The word hacker often conjures up images of seedy guys in dimly-lit basements, banging away on keyboards and trying to get into government networks. These hackers use their skills for malicious intent and are called crackers. They are individuals who actively break the law to gain unauthorized access into computer networks that they don’t own or control, either to cause destruction or for financial gain.

Unfortunately, the word hacker has a negative connotation because of the mainstream media. Media outlets have used the word incorrectly since the late 1980’s to represent those who, like the above, gain access to computer systems without authorization. This had the unfortunate side effect of stigmatizing the hacking community, where many hackers had to hide what they were doing for fear of social discrimination.

The term hacker was originally used to define a person who liked to “hack” around with things. This process let them discover how things work, and in doing so, discover ways to use things in ways they were not originally intended to be used. Electronics, with so many different parts and components, lend themselves well to those who wanted to hack around with stuff, so the work hacker passed into the realm of computers rather easily.

So just why are hackers important? Well, technology probably wouldn’t be where it is today without them. It’s not the hackers themselves who are important, it’s the hacker mindset. It emphasizes logical thinking and problem solving, and fosters a desire to learn and gain knowledge, and an understanding of how everything works. Hackers focus on how to think, not what to think.

I would argue that the first hacker was a caveman who saw a stick and thought about using it for walking, or hunting.

The hacker mindset is all around us, and is not just found in the world of technology. Every time someone uses an object for a use other than it was originally intended is “hacking.” Every time there is a problem to be solved, a “hacker” will solve it.

It’s this focus on seeing possibilities, or “thinking outside the box” that leads to invention and innovation. Without hackers, where would we be?

This article first appeared in Memorial University’s student newspaper: The Muse March 14, 2013

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