A hacker is someone who loves to program or who enjoys playful cleverness, or a combination of the two. The act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed hacking. However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful. Activities of playful cleverness can be said to have “hack value” and are termed hacks (examples include pranks at MIT intended to demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness).
Richard Stallman explains about hackers who program:
What they had in common was mainly love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs that they used be as good as they could. They also wanted to make them do neat things. They wanted to be able to do something in a more exciting way than anyone believed possible and show “Look how wonderful this is. I bet you didn’t believe this could be done.”
Hackers from this subculture tend to emphatically differentiate themselves from what they pejoratively call “crackers”; those who are generally referred to by media and members of the general public using the term “hacker”, and whose primary focus — be it to malign or benevolent purposes — lies in exploiting weaknesses in computer security.
The Jargon File, an influential but not universally accepted compendium of hacker slang, defines hacker as “A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and stretching their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.”
Before communications between computers and computer users were as networked as they are now, there were multiple independent and parallel hacker subcultures, often unaware or only partially aware of each other’s existence. All of these had certain important traits in common:
- Creating software and sharing it with each other,
- Placing a high value on freedom of inquiry; hostility to secrecy,
- Information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy,
- Upholding the right to fork,
- Emphasis on rationality,
- Distaste for authority,
- Playful cleverness, taking the serious humorously and their humor seriously;
Hacker ethics are concerned primarily with sharing, openness, collaboration, and engaging in the Hands-On Imperative.
Hack value is the notion used by hackers to express that something is worth doing or is interesting. This is something that hackers often feel intuitively about a problem or solution. An aspect of hack value is performing feats for the sake of showing that they can be done, even if others think it is difficult. Using things in a unique way outside their intended purpose is often perceived as having hack value. A solution or feat has “hack value” if it is done in a way that has finesse, cleverness or brilliance, which makes creativity an essential part of the meaning. For example, picking a difficult lock has hack value; smashing a lock does not. As another example, proving Fermat’s last theorem by linking together most of modern mathematics has hack value; solving a combinatorial problem by exhaustively trying all possibilities does not.
Hacking is not using process of elimination to find a solution; it’s the process of finding a clever solution to solve a problem.