What is The Jargon File?
Many programmers today don’t know that this document exists. But it’s a living cultural relic which encoded not just the letter, but the spirit of programmer culture, capturing its humor, ethics, and quirky world-view. Along the way, it even became the subject of some controversy on various fronts, from alarmed school administrators pulling the book out of school library shelves to massive calls for the maintainer to resign over perceived misconduct. But anybody who coded for a living for three decades knew it as the beloved resource which shared the origins of flavorful terms such as “rubber duck debugging,” “waving a dead chicken,” and “yak shaving.” The fatalist humor of hacker lore contributed to its shady reputation.
The Jargon File started as a simple text file full of half-joking definitions passed around computer rooms at MIT in the late 1970s. Through message-board sharing, it grew during the 1980s, eventually developing in a series of maintained books edited by some of the grand old masters of computer science. It was even cited in a high-profile legal case. Its fame carried it from PDP-10s in the crufty dinosaur pens of colleges everywhere to the cover of People magazine. But was it a noble codex of computer lore, or an Anarchist’s Cookbook for hackers? Find out the intriguing story of this grimoire of hacker culture, and why it casts a long and influential shadow over the software development world of today.
The Beginnings of the Jargon File
Our story starts in 1975, when computer scientist Ralph Finkel uploaded a file titled “AIWORD.RF” to a SAIL computer at Stanford University. The file was a list of common slang phrases heard in tech circles at the time, some of it dating to the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT. Next, Mark Crispin, whom you know as the inventor of the IMAP email-protocol, copied the file via FTP onto the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. The file was originally named “AIWORD” because it was intended to list terms common to Artificial Intelligence programming, but Crispin noticed that the inevitable feature creep (a Jargon term) had already taken hold and the file had grown to include general computer science jargon. He renamed it “SAIL JARGON” for its origins from Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and left it up for general access, for anybody to add an entry to. Thus, by the late 1970s, the concept of a collaboratively edited reference was already born – years before we ever got Wikipedia.
By 1983, here was the file sitting at MIT for none other than Richard Stallman to discover. Stallman, widely hailed as the patron saint of Free and Open Source Software and creator of the GNU General Public License, contributed a prolific amount to the growing list of acronyms, terms, and in-jokes to the lexicon of hacker-ly wisdom. Stallman at the time was an early champion of the Lisp programming language, the first language to gain hefty ground in the field of AI research.
Wait, did we say “hacker”?
That word “hacker” would become a hot topic very soon. In Stallman’s own words…
“What they had in common was mainly love of excellence and programming. They wanted to make their programs that they used be as good as they could. They also wanted to make them do neat things. They wanted to be able to do something in a more exciting way than anyone believed possible and show ‘Look how wonderful this is. I bet you didn’t believe this could be done.'”
The truth is, what we today call a “hacker” is actually a “cracker,” one who breaks into computers as a safe-cracker breaks into a safe. The original “hacker” was actually a noble aspiration: a person who was clever enough with computers to earn the respect of their co-workers. But the media had latched onto this word by random chance. Soon TV and print media were referring to hackers as the people who broke into machines; Jeff Bridges in the 1982 film Tron would cement the word in public minds when he referred to himself as hacking into the computer system. Follow that by the film Wargames in 1983, and the public became concerned that people who toyed with computers for idle amusement were playing with fire. By 1995’s film Hackers, Angelina Jolie defining “hacker” as a kind of sexy keyboard bandit didn’t help matters any.
This was just what the burgeoning field of computer science needed right then. Today, much publicity is given to STEM careers, but back then even STEM careers were becoming tainted by public suspicion based on early misconceptions. About this time, a computer scientist by the name of Guy L. Steele, Jr. entered the picture. He was one of the originators of the Scheme programming language, the designer of many key-bindings for the Emacs text editor, and a huge contributor to early computer science research. However, he’s in this story mainly because he drew cartoons. “Crunchly” was a little fuzzy bit depicted in Steele’s cartoons, making various humorous observations in computer laboratories. When a snapshot of what was now called “The Jargon-1 File” was published in CoEvolution Quarterly magazine, Steele’s Crunchly cartoons were added in because the flavors went so well together, and thus his involvement was now ordained. He edited a copy of The Jargon-1 File into The Hacker’s Dictionary, published by Harper & Row in 1983, and it included all of his Crunchly cartoons.
So The Hacker’s Dictionary was circulating widely in libraries across America in the middle 1980s. Just in time for a gang of teenagers referring to themselves as “The 414s” to make international headlines by cracking into computer systems at large banks. Newsweek magazine sensationalized the story with a cover photo of a 414 and the title “Beware: Hackers at Play,” Bruce Sterling published a book titled The Hacker Crackdown, and US Congressman Dan Glickman to begin working on laws directed at stopping cyber-attacks, which he called “hacking.”
For about half a decade, mass media had a panic over the concept of hackers. To this day, if you type “hacker” into Google and sort the images, you’ll find a bunch of stock photos of guys in ski masks holding laptops. Pause and consider how stupid that is.
White Hats, Black Hats, and a Grey Fog of Confusion
Since this great lexicographical mix-up, to this day we use the term “white hat” to mean a security expert, and “black hat” to mean the criminal side of computer expertise. All because we couldn’t get one little word right.
