10 October 2006


The term "hacking" is often used to refer to the act of editing or fixing flawed computer code. Typically a hack is interpreted as a patch or clever work-around. I have also seen the term used to refer to the creation of forks of computer programs; this latter sense means, the programmer (legally or not) edits the source code of a program so its functionality is different. The programmer then circulates this new, edited version under a new name.

In many cases, a computer programmer requires a specialized program to do this; for example, there are a lot of programs that are used to automatically generate HTML, JavaScript applets, and other quasi-programs. Often they have unsatisfactory quirks, and programmers create programs to follow them around and clean up (or hack) the script. So programs and bots can be surrogate hackers too.

However, it is also the case that "a hack" was often slack at MIT for a prank. Usually hacks (in this sense) were very elaborate pranks that required an immense amount of work.

Another sense of the term "hack" derives from the older jargon, crack. The term "safe cracker" is perhaps well-known to avid readers of pulp fiction; it refers to the trick of opening a safe by manipulating the locking mechanism, rather than blowing it up. Likewise, a "code cracker" was someone who specialized in finding patterns in encrypted data, and thereby decoding it. Applied to computer terminology, it naturally referred to the ability of specialists to defeat or cripple a computer system. One obvious motive for doing this would be crime: a cracker could, for example, crack the security of a bank and change his account balance to whatever he thought he could get away with. Or he could vandalize the system of an organization he loathed.

This has unfortunately created a certain confusion of terms. One of the things any hacker could naturally do quite well is create malware, such as spam bots. Spam bots could conceivably be useful; it's just that they aren't. So the term "hacker" came to be associated with negative, destructive use of skills that are intrinsically valuable.

Richard Stallman introduces a third, closely related, sense of the term hack: the introduction of a novel, potentially useful or entertaining idea. His example includes the trick of eating with more than two chopsticks in one's hand. While this is not very useful, he mentioned that a friend was able to eat with four in his right hand, using them as two pair. It appeals to a sense of playfulness and appreciation for originality.

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