By Clover Carroll
Like millions of perennially optimistic Americans, I started the new year by reading a diet book. With high hopes and renewed determination, I dove into the latest diet bestseller, recently featured on NBC 29 News: The Bulletproof Diet. Leaving aside for a moment the violent metaphor of the title, what caught my attention more than this new diet’s guidelines or recipes were the terms in which it was presented—that is, the words and ideas used to explain and sell it to the American public.
The author, Dave Asprey, who describes himself as “an early innovator in the Internet (i.e., a hacker),” had become a Silicon Valley millionaire at a young age. Turning his computer skills and unconventional approach to solving the problem of his poor health and obesity, Asprey explains in his introduction that he “learn[ed] to hack my biology using the same techniques I used to hack computer systems and the Internet,” a process he dubs “biohacking.” You, too, he boasts in the book, can “biohack your diet to lose weight and upgrade your life.”
Unfortunately, this diet didn’t work out too well for me. While I did lose some weight, the “bulletproof coffee with butter” touted on the cover made me sick to my stomach, and I got so weak that I ended up in bed with laryngitis. But it got me started on the path of weight loss, as well as on a fascinating word/concept adventure, so I can’t complain!
I was struck by the application of the word “hacker” to this completely non-technological problem. It seemed out of place and gimmicky, as well as appearing to celebrate something I considered to be a criminal activity. But once I started looking around, I soon realized that this word is everywhere, a new trend, lending marketing cachet to everything it touches. I found myriad other contexts in which the word “hacker” and the concept of hacking have invaded our culture, becoming a kind of watchword of the 21st century zeitgeist. From Walter Isaacson’s new book The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution, which chronicles the lives and careers of inventors and entrepreneurs such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, to the film Fifth Estate (2013) (with Benedict Cumberbatch as Julian Assange), society is suddenly fascinated with hackers. In my opinion, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) should have chosen “hacker” as their 2014 word of the year instead of “vape” (i.e., smoke e-cigarettes).
You can visit the blog lifehacker.com for “tips and downloads for getting things done,” with international editions in India, the UK, Japan, and Australia. When making flight reservations online, you just might get the best price by using Kayak’s trademarked “hacker fares,” touted on their Travel Hacker blog as “a new way to find deals on flights.” Academic computer conferences often feature “hackathons” in which attendees compete to design the best app or website, and public schools have begun creating “hacker spaces” where students can tinker with electronic programming tools like Arduino boards. And if you create something really cool, it might be featured in the online journal Hacker News.
But wait! Aren’t hackers the worst kind of criminals? Aren’t they the perpetrators of cybercrime—think WikiLeaks, the Target and Home Depot data thefts, Chinese infiltration of U.S. companies, the Great Sony Hack of 2014, and many more? Since when did hackers become heroes?
Temporarily outraged by this new glorification of criminality, I began to wonder where this word came from. What do “hack” and “hacker” mean, anyway? Among its several definitions—such as using a hoe to break up clods of dirt into small clumps–the OED now includes “a person with an enthusiasm for programming or using computers as an end in itself,” as well as one “who uses his skill with computers to try to gain unauthorized access to computer files or networks.” This is a truly schizophrenic set of definitions. But I was also amazed to notice that the usage examples of both meanings went back as far as 1976. With further research, I discovered that although this concept has long had a split personality and its definition is still the subject of heated controversy, the more positive connotation definitely came first.
The use of “hack” as a computer term was first used by computer geeks at MIT in the 1970s to refer to computer programmers and hobbyists. Turns out, hackers have been heroes since the beginning! According to the website “How to Become a Hacker” by Eric S. Raymond (author of The New Hacker’s Dictionary), being a “hacker” has to do with “technical adeptness and a delight in solving problems and overcoming limits.” That’s a nice way of saying, of course, that hackers have an innate disregard for the rules, and that is one source of their success. My son Ben Taylor, who teaches computer music and digital media, defines hackers as people who build creative things with code. “In programming,” he explains, “we call something a ‘hack’ if it uses quick/dirty methods to accomplish a task quickly.” Raymond defines the original hacker community as “a shared culture of expert programmers and networking wizards.” Like the innovators celebrated in Isaacson’s book, these original hackers built the Internet.
So I was dead wrong to think that marketing and education trenders have co-opted a criminal term to sell their products—it is actually the other way around! In the computer security context, a hacker is someone who seeks and exploits weaknesses in a computer system or computer network. This use of the term by the media didn’t really take hold until the 1980s. But Raymond and other “ethical hackers” strongly dissociate themselves from those who enjoy or profit from breaking into computers and stealing data. “Real hackers call these people ‘crackers’ [analogous to safecrackers] and want nothing to do with them.” The difference is that hackers build things, while crackers break them. Hearkening back to old Westerns, observers have identified those who use their hacker skills for positive ends as “white hats” and those who use them for nefarious purposes as “black hats.” While mainstream usage of “hacker” has mainly referred to computer criminals for many years, this is now changing and the original good-guy hackers are simply reclaiming the term.
Raymond further broadens the concept by pointing out that “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.” Eureka! This explains Asprey’s use of “biohacking” in the context of losing weight, as well as the application of the concept to airline fares and a range of other life problems. Still, I do think marketers play on the word’s double meaning to lend their products a certain bad boy cachet.
To resolve the controversy about its meaning, we could think of “hacking” as a neutral term, referring to a collection of skills which can be used for either good or evil. While the media may portray the hacker as a villain, a book like The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2012) by Stieg Larsson presents an independent, savvy heroine who uses her hacking skills and disdain for convention to put bad guys in prison. Perhaps it takes a good hacker to stop a bad one!
The world has changed. While innovation—thinking in new ways about old problems—has always been a major American strength, today we are witnessing a new kind of innovation. Networking and computer mobility allow individuals to share creative and original ideas at lightning speed. The Internet, mobile devices, and soon-to-be-developed smart watches, smart cars, and smart houses offer seemingly unlimited opportunities for success. Startups—a play on upstart—are going mainstream and redefining how we live. So I say, hats off to the hackers!