24 Jan 2017
Over the weekend I read A Portrait of J. Random Hacker, an article about the people of “the hacker community” according to a Usenet survey (I couldn’t find any information about the author other than that his first name might be “James”). The article discusses a few different attributes of “the hacker,” to the end of showing outsiders who they are and what makes them tick. In general, the article rejected the pop culture hacker profile (unkempt, overweight basement dweller who hacks day and night while pizza boxes and Mountain Dew bottles pile up around him). Instead, this article portrays hackers as open-minded, avid intellectuals.
Intelligent. Scruffy. Intense. Abstracted. Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more hackers run to skinny than fat; both extremes are more common than elsewhere. Tans are rare. […] When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture’s gender- and color-blindness to a positive effect of text-only network channels, and this is doubtless a powerful influence. Also, the ties many hackers have to AI research and [science fiction] literature may have helped them to develop an idea of personhood that is inclusive rather than exclusive- after all, if one’s imagination readily grants full human rights to AI programs, robots, dolphins, and extraterrestrial aliens, mere color and gender can’t seem very important any more.
As much as the article seems to address the question what is a hacker?, its answer would be “someone with these characteristics,” an answer I do not find satisfactory. So before I continue my discussion of A Portrait of J. Random Hacker I’d like to establish a working definition of “hacker”.
Hackers and Painters is a short essay by Paul Graham about the semantics of “hacker,” “computer science,” and other terms in that ballpark. For example, if I asked you, “what is computer science?” what would you say? Before reading this article, I might have said something to the effect of “the field of mathematics concerned with algorithms and computation.” Right away then I might say to myself “well not so fast Mr. Computer Science Major, what are you doing in engineering classes?” Touche. It’s gotta be more than that specific area of math. I think Graham puts it well:
The main reason I don’t like [the term “computer science”] is that there’s no such thing. Computer science is a grab bag of tenuously related areas thrown together by an accident of history, like Yugoslavia. – Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters
Including such tenuously related areas as discrete math, processor design, and information systems. Let’s keep reading:
At one end you have people who are really mathematicians, but call what they’re doing computer science so they can get DARPA grants. In the middle you have people working on something like the natural history of computers– studying the behavior of algorithms for routing data through networks, for example. And then at the other extreme you have the hackers, who are trying to write interesting software, and for whom computers are just a medium of expression, as concrete is for architects or paint for painters. – Paul Graham, Hackers and Painters
Finally, back to hackers. Graham however seems to be talking about the “hackathon hacker,” a tinkerer, a maker. This sort of hacking is widely accepted as such in CS communities even though it is direct opposition to the popular hacker profile (constructive, rather than destructive).
The question was posed to me whether I think I am a hacker. While it would be easy for me to say that I identify as a hacker (which I do in some ways) and end it there, I have a more interesting exercise in mind. First, we will assume:
The article divides the titular portrait into 18 categories, and I will give myself a score out of 100 in each category based on how well I fit the portrait.
The article describes the average hacker as “intelligent,” “scruffy,” “intense,” and more likely skinny than fat. There’s not a lot to go off in this three-line section. I tend not to be scruffy, though I do tend to be skinny. Overall, I guess I’m about half-hacker here. Points awarded: 50 | Cumulative hacker score: 50/100
A Portrait denies the “National Lampoon nerd stereotype” emphasising that hackers dress for comfort above all else. Long hair (facial and on top) is common, as are printed T-shirts and sandals. Business suits are really the only thing not on the table. I for one happen to enjoy a well-fitted suit, though I appreciate dressing for comfort. That being said, I just don’t have the hacker hair (short, trim on top, clean shaven in front) and can’t give myself too many points here. Points awarded: 20 | Cumulative hacker score: 70/200
I like the word the article uses here: “omnivorous.” The article emphasises the popularity of science and science fiction among hackers. Yesterday, I finished Perelandra, the second installment in C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy. After this trilogy, I plan on tackling Asimov’s Foundation Series; I think I’m starting to fit in. The article also mentions the ferocity with which hackers consume books: while I wouldn’t call myself an aggressive reader, I have (at least recently) been very consistent with my reading, something for which I’ll give myself a few points (and a pat on the back). Points awarded: 90 | Cumulative hacker score: 160/300
The article lists “science fiction” (check), “music” (check), and medievalism (maybe not check) as other interests of hackers. It also lists board games like chess (check) and go (not check) and other “intellectual games,” logic puzzles, and finally role playing games. I’ve never gravitated to a game solely because I felt it was intellectual, though I do enjoy logic puzzles and my favorite genre (if you want to call it that) of video game is certainly role playing (I’m looking at you, Bethesda). Points awarded: 65 | Cumulative hacker score: 225/400
Apparently, most hackers aren’t much into sports. I don’t anticipate I’ll do well in this category. I do however agree with the hacker sentiment that “sports are something one does” (rather than views; this is cited as a reason for the near complete lack of sports spectatorship in hacker circles). You’d much sooner find me running around St. Mary’s lake than spending a whole Sunday watching football. Points awarded: 25 | Cumulative hacker score: 250/500
