What It Means To Be a Hacker

I often draw strange looks when I describe myself as a hacker.

Most people imagine the pop-culture view of a hacker, tapping away at a terminal and breaking into computers. While I can’t deny having had my fun with this, it is not why I call myself a hacker.

What about hackathons and personal projects then? It is surely a valid statement to say one is “hacking something together” when they build an app. It’s true that I’ve done my share of projects and hackathons. I even won my first hackathon this last November, so I surely fit this description as well. But it is not why I call myself a hacker.

There are also the lesser known MIT hacks. A hack, as Wikipedia describes, is a public display meant to either show off technical prowess or commemorate a specific event. Some of the better known hacks include the police car on the big dome and tetris on the green building. While maintaining plausible deniability in my involvement in any hacks, I will once again say that this is not why I call myself a hacker.

But it goes further. Behind every MIT hack, there is a student who has mastered the art of hacking. In simpler terms, it’s an advanced form of urban exploration through MIT’s campus, attempting to discover and explore secret and unknown locations. One will find themself climbing through walls, delving deep into tunnels, and skirting the edges of roofs—simply because they can. Deep in the darkness of a tunnel or shaft, it is a feeling of complete awe to look around and have your headlamp illuminate the hundreds of sign-ins on the wall, left by generations of past students. But I must digress, because this is not why I call myself a hacker.

So what is it then?

Well, I had to think about this one for a little bit. For me and many others I know, it holds a meaning much deeper than the conventional connotation. And I think that what I’ve realized is that you don’t need to do any of the aforementioned things to be a hacker. What it means to be a hacker is that you have the drive. It is the drive to push the boundaries of what you are given. This means wanting to crack a secure computer system simply because you aren’t supposed to be able to. It means wanting to develop an app or compose an idea that has never been done before. It means doing something nobody thought possible, and it means discovering places nobody has ever been. It is this mentality of wanting to do—and wanting to be something more than anybody thought possible.

I’m not a hacker because of what I’ve done.

I’m a hacker because I want to do more.

 
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