The Life of a Free Software Hacker
One may say that true life begins where the tiny bit begins—where
what seems to us minute and infinitely small alterations take place.
True life is not lived where great external changes take place—
where people move about, clash, fight and slay one another—it is
lived only where these tiny, tiny infinitesimal changes occur.
—Leo Tolstoy, “Why Do Men Stupefy Themselves?”
A life history, by definition, belongs uniquely to one person, textured by innumerable details, instances, events, idiosyncrasies, and happenings.1 As such, the writing of a “typical” life history is an impossible, quixotic task, seeking to standardize and represent what evades such a neat distillation. Nonetheless, to the best of my ability, here I provide some fairly typical experiences derived primarily from seventy interviews and other sources, such as blogs, conversations, and autobiographical tales.
Although the exact details vary, many hackers reminisced about their technological lives using a relatively standard script that traces how their inborn affinity for technology transformed, over time and through experience, into an intense familiarity. A hacker may say he (and I use “he,” because most hackers are male) first hacked as an unsuspecting toddler when he took apart every electric appliance in the kitchen (much to his mother’s horror). By the age of six or seven, his actions ripened, becoming volitional. He taught himself how to program in BASIC, and the parental unit expressed joyous approval with aplomb (“look, look our little Fred is sooo smart”). When a little older, perhaps during adolescence, he may have sequestered himself in his bedroom, where he read every computer manual he could get his hands on and—if he was lucky enough to own a modem—connected to a bulletin board system (BBS). Thanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world where there was a real strange brew of information and software to ingest.