"Hacker Culture" centers mainly around being really good at something for its own sake, especially in programming. I've read a lot about it, but what I read suggests that Hacker Culture no longer really exists. Primary sources, for example, are all dated.

It's obvious that my (younger) generation kindof stomped on it a bit, but it really feels almost as if it never existed in the first place. The older coders I've interacted with are just as oblivious to Hacker Culture as new college grads--and yet this wasn't more than a generation or two ago!


This is particularly strange since some of this culture is (or could be) perfectly relevant today--e.g. jargon like "octal forty" (I'm drawing a blank), "cruft" (nastiness), "buzzword-compliant", "disemvowel", and so on. Words like "copywrong", "linearithmic", and "user-obsequious" actually apply to today's centerstage issues! This doesn't even mention the hacker's love of all things challenging and interesting and aversion to bureaucracy. With such applicability, I would expect Hacker Culture to be alive and well.

In its time, although it wasn't mainstream, it was certainly not underground. I wouldn't expect it to remain unchanged, but I wouldn't expect it to disappear. My question is: what happened to Hacker Culture after about 1970? Did it evaporate? Become transformed in way X? Merge with culture Y? Did it drastically shrink in popularity, but still exists?

N.B. I originally asked this question on programmers.stackexchange. They took exception to this, because apparently it was too opinion-based. I thought about arguing the point, since partly subjective questions are allowed, but some of the comments I received told me it was a lost cause (such as the patently ridiculous assertion that there are no concrete answers in sociology). While Hacker Culture is often in reference to programming, since I'm interested in understanding the history, I figure this community is a better fit. I have rewritten, summarized, streamlined, and clarified the post for presentation here.

  • This seems more of a sociology question than history per se, but I don't know if there's a stack that specifically deals with that, unfortunately.
    – Semaphore
    Oct 19, 2014 at 18:36
  • 1
    @TylerDurden How would you suggest I could make it more about history? I'll grant that it's asking about a subculture, but I'm specifically interested in its historical development over time.¶ Regarding the definition of hacking, the definition comes from the Jargon File, a primary source. Note that "hacking" in this context is not the same as the later usage to mean "cracking".
    – geometrian
    Oct 19, 2014 at 19:00
  • 8
    I think this is a legitimate history question. History is not all empires and wars. The history of cultures and subcultures (including how they change over time) should be welcomed as part of History.SE.
    – Mike
    Oct 20, 2014 at 0:32
  • I wonder if you can call it "culture" in the same way you can refer to rock, or hippy culture. The biggest thing that happened to 'hacker culture' is that corporations took over. Many Hackers became CEOs of big multinational software corporations, and also the mode of programming shifted from individual effort to pipelines and sections, OOP etc. But Individual contribution is still alive in the Open SOurce community.
    – Rajib
    Oct 20, 2014 at 5:03
  • 2
    Reluctantly I'll have to vote to leave closed; I don't believe the question can be answered by anything other than an opinion. I supervise a team of hackers who are just as into the culture as I was in the day. How can I tell anything has happened?
    – MCW
    Oct 20, 2014 at 11:01

2 Answers 2


Putting aside the danger for this to turn into "it was better in my day" rants, Hacker Culture is alive and well and thriving. It just doesn't look like it did in the 70s.

First, I'm going to make a modification to your definition. You define Hacker Culture as "being really good at something for its own sake" which was never really true. You could be good at it for practical reasons, for bragging rights, for personal satisfaction... a hacker could be defined as a person who is good at something because they want to be good at it not because they need to or are told to be. It's not their job or their training. They didn't learn it in school. It's not their parent's job. Hackers are almost compelled to hack. Hackers are self-motivated to learn about their field.

Furthermore, Hackers are not just good at something, they tend to dive deep into their craft to pull it apart and reassemble it in interesting ways. Hackers won't accept conventional wisdom about how it's supposed to be done, they will explore the space themselves. Musicians who play their instrument in a novel way I would consider Hackers.

What has Hacker culture become? The DIY movement and the DIY Ethic. Maker spaces, Open Source programming, craft brewing, urban farming, home cooking, bike repair, self-publishing, blogging, knitting... these are all movements which rely on individual's compulsion to take a personal interest of the objects (physical or virtual) which make up their daily lives. To learn how to make, use, repair and improve on all the stuff which would normally be purchased.

The big shift in Hacker Culture has been an increased freedom of information brought on by ubiquitous Internet access. Until the late 90s, you either had to figure it out on your own, know someone who knew how to Hack, or be lucky enough to stumble on a zine or small press book. Hacking worked much like a medieval guild. Hacking knowledge was handed down and passed around. It was arcane, jargon laden, and often wrong. The notion of Hackers as "Wizards" conveys the value and power of knowledge in pre-Internet Hacker culture, but it also conveys the secrecy.

Ubiquitous and easy Internet access means now anyone can have access to the same information if they want it. It can be discussed, trialed, debunked, confirmed... all in publicly available archives. The rise of video blogging means information and tutorials are even more accessible. In the last ten years there has been a concerted effort to de-jargonize hacking, to remove the barriers to entry by making it easier to learn without dumbing down the actual information. Sites such as Instructables exemplify this exchange of information.

  • 2
    "What has Hacker culture become? The DIY movement and the DIY Ethic." Ahh I see this to be very much true; I'm surprised I didn't see the connection. If no one else has a better theory, I think this is an answer.¶ Regarding being "good at something for its own sake" versus "good at something because they want to be good at it", I don't really see a functional difference. The latter implies the former. Both views seem to be endorsed by the Jargon File (which, FWIW, I have read in its entirety).
    – geometrian
    Oct 19, 2014 at 22:17
  • @GraphicsResearch I disagree with exactly that part of the answer. Schwern is taking one abstract description of the hacker culture and finding where else it might apply. While the argument can be made (and has :), it's not the case the one became the other. A similar argument would be "A dog has short hair and runs on four legs. There's another creature with short hair and runs on four legs. Therefore a horse is a dog".
    – andy256
    Oct 27, 2014 at 0:04
  • @andy256 point taken, but I think the DIY movement, especially its open-source hardware movement, can actually be legitimately viewed as becoming populated by people who would have otherwise become hackers. Do you have perhaps a different idea?
    – geometrian
    Oct 27, 2014 at 0:28
  • I question that Hacker Culture created DIY, as DIY has been common long before that. Thus Popular Mechanics, How To columns in papers and magazines, and so on. Hackers may have drifted to DIY, but they didn't create it.
    – Oldcat
    Oct 29, 2014 at 0:19
  • Beethoven: hacker! Oct 12, 2018 at 22:46

Hacker culture didn't exist in the 1970s: a variety of hacker cultures existed: see the Jargon file's regional specific entries. Since the 1970s hacker culture unified, generated its imaginary other (suits), and produced a number of definitive central texts: jargon, bofh, etc.

As a workplace culture it tends to exist closer to the tools. The size of the labour force, and the changed methods of labour extraction, have fragmented the culture since USENET mattered and unix was expensive. This is more than a "never ending September" effect: it involves new subcultures based on the ubiquity of backyard coding and the reduced emphasis on core infrastructure hacks (ie backbone networks, kernels & drivers).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.