When the modern usage of the term "hacking" originated at MIT in the 60s, it meant someone who enjoys exploring the details of systems. It described the mindset people so dedicated to a focused curiosity, they would invent new tools just to explore a little further, occasionally breaking rules to learn more.
The term hack is still used in something like the original MIT sense to describe clever tricks as "life hacks" — hack your vacation, hack your sleep pattern, that sort of thing. But today, the term "hacker" is reflexively associated with "computer criminal." Which is unfortunate, because there isn't really another term that captures the sense of a tinker's curiosity expressed as obsessive, joyous recklessness. Hackers have long fought against this criminal association, pointing out that thieves and fraudsters should be labeled as such, regardless of their tools. Despite their best efforts, and proposing the alternate term "cracker" for criminal computer use, hacking has been indelibly marked as something illicit.
To avoid being labeled as dens of thieves, people who enjoy fiddling around with things now often use the alternate term "maker" and call their workshops "makerspaces." Which is fine. But if we called this topic "makers" it would be even less clear what we were referring to.
When we use the term hacking, we're suggesting a curiosity so obsessive, it might go a little too far. And really the illicit associations of the term hacker can be especially useful in an educational context, where there are ever greater restrictitions on what is allowed with our tools, through licensing, rights management, and cloud based services and materials. By highlighting those restrictions, the thrill of exploration and, perhaps, going a little rogue.
Resources and News:
- Why American Farmers Are Hacking Their Tractors With Ukrainian Firmware - Motherboard, 21 Mar 2017
- What I’ve Learned From Tinkering With the Raspberry Pi for Five Years - Lifehacker, 14 Mar 2017
- A Short History of "Hack" - The New Yorker - 6 Mar 2016
- Hackers and crackers: a lesson in etymology and clear communication - TechRepublic, 16 Aug 2010