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.
This urban myth, that a coder’s computational prowess corresponds to the bushiness of his beard, 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 bearded indeed trump the popularity of bald-faced competitors. Beards have long been associated with wisdom (Socrates was also referred to as “the Bearded Master”), zealotry (the Taliban forbids beards shorter than 4 inches) and the anarchist streak associated with pirates and tech titans alike. Historically, beards 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 beard the perfect hacker accessory.
Most women, of course, don’t have the option of growing a beard or, ergo, access to its symbolism. The feminine equivalent to a Unix beard — 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 Beