Hacker Superstitions

I’m currently taking a course called “Macbeth from Page to Stage”. We’re discussing superstitions in theatre, and it got me thinking about hacker myths. I wrote this for the assignment, but I thought others might find it interesting.

As a hacker and programmer, I’m part of a culture that is both dismissive of and fascinated by the supernatural. Of course, as people who have to perform extreme rationality and logic in order to be taken seriously, nobody really believes in ghosts or spirits or divination - and yet we have the “demo gods” to whom laptops, chickens, and goats are (figuratively) sacrificed in order to ensure the proper operation of live demonstrations at conferences. We have the custom of conference goons giving shots of vodka (or sometimes whiskey) to first-time conference speakers (and the absolute conviction that those who don’t or can’t drink them will have their demos fail, their projectors turn off, or their audio equipment be full of feedback).

We also have a strange level of personification of the machines and computer programs on which we work - machines are said to be “fighting over” resources, protocol handlers sometimes “get confused” when given incorrect input, and the phrase, “this subroutine’s goal in life is…” is quite common. The personification of the these machines isn’t literal, but it’s not totally figurative either. Sometimes computers do things we just can’t understand.

We call the most skilled hackers “wizards”. Hacking on compilers or writing machine code directly is “deep wizardry”, and doing so maliciously (or sometimes just in a way nobody else can understand) is “black magic”. We also have our koans, little stories about “disciples” becoming “enlightened” or the exploits of the “masters” in the heyday of the AI Lab. Consider this (from the New Hacker’s Dictionary):

A novice was trying to fix a broken Lisp machine by turning the power off and on. Knight, seeing what the student was doing, spoke sternly: “You cannot fix a machine by just power-cycling it with no understanding of what is going wrong.” Knight turned the machine off and on. The machine worked.

Such stories from the MIT AI Lab abound, and are the foundation for much of the folklore of the hacker community.

Finally, some notable hackers who have died are considered to haunt our systems. These legends are then blamed (or applauded) for everyday events. For instance, at DEF CON 24, all the Bally’s Casino ATMs were broken, so someone hung a sign saying “Barnaby Jack Was Here”, Barnaby Jack being a hacker who died under mysterious circumstances a few months after demonstrating a remote, Internet-based attack which could entice an ATM to literally spit out cash onto the floor.

I don’t think I personally believe in these things - that the AI Lab masters were bodhisattvas, that the Demo Gods are watching over us, that my thirty thousand lines of C are alive, or that Barnaby Jack still haunts Vegas ATMs. But I do still participate in the customs, still make the jokes, still run the fortune command on Stallman’s birthday every year. So whether or not a ghost has ever taken over my computer, the supernatural has certainly affected my life.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like some of my other musings on software and retro hardware, or some of my technical content on Rust or Python. Also, please feel free to comment on this post with some of your own thoughts or favorite myths!

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Written by Leo Tindall on 21 February 2017