Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.
I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.
Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.
One of the interesting things about being a participant-observer anthropologist, as I am, is that you often develop implicit knowledge that doesn’t become explicit until someone challenges you on it. The seed of this post was on a recent comment thread where I was challenged to specify the difference between a geek and a hacker. And I found that I knew the answer. Geeks are consumers of culture; hackers are producers.
Thus, one doesn’t expect a “gaming geek” or a “computer geek” or a “physics geek” to actually produce games or software or original physics – but a “computer hacker” is expected to produce software, or (less commonly) hardware customizations or homebrewing. I cannot attest to the use of the terms “gaming hacker” or “physics hacker”, but I am as certain as of what I had for breakfast that computer hackers would expect a person so labeled to originate games or physics rather than merely being a connoisseur of such things.
One thing that makes this distinction interesting is that it’s a recently-evolved one. When I first edited the Jargon File in 1990, “geek” was just beginning a long march towards respectability. It’s from a Germanic root meaning “fool” or “idiot” and for a long time was associated with the sort of carnival freak-show performer who bit the heads off chickens. Over the next ten years it became steadily more widely and positively self-applied by people with “non-mainstream” interests, especially those centered around computers or gaming or science fiction. From the self-application of ‘geek’ by those people it spread to elsewhere in science and engineering, and now even more widely; my wife the attorney and costume historian now uses the terms “law geek” and “costume geek” and is understood by her peers, but it would have been quite unlikely and a faux pas for her to have done that before the last few years.
Because I remembered the pre-1990 history, I resisted calling myself a ‘geek’ for a long time, but I stopped around 2005-2006 – after most other techies, but before it became a term my wife’s non-techie peers used politely. The sting has been drawn from the word. And it’s useful when I want to emphasize what I have in common with have in common with other geeks, rather than pointing at the more restricted category of “hacker”. All hackers are, almost by definition, geeks – but the reverse is not true.
The word “hacker”, of course, has long been something of a cultural football. Part of the rise of “geek” in the 1990s was probably due to hackers deciding they couldn’t fight journalistic corruption of the term to refer to computer criminals – crackers. But the tremendous growth and increase in prestige of the hacker culture since 1997, consequent on the success of the open-source movement, has given the hackers a stronger position from which to assert and reclaim that label from abuse than they had before. I track this from the reactions I get when I explain it to journalists – rather more positive, and much more willing to accept a hacker-lexicographer’s authority to pronounce on the matter, than in the early to mid-1990s when I was first doing that gig.
That shift is so marked that I think the most interesting issue about the hacker/cracker terminological boundary is no longer journalistic abuse. It’s about what label, and what social identity, belongs to people who use hackerly skills to ends that others may define as criminal or vandalistic, but which are considered virtuous by most people who are unambiguously hackers.
I approached this question in Was Stuxnet a work of hackers?. The most interesting boundary case, which I also discussed there, is people cracking open intrusive DRM methods such as DVD or HDCP encryption, or jailbreaking cellphones. Hackers or crackers? The ambiguity arises because hackers are hostile to technologies that deny users complete control of their own computers and purchased media; thus hackers consider breaking DRM methods a social good even if such is activity is itself illegal or associated with illegal behaviors.
The line is not always easy to draw, but in 1996 I summarized it as “Hackers build things. Crackers break things.” I think that distinction is still the generally-accepted one; so, for example, a hacker asked to categorize someone who breaks security on a system will begin by asking whether the security-breaker built his own tools or is merely mechanically applying tricks originated by others.
In 2010, the term “nerd” has the least definite semantic field of any of the four I have examined here. In times past it was roughly synonymous with “geek” (and more commonly used!), but the latter term has shifted and sharpened while the former has not. Perhaps it is a label-in-waiting, ready to attach itself to some subcultural efflorescence of the future.