Hacking: Beyond Activism and Crime

By Jorge Luis Zapico

I work with programming, I like making things, I believe that information should be free, I use open source software, I put working code above a fancy slideshow, I think computers can help to make the world a better place and that people ought to have the chance to use them. So I consider myself (in some way) a hacker. The problem is that if I say that, most people would get the wrong idea and think I am involved in some shady activity. An example to illustrate this is when the university wrote about the Green Hackathon events which I co-organize and where developers and researchers meet to create prototypes and solutions for sustainability problems. The article wrote about how we were “white hat hackers” and made clear that we were “not out to break into your bank account or steal government secrets.” So how did that disparity of meaning happen between what I mean as hacker and how media uses the term?

The first MIT hackers from the 50s and 60s (See Levy 1984 and Raymond 2000 for a historical account) took the word from the (still living) MIT tradition of making advanced practical jokes or “hacks.” From its origin, hackers have shared a mostly embodied and non-form set of values, which include the belief that information should be free, that people should be able to access computer resources, a strong meritocratic style, and a focus on hands-on work and acts before words. These values can be seen as a “hacker ethic,” which Himanen (2001) explores as an alternative to the protestant work ethic, where work and leisure are not clearly divided and passion and creativity become the main driving force. The term “hacker” is still used in computer culture with the original meaning, to indicate someone who is passionate about programming and who believes in the value of openness and of a hands-on approach. This type of hacker is seen in the open source communities, as explored by Coleman (2012), but even in other communities such as makers, web developers, and entrepreneurs (for instance Y combinator news are called hackers).

But for the general public, hacker has become a synonym for someone that exploits computer security systems for criminal activities. The use in media of hacker as a synonym for computer criminals has appropriated the meaning of the term and shifted the prototype of hacker in the public view. This transformation of the meaning of “hacker” is explored by Nissembaum (2004), where it is argued that the use of hacker and hack for criminal activities is not only a misunderstanding, but it could be seen as an attempt to criminalize the hacker ethic values, which go against the current market-based principles. This appropriation of the word hacker has been very successful, and outside the computer community, hacker as a criminal is the accepted meaning. In this way, activist actions—such as Aaron Schwatz making available research papers, which follows the best American civil disobedience tradition—are clumped together (both in media and in the justice system) with actions like stealing credit card information for economic purposes.

So as presented above, I would say that the interpretation of hackers as criminal is just wrong. But I would also say that the interpretation of hackers as activist, even if more accurate, is also incomplete. It still focuses on the savvy use of computer tools for an aim (either for criminal aims or for freedom). But it misses the underlying points that being a hacker is about another way of creating, acting, working; it’s another work ethic that differs from the protestant capitalist ways and which have more profound repercussions than using computers as an activism tool. In Coding Freedom, Coleman discusses the work of hackers in the legal space, and the paradox of the success of open source and its discourse in a time of tighter intellectual property rights. Free and open source software uses copyright law against itself for guaranteeing that the hacker value of openness is followed. FOSS has became an important proof of how things can be done in a different way than the current economic system thinks is possible, how collaboration and passion can be an alternative to competition and money (Lakhani and Wolf 2003), a tangible vision of how the hacker ethic can work. I do believe that the hacker ethic has important components that can help in transforming society (Zapico 2013), and I reclaim being able to call myself a hacker. I can see how more people and communities keep or start using the terms “hacker” and “hacking” for describing how they do things, from contributing to societal problems (such as the “Random hacks of kindness” events), to making business (such as the aforementioned Y combinator), or to remaking IKEA furniture (IKEA Hackers). I hope that this wave reclaiming these terms can help bring them back to the original meaning, highlighting how the hacker ethic provides an alternative way of doing things focusing on openness and creativity and showing how the contribution of computer culture is more than just a set of tools.


Himanen, P. 2001.The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. New York: Random House.

Lakhani, Karim R. and Robert G. Wolf. 2003. “Why Hackers Do What They Do: Understanding Motivation and Effort in Free/Open Source Software Projects.” MIT Sloan Working Paper No. 4425-03. Available at http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.443040

Levy, S. 1984. Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Dell/Doubleday.

Nissenbaum, H. 2004. “Hackers and the Contested Ontology of Cyberspace.” New Media and Society 6(2):195-217.

Raymond, E.S. 2000. A Brief History of Hackerdom. http://www.catb.org/esr/writings/homesteading/hackerhistory/

Zapico, J.L. 2013. “Openness, Hacking and Sustainability.” Book chapter in The Open Book, London, UK: Open Knowledge Foundation and the Finnish Institute.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Hackers: Freedom Fighters or Danger to Society

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