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AP English Language

10 February 2008

Hacking: The Other Side of the Story

Recently, I helped a friend bypass the internet filter at school in order to access YouTube

for a presentation. This involved inserting a portable drive into the computer and changing some

settings around. After a few minutes of fiddling, the bright red logo of YouTube appeared on the

screen. The video we wanted loaded flawlessly, the presentation ran like greased lightning, and

everyone cheered. I cringed, though, when a few people dubbed me a “hacker.” What is hacking

anyway? In this day and age, especially with the widespread proliferation of technology,

“hacking” is a term that is becoming more and more liberally applied, often with negative

connotations.

Traditionally, the term has meant something along the lines of “breaking into a computer

system without permission”. In the 21st century, however, it is imperative that we fully

understand what hacking is and what constitutes a hacker. The way it is used today, hacking can

refer to an endless range of technology-related activities. Some imaginative types have managed

to play classical music on the scrawny little devices known as graphing calculators. One

company has invented a video projector system that uses high-pressure films of water as its

screen. iPods have been witnessed browsing the internet. Now ask the folks at MIT, widely

regarded as the place where use of the term “hacking” originated sometime in the 1960s and

1970s. They will tell you that hacking can mean putting police cars, fire trucks, and airplanes on

top of buildings, or “stealing” an antique cannon from rival school Cal Tech. These wildly

different examples may seem to have nothing at all in common. But each account of hacking
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shares some common characteristics: ingenuity, creativity, and problem-solving. These notions

sum up what it means to hack – qualities that can be used as well as abused.

Unfortunately, stereotypes dictate that hacking is done by all-knowing “nerds” or

“geeks”. This is not the case – rather, hacking can still be done by ordinary individuals who have

a clear purpose in mind, an innovative mind, and a knack for tinkering. Hackers, like you and I,

can have normal, social lives, a complete contradiction of popular misconceptions. The “art” of

hacking is a mysterious, albeit entertaining activity for people to watch. Indeed – even jargon-

laden, rocket-science style hacks have evolved into the consciousness of the mainstream. Take

the iPhone, for instance – Apple’s wildly successful foray into the cutthroat world of cell phones.

Of the millions sold, tens of thousands have been successfully unlocked to work on any cell

phone service provider. The process of unlocking has evolved from a highly technical,

labyrinthine process of soldering and gluing into the ridiculously simple act of pushing a button.

Although Apple might not like it, iPhone unlocking epitomizes the potential benefits of hacking

and the utter gumption displayed by determined, enterprising individuals – these qualities truly

define a hacker.

Most importantly, people should realize that the difference between “good” hacking and

“bad” hacking is as tangible as the difference between white and black. Indeed, this comparison

gives rise to the terms “white-hat hacker” and “black-hat hacker”. The resourceful kid who flips

the computer screen upside down is a completely different creature than the anarchist rebel who

attempts to gridlock a government network. Likewise, when discussing “hacking”, one should

take care that the subject is appropriately placed in a white or black context. Do not make the

mistake of confusing an act of ingenuity or creative genius with an act of malice.


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Hacking is not a concrete noun; it is an idea. It is not embodied by specific criteria, but

rather by some prevailing themes: ingenuity, determination, and a desire to tinker and explore.

Instead of frowning at the geeky, nerdy , mysterious “hackers”, fixate yourself on the task of

hacking away at this stereotype.