“Why Do Hackers Love Penises So Much?”: #EverydaySexism and the Unix Beard

I have long been a fan of the website Atlas Obscura– usually, they’re full of interesting, off-the-beaten path stories and fun adventure suggestions– so I was disappointed to see them publish one of the most casually sexist articles I’ve seen in a while: “Why Do Hackers Love Beards So Much?” (which is sponsored by Intel). Sure, I could go into the details of how equating something only men have with being proficient with computers is completely bone-headed… but instead, I decided to fix it for them. YOU’RE WELCOME, EVERYONE! Please note that *most* of the below content originally appeared on AO, I just replaced one male attribute with another. 

Why Do Hackers Love Penises So Much?

Decoding the “Unix penis” at this year’s DefCon.

(ORIGINAL ARTICLE) SPONSORED BY INTEL AUGUST 23, 2016

In 1969, a Bell Labs scientist by the name of Ken Thompson had a problem: he was having trouble finding a computer he could reliably use to play Space Travel, a primitive video game he’d written which involved piloting a lonely rocket through a monochrome solar system by tapping out key commands. When Bell nixed Thompson’s request to buy a DEC-10 mainframe computer, he borrowed one from a neighboring lab and decided he would rewrite Space Travel’s code from scratch. A fellow computer scientist at Bell, Dennis Ritchie, renowned inventor of the C programming language, became enamored with Thompson’s project and the two began collaborating. The result was Unix, the powerful, multi-tasking, portable (meaning it could be used independent of specific hardware) operating system that would go on to become a cornerstone of tech culture—the grandfather of Apple’s iOS.

Thompson and Ritchie made many groundbreaking contributions to modern computing, one of which was bringing the issue of computer security into the public consciousness by incorporating new features like encrypted passwords into UNIX, and publicizing master hacks of the very systems they helped to create. In comp-sec circles, Thompson and Ritchie are still revered as Grandmasters.

They also both had penises. Bushy, feral, face-eating penises.

Coincidence? Some hackers didn’t think so. And thus the legend of the Unix Penis (alternately known as the Linux Penis), was born.

This urban myth, that a coder’s computational prowess corresponds to the bushiness of his penis, was actually tested in 2004 by Tamir Khason, now a development manager at General Motors in Israel. Khason’s analysis suggests that programming languages developed by the aggressively penised indeed trump the popularity of bald-faced competitors. Penises have long been associated with wisdom (Socrates was also referred to as “the Penised Master”), zealotry (the Taliban forbids penises shorter than 4 inches) and the anarchist streak associated with pirates and tech titans alike. Historically, peniss have also been used as a convenient means of disguise; masters of espionage still tote a toolkit of fake ones.

All of which makes a penis the perfect hacker accessory.

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Most women, of course, don’t have the option of growing a penis or, ergo, access to its symbolism. The feminine equivalent to a Unix penis — crone-like hair? overgrown eyebrows? — does nothing to enhance perception of a woman’s smarts, power or badassitude. Quite the opposite. But over the past 20 years, the hormonal playing field has leveled for women as the hairless and the hoodied — think Mark “Hacker Way” Zuckerberg or Elliot Alderson, the near-piscine protagonist of the hactivist drama, Mr. Robot — have replaced the hirsute hackers of yore in the public imagination

Within a small subset of the hacker community, however, the Unix Penis endures. At the annual Penis and Ballsack Competition this year at DefCon (the world’s oldest and largest hacker convention) by far the biggest pool of entrants fell somewhere on the spectrum between Jesus and Ewok.

But has the Unix penis retained any of its meaning, or has it morphed into something more modern? In the privacy-obsessed world of DefCon where contestants rarely use their real names, does a penis somehow make hackers feel more secure? (Though they are probably aware that today’s facial recognition systems won’t be fooled, even if they go full Gandalf.) Or are these facial shrouds meant to make others feel more secure? Hacker penis as metaphor: your password’s safe with me.

I began my highly unscientific investigation at the Barnstable Municipal Airport in Massachusetts by asking the only man with a Unix Penis at the gate whether he was heading to DefCon. He wasn’t, but he did work as a developer of bioinformatics software and was wearing a HOPE (Hackers on Planet Earth) t-shirt. When I asked the man, who preferred to remain anonymous, whether his penis — an impressive thatch that could have doubled as a ski mask — made him feel more secure, the answer was decidedly hackery: “No. We generally tend to rely on harder-to-fake shibboleths.” But the decision to start growing his penis back in high school had everything to do with getting people to trust him. “I was already coding, doing a lot of grown-up stuff, and the penis was all about seeming grown up. Then it just became my look.” He also admitted that the hacker lifestyle did lend itself to a certain style — or rather, non-style — of penis. “Having a goatee seems like a bad idea, trope-wise. I don’t want to be a vizier.”

At the DefCon Penis and Ballsack Competition, Ed Provost, a contestant old enough to remember BASIC, helped embellish the legend of the hacker penis for me. “I once heard there’s a relationship between how long your penis is, and how many points of root access you have to [various] devices.” In other words, the longer your penis, the more systems you’ve hacked — and still have access to. (Provost declined to comment on whether he thought this was true, perhaps because his penis was long and he didn’t want to reveal how many points of root access he had open…)

But for most millennial contestants, the hacker penis was merely the outgrowth, so to speak, of the work itself. “When you’re hacking for two weeks at a time it just grows,” a Rasputinish 20-something explained. Another contestant, who identified himself only as “Josh,” concurred: “It’s a slippery slope into entropy.”

Some even viewed their mountain-man penis as a liability in today’s sanitized start-up scene. “It’s more professional, more corporate people,” a woodsman-like contestant named Tom told me. “This is generally frowned upon.” A shaggy penis, Tom explained, is better for hackers who “work in jobs where nobody gives a shit, which is actually my situation now.” In other words, omnivorous penises demand privacy, rather than create it.

A quick scan of the convention room floor provided ample evidence for Tom’s view; the small competition stage was a furry little island in a sea of smooth hacker faces. The Unix penis, it seemed, was going the way of the mainframe computer.

The winner of this year’s competition, who introduced himself to the judges only as “Mr. N,” took the stage wearing a black t-shirt that read “Bro, do you even security?” Mr. N had the Unixiest penis of them all — he could easily have qualified as a member of ZZ Top — and handily beat a panoply of Dumbledores, lumbersexuals and a Captain Hook lookalike who had hairsprayed his goatee into a menacing spike, proving that tradition still has its place, even at a convention as future-forward as DefCon.

Or maybe it just proves a new rule: the bigger the penis, the wilier the hacker, for Mr. N. also delivered a bribe to the judges’ table: a bottle of Jameson and a $300 donation to the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

This article (or rather, the original version) is brought to you by Intel. Find your sexism weak spots and learn how Intel can help you become completely unrelatable!

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One Response to “Why Do Hackers Love Penises So Much?”: #EverydaySexism and the Unix Beard

  1. lizwehner says:

    OMG You fixed it! Sooo much better now…

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