“Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
In the years since The Hacker Manifesto was first typed out, much of the internet has changed. It has grown in both size and scope. New protocols have been invented. The web was born. It is altogether different, yet familiar to the hacker of the 1980s. And as fast as the internet grew up, so did we. The caricature of the chain smoking punk rock hacker (pick your bad stereotype) grew up and got a job. He (inevitably the stereotype is a male) may or may not have cut his hair. He might wear a suit now. I promise you, he is still a hacker. We are the entrepreneurs. The managers. The senior engineers. And yet, we are still hackers. As society becomes ever more dependent on increasingly complex systems, skilled technical minds with the ability to creatively discover and exploit flaws in these systems will become ever more valuable, pushing us into a new era where we must continue to mature in order to adapt to the new society where the internet plays a central role and we hackers are no longer the outcasts we once were.
Imagine for a moment that we could quantify “curiosity” within people and graph its values in a population. This graph would undoubtedly show it falling in a distribution with a large grouping in the middle and sloping edges to either side. A normal distribution. Among any population of people, there will be some whose curiosity rates far above average. Within this group, some are bound to be interested in “technology.” Telephones, computers, electronics, and radios. These are the people we would typically consider hackers, although the definition extends far beyond that. However, because what we are labeling is simply a natural human behavior, one should expect to find hackers in any population of sufficient size. While we may not have always called them hackers, throughout history we can easily identify people who fit the profile. The curious. The ones who think outside the box. The people with the brilliant, weird, sometimes amoral, and maybe just sideways answers to problems that nobody else would have discovered. However they may manifest, hackers always exist. The question is, do they ever find each other?
For hackers, we live in an unprecedented time in history. Where once we were isolated and condemned to live out our lives seeking to fuel our curiosity all alone, we can now find each other with ease. With the advent of the internet and the first generations of what we today call hackers, a culture formed. This first group set the stage and defined for the rest of us the ethos we would aspire to. We were no longer individuals thirsty for knowledge in an information desert. We were a group. An army. A family. And we urged one another on. Successive generations of hackers have grown up and joined this fold, each one learning from and giving back to the community, shaping it by the influences and pressures of the current climate of politics, culture, and structure of the internet.
As the internet became so ubiquitous in our lives, the systems that run and govern it necessarily did too. These massively complex systems are both intentional and emergent, and it is in the interaction of these systems that the creative and curious mind of the hacker shines. Given our reliance on these systems and their importance in our lives, the role of the hacker in discovering their weaknesses and faults is even more important than it was even a mere decade ago. In our technologically-focused society, hackers perform an essential service by revealing and helping to remediate these problems.
Allow me for a moment to speak not as a hacker, but as a member of society at large:
Not only is the hacker ethos useful in providing a framework for hackers to operate within and aspire to, but also along with a healthy community provides guidance to otherwise aimless curious people. Consider for a moment the fact that hackers always have and always will exist in a population of sufficient size. Consider also the story we’ve heard dozens upon dozens of times over and echoed in The Hacker Manifesto: “Another one got caught today.” These curious people are going to exercise their curiosity regardless of whether we as society choose to include them. Should we decide that we are done with them and push them to the margin, they will not quietly disappear. Instead, as we have seen before, they will continue exploring and feeding their curiosity, and there is no guarantee it will be in ways that the rest of society appreciates. While the hackers will always exist, so too will the rogue element. This does not define all hackers, but these people, the intersection of clever and morally flexible, exist too. In excluding hackers as a whole, society at large can accomplish two things in one fell swoop: pushing many otherwise upstanding people into the “rogue element” bucket and guaranteeing a dearth of available professionals to do the necessary work of exploring, breaking, and creating of systems which hackers so excel at doing. Instead, we should open our doors, our companies, and our schools as we encourage this fundamentally creative act. We have an opportunity to harness the power of a brain that is always working and thinking.
Curiousity is not a crime, it is a tool and an opportunity. Hackers are not criminals, they are the spotlight that illuminates broken systems. Therefore now, more than ever, we need hackers. We need hackers to break all the things we have created so that we can make them stronger. We need hackers to explore new, wild, and creative solutions to our problems. The days of the internet as the “wild west” may have gone, but the hacker ethos isn’t going anywhere. Like the internet that spawn it, it will grow up and mature.
The Mentor is much older now than when he penned The Conscience of a Hacker in 1986, but even as he was crafting the manifesto that would provide a rallying cry and identity to generations to follow, he was already indebted to those who came before him. In much the same way, we stand on the shoulders of every hacker who came before. The hacker ethos has embedded itself into a community and a movement that now spans generations and will carry forward so long as there are weird questions to ask and even weirder people to ask them.
We are in a unique era where the hacker community and culture has identity and ethos and can raise and influence successive generations of its own kind. We must not squander this gift. We need hackers now more than ever.