Hackers are “college-degreed” or “self-educated to an equivalent level”; I’m working on it. The hacker community values self-teaching as a manifestation of self-motivation and curiosity (both of which are essential hacker traits). I also value self teaching; my entire career as a developer has, at this point, been built entirely on knowledge I taught myself from the internet (and a couple books) (I’ve been a paid web developer for the better part of three years [not a skilled or masterful web developer for three years, just paid], a field about which I’ve learned virtually nothing from my coursework). Points awarded: 100 | Cumulative hacker score: 350/600
This, like the General Appearance section, is short. The whole thing is an enumeration of, believe it or not, things hackers dislike, and from that list I can only pick two that I share: dishonesty and boredom. Points awarded: 25 | Cumulative hacker score: 375/700
Big money, Pat, big money. Ethnic food, spicy food, Chinese food; three groups of food that top the favorites lists of hackers and me. Bonus points since I also fit the food profile of hackers in my area (the article mentions that West coast hackers also love Mexican food). We use pizza and microwave burritos as a tool, not a staple. Points awarded: 100 | Cumulative hacker score: 475/800
The author puts hackers “vaguely left of center.” I see myself as vaguely right of center (though politicalcompass.org puts me just left of center [see below]). The article also names a strong libertarian contingent within the hacker cohort; yours truly is a registered libertarian of the State of California. Furthermore, the article says hackers live by their political ideals day-to-day, something which I also try to do (gotta practice what you preach!) I hesitate to give myself a full score, however, since I lack the political militancy, or at least idiosyncratic ideas hinted at in the article. Points awarded: 90 | Cumulative hacker score: 565/900
If you thought that hackers were predominantly white males, then you thought right. While I, when given the opportunity, say I identify with two races (having been raised among both American and Indo culture [it comes as a surprise to most people that I’m part Indonesian, and yes I meant “Indo,” not “Indonesian” a few words back]), I am, for all intents and purposes, still white. And a man (that one’s a little more cut and dry for me). Fortunately, just like computer science as a whole, the article reports that hackerdom is experiencing an upswing in diversity, particularly from women and Asians. There was something else in this section that really spoke to me: through their exposure to AI research, science fiction, etc., hackers are open minded about what it means to be human (see the blockquote way above). I can’t say I’ve totally figured this issue out, but I can definitely say that my exposure to the mentioned areas has influenced my outlook. Points awarded: 95 | Cumulative hacker score: 660/1000
Unsurprisingly it seems that hackers are a generally atheistic crowd. I enjoyed the article’s mention of “parody religions” like Discordianism and the Church of SubGenius (perhaps Pastafarianism was less popular at the time of writing; it was excluded from this list). I for one am a semi-active Catholic. While I don’t see religion (or perhaps more specifically, the practice of religion) at the core of my identity, it’s a big enough part that I’m not really with the hackers on this one. Points awarded: 10 | Cumulative hacker score: 670/1100
“Most hackers don’t smoke,” (check), “and use alcohol in moderation if at all” (check). Psychedelics appear to have lost steam, but are still generally accepted and tolerated (similar to my outlook: I personally don’t partake in those drugs, but I don’t mind if you do so long as you mind your own business while you do ‘em). Finally, the section mentions caffeine. Like pizza and microwave burritos, hackers and I use caffeine as a tool of productivity. Points awarded: 80 | Cumulative hacker score: 750/1200
“They are often better at writing than at speaking.” Mmmm, nope. Not me. I was an avid debater in high school, and still maintain some proficiency at public speaking. My writing, however, has definitely gone downhill since then (though I’m hoping that through practice in this blog and by steadily ramping up my reading, that I’ll slowly regain some prowess here). Points awarded: 15 | Cumulative hacker score: 765/1300
Not much to discuss here. Hackers are concentrated in SF (my home for next summer) and Boston, with cohorts in LA, the Pacific Northwest (holla) and DC (my home last summer). Since I am from one of these hacker hotspots, and have, since moving out of the house, only chosen to live on one of said hotspots, I’m giving myself full points. Points awarded: 100 | Cumulative hacker score: 865/1400
Hackers are, according to the article, tolerant of a wide range lifestyles; cool, me too. The article, however, continues, saying that hackers are “somewhat more likely to live in polygynous, polyandrous relationships, practice open marriage, or live in communes or group houses.” I’m sure the first two items in that list don’t represent the majority of hackers, so I’ll simply address the third. I currently live with five awesome roommates, and love my current setup. That said, when given the choice between roommates and my own place, all other things being equal, I can almost guarantee that I’d take the single. Having a private space to just recharge is a great thing for me. Points awarded: 40 | Cumulative hacker score: 905/1500
The article repeatedly cites intelligence as a top hacker trait. When I think about myself, I really don’t think (much less say) things like “I’m intelligent,” “I’m handsome,” and not for an lack of esteem, it’s just that subconsciously I think I find that sort of narrative toxic and ego-inflating. Point is, when it comes to checking off the “are you intelligent like a hacker” box, I’m at a bit of a stalemate. Let’s keep reading the section (it’s the longest one).
