I was reading reuters.com over the weekend (I really was, no gratuitous plug here). While in the technology section, I came across a blog titled “The real meaning of hack” by Adam Penenberg. Anyone who knows me would realize that a blog title like this is a great way to get my attention.
The first part of the article was all about Mr. Penenberg trying to convince us that he is an expert on hacking. All Mr. Penenberg convinced me is that he is a prolific writer and uses his interpretation of hack and hacker in his writings.
Mr. Penenberg goes on to state that the use of the word “hack” and all associated words is a bit out of control. I certainly think he is definitely correct in that these terms are overused and misused. What he fails to mention (or perhaps is not aware) that both terms were widely used long before becoming exclusively used in technology.
Back in the early 1980′s while I was at MIT, the terms hack, hacking and hacker were widely used, sometimes associated with technology but not exclusively. For more information on the “real” meaning of hack and the rich history behind hacking, I would suggest reading the book “Nightwork” by T. F. Peterson.
During the 1990’s the use of the term hacking began to evolve into the Merriam-Webster definition. As Mr. Penenberg mentions, many of us in the industry attempted to counter this by using the term “cracking” to differentiate the malicious activity versus the pranks or constructive use of hacking. There are quite a few of us who still insist on differentiating hacking versus cracking, but that is likely to diminish over time.
For me, I’d change the Merriam-Webster definition of hacker and revert back to the original MIT definition: “…someone who does some sort of interesting and creative work at a high intensity level. This applies to anything from writing computer programs to pulling a clever prank that amuses and delights everyone…”. Quote courtesy of the MIT IHTFP Hack FAQ site.
But as is often in the English language, certain words have a standard definition or origin, but a more common use of the word that does not necessarily adhere to the strict definition or original use of the word. The collection of terms associated with the word hack has become exclusively associated with computers and the Internet, while at the same time lacks a bounded definition.
I admit that I am guilty of creating my own use of these terms. I commonly use the term “hack” to describe a successful effort to extend the value of a product or technology beyond its original intended use. This would include bypassing product or technology barriers or creatively adding functionality to the product or technology.
Makes for an interesting debate, but in the viral world of the Internet it’s more likely that the word hack will take on more definitions as time goes on.
Always interested in hearing your thoughts.