Monday, February 18, 2008

The Hacker Inside

In my college years I watched as technically minded friends fell under the spell of computers. They became Weizenbaum's "bright young men of dishevelled appearance". I watched as they immersed themselves ever more deeply in the world of monochrome terminals and multiuser operating systems. They dropped out of classes, they dropped out of social interaction, they dropped out of everything that was not connected to their obsession with thinking machines.

I dallied with this obsession for a while. The proto-internet of EARN-BITNET offered undreamed of possibilities for exploration. I stood on the brink and in truth I nearly fell in but some instinct of self preservation held me back from total commitment. I re-engaged with the physical analog world, I graduated I socialised, I got a job.

Now I use computers in my job and at home just as millions of other do. I install software and run it without really comprehending what goes on behind the scenes. Sure I know a little bit more than the average layman and PC gaming is probably my main hobby but I am not in thrall to the machine. It is a device, a tool.

About once a year though the hacker inside comes out. This weekend that hacker decided to re-animate an ancient celeron based machine by installing Linux.

At a logical level I have no reason to use Linux. It does nothing that I cannot do on Windows and there are many things it cannot do. At some deeper level Linux pushes all the right hacker buttons. Friendly distros like Ubuntu try to fool you into thinking otherwise but you need only scratch the surface to wallow in the joys of the Linux command line. Linux scorns the concept of plug and play. Installing a new piece of hardware is likely to take hours of internet detective work and command line hacking.

Saturday was abandoned to total immersion in Linuxdom. By the end of the day I had a working machine complete with graphics, sound and wireless networking, I even managed to get it to play DVDs (no mean feat).

It was a day of highs, lows and intense concentration as I gave myself over fully to the hacker inside. Finally I felt triumph. I had struggled through and I had overcome. I had build this thing with the toil of my brain.

I owned this machine.

Of course the truth was that the machine owned me. This project had seduced me in a way that fiddling with my window rigs never can.

It couldn't last. Eventually I was pulled back by to reality by my wife's gentle but firm insistence that she does not want a Linux media centre pc hooked up to the wide-screen TV in our living room. I was forced to face reality. My project was wonderful but ultimately useless.

The hacker that had briefly come outside retreated back to my inner depths. It is still there. It will always be there but I am content to keep it locked away for another 12 months or so before letting it out for next years annual outing.

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