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“I am a hacker, enter my world…” reads The Hacker Manifesto, written in January 1986 by a hacker known as The Mentor.

The Mentor’s text is one of many manifestos written by self-proclaimed hackers. In 1986, The Mentor’s world of hacking was easier to define. It consisted mostly of computer hackers, scouring the new dredges of the internet for opportunities to exploit security weaknesses. Hacking, twenty years in the making by then, stemmed from the rapid advances in technology and was established by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960′s as part of its artificial intelligence lab. The hacking guide written by MIT students is still considered a prime resource on the subject. MIT’s underground hacking culture explored both the ideas of hacking technology and of the potential to hack through every day life.

Tom van de Wetering speaks at a #hackingjournalism event. (image: Sebastiaan ter Burg / Flickr)

Often used as an insult or a degenerative label, perpetuated by pop culture, to be a hacker was to be something discrete, involved in clandestine, morally grey operations. But throughout the past decade, hacking culture has infiltrated nearly everything, and using “hacking” to describe innovation is embraced, rather than scorned, even in the most heavily regulated fields of society like the public school system.

Hacking has always existed, in some form or another, since the beginning of humanity, when humans had to hack their environment to create tools, resources and survival skills. To this day, hacking is still mostly associated with technology, but the label now encompasses much more than that. The word itself has been hacked to better define and represent various hobbies, projects and subcultures.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word “hack” has deep roots in the English language. It functions as a verb, noun and adjective. To hack something means to “cut roughly”; it also defines the tool used to do the cutting. It has been used to describe a laborer, or a person with little knowledge on a subject. And it is also about the ability to “cope” or make progress on a task; arguably the most relevant meaning of the word in the context of modern hacking.

These definitions help to explain the word, but not the people who use the word as a label or a guideline for life. In the essay “What is a Hacker?”, Brian Harvey attempts to define the common personality traits among hackers. At the core, a hacker is someone with an all-consuming desire to deconstruct and recreate. It has less to do with the medium of hacking and more to do with a hacker’s ability to see new potential within something already established, often established within the rigid confines of dominate culture.

English: Chaos Communication Camp, Finowfurt 2...

English: Chaos Communication Camp, Finowfurt 2007: Hacking is not a crime (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Harvey,

“The true hacker can’t just sit around all night; he must pursue some hobby with dedication and flair. It can be telephones, or railroads (model, real, or both), or science fiction fandom, or ham radio, or broadcast radio. It can be more than one of these. Or it can be computers. … A hacker is an aesthete. … The life of a true hacker is episodic, rather than planned. Hackers create ‘hacks.’ A hack can be anything from a practical joke to a brilliant new computer program. … But whatever it is, a good hack must be aesthetically perfect.”

But while Harvey insists that hackers are perfectionists, the hackerspace movement suggests otherwise, based on the idea that hacking is about the learning process and development of new skills, not just about a finished product. But neither Harvey or hackerspaces have an authority on what the word means and who it represents. McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto, argues that hackers are the types of people least willing to adhere to a specific label. In A Hacker Manifesto Vol. 3, Wark writes,

Hackers are not joiners. We’re not often willing to submerge our singularity. What the times call for is a collective hack that realizes a class interest based on an alignment of differences rather an a coercive unity. Hackers are a class, but an abstract class. A class that makes abstractions, and a class made abstract. To abstract hackers as a class is to abstract the very concept of class itself. The slogan of the hacker class is not the workers of the world united, by the workings of the world untied.

It is that attitude that leaves the definition of what constitutes a hacker open to interpretation, ready to be taken apart, redefined but ultimately undefined.