26 Apr 2013

The following is a non-fiction essay I wrote for my ENGH 396: Intro to Creative Writing class. I decided to write about my experience with discovering and getting involved with the eccentric community of hackers that I met since the past two internships I’ve had at Valti and Humbug in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Seeing as it encapsulated what I’ve learned culturally since then, I decided to post it here as well.

Hackers – not your malicious meddling Hollywood-style speed-typists – but the type who sees a toaster and turns it into a computer capable of etching emails into the crispy surface of toast. Those who would create a programming language consisting exclusively of expletives and then use it to filter out offensive words from websites just for the irony. They would never steal a password or cause any harm – unless, perhaps, you gave them a powerful rocket and a bad idea. Their curiosity leaves them with a burning desire to break all assumptions and to answer “what if” questions as if they were a challenge to their very existence.

My personal foray within the realm of hackers began with Boston. I had snagged an internship with a startup called Valti started by a couple of Harvard students who wanted to create an online platform that enabled college students to exchange dresses. Startup businesses are dime a dozen in the hacker culture. With so many wild ideas going around, every once in a while a profitable one comes by. Hackers despise cubicles and big corporations, so starting their own company on their own rules is the usual course of action.

While Harvard’s snobby atmosphere put me off, MIT seemed to call out to the hacker within me. Now, MIT is arguably the birthplace of the hacker, so when I say that I was thrown into the thick of the hacker culture all at once, it is no over-exaggeration. This is the place where people would regularly discuss mathematical and computer science theories over a casual lunch with each other. Computer Science is the de facto “undecided” major at MIT. You would be hard-pressed to find a student who didn’t know their way around a Linux terminal. Now imagine the computer club of such a university.

The Student Information Processing Board, or SIPB for short, was at least one such computer club of MIT that I began to get involved with. This club, which was established in the 60s, packaged their own operating system and distributed computing environment called Project Athena that was good enough that the university installed it on all of their computers. The members were laughably out of my league in terms of computer science experience; I would find myself regularly searching Wikipedia for every other word they would mention while in a heated discussion concerning some technology. But, what surprised me the most was not the depth of their knowledge, but the breadth; each of them seemed to have an unlimited capacity for various trivial tidbits of knowledge from the etymology of words to the physics of the universe. Being around that kind of intelligence was fascinating, while at the same time frustrating, since it was often hard to follow.

Whenever I wasn’t building the website for Valti, I was out in the city going to various meetups to meet people and learn about new upcoming technologies. This was a totally new world for me. Hackers didn’t exist in high school, they were just those weird nerds in the computer classes. And, even at George Mason, there still wasn’t the same atmosphere of ingenuity as in Boston that gave me the motivation to want to change the world. I had the feeling most CS students at Mason were only there for the degree just so they could go work at some boring government contractor in DC when they graduated. After seeing the hacker culture in Boston, that type of job seemed like death to me.

Hackers, a world-wide amorphous group of people who enjoy discussing (and arguing) various topics, naturally congregate among sites like Slashdot, Reddit, and Hacker News (often abbreviated to HN – hackers, much like the military, are fond of their abbreviations) to get quick syndicated news and to have large in-depth discussions in the comments. Locally, there are groups that meet to discuss certain technologies or set up spaces where hackers can easily build prototypes (usually referred to as “hackerspaces”). Unsurprisingly, the hubs for these local communities are usually centered around cities that are hosts to major computer science universities: San Fransisco, Boston, New York, etc.

Their awareness of the languages they use and their fondness of breaking beyond the norm lends hackers a great affinity to the game of word play, and thus they have created their own lexicon of slang that borrows much from the jargon of computer science. “Foobar,” “grok,” “cruft,” “distro,” “kluge,” “phreaking,” the words that are common knowledge among those already within the society put a barrier in front of those like me looking to understand the culture.

Many of the students I met at MIT use a chat protocol called Zephyr as cross between email and instant messaging to communicate with each other. Zephyr was created in the 80’s as one of the first instant-messaging systems (the other, more popular protocol being IRC), and, because of the culture surrounding the program, it is still widely used at the university. “Zephyrisms” have developed over the years to aid in simplifying communication. For example, “==” is used to indicate agreement and “++” is used by what would probably be the equivalent to a “Like” on Facebook. Both can find their parallels as symbols used in many programming languages, the former for equality and the later for incrementing an integer by one. Other more obscure zephyrisms include “starking,” or reviving an old thread of conversation, “prnf” which stands for “Pseudo-Random Neuron Firings”, and “i, i” which would mean “I have no point here, I just like saying” and would usually prefix some snarky comment in reply to an otherwise serious thread of conversation (some people would just omit the “i, i” and put quotes around said snarky comment instead). Even though these zephyrisms seemed completely arbitrary to me when I first encountered them, after a while of use they came to me naturally, and I would even accidentally use them outside Zephyr to the confusion of my friends. It was easy to see how such conventions of speech developed originally.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which advocates for free, open-source, non-proprietary software (free as in “free speech,” not “free beer”), is based in Boston and is one of the focal points of the hacker culture. The president, Richard Stallman (who is often referred to as RMS), a big, heavily bearded fellow, is particularly legendary in the community. Being nearly militant about the goals of FSF, he refuses to use software that contains any proprietary code at all: no cellphone, only uses a laptop developed completely open-source, doesn’t use a browser to view the internet, and even refuses to use a key card, which makes it difficult for him to get into his office at MIT. Though often painfully stubborn about his ideas, he is the ultimate activist for hackers: making sure the government and big corporations do not misuse people’s information or kill off the hacker culture.

While nowadays I like to call myself an aspiring hacker, I’m not so sure I could ever match the intelligence and indestructible curiosity of those that I met in Boston. Perhaps it is their unique culture of constantly questioning the norm and striving for knowledge of the world around them that allows them to transcend into true hackerdom. Either way, I now know never to tell a hacker that something is impossible, because they will surely find a way to prove me wrong.