Hacking and the University
The role of the university in the development of hacker culture
The standard history of hacking begins with the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT in 1961 and has continued to be closely associated with academic culture. Why is this so and what intellectual and institutional culture led to the development of a ‘hacker ethic’?
This seminar will propose a history of hacking in universities from the early 20th century, taking into consideration the role of military sponsored research, the emergence of the ‘triple helix’ of academic, commercial and government enterprise, the influence of WWII cybernetic theory, and how the meritocracy of academia gave rise to Y-Combinator, the most successful Internet angel investment fund there is today.
Part of the Centre for Educational Research and Development’s Thinking Aloud seminar series.
November 27th, 1-2pm, MB1012
Himanen (2001, 75-76) on the ‘Net Academy’:
It is a continuously evolving learning environment created by the learners themselves. The learning model adopted by hackers has many advantages. In the hacker world, the teachers or assemblers of information sources are often those who have just learned something.
… this hacker model resembles Plato’s Academy, where students were not regarded as targets for knowledge transmission but were referred to as companions in learning (synetheis). In the Academy’s view, the central task of teaching was to strengthen the learners’ ability to pose problems, develop lines of thought, and present criticism. As a result, the teacher was metaphorically referred to as a midwife, a matchmaker, and a master of ceremonies at banquets. It was not the teacher’s task to inculcate the students with pre-established knowledge but to help them give birth to things from their own starting points.
It is ironic that
the current academy tends to model its learning structure on the monastic sender-receiver model. The irony is usually only amplified when the academy starts to build a ‘virtual university’: the result is a computerised monastery school.
An article I wrote with Mike Neary for the Guardian was published last week. It relates to my recent note about Hacking as an Academic Practice and is part of a longer journal article that I’m hoping to have finished by the end of the year about the importance of university culture to the history of hacking.
The publication of the article was nicely timed to coincide with DevXS, the national student developer conference we’re hosting next month. Last week there was a surge of registrations and we’re now fully booked. It should be a great event.
Hackers are vital to the university culture of openness and innovation
Have you noticed anything missing from the ongoing phone hacking scandal involving the News of the World? There are no hackers involved. This is the latest example of hacking’s troubled history with the mainstream media, which confuses the “playful cleverness” of expert computer programmers with the malicious meddling of computer crackers and criminal journalists. With this confusion, the rich and fruitful history of the true hackers is diminished and a thriving intellectual culture focused on problem solving, self-directed learning and the free exchange of knowledge is undermined.
Much has been written about hackers and hacking, but rarely is it contextualised as part of the scholarly tradition. Yet careful reading of the history of hacking reveals that it is very much a part of the work and values of universities and that the hacker ethic is shared, in part at least, by most academics working today.
Just a note to say that I think those of us working in universities should be defending the terms ‘hack’, ‘hacker‘ and ‘hacking’. Hacking has had some really bad press recently and as a consequence is terribly mis-understood, but is a term that was born out of the work ethic of pioneering academics and a practice that’s still worth defending. The history of EdTech has its roots in hacking culture. Stand up for it! Stand up for the Hackers!*
hacker: n.[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]
- A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. RFC1392, the Internet Users’ Glossary, usefully amplifies this as: A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular.
- One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming.
- A person capable of appreciating hack value.
- A person who is good at programming quickly.
- An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in ‘a Unix hacker’. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.)
- An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.
- One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
- [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.
The term ‘hacker’ also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net (see the network. For discussion of some of the basics of this culture, see the How To Become A Hacker FAQ. It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic (see hacker ethic).
It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you’ll quickly be labeled bogus). See also geek, wannabee.
This term seems to have been first adopted as a badge in the 1960s by the hacker culture surrounding TMRC and the MIT AI Lab. We have a report that it was used in a sense close to this entry’s by teenage radio hams and electronics tinkerers in the mid-1950s.
In addition to the links above, here’s some worthwhile reading if you’re interested:
* Dedicated to Jim Groom, Tony Hirst, Alex Bilbie and Nick Jackson. Fine Hackers working in universities today.