Friday, July 24, 2009

hackers: a class by themselves

I've heard interviews and stories from the "old hackers," the originals. Richard Stallman and Eric S. Raymond and all the other MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab people. They always seemed a bit self-important and talked about their experiences in such grandiose ways as if any of it mattered. I always thought it seemed like they didn't really do anything productive. The whole "hacker" mythos seems to come from the punkish prankish nature of the MIT students combined with knowledge nobody else could know. Now I think I realize why hackers have always been unique.

If you've ever met a young modern-day self-described hacker, they're usually of a certain type. Big egos, big labels, big brains. Dark clothing. Not very handsome. Not very friendly. Lots of them have grown up and become more adult and less cyber-industrial-goth. A lot of them that get married will probably start getting those "married friends" or friends with kids. But there is a pervasive "look" that seems to permeate the underground hacker scene (or did in the past anyway). The original hackers might have been a lot less "dark" but certainly they must have had a propensity to keep to themselves. But there's something I see that the original hackers may have in common with many modern ones: wealth.

To get into MIT you have to be very smart, but also have a little money. I don't think there's a lot of people who go to such a prestigious college that are broke or very impoverished. A lot of modern-day hackers seem to have a similar situation. Of course there's plenty that have very little and you'll see them all over the place. Wouldn't it make sense that well-educated, intelligent, knowledgeable people would need to have gotten some kind of decent education or at least a little money to afford the books and technology to teach themselves their skills?

I think that a good number of hackers today aren't as "elite" as they make themselves out to be. Perhaps they know a thing or two about technology. But i'm willing to bet you a good number of them wouldn't know their ass from assembler. That isn't to say a well-off hacker couldn't be equally dumb and still be in the community - but I think the economic class of the individual may play a significant role in how much knowledge they could apply in a variety of circumstances. Hackers are sort of a weird breed because they don't have a specific job title, so they have to know everything about everything or they aren't a "good hacker" (whatever that means). There are certainly lots of specific security titles but a lot of being a hacker has nothing to do with security.

I know I would be working at McDonalds or something if my parents hadn't bought our family a computer with internet access. If I hadn't gotten my parents to force my brother to show me how to create web pages (even geocities can be a mysterious technical entity to a newb) it may have taken me years longer to start to develop a curiosity in technology. Though I was curious about hardware I was clearly a "software person". However, if I had just a little direction and example at that early age I could have done almost anything. But any of this requires money, and especially back then it wasn't a small amount of money. The typical desktop cost around $2,000 and I have no idea how much the internet was. The internet was also smaller so finding documentation and other resources for learning was difficult.

Except for some gracious metropolitan areas and retail outlets who front the bill, you do still have to pay to use the internet. The only free computer can be found in the bowels of the endangered species known as a public library. But things are definitely much different now. It's probably an order of magnitude easier to learn something on the internet than how we used to. You no longer have to pay expensive professors' salaries or purchase rare books. So the classes seem to be evening up. Maybe in 20 years we'll have free access of information for even the most impoverished americans. For now, it still seems like poor people are stupid and rich people are slightly less stupid. And hackers who have the free time and resources to become well educated will be more of a hacker than the unemployed struggling artist who just wants to get rich doing something they love.

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