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There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term `hacker'. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.
The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music -- actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them "hackers" too -- and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term `hacker'.
There is another group of people who loudly call themselves hackers, but aren't. These are people (mainly adolescent males) who get a kick out of breaking into computers and phreaking the phone system. Real hackers call these people `crackers' and want nothing to do with them. Real hackers mostly think crackers are lazy, irresponsible, and not very bright, and object that being able to break security doesn't make you a hacker any more than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer. Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word `hacker' to describe crackers; this irritates real hackers no end.
The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.
If you want to be a hacker, keep reading. If you want to be a cracker, go read the alt.2600 newsgroup and get ready to do five to ten in the slammer after finding out you aren't as smart as you think you are. And that's all I'm going to say about crackers.
But if you think of cultivating hacker attitudes as just a way to gain acceptance in the culture, you'll miss the point. Becoming the kind of person who believes these things is important for you -- for helping you learn and keeping you motivated. As with all creative arts, the most effective way to become a master is to imitate the mind-set of masters -- not just intellectually but emotionally as well.
If you aren't the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you'll need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you'll find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social approval.
(You also have to develop a kind of faith in your own learning capacity -- a belief that even though you may not know all of what you need to solve a problem, if you tackle just a piece of it and learn from that, you'll learn enough to solve the next piece -- and so on, until you're done.)
To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that the thinking time of other hackers is precious -- so much so that it's almost a moral duty for you to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away just so other hackers can solve new problems instead of having to perpetually re-address old ones.
(You don't have to believe that you're obligated to give all your creative product away, though the hackers that do are the ones that get most respect from other hackers. It's consistent with hacker values to sell enough of it to keep you in food and rent and computers. It's consistent to use your hacking skills to support a family or even get rich, as long as you don't forget you're a hacker while you're doing it.)
To behave like a hacker, you have to believe this enough to want to automate away the boring bits as much as possible, not just for yourself but for everybody else (especially other hackers).
(There is one apparent exception to this. Hackers will sometimes do things that may seem repetitive or boring to an observer as a mind-clearing exercise, or in order to acquire a skill or have some particular kind of experience you can't have otherwise. But this is by choice -- nobody who can think should ever be forced into boredom.)
(This isn't the same as fighting all authority. Children need to be guided and criminals restrained. A hacker may agree to accept some kinds of authority in order to get something he wants more than the time he spends following orders. But that's a limited, conscious bargain; the kind of personal surrender authoritarians want is not on offer.)
Authoritarians thrive on censorship and secrecy. And they distrust voluntary cooperation and information-sharing -- they only like `cooperation' that they control. So to behave like a hacker, you have to develop an instinctive hostility to censorship, secrecy, and the use of force or deception to compel responsible adults. And you have to be willing to act on that belief.
Therefore, you have to learn to distrust attitude and respect competence of every kind. Hackers won't let posers waste their time, but they worship competence -- especially competence at hacking, but competence at anything is good. Competence at demanding skills that few can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skills that involve mental acuteness, craft, and concentration is best.
If you revere competence, you'll enjoy developing it in yourself -- the hard work and dedication will become a kind of intense play rather than drudgery. And that's vital to becoming a hacker.
This toolkit changes slowly over time as technology creates new skills and makes old ones obsolete. For example, it used to include programming in machine language, and didn't until recently involve HTML. But right now it pretty clearly includes the following:
But be aware that you won't reach the skill level of a hacker or even merely a programmer if you only know one language -- you need to learn how to think about programming problems in a general way, independent of any one language. To be a real hacker, you need to have gotten to the point where you can learn a new language in days by relating what's in the manual to what you already know. This means you should learn several very different languages.
If you get into serious programming, you will have to learn C, the core language of Unix (though it's not the one to try learning first thing). Other languages of particular importance to hackers include Perl and LISP. Perl is worth learning for practical reasons; it's very widely used for active web pages and system administration, so that even if you never write Perl you should learn to read it. LISP is worth learning for the profound enlightenment experience you will have when you finally get it; that experience will make you a better programmer for the rest of your days, even if you never actually use LISP itself a lot.
It's best, actually, to learn all four of these (Python, C, Perl, and LISP). Besides being the most important hacking languages, they represent very different approaches to programming, and each will educate you in valuable ways.
I can't give complete instructions on how to learn to program here -- it's a complex skill. But I can tell you that books and courses won't do it (many, maybe most of the best hackers are self-taught). What will do it is (a) reading code and (b) writing code.
Learning to program is like learning to write good natural language. The best way to do it is to read some stuff written by masters of the form, write some things yourself, read a lot more, write a little more, read a lot more, write some more ... and repeat until your writing begins to develop the kind of strength and economy you see in your models.
Finding good code to read used to be hard, because there were few large programs available in source for fledgeling hackers to read and tinker with. This has changed dramatically; open-source software, programming tools, and operating systems (all built by hackers) are now widely available. Which brings me neatly to our next topic...
Yes, there are other operating systems in the world besides Unix. But they're distributed in binary -- you can't read the code, and you can't modify it. Trying to learn to hack on a DOS or Windows machine or under MacOS is like trying to learn to dance while wearing a body cast.
Besides, Unix is the operating system of the Internet. While you can learn to use the Internet without knowing Unix, you can't be an Internet hacker without understanding Unix. For this reason, the hacker culture today is pretty strongly Unix-centered. (This wasn't always true, and some old-time hackers still aren't happy about it, but the symbiosis between Unix and the Internet has become strong enough that even Microsoft's muscle doesn't seem able to seriously dent it.)
