Chapter 16
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

To understand the full meaning of the word " hacker,"
it helps to examine the word's etymology over the years.

The New Hacker Dictionary , an online compendium of
software-programmer jargon, officially lists nine
different connotations of the word "hack" and a similar
number for "hacker." Then again, the same publication
also includes an accompanying essay that quotes Phil
Agre, an MIT hacker who warns readers not to be fooled
by the word's perceived flexibility. "Hack has only one
meaning," argues Agre. "An extremely subtle and
profound one which defies articulation."

Regardless of the width or narrowness of the
definition, most modern hackers trace the word back to
MIT, where the term bubbled up as popular item of
student jargon in the early 1950s. In 1990 the MIT
Museum put together a journal documenting the hacking
phenomenon. According to the journal, students who
attended the institute during the fifties used the word
"hack" the way a modern student might use the word
"goof." Hanging a jalopy out a dormitory window was a
"hack," but anything harsh or malicious-e.g., egging a
rival dorm's windows or defacing a campus statue-fell
outside the bounds. Implicit within the definition of
"hack" was a spirit of harmless, creative fun.

This spirit would inspire the word's gerund form:
"hacking." A 1950s student who spent the better part of
the afternoon talking on the phone or dismantling a
radio might describe the activity as "hacking." Again,
a modern speaker would substitute the verb form of
"goof"-"goofing" or "goofing off"-to describe the same activity.

As the 1950s progressed, the word "hack" acquired a
sharper, more rebellious edge. The MIT of the 1950s was
overly competitive, and hacking emerged as both a
reaction to and extension of that competitive culture.
Goofs and pranks suddenly became a way to blow off
steam, thumb one's nose at campus administration, and
indulge creative thinking and behavior stifled by the
Institute's rigorous undergraduate curriculum. With its
myriad hallways and underground steam tunnels, the
Institute offered plenty of exploration opportunities
for the student undaunted by locked doors and "No
Trespassing" signs. Students began to refer to their
off-limits explorations as "tunnel hacking." Above
ground, the campus phone system offered similar
opportunities. Through casual experimentation and due
diligence, students learned how to perform humorous
tricks. Drawing inspiration from the more traditional
pursuit of tunnel hacking, students quickly dubbed this
new activity "phone hacking."

The combined emphasis on creative play and
restriction-free exploration would serve as the basis
for the future mutations of the hacking term. The first
self-described computer hackers of the 1960s MIT campus
originated from a late 1950s student group called the
Tech Model Railroad Club. A tight clique within the
club was the Signals and Power (S&P) Committee-the
group behind the railroad club's electrical circuitry
system. The system was a sophisticated assortment of
relays and switches similar to the kind that controlled
the local campus phone system. To control it, a member
of the group simply dialed in commands via a connected
phone and watched the trains do his bidding.

The nascent electrical engineers responsible for
building and maintaining this system saw their activity
as similar in spirit to phone hacking. Adopting the
hacking term, they began refining it even further. From
the S&P hacker point of view, using one less relay to
operate a particular stretch of track meant having one
more relay for future play. Hacking subtly shifted from
a synonym for idle play to a synonym for idle play that
improved the overall performance or efficiency of the
club's railroad system at the same time. Soon S&P
committee members proudly referred to the entire
activity of improving and reshaping the track's
underlying circuitry as "hacking" and to the people who
did it as "hackers."

Given their affinity for sophisticated electronics-not
to mention the traditional MIT-student disregard for
closed doors and "No Trespassing" signs-it didn't take
long before the hackers caught wind of a new machine on
campus. Dubbed the TX-0, the machine was one of the
first commercially marketed computers. By the end of
the 1950s, the entire S&P clique had migrated en masse
over to the TX-0 control room, bringing the spirit of
creative play with them. The wide-open realm of
computer programming would encourage yet another
mutation in etymology. "To hack" no longer meant
soldering unusual looking circuits, but cobbling
together software programs with little regard to
"official" methods or software-writing procedures. It
also meant improving the efficiency and speed of
already-existing programs that tended to hog up machine
resources. True to the word's roots, it also meant
writing programs that served no other purpose than to
amuse or entertain.

A classic example of this expanded hacking definition
is the game Spacewar, the first interactive video game.
Developed by MIT hackers in the early 1960s, Spacewar
had all the traditional hacking definitions: it was
goofy and random, serving little useful purpose other
than providing a nightly distraction for the dozen or
so hackers who delighted in playing it. From a software
perspective, however, it was a monumental testament to
innovation of programming skill. It was also completely
free. Because hackers had built it for fun, they saw no
reason to guard their creation, sharing it extensively
with other programmers. By the end of the 1960s,
Spacewar had become a favorite diversion for mainframe
programmers around the world.

This notion of collective innovation and communal
software ownership distanced the act of computer
hacking in the 1960s from the tunnel hacking and phone
hacking of the 1950s. The latter pursuits tended to be
solo or small-group activities. Tunnel and phone
hackers relied heavily on campus lore, but the
off-limits nature of their activity discouraged the
open circulation of new discoveries. Computer hackers,
on the other hand, did their work amid a scientific
field biased toward collaboration and the rewarding of
innovation. Hackers and "official" computer scientists
weren't always the best of allies, but in the rapid
evolution of the field, the two species of computer
programmer evolved a cooperative-some might say

It is a testament to the original computer hackers'
prodigious skill that later programmers, including
Richard M. Stallman, aspired to wear the same hacker
mantle. By the mid to late 1970s, the term "hacker" had
acquired elite connotations. In a general sense, a
computer hacker was any person who wrote software code
for the sake of writing software code. In the
particular sense, however, it was a testament to
programming skill. Like the term "artist," the meaning
carried tribal overtones. To describe a fellow
programmer as hacker was a sign of respect. To describe
oneself as a hacker was a sign of immense personal
confidence. Either way, the original looseness of the
computer-hacker appellation diminished as computers
became more common.

