For the foreseeable future, I will avoid referring to myself as a “hacker” in civilian contexts. This despite it still serving as the most apt label for my relationship with software and its creation, far moreso than more clinical terms like “developer” or “programmer”. I have for some time now introduced myself as a “freelance software engineer” when applicable, enough to have gotten over the strangeness of its mouth-feel. Maybe “software toolsmith” or the like when feeling feisty. But, no more “hacker”.
I have thought of myself as a hacker ever since reading The New Hacker’s Dictionary, Eric Raymond’s expanded print edition of the Jargon File, in 1998. Read during a directionless post-graduate period of my life, that book — as well as Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs — made me yearn for a career in software. The books set out a definition of “hacker” that sang to me: one who participates in a community of smart, creative people who find joy in making computers not just solve other peoples’ problems, but also accomplish wonderful things in new and amazing ways. Raymond’s essay defining a typical hacker today reads like the naive, decades-ago artifact that it is, but it resonated so strongly with me — naive and decades-ago, myself! — that I immediately internalized it. I like to believe that my personal implementation of the hacker identity has matured along with the rest of me, in all the years since. Its label to one side, I have grown around my hacker-ness, and have no desire to discard it.
In New Hacker’s Dictionary, Raymond also railed against the long-standing criminal connotations that “hacker”, whose etymology dated back to the origins of software itself, had become burdened with. He urged readers who identified with the term’s original meaning to take it back, wearing the label with pride. For many years, I did just that, and I believe that it served me all right, even when I knew it caused some confusion in public.
Today, though, popular use of the word has swerved swiftly and deeply in a negative direction. Recent news articles use the term — for lack of any better one — to describe not mere petty thieves or miscreants, but enemy combatants, operatives of hostile foreign-national powers engaged quite literally in attacking and damaging my own, real, not-a-video-game country. I don’t blame the news media for this, as I might have in the 1990s. They’re using the best language they have to cover a rapidly changing situation. (Raymond’s suggestion of “cracker” to replace the criminal definition of “hacker” never caught on, alas.)
I struggle to invent a simile describing how this feels. Perhaps as if I belonged to a group of creative professionals that affectionally referred to its more skilled members as “robbers” or “gunmen”, and then suddenly waking up to how strange that sounded outside of the circle. But even that doesn’t get to the extremely fraught and newly fear-invoking weight the word carries today, at least among Americans. “Guerillas”, perhaps? “Saboteurs”? But at any rate, I want nothing to do with any of it. I reserve the right to continue calling myself a hacker when among my fellow hackers. Out in the larger world, though, I shall for the sake of clarity and social tranquility use equally correct but blander terms.