Not a hacker

Reading some of these blog posts about the iPad made me remember how different my entry into computer science was from most programmers. (I knew this already, because I’ve talked to a lot of them, but had forgotten.)

You might say the difference is that I’m not a hacker.

Let me say at the outset that I know many hackers, and I have much awe and respect for them. People in the hacker culture want access to every piece of the computer hardware and software, so they can tinker and explore and change things. This is what fuels their obsession with “openness.” To them, the idea of not being able to go in themselves and swap things around is genuinely frightening.

I want none of that. I want my computer to “just work.” I want it to be well-designed and well-maintained — by somebody else (it’s handy to know some hackers). And yes, I still want to write software for it to accomplish the amazing and awesome things I could never accomplish without a computer. Just don’t make me go in and tweak some config file.

I am living proof that interest in programming is not predicated on interest in hacking or “how things work.” Sure, now that I have a few computer science degrees, I do understand a lot about how computers work, and it’s fascinating. But unlike the many computer scientists who got interested in the field by wanting to reverse-engineer their favorite computer games, I just wanted to create. I built new games so that other people could play them (as I used to say, why would I spend hours watching a bunch of pixels blink on and off?).

So I think the obsession with “openness” is genuine, but is a peculiarity of the hacking/DIY culture rather than some sort of fundamental principle like democracy or civil rights. (And yes, Richard Stallman is at the very extreme end of this hacking subculture. He also once told me I was “the type of person he just couldn’t stand”.)

Apple is in the strange position of having a near-monopoly in some markets (such as high-end laptops) while not being particularly anti-competitive in their business practices. Oddly, they appear to just have no competitors who have been nearly as innovative in designing personal computers.

I think they’re so far ahead of the curve partly because Steve Jobs is a humanist first, a technologist second. Not a hacker.

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