As the definition tightened, "computer" hacking
acquired additional semantic overtones. To be a hacker,
a person had to do more than write interesting
software; a person had to belong to the hacker
"culture" and honor its traditions the same way a
medieval wine maker might pledge membership to a
vintners' guild. The social structure wasn't as rigidly
outlined as that of a guild, but hackers at elite
institutions such as MIT, Stanford, and Carnegie Mellon
began to speak openly of a "hacker ethic": the
yet-unwritten rules that governed a hacker's day-to-day
behavior. In the 1984 book Hackers, author Steven Levy,
after much research and consultation, codified the
hacker ethic as five core hacker tenets.

In many ways, the core tenets listed by Levy continue
to define the culture of computer hacking. Still, the
guild-like image of the hacker community was undermined
by the overwhelmingly populist bias of the software
industry. By the early 1980s, computers were popping up
everywhere, and programmers who once would have had to
travel to top-rank institutions or businesses just to
gain access to a machine suddenly had the ability to
rub elbows with major-league hackers via the ARPAnet.
The more these programmers rubbed elbows, the more they
began to appropriate the anarchic philosophies of the
hacker culture in places like MIT. Lost within the
cultural transfer, however, was the native MIT cultural
taboo against malicious behavior. As younger
programmers began employing their computer skills to
harmful ends-creating and disseminating computer
viruses, breaking into military computer systems,
deliberately causing machines such as MIT Oz, a popular
ARPAnet gateway, to crash-the term "hacker" acquired a
punk, nihilistic edge. When police and businesses began
tracing computer-related crimes back to a few renegade
programmers who cited convenient portions of the
hacking ethic in defense of their activities, the word
"hacker" began appearing in newspapers and magazine
stories in a negative light. Although books like
Hackers did much to document the original spirit of
exploration that gave rise to the hacking culture, for
most news reporters, "computer hacker" became a synonym
for "electronic burglar."

Although hackers have railed against this perceived
misusage for nearly two decades, the term's rebellious
connotations dating back to the 1950s make it hard to
discern the 15-year-old writing software programs that
circumvent modern encryption programs from the 1960s
college student, picking locks and battering down doors
to gain access to the lone, office computer terminal.
One person's creative subversion of authority is
another person's security headache, after all. Even so,
the central taboo against malicious or deliberately
harmful behavior remains strong enough that most
hackers prefer to use the term " cracker"-i.e., a
person who deliberately cracks a computer security
system to steal or vandalize data-to describe the
subset of hackers who apply their computing skills maliciously.

This central taboo against maliciousness remains the
primary cultural link between the notion of hacking in
the early 21st century and hacking in the 1950s. It is
important to note that, as the idea of computer hacking
has evolved over the last four decades, the original
notion of hacking-i.e., performing pranks or exploring
underground tunnels-remains intact. In the fall of
2000, the MIT Museum paid tradition to the Institute's
age-old hacking tradition with a dedicated exhibit, the
Hall of Hacks. The exhibit includes a number of
photographs dating back to the 1920s, including one
involving a mock police cruiser. In 1993, students paid
homage to the original MIT notion of hacking by placing
the same police cruiser, lights flashing, atop the
Institute's main dome. The cruiser's vanity license
plate read IHTFP, a popular MIT acronym with many
meanings. The most noteworthy version, itself dating
back to the pressure-filled world of MIT student life
in the 1950s, is "I hate this fucking place." In 1990,
however, the Museum used the acronym as a basis for a
journal on the history of hacks. Titled, The Institute
for Hacks Tomfoolery and Pranks, the journal offers an
adept summary of the hacking.

"In the culture of hacking, an elegant, simple creation
is as highly valued as it is in pure science," writes
Boston Globe reporter Randolph Ryan in a 1993 article
attached to the police car exhibit. "A Hack differs
from the ordinary college prank in that the event
usually requires careful planning, engineering and
finesse, and has an underlying wit and inventiveness,"
Ryan writes. "The unwritten rule holds that a hack
should be good-natured, non-destructive and safe. In
fact, hackers sometimes assist in dismantling their own

The urge to confine the culture of computer hacking
within the same ethical boundaries is well-meaning but
impossible. Although most software hacks aspire to the
same spirit of elegance and simplicity, the software
medium offers less chance for reversibility.
Dismantling a police cruiser is easy compared with
dismantling an idea, especially an idea whose time has
come. Hence the growing distinction between "black hat"
and "white hat"-i.e., hackers who turn new ideas toward
destructive, malicious ends versus hackers who turn new
ideas toward positive or, at the very least,
informative ends.

Once a vague item of obscure student jargon, the word
"hacker" has become a linguistic billiard ball, subject
to political spin and ethical nuances. Perhaps this is
why so many hackers and journalists enjoy using it.
Where that ball bounces next, however, is anybody's guess.