Monday, September 2, 2013

Hacked Off

I am already so tired of the word "hack" as it keeps appearing in common usage, even though it has not yet reached the saturation point. But it's close.  Everywhere I read, it seems somebody is offering some kind of hack--technology hacks, food hacks, life hacks, probably sex hacks and religious hacks I don't even know about.

I understand why.  The word is cool, it's hip, it's now.  It puts a behavior, even a fairly mundane behavior,  into a modern, technological context to make it sound like it is so cutting edge that either the person doing the hacking is a genius or we are all idiots for not thinking of the same kind of hacks on our own.

But let's remind ourselves of the word's primary definition.  Hackers, of course, were/are people who break into other people's computer activities illegally.  They either do it in order to get possession of private, supposedly-secure information or they do it just to prove that they can do it.  Or they do it to take governments or large multinational entities down a notch or two.

In its secondary, now main, meaning, the word means taking some technological device, say a smart phone, and modifying it by breaking through various codes so that it will do things that it was not originally intended to do.  The connection to the first definition is obvious, but the issues of legality have softened.

And I get all of that.  This isn't a discussion about morality; it's a discussion about the appropriation of a word so that it is stretched beyond sensibility.

My first encounter with the word in its expanded context came earlier in the summer when I saw a post online about "8 Ways To Hack A Bud Light Lime-a-Rita."  While I suppose that the suggestions are in keeping with that secondary definition, we are talking about an alcoholic drink.  And we are talking about doing very non-technological things to it like adding more lime or putting it in a blender with some ice to make a frozen drink or maybe adding some ginger.

Since then, I've seen kitchen hacks and mind hacks and there is a website devoted to a new hack everyday.

Which might mean that it's time to bring in yet a third definition of "hack."  For a long time now, it has also been a noun to mean someone who is not very good at something, something like writing.  A hack might well be someone who copies the techniques and conventions of better writers, but with less success.

How ironic, then, that to use the word "hack" might end up making someone into a hack, since the word has now, whether or not it has yet worn out its welcome, has certainly outlived its usefulness, and if you are spending your time talking about hacks, you are trying to sound like you are on top of the latest language when, in fact, the future has moved behind you.

I'm all about modifications, improvements, upgrades, adjustments, tweaks.  I love knowing how to make things better.  I spend my time at work, at home while cooking, maybe even sometimes in relationships trying to do exactly that.  But I also love words and their strengths and quirks and when a word is played out, then it becomes time to use it only in the most ironic ways.

 "Hack" has not caught up to that kind of thinking yet.  It doesn't know that its time has already come and gone, even while it seems to be enjoying its Pyrrhic popularity.  It's kind of like cupcakes in that way.  Cupcakes two years ago, before the crash.

So if you are thinking of creating your own hack niche, then I would caution you: that wordship has sailed.




4 comments:

Mackenzie said...

"But let's remind ourselves of the word's origin. Hackers, of course, were/are people who break into other people's computer activities illegally. They either do it in order to get possession of private, supposedly-secure information or they do it just to prove that they can do it. Or they do it to take governments or large multinational entities down a notch or two."

WRONG

100% WRONG

That is not the original meaning. That is the meaning the news media made up in the 1990s. What you are describing is cracking: criminal hacking.

"Hacking" has its origins in the 1960s at MIT. The Tech Model Railroad Club used it to describe clever tricks. It has been used since those days to refer to the clever pranks pulled at MIT (like when they out a Police car on top of the dome) and the clever tricks used to optimize their trains and later the PDP-7 and PDP-11 computers at MIT.

Learn your history before you spout off. You can find it all in Steven Levy's "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution."

Bob said...

Mackenzie, I appreciate that you took the time to read my piece. I must challenge your accusation that I "spout off," however. For those of us who are not deep into the computer world, which I'm pretty sure is most of our readers, we have no reason to go down the rabbit hole you recommend.

Indeed, popular sites for definitions like Wikipedia and Merriam-Webster do not explore the word origin you suggest, instead giving more focus on the definition I
offer as primary. Wikipedia mentions the "MIT hack" as, perhaps, the 12th definition on its list, pretty far down.

I'm sure you also realize that my post has little to do with your issue. My weariness is associated with the all-purpose, non-computer uses of the word.

Apparently, your esoteric beef is with the media, who is not allowed to "make up" words? I guess only MIT can do that.

Mackenzie said...

As far as I am concerned, saying that hacking is, by definition, illegal is defamation against hackers. I find your declaration personally insulting.

Bob said...

I've done some extra reading and now realize that there is a "hacker definition controversy" out there that I've apparently stumbled into. But controversy means there is more than one side to the issue, right?

And my use of the word is the mainstream use. I'm sorry.