Think Different About Hacking?

The words “hacker” and activity of “hacking” have been receiving a great deal of attention over the past few years, in the wake of data breaches, Wikileaks, the Anonymous and LulzSec groups, and now the “Shady Rat” cyberespionage revelations. Given that it’s being reported as the biggest hacking attack ever, the attention is merited.

As journalism professor Adam Penenberg highlighted last month in Fast Company, however, the term hacking and hacker are frequently misused in the mainstream, and it’s nearly always used with a negative connotation.

Maybe it’s time to revisit that interpretation, or at least broaden it. I’ve been a fan of Lifehacker since its launch, after all.

Earlier today, Kara Swisher reported that Randi Zuckerberg is leaving Facebook to start a new social media firm. In her resignation letter to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and communications head Elliot Schrage, Zuckerberg wrote that “I am thankful for the strong mentorship, guidance, and support, which is empowering me to follow my dreams and show that you don’t have to be an engineer to be a hacker.”

New York Times social media reporter Jennifer Preston highlighted that line from Zuckerberg’s letter on Twitter and, when asked if she believes it to be true, tweeted “sure.”

An hour ago, I wasn’t convinced. Great hackers have historically been venerated for legendary technical skills and creative approaches to solving problems, as writer Steven Levy chronicled in his canonical book of the same name, “Hackers.” Do you have to be a doctor to be a surgeon? Or a lawyer to practice law? Being a hacker does imply something specific in terms of your ability, if not credentials, as you can read in the Jargon File. In the programming community, hacking can be a technical term of art.

There’s also more to “hacking” than lawbreaking, despite today’s headlines.

Around the globe, there’s now a genuine movement of civic hacking afoot, which adds to the etymology of hacking “efforts that put technology, and particularly Internet technology, to work solving the problems of civic life,” as Nick Judd writes at techPresident. “Civic hacktivists” (also known as favorably called “civic developers) now gather together around the globe. Code for America is inspiring a new generation of civic coders.

Even with reasons to support hackathons, the negative connotation of “hacking” lingers. As the New York Times reported, when New York City chief digital officer Rachel Sterne proposed hosting a hackathon to generate ideas for redesigning, “she had to explain to colleagues that it would not pose a security threat.”

Think different

That said, it may be time to think more broadly about the term “hacking” itself. Matt Lira, director of new media for House of Representatives Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VI), agreed with Preston, suggesting that Thomas Jefferson, JFK and the GratefulDead were all hackers. Can hacker be a metaphor applied to government, rhetoric or music?

“I believe that is how the phrase was intended, or at least what it means to me,” tweeted Lira. “People who do things their own way.” He shared one of the iconic Apple commercials from the company’s turnaround in the late 1990s, after Steve Jobs returned, by way of interpretation:

To echo the final words of the ad, hackers could be described as “the people who are crazy enough to change the world are the ones who do.” On that count, I’ve now met many people who are hacking on open government since I became the Gov 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media, both from the inside and outside of the system.

With support, luck and a lot of effort, maybe more modern day hackers will be “just crazy enough” to make the government work better.

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.


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