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Jargon used in computing

Appendix B: A Portrait of J. Random Hacker

This profile reflects detailed comments on an earlier `trial balloon' version from about a
hundred USENET respondents.  Where comparatives are used, the implicit `other' is a
randomly selected segment of the non-hacker population of the same size as hackerdom.

An important point: Except in some relatively minor respects such as slang vocabulary,
hackers don't get to be the way they are by imitating each other.  Rather, it seems to be
the case that the combination of personality traits that makes a hacker so conditions one's
outlook on life that one tends to end up being like other hackers whether one wants to or
not (much as bizarrely detailed similarities in behavior and preferences are found in
genetic twins raised separately).

General Appearance

Intelligent.  Scruffy.  Intense.  Abstracted.  Surprisingly for a sedentary profession, more
hackers run to skinny than fat; bothextremes are more common than elsewhere.  Tans are rare.


Casual, vaguely post-hippie; T-shirts, jeans, running shoes, Birkenstocks (or bare feet).
Long hair, beards, and moustaches are common.  High incidence of tie-dye and intellectual
or humourous `slogan' T-shirts (only rarely computer related; that would be too obvious).

A substantial minority prefers `outdoorsy' clothing --- hiking boots ("in case a mountain
should suddenly spring up in the machine room", as one famous parody put it), khakis,
lumberjack or chamois shirts, and the like.

Very few actually fit the `National Lampoon' Nerd stereotype, though it lingers on at MIT
and may have been more common before 1975.  These days, backpacks are more common than
briefcases, and the hacker `look' is more whole-earth than whole-polyester.

Hackers dress for comfort, function, and minimal maintenance hassles rather than for
appearance (some, perhaps unfortunately, take this to extremes and neglect personal
hygiene).  They have a very low tolerance of suits and other `business' attire; in fact,
it is not uncommon for hackers to quit a job rather than conform to a dress code.

Female hackers almost never wear visible makeup, and many use none at all.

Reading Habits

Omnivorous, but usually includes lots of science and science fiction. The typical hacker
household might subscribe to `Analog', `Scientific American', `Co-Evolution Quarterly',
and `Smithsonian'.  Hackers often have a reading range that astonishes liberal arts people
but tend not to talk about it as much.  Many hackers spend as much of their spare time
reading as the average American burns up watching TV, and often keep shelves and shelves
of well-thumbed books in their homes.

Other Interests

Some hobbies are widely shared and recognized as going with the culture: science fiction,
music, medievalism, chess, go, backgammon, wargames, and intellectual games of all kinds.
(Role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons used to be extremely popular among hackers
but they lost a bit of their luster as they moved into the mainstream and became heavily
commercialized.)  Logic puzzles.  Ham radio.  Other interests that seem to correlate less
strongly but positively with hackerdom include linguistics and theater teching.

Physical Activity and Sports

Many (perhaps even most) hackers don't follow or do sports at all and are determinedly
anti-physical.  Among those who do, interest in spectator sports is low to non-existent;
sports are something one *does*, not something one watches on TV.

Further, hackers avoid most team sports like the plague (volleyball is a notable exception,
perhaps because it's non-contact and relatively friendly).  Hacker sports are almost always
primarily self-competitive ones involving concentration, stamina, and micromotor skills:
martial arts, bicycling, auto racing, kite flying, hiking, rock climbing, aviation,
target-shooting, sailing, caving, juggling, skiing, skating (ice and roller).  Hackers'
delight in techno-toys also tends to draw them towards hobbies with nifty complicated
equipment that they can tinker with.


Nearly all hackers past their teens are either college-degreed or self-educated to an
equivalent level.  The self-taught hacker is often considered (at least by other hackers)
to be better-motivated, and may be more respected, than his school-shaped counterpart.
Academic areas from which people often gravitate into hackerdom include (besides the
obvious computer science and electrical engineering) physics, mathematics, linguistics,
and philosophy.

Things Hackers Detest and Avoid

IBM mainframes.  Smurfs, Ewoks, and other forms of offensive cuteness. Bureaucracies.
Stupid people.  Easy listening music.  Television (except for cartoons, movies, the old
"Star Trek", and the new "Simpsons").  Business suits.  Dishonesty.  Incompetence. Boredom.
COBOL. BASIC.  Character-based menu interfaces.