The section starts off, after again identifying hackers as intelligent, listing things such as “curiosity” and “neophilism” as hacker traits. My parents could tell you that I was born curious, and if you’ve read this far, you’re probably a curious one yourself (or are Peter Bui– hi Dr. Bui!). I think this trait goes hand in hand with neophilism, the love of novelty. I never really knew it before reading A Portrait but I think my own neophilism drives a lot of other parts of my personality, like wanderlust, love of reading (and watching videos), and that curiosity we were just talking about.
The article also names a certain sort of “control freakishness” common among hackers. It isn’t the same sort of control freak as, for example, a helicopter parent, but something more internally directed. Hackers and I love making nifty stuff do nifty things for us. I know that for me personally, this is a good explanation for my attraction to open source software- its guts are exposed to me so I can make it mine (that, and it’s free). This section also (perhaps in hyperbole) says that hackers’ “code is beautiful, even if their desks are burried in 3 feet of crap;” I might not be working amidst mounds of paper and garbage, but I could never ever claim to be the most organized person I know.
We then get to hackers’ motivations. They are attracted by new, interesting, and exciting challenges rather than conventional motivators like social approval and money. While I too am drawn to challenge, I can’t claim to be so immune to so-called “conventional motivators.” Very recently in my life, I chose a path for money over passion. I’m not saying I don’t have passion for what lies down that road, only that I have less for it than for the alternative.
Finally the section addresses the Myers-Briggs scale. I’ve never vested much weight into the results of these tests, though interestingly ever since I first took it in high school, every time I’ve taken it (which has been a few times, from different providers), I’ve gotten INTP. And wouldn’t you know it, “hackerdom appears to concentrate the relatively rare INTJ and INTP types.” Points awarded: 90 | Cumulative hacker score: 995/1600
I will readily admit that like hackers, I’ve had times in my life when I found it challenging to identify emotionally with other people, and even more challenging to open up to them. The article goes on the describe an intellectual arrogance common among hackers, something I don’t think I share. When working with someone less skilled than me, I readily adopt the role of teacher (and, conversely, readily adopt the role of student when working with someone more skilled); I wouldn’t ever consider myself or anyone better as a person than anyone else just based on their intellect.
Hackers evidently are also rather intolerant in technical matters, something manifested in the “perennial holy wars” of geeks: EMACS vs ViM, tabs vs spaces, etc. I for one am guilty of fighting in these wars (perhaps even more vigorously than my peers). If you ever work on a project with me, the chances of you, afterwards, not knowing that I use ViM are slim to none– I’m quite, shall we say, outspoken about it.
The section goes on to discuss such traits as sloppiness and disorganization IRL, difficulty maintaining stable relationships, and symptoms of ADD. I don’t really identify with any of these problems, so I’ll leave it at that. Points awarded: 50 | Cumulative hacker score: 1045/1700
I’m giving this section a smaller weight since it does seem to be less consequential to the hacker portrait.
I scored 1,045 out of the available 1,750, which is about 60%. This result doesn’t surprise me too much (maybe it’s a little lower than I would have estimated before starting). That being said, I think it’s important to reiterate what I mentioned earlier: that it’s a naieve assumption to say that my results on this self-administered “quiz” could answer whether or not I’m a hacker. In reality, this was a test administered by an outsider (me) to an outsider (also me) and only shows how closely my character matches this “average hacker portrait.” I don’t think I could really call myself a hacker since I’m not a part of that community (at least not the “underground” IRC channels with secret handles and botnets).
It’s hard to say whether or not I’ll ever be a part of that community. I think my journey into computer security may lead me there (though it could just as easily be the case that it was my “inner hacker” that led me to that field); I don’t know. Regardless, what’s certain that the community of above-ground, academic hackers who I take classes with (and just about everything else with too) is one that I’ll be with for a long, long time.