Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Generalized Hacker Ethic

Despite what the media might tell you, hacking does not only pertain to computers (or to security).  You can be a garden hacker (always tweaking the fertilizer, water, and layout), a language hacker (constantly trying out new ways to say something), or a relationship hacker ("Hey, Baby.  Come here often?"  Slap!)  Being a hacker simply means constantly trying to improve oneself in one's art.  But one has to choose the art.

Steven Levy, author of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, gave a list of the core tenets of the hacker ethic.  I'm going to give you a list of a generalized form:

  • Access to x—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information about x should be free
  • Mistrust authority on x — promote decentralization
  • X hackers should be judged by their x hacking, not criteria such as degrees, age, race, sex, or position
  • You can create art and beauty with x
  • X can change your life for the better

X, of course, is the art/craft/science in question.  Let's look at a more concrete example using Japanese hacking. 

Access to the Japanese language should be unlimited and total.  Well, thanks to the internet and a few useful services, that's basically true.  I can visit any Japanese website I wish.  I can order books and movies from Amazon.co.jp.  I can Skype with people from Japan.  And don't forget that you can change Wikipedia's language to Japanese.

All information about the Japanese language should be free.  Ok, this one is a bit tougher.  Thankfully, there are free online dictionaries for just about any language you could be interested in, as well as grammar tutorials.  There are also websites about language learning for nearly any language.  My two favorites for Japanese are AJATT and Japanese Level Up

Mistrust authority on the Japanese language.  I take this to mean college classes.  While classrooms may work for some people, they are extremely inefficient.  Research has shown that they may be one of the worst ways to learn, but I'll talk about that some other time.  I also don't take those two websites I mentioned at face value.  While their methods may have worked for them, that doesn't not mean that they will work for me. 

A Japanese language hacker should be judged by their Japanese language hacking.  I could earn a degree in Japanese studies (yes, they do exist), but that does not mean I'm an expert or have any type of authority on the subject.  Being male doesn't give me any more ability or knowledge, nor would being female.  Even being a high level manager in a Japanese company doesn't mean anything other than being a high level manager in a Japanese company. 

You can create art and beauty with the Japanese language.  Personally, I think that's kind of obvious.  Ever hear of haiku?  That's from Japan and was originally done in the Japanese language.  Even Japanese rock and pop can draw you in. 

The Japanese language can change your life for the better.  I think that hacking in anything can teach you a lot about life in general and give you skills in other aspects of your life.  After all, I could become fluent in Japanese and still never do anything with it.  Is it them wasted?  I don't think so.  I would have proven to myself that I can learn and use something as complex as a language other than my native one.

Are you a hacker?  If so, what kind?  A language hacker?  A poetry hacker?  An astronomy hacker?  A home decoration hacker?  A blog hacker?  Maybe a farm hacker?  There's nothing wrong with any of those.


  1. "All information about x should be free."

    This is interestingly ambiguous. In the case of Japanese for example, the only actual Japanese sentences not freely available are those which are spoken rather than written. (When I use Google to get a feel for what sorts of opinions are out there on a particular subject, I occasionally feel the gap left by people mainly expressing their opinions aloud... but that's English not Japanese.) What you mean when you say "this one is a bit tougher" is something more akin to the documentation for the language being available. After all a piece of hardware can be quite opaque until a dedicated hacker carefully examines the circuit diagrams and releases documentation. In the case of languages, though, nobody really knows how to carefully analyse the circuit diagrams; linguistics is not a finished science.

    Of course, most of the necessary information is perfectly available. But the point is, what should be free is not just raw information, but rather instructions.

    It's interesting to ask what things are and are not appropriate to fill in for X in your post. For example if I could think of anything which could not change a life for the better or create art and beauty, it may well not fit. But more interestingly, "access to X should be free" and "all information about X should be free" are tenuous in social contexts. People like to have some privacy. So the "relationship hacking" effort is probably right to encourage a "hands-on" approach, wherein one approaches people and starts relationships freely in order to learn more about them; but few would claim some basic right to availability of potential mates and information about others' relationships, successful and unsuccessful.

  2. Oh also! An important part of the hacker ethic I think is... well here's a not so good name for it: rapid prototyping. The word 'hack' has connotations of something that works but isn't necessarily the right way of doing things, because the proof-of-concept is an important first step for the hacker, and because quickly making something that works and is releasable is important; it can always be totally rewritten later.

    With respect to X, the idea is that you should learn to do something workable in X quickly. With cooking, teach students to fry up something. With language, get them writing essays as soon as they know a handful of words (in Latin for example I've always called it "dictionary Latin"- the sort of idiosyncratic language produced by someone mainly picking words and phrases out of the dictionary. Start out relying heavily on documentation but still creating whole sentences/programs/meals/websites/theories! Then work your way up.)