Hackers "tune" computers purely for the love of computing. They may modify programs or systems that run on the network, adjust settings to run faster, tweak code for reliability and so on. Often these alterations are not recognized by (or aimed at) anyone other than the person who made them.
It is important to note that many computer geeks make a strong distinction between the terms "hacker" and "cracker". These people consider the popular usage, which equates a hacker with a person who breaks into computer systems, offensive and incorrect.
No kiddies, there is no such thing as "Hacking the Gibson".
While "hack" is used outside of computing as to describe the chopping of something, "hacking" in this case is used a little differently. Hacking can be used to describe the careless-looking (but actually expert) disassembly of something, similar to hacking a path through jungle - inexperienced onlookers may not realize the finesse involved.
Hacking is a difficult activity to describe. It is a driven interest in the internals of something. It is a lust towards enlightenment and an enthrallment in the beauty of a system. Hacking has been overtly and covertly considered an addiction. For a Real Hacker, in its purest form it is the entire horizon and body of the earth and is all-consuming. For mere hobbyists or hacker-types it is a passion for a topic.
For greater understanding, the concept of hacking is one which may be broadened to include other extremes. One can imagine a love for something and a pursuit for more:
- Preteen girls lusting after a boyband and collecting magazine after magazine and making doing cutout posters, memorizing every lyric and seeing every music video.
- Movie fans buying every novel and game supplement based on the movie world even to the point of dressing up and going to conventions.
- Movie buffs with a favorite director faithfully in line to every subsequent movie by that director.
- A book lover hunting down every out-of-print novel that author has collaborated on.
- Artists slaving over a drawing in a coffee shop night after night.
The driving force behind hacking may be seen in many other pursuits. The traditional use of "hacking" is a description of the art which only a Real Hacker wields. It is barebones coding. It is the dissassembling and drawing-out of the secrets of a program. It is seen in the source code on the reams of continuous-feed paper streaming out of the nine-pin dot-matrix printer. The Real Hacker is the guru at the top of the mountain thinking things no mortal should understand.
A less oldschool and more contemporary use of the term "Hacking" describes either the activity of learning from or modifying a piece of software, or it describes the modification of computer hardware. Hacking could more literally mean coding when applied to software work.
This more contemporary use of "hacking" describes a activity filled with lust and artistry. "Hacking" is no longer done just by a "hacker", but may be done by (almost) everyday people. These days, there are "Hardware Hackers" as seen in people who do "CaseMods", people who modify a computer's case to make it a work of art. These days, one might even say one is "hacking away" on an essay.
Part of the Merriam-Webster entry for "to hack": 4 a : to write computer programs for enjoyment b : to gain access to a computer illegally