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THE PSYCHOLOGY OF HACKING [Internetika 1.37] by Loke Kar Seng
The Information Superhighway has become a thoroughfare for many species of netizens, and among those most feared and probably most misunderstood are the hackers. Hackers are popularly portrayed as criminal minds hellbent on bringing havoc to the online world for their misguided and, no doubt, criminal ends. But the original meaning of the word, hack, has no such connotations. The original hackers, according to Steven Levy in his book Hackers, were members of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) of famed Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The term "hacker", in its original meaning, refers to someone who applies ingenuity to create a clever result - usually in a technical sense - called a "hack" (see box). At that time, circa 1960s, the TMRC layout was already a marvel of complexity including a control system with 1200 relays, switches, digital clocks and so on. Many of the TMRC members later graduated to hacking computers, beginning with PDP-1, and to become core members of the MIT AI Lab staff.

hacker /n./ [source:The Jargon File]

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe] 1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value. 4. A person who is good at programming quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)

We can say that a hacker is a person who enjoys learning and exploring technical systems, especially computer systems. Many of them share an ideal that is often quoted as the Hackers Ethic (see box). Among them is the belief that any form of information is good and should be freely available. Information is itself neutral and cannot cause harm unless the owner wills it so.

The Hackers Ethic Access to computers should be unlimited and total.

Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative

All information should be free.

Mistrust authority--promote decentralization.

Hackers should be judged by their hacking.

You can create art and beauty on a computer.

Computers can change your life for the better.

Well known in the hacking world is the hacker manifesto so-called "The Conscience of a Hacker" written by "The Mentor". The writing depicts a misunderstood individual who styles himself (or herself) as a hacker that feels superior to others. The writer feels misplaced in the consumeristic world and is most comfortable in a computer world that, to him, is as exhilariting as "heroin through an addict's veins". His activities provides " a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies". His actions are justified as they themselves cause no harm or at least is less harmful than war or cheating or lying. Their continual hacking of computers for free online access is seen as justifiable because online access as service should really be "dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons." He admits to one crime and that is the crime of being curious:

" Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike.." - The Mentor

The last line - 'you can't stop us all' - may strike terror to many sysops. Yet many of the hacking feats are not unpreventable unless by the sheer incompetency of the administrators. In fact this is their many justification - an unlocked or open door is viewed as an invitation to visit. Understanding their idealism and psychology may help more than by passing various legal acts which may actually strengthen their resolve. It is a fool that stays in glass houses that throw stones.

Another hacker and cracker, "+Orc", in some of his famous cracking notes, leave curious passages of prose among obscure technical content. A common theme among hackers is the feeling of displacement or ennui. Here, +Orc, describes the boredom of structured life, from "leaving home at 7.30 in the morning, stinking in a progression of identical cars, forced to interminably watch advertisement panels and endlessly listen to boorish publicity". He rebels against the planned-obsolescence economy where we work "the whole day long in order to produce other cars in order to buy, one day, a new car with a different colour." +Orc refers back to a romantic idealism where people look at stars, "love each other, feel the winds, , study colours ", where the people do not "consume". Here is something, I believe, that we all want, yet unable to express because we are all running on our own little treadwheel that we cannot get off.

Despite the Americans credited as amongst the early hackers, Mentor and +Orc are not American but most probably Europeans. We know that many of the malicious hackers come from the old Soviet Bloc, for example, Dark Angel is known to be from Bulgaria. However, hackers like Mentor and +Orc seems different. Their expression of romanticism is something not usually heard of as most press like to sensationalise their exploits or criminal intent. Hackers like them are more like the Beats in the 50s or the Hippies in the 60s. Outsiders in their own society, but imbued with capable intelligence and idealism, and lost in a world that did not create and cannot control. It would be a sad day when the last of them vanishes, that despite their hackeyed understanding of economics.

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