Like all things, the way we portray hackers in pop culture has evolved through the years. But they were maybe never more adorable than in 1980s family magazines.
According to a USC study that looked at 74 youth- and family-computing publications like FamilyPC and Family Computing from the ’80s to show that people didn’t see hackers as the enemy, though much of the media did, and a historical precedent was there. Nope, hacker were just clever kids with a penchant for pranks who also happened to like computers:
You and your computer pals are part of the whole new breed called . . . er . . . computer maniacs? . . . whiz kids? . . . hackers? . . . computer nuts? . . . enthusiasts? This terminology business is a real dilemma. Nerd is a stupid word that we hope is on its way out. Hacker is misused. ‘Whiz Kids’ is the name of a TV show. The rest are labels noncomputing people have tacked onto serious computer users. Isn’t it about time we thought of something new?
And liking computers was a good thing, because computers, in this light, equaled knowledge. And hacking, from this perspective blurred the line between “right” and “wrong”. Instead it was about a mental challenge, or even an adventure for cool kids:
I know all about that sense of adventure lurking around inside your brain. That’s why I’ve dedicated this software to the hacker in all of us. Who is Hacker Jack? He might be you. I’m Hacker Jack, saying “hack on.”
Hackers were also the over-achievers and the upstanding kids on the block. From an announcement for a 1984 contest in Family Computing/K-Power:
We’re interested in “hacker heroes” — kids who are putting their computing to good use by helping parents, their school, senior citizens, the handicapped, or their community. Send us a description of the “hero” or “heroine” and what he or she is doing to give hacking a good name.
There was, the study says, a reason for the benign portrayal, which, according to the study was apparently to market computers to middle- and upper-class families. Buy a computer? Create a smart kid. Easy.
But 30 or more years later, the definition has certainly evolved, in a world where we’re wise to the NSA, or even when we have movies like Hackers to look back to (even if we’re laughing at the dated-ness). safe to say no one’s referring to hackers as “whiz kids” today. [USC h/t 5 Intriguing Things]