Ethnic.  Spicy.  Oriental, esp. Chinese and most esp. Szechuan, Hunan, and Mandarin
(hackers consider Cantonese vaguely d'eclass'e).  Hackers prefer the exotic; for example,
the Japanese-food fans among them will eat with gusto such delicacies as fugu (poisonous
pufferfish) and whale. Thai food has experienced flurries of popularity.  Where available,
high-quality Jewish delicatessen food is much esteemed.  A visible minority of
Southwestern and Pacific Coast hackers prefers Mexican.

For those all-night hacks, pizza and microwaved burritos are big. Interestingly, though
the mainstream culture has tended to think of hackers as incorrigible junk-food junkies,
many have at least mildly health-foodist attitudes and are fairly discriminating about
what they eat.  This may be generational; anecdotal evidence suggests that the stereotype
was more on the mark 10--15 years ago.


Vaguely left of center, except for the strong libertarian contingent which rejects
conventional left-right politics entirely.  The only safe generalization is that hackers
tend to be rather anti-authoritarian; thus, both conventional conservatism and `hard'
leftism are rare. Hackers are far more likely than most non-hackers to either (a) be
aggressively apolitical or (b) entertain peculiar or idiosyncratic political ideas and
actually try to live by them day-to-day.

Gender and Ethnicity

Hackerdom is still predominantly male.  However, the percentage of women is clearly higher
than the low-single-digit range typical for technical professions, and female hackers are
generally respected and dealt with as equals.

In the U.S., hackerdom is predominantly Caucasian with strong minorities of Jews (East
Coast) and Orientals (West Coast).  The Jewish contingent has exerted a particularly
pervasive cultural influence (see Food, above, and note that several common jargon terms
are obviously mutated Yiddish).

The ethnic distribution of hackers is understood by them to be a function of which ethnic
groups tend to seek and value education. Racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon
and tends to be met with freezing contempt.

When asked, hackers often ascribe their culture's gender- and colour-blindness to a
positive effect of text-only network channels.


Agnostic.  Atheist.  Non-observant Jewish.  Neo-pagan.  Very commonly, three or more of
these are combined in the same person.  Conventional faith-holding Christianity is rare
though not unknown.

Even hackers who identify with a religious affiliation tend to be relaxed about it, hostile
to organized religion in general and all forms of religious bigotry in particular.  Many
enjoy `parody' religions such as Discordianism and the Church of the SubGenius.

Also, many hackers are influenced to varying degrees by Zen Buddhism or (less commonly)
Taoism, and blend them easily with their `native' religions.

There is a definite strain of mystical, almost Gnostic sensibility that shows up even among
those hackers not actively involved with neo-paganism, Discordianism, or Zen.  Hacker
folklore that pays homage to `wizards' and speaks of incantations and demons has too much
psychological truthfulness about it to be entirely a joke.

Ceremonial Chemicals

Most hackers don't smoke tobacco, and use alcohol in moderation if at all (though there is
a visible contingent of exotic-beer fanciers, and a few hackers are serious oenophiles).
Limited use of non-addictive psychedelic drugs, such as cannabis, LSD, psilocybin, and
nitrous oxide, etc., used to be relatively common and is still regarded with more tolerance
than in the mainstream culture.  Use of `downers' and opiates, on the other hand, appears
to be particularly rare; hackers seem in general to dislike drugs that `dumb them down'.
On the third hand, many hackers regularly wire up on caffeine and/or sugar for all-night
hacking runs.

Communication Style

See the discussions of speech and writing styles near the beginning of this File.  Though
hackers often have poor person-to-person communication skills, they are as a rule extremely
sensitive to nuances of language and very precise in their use of it.  They are often better
at writing than at speaking.

Geographical Distribution

In the United States, hackerdom revolves on a Bay Area-to-Boston axis; about half of the
hard core seems to live within a hundred miles of Cambridge (Massachusetts) or Berkeley
(California), although there are significant contingents in Los Angeles, in the Pacific
Northwest, and around Washington DC.  Hackers tend to cluster around large cities,
especially `university towns' such as the Raleigh-Durham area in North Carolina or
Princeton, New Jersey (this may simply reflect the fact that many are students or
ex-students living near their alma maters).

Sexual Habits

Hackerdom tolerates a much wider range of sexual and lifestyle variation than the
mainstream culture.  It includes a relatively large gay contingent.  Hackers are somewhat
more likely to live in polygynous or polyandrous relationships, practice open marriage,
or live in communes or group houses.  In this, as in general appearance, hackerdom
semi-consciously maintains `counterculture' values.