Meanwhile by the early 1990s, the Jargon-1 file and its literary spawn had fallen into the hands of a new trustee: Eric S. Raymond. Back in the 1990s, Raymond had become the tribal bard of hacker culture, particularly that of Free and Open Source Software. Abbreviated “FOSS,” this was the movement that traced from Unix to Linux and BSD, and from there to the bridge of the phone revolution at the turn of the century and the eventual adaptation by Google of an operating system called “Android.” The Android operating system uses a Linux kernel, and said Linux operating system is the godchild of the Free and Open Source movement, an alternative desktop PC system licensed under the GNU General Public License.
Raymond was a staunch supporter of the open source model, and we might even say that without his 1999 book, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, the technology world still wouldn’t have faith in the concept of an openly collaborated software stack. Raymond had a gift for writing and explaining engineering concepts in middle-manager language. It’s only natural that when the Jargon File project needed a new shepherd, he would volunteer.
But Raymond also put quite a bit of his own evangelizing into the Jargon File. Pro-FOSS views were emphasized; while all entries pertaining to commercial, proprietary software had nothing good to say about the subjects. Cries of outrage arose from turn-of-the-century message boards and blogs, claiming that Raymond was mangling the history he’d been so faithfully entrusted with. His side of the issue was that hacker culture was a living thing, to be tracked as an evolving entity, not enshrined as a fossil.
The Jargon File today rests under the custodianship of several independent hackers, like this GitHub example. It really hasn’t been a live document since about 2003.
Influences of the Jargon File Today
But what has spawned from it? The very concept of a single text file to track all of cyber-culture has, in true Open Source style, been taken over by the world. By the mid-2000s, new Internet models called “blogs” began to replace static text files. And the blogosphere begat collaborative information resources, which would eventually lead to the likes of Wikipedia. Even along the way to Wikipedia, it helped form the Everything project, today sort of enshrined at www.Everything2.net as an early Wikipedia precursor, which happens to include the bulk of the Jargon File in it.
The Jargon File was briefly the world’s miniature Wikipedia when it came to cyber-culture. It was used as a source by Oxford English Dictionary for computer neologisms, and media sources from Time magazine to The Wall Street Journal repeatedly quoted the file whenever a computer culture term came up.
But perhaps the most poignant citation was in the courtroom hearings for the infamous SCO-vs-IBM case. In 2003, the Jargon File entry “FUD” (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) was used as a definition for what one side was doing to the other. SCO-vs-IBM, a legal case whose very name still raises tortured groans among older Linux gurus, was a tussle over the ownership of the Linux operating system, if you can call a lawsuit first filed in 2003 and still technically open today a “tussle.” If you really want to know more about this bloated corpse of a legal case, the blog Groklaw was specifically born to track it, so it bears no further repeating here.
So What’s In This File?
It’s about time we explained some of the entries, isn’t it? To paraphrase:
“Rubber duck debugging” – The process of explaining the bugs in your code to a rubber duck or similar inanimate object. The purpose, similar to “third-person learning,” is to discover the source of the problem yourself by articulating the program flow out loud, which works an embarrassing amount of the time.
“Waving a dead chicken” – To perform a useless action in order to satisfy a third party that you’ve really tried everything. When your Internet goes down and you know it’s your ISP’s fault, but they demand you try turning it off and on again and you do just to get them to patch you through to tech support, that’s a similar empty gesture.
“Yak shaving” – An apparently useless activity which is related through a distant chain of calamities to the problem you really wanted to solve. It comes from a Ren and Stimpy cartoon. If you had to do your taxes but the files are in your desktop computer and you tried to import them to your laptop but your ssh install needs updating and then the library dependencies all fell apart so you had to upgrade the system but the Git repository that has the files for the upgrade is down until you replace the Cat-5 cable, and you do all that, you’ve shaved a bunch of yaks.
Want more? Oh, we’re just getting started…
“Brute force and ignorance” – To solve a problem the clumsy, stupid way because you don’t have time to solve it the correct way. Ogg debug with rock, scare computer to work.
“ELIZA effect” – The irrational attachment a human gets to an artificial intelligence simulation, despite intellectually knowing that it’s just a machine. The 2015 film Ex Machina is an excellent example. ELIZA was an old chatbot that simulated a Rogerian psychiatrist, and coincidentally comes embedded in Richard Stallman’s EMACS editor.
“Fiber-seeking backhoe” – When a construction worker digs up a fiber-optic line, resulting in what we today call a packet-over-air fault.
“One banana problem” – A problem so simple to fix that a monkey could fix it, and only accept one banana in payment at that. What your boss thinks all problems are.
“Rat belt” – The little zip ties holding your server room cabling together in those neat, organized bundles.
As you can see, early hacker jargon, like much of Internet culture today, is equal parts pop culture influence, technical matters, dry sarcasm, frivolous nonsense, old in-jokes, and early memes. In fact, the website KnowYourMeme.com is actually closer in spirit to the original Jargon File than Wikipedia is. That’s how today it lists both the “RRS Boaty McBoatface” and the Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) – as hacker – oops, we mean cyber – culture continues to live on and evolve.
Pete Trbovich is a guest contributor to BeMyApp. All opinions expressed are the author’s own, and not necessarily that of BeMyApp.
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