So, bring up a Unix -- I like Linux myself but there are other ways (and yes, you can run both Linux and DOS/Windows on the same machine). Learn it. Run it. Tinker with it. Talk to the Internet with it. Read the code. Modify the code. You'll get better programming tools (including C, Lisp, Python, and Perl) than any Microsoft operating system can dream of, you'll have fun, and you'll soak up more knowledge than you realize you're learning until you look back on it as a master hacker.
For more about learning Unix, see The Loginataka.
To get your hands on a Linux, see the Where can I get Linux.
You can find BSD Unix help and resources at www.bsd.org.
(Note: I don't really recommend installing either Linux or BSD as a solo project if you're a newbie. For Linux, find a local Linux user's group and ask for help; or contact the Linux Internet Support Co-Operative. LISC maintains IRC channels where you can get help.)
This doesn't just mean learning how to drive a browser (anyone can do that), but learning how to write HTML, the Web's markup language. If you don't know how to program, writing HTML will teach you some mental habits that will help you learn. So build a home page.
But just having a home page isn't anywhere near good enough to make you a hacker. The Web is full of home pages. Most of them are pointless, zero-content sludge -- very snazzy-looking sludge, mind you, but sludge all the same (for more on this see The HTML Hell Page).
To be worthwhile, your page must have content -- it must be interesting and/or useful to other hackers. And that brings us to the next topic...
Accordingly, when you play the hacker game, you learn to keep score primarily by what other hackers think of your skill (this is why you aren't really a hacker until other hackers consistently call you one). This fact is obscured by the image of hacking as solitary work; also by a hacker-cultural taboo (now gradually decaying but still potent) against admitting that ego or external validation are involved in one's motivation at all.
Specifically, hackerdom is what anthropologists call a gift culture. You gain status and reputation in it not by dominating other people, nor by being beautiful, nor by having things other people want, but rather by giving things away. Specifically, by giving away your time, your creativity, and the results of your skill.
There are basically five kinds of things you can do to be respected by hackers:
(We used to call these works ``free software'', but this confused too many people who weren't sure exactly what ``free'' was supposed to mean. Many of us now prefer the term ``open-source'' software).
Hackerdom's most revered demigods are people who have written large, capable programs that met a widespread need and given them away, so that now everyone uses them.
If you're a newbie, try to find a program under development that you're interested in and be a good beta-tester. There's a natural progression from helping test programs to helping debug them to helping modify them. You'll learn a lot this way, and generate good karma with people who will help you later on.
Maintainers of major technical FAQs get almost as much respect as open-source authors.
People who do this sort of thing well get a lot of respect, because everybody knows these jobs are huge time sinks and not as much fun as playing with code. Doing them shows dedication.
The hacker culture doesn't have leaders, exactly, but it does have culture heroes and tribal elders and historians and spokespeople. When you've been in the trenches long enough, you may grow into one of these. Beware: hackers distrust blatant ego in their tribal elders, so visibly reaching for this kind of fame is dangerous. Rather than striving for it, you have to sort of position yourself so it drops in your lap, and then be modest and gracious about your status.
For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label `nerd' and even use the harsher term `geek' as a badge of pride -- it's a way of declaring their independence from normal social expectations. See The Geek Page for extensive discussion.
If you can manage to concentrate enough on hacking to be good at it and still have a life, that's fine. This is a lot easier today than it was when I was a newbie in the 1970s; mainstream culture is much friendlier to techno-nerds now. There are even growing numbers of people who realize that hackers are often high-quality lover and spouse material.
If you're attracted to hacking because you don't have a life, that's OK too -- at least you won't have trouble concentrating. Maybe you'll get one later.
The problem with screen names or handles deserves some amplification. Concealing your identity behind a handle is a juvenile and silly behavior characteristic of crackers, warez d00dz, and other lower life forms. Hackers don't do this; they're proud of what they do and want it associated with their real names. So if you have a handle, drop it. In the hacker culture it will only mark you as a loser.
The Loginataka has some things to say about the proper training and attitude of a Unix hacker.
I have also written A Brief History Of Hackerdom.
I have written a paper, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which explains a lot about how the Linux and open-source cultures work. I have addressed this topic even more directly in its sequel Homesteading the Noosphere.
Even if I did, hacking is an attitude and skill you basically have to teach yourself. You'll find that while real hackers want to help you, they won't respect you if you beg to be spoon-fed everything they know.
Learn a few things first. Show that you're trying, that you're capable of learning on your own. Then go to the hackers you meet with specific questions.
Visual Basic is especially awful. The fact that it's a proprietary Microsoft language is enough to disqualify it, and like other Basics it's a poorly-designed language that will teach you bad programming habits.
One of those bad habits is becoming dependent on a single vendor's libraries, widgets, and development tools. In general, any language that isn't supported under at least three different vendors' operating systems is a poor one to learn to hack in.
(I used to say here that you wouldn't find any real hackers on IRC, but I'm given to understand this is changing. Apparently some real hacker communities, attached to things like GIMP and Perl, have IRC channels now.)
But HTML is not a full programming language. When you're ready to start programming, I would recommend starting with Python. You will hear a lot of people recommending Perl, and Perl is still more popular than Python, but it's harder to learn and (in my opinion) less well designed. There are resources for programming beginners using Python in the Web.
C is really important, but it's also much more difficult than either Python or Perl. Don't try to learn it first.
Windows users, do not settle for Visual Basic. It will teach you bad habits, and it's not portable off Windows. Avoid.