and all over the world.
          For example, ESR forgot to mention that hackers created computers, radio and telephone.

          Honestly I think the distortion was deliberate (he defined himself as the hackers historian, and everybody knows that history writing is often used as a political tool), but even if effect of a naive bias and overconfidence, he did a serious disservice to the community.

          ESR projected his own culture and beliefs on texts that were designed to be among the most influential in our narrative.

          Hacking does not presume recognition from the earlier American hackers (they were great hackers, don’t get me wrong, but they were not the firsts and didn’t seeked recognition from the even earlier European hackers, as no hacker needs recognition). It doesn’t presume the elitism that is suggested in the text when speaking about “brain scarsity”. And so on.

          1. 2

            Ok, that makes more sense. Yeah, there’s always been hackers all over the world. If taking a broader view, I’d have definitely included non-Americans like da Vinci. ;)

            1. 2

              Exactly! :-D

              Leonardo da Vinci is probably the best example of hacker of all time (at least in western history).

              He has always been my own inspiration, way before I heard the term “hacker”: not just because of his visionary inventions, his experiments or because of his creativity, but because his creative curiosity was a deep love letter to mankind.

              1. 2

                What was neat about da Vinci is he was inventing stuff with very little prior work to go on in fields as different as machines and art. Hackers today have so much to build on to get stuff done faster. People like da Vinci were coming up with stuff seemingly out of nowhere.

    3. 1

      When I was a young adult I hung around “hacker” Usenet froups and mailing lists, and fell for the “understanding Linux will help you to understand computers” line. Actually it just helped me to understand Linux, which was helpful, but was not the same as understanding computers.

      ESR’s “you must learn a free *nix, give your time up for contributing free things” is only one approach, and not one that will work for everybody.

      1. 1

        “you must learn a free *nix, give your time up for contributing free things”

        Well, it sounds better than: “you must work for free on the software we use to fight for our market share”.