Personality Characteristics

The most obvious common `personality' characteristics of hackers are high intelligence,
consuming curiosity, and facility with intellectual abstractions.  Also, most hackers are
`neophiles', stimulated by and appreciative of novelty (especially intellectual novelty).
Most are also relatively individualistic and anti-conformist.

Although high general intelligence is common among hackers, it is not the sine qua non one
might expect.  Another trait is probably even more important: the ability to mentally
absorb, retain, and reference large amounts of `meaningless' detail, trusting to later
experience to give it context and meaning.  A person of merely average analytical
intelligence who has this trait can become an effective hacker, but a creative genius who
lacks it will swiftly find himself outdistanced by people who routinely upload the contents
of thick reference manuals into their brains.  [During the production of this book, for
example, I learned most of the rather complex typesetting language TeX over about four
working days, mainly by inhaling Knuth's 477-page manual.  My editor's flabbergasted
reaction to this genuinely surprised me, because years of associating with hackers have
conditioned me to consider such performances routine and to be expected. --- ESR]

Contrary to stereotype, hackers are *not* usually intellectually narrow; they tend to be
interested in any subject that can provide mental stimulation, and can often discourse
knowledgeably and even interestingly on any number of obscure subjects --- if you can get
them to talk at all, as opposed to, say, going back to their hacking.

It is noticeable (and contrary to many outsiders' expectations) that the better a hacker is
at hacking, the more likely he or she is to have outside interests at which he or she is
more than merely competent.

Hackers are `control freaks' in a way that has nothing to do with the usual coercive or
authoritarian connotations of the term.  In the same way that children delight in making
model trains go forward and back by moving a switch, hackers love making complicated things
like computers do nifty stuff for them.  But it has to be *their* nifty stuff.  They don't
like tedium, nondeterminism, or most of the fussy, boring, ill-defined little tasks that go
with maintaining a normal existence. Accordingly, they tend to be careful and orderly in
their intellectual lives and chaotic elsewhere.  Their code will be beautiful, even if their
desks are buried in 3 feet of crap.

Hackers are generally only very weakly motivated by conventional rewards such as social
approval or money.  They tend to be attracted by challenges and excited by interesting toys,
and to judge the interest of work or other activities in terms of the challenges offered and
the toys they get to play with.

In terms of Myers-Briggs and equivalent psychometric systems, hackerdom appears to
concentrate the relatively rare INTJ and INTP types; that is, introverted, intuitive, and
thinker types (as opposed to the extroverted-sensate personalities that predominate in the
mainstream culture).  ENT[JP] types are also concentrated among hackers but are in a minority.

Weaknesses of the Hacker Personality

Hackers have relatively little ability to identify emotionally with other people.  This may
be because hackers generally aren't much like `other people'.  Unsurprisingly, hackers also
tend towards self-absorption, intellectual arrogance, and impatience with people and tasks
perceived to be wasting their time.

As cynical as hackers sometimes wax about the amount of idiocy in the world, they tend by
reflex to assume that everyone is as rational, `cool', and imaginative as they consider
themselves.  This bias often contributes to weakness in communication skills.  Hackers
tend to be especially poor at confrontation and negotiation.

As a result of all the above traits, many hackers have difficulty maintaining stable
relationships.  At worst, they can produce the classic {computer geek}: withdrawn,
relationally incompetent, sexually frustrated, and desperately unhappy when not submerged
in his or her craft.  Fortunately, this extreme is far less common than mainstream folklore
paints it --- but almost all hackers will recognize something of themselves in the
unflattering paragraphs above.

Hackers are often monumentally disorganized and sloppy about dealing with the physical world.
Bills don't get paid on time, clutter piles up to incredible heights in homes and offices,
and minor maintenance tasks get deferred indefinitely.

The sort of person who uses phrases like `incompletely socialized' usually thinks hackers
are.  Hackers regard such people with contempt when they notice them at all.


Hackers are more likely to have cats than dogs (in fact, it is widely grokked that cats have
the hacker nature).  Many drive incredibly decrepit heaps and forget to wash them; richer
ones drive spiffy Porsches and RX-7s and then forget to have them washed.  Almost all
hackers have terribly bad handwriting, and often fall into the habit of block-printing
everything like junior draftsmen.

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