To the world at large, the word "hackers" is loaded with sinister connotations evoking computer viruses, stolen data and -- thanks to "The Social Network" -- young Ivy Leaguers sabotaging their university servers to rate sorority girls.
To a hacker, the world at large misses the point. The overwhelming majority of hackers, as numerous technologists have pointed out in recent interviews, are more like digital pioneers -- more interested in improving existing products and developing new ones than in wreaking havoc on civilization.
"It's sort of like an explorer exploring a new world," said Jeffrey Risberg, cofounder of TIBCO Software, who regularly participates in "hackathons," marathon coding sessions typically featuring small teams of hackers working to develop products. "The word 'hackers' refers to a person in an exploration party who is hacking through the jungle with a machete."
Downtown Palo Alto will welcome many such explorers Saturday afternoon, March 31, when it closes a block of High Street between University and Hamilton avenues and hands it over to coders, artists and venture capitalists. The event, dubbed "Super Happy Block Party," is described by organizers as a mash up of a block party and a hackathon, with creative types mingling with software engineers, entrepreneurs pitching ideas and coders gathering at three "hacking spaces" to work their magic under the "day star" (known to non-hackers as "the sun"). Food trucks, pitching booths and coding lessons for children will round out the day of hacking fun.
"It will have the ad hoc style (of a hackathon), but we're throwing creatives into the mix," said Frederik Hermann, a vice president for communications of Talenthouse, one of the hosts of the event.
Hackathons aren't new to Palo Alto, though they have generally remained under the radar. Various computer giants, including Facebook and Google, have been known to host them to spark innovation and uncover talent. A recent article on the subject in "Wired" magazine estimated that more than 200 hackathons were held in the United States in 2011. The "result has been a wave of innovation and new businesses," the article stated.
Risberg has participated in hackathons both as an engineer and as the "ideas" man -- the person who pitches ideas for coders to work on. These events, he said, have stretched in duration from about eight to 54 hours. Those on the longer side allow participants to go home in the evenings. The "Wired" article shows youths sleeping on the floor, a paper plate with pizza slices and various energy-boosting quaffs -- coffee, Coca Cola and Red Bull, the events' unofficial drink.
Goals can range from winning cash to landing a job to getting noticed by a potential investor. Risberg recalled one hackathon held at Facebook pitted software engineers from Stanford University against those from University of California, Berkeley. The Stanford hackers got to go home and rest, Risberg recalled. Those who didn't have cars and who took the bus to the event (mostly Berkeley students) slept on the couch, he said.
Sam King, who has organized hacking events at Stanford since February 2009, has termed his events "code jams" to combat the popular image of hackathons as hubs of junk food and caffeine. In February, Palo Alto Mayor Yiaway Yeh attended one of King's events to pitch the idea of building an online index of local streets and their conditions. Three students worked through the night to bring his vision to reality.
King, 21, isn't a typical hacker, even if there is such a thing. The Stanford senior wasn't even really interested in computers when he enrolled in the university. In high school, he was a policy debater who thought social change would be achieved through political science, philosophy and medicine. King said in a recent interview that he began thinking about the potential of computer science to spur social change when he was a freshman, after speaking to his adviser at Stanford.
The first "code jam" he organized coincided with a dance marathon that was raising funds to combat AIDS.
"Computer scientists didn't party very much," King said. "The thought was -- there are all these people here who have all these skills that can make the world a better place, and they can make it a better place in ways other than dancing."
Since the first event, King has been organizing two code jams per academic quarter. He has garnered national attention for his efforts, including recognition from the Clinton Global Institute University. People from Google and other tech giants regularly come to his events, which typically feature about 30 hackers. King is also working with other universities that have expressed interest in replicating his efforts, including Northwestern University and Berkeley.
"I'm now looking to scale this on a national level," King said.
King said one of his ambitions is to give coders an avenue for making social change.
"One of the reasons I'm so passionate about this is because there's a lot of computer scientists who are interested in using their skills for the social sector, but they just don't know where the opportunities are."
Like King, the organizers of the Super Happy Block Party are thinking far beyond the Palo Alto event. The party is a brainchild of Innovation Endeavors, the venture capital firm in downtown Palo Alto that was founded by Google Chair Eric Schmidt and that focuses on startups with game-changing ideas. Celestine Johnson, a self-described "creative instigator" at Innovation Endeavors, said a major goal of the event is to "pioneer new forms of innovation." Her company is hosting the event along with Talenthouse. Other sponsors are the Super Happy Dev House, Institute for the Future and the city.
"Palo Alto has some of the most innovative companies in the world, and I see the block party as a template for innovation," Johnson said.
Through their efforts, Sam King, Innovation Endeavors, Talenthouse and the City of Palo Alto are also doing their part to erase the negative connotations that the word "hacker" has long enjoyed throughout the nation (even in some parts of Silicon Valley). In some ways, they are helping to spur the culture change. In other ways, they are being spurred by it.
Steve Levy, who popularized the term in his 1985 book, "Hackers," noted a decade later in an afterword that "the tide has turned" with the computer revolution and that "more people have learned about the spirit of true hacking."
"Not only are the technically literate aware of hacker ideas and ideals, but they appreciate them and realize ... that they are something to nurture," Levy wrote.
Palo Alto officials would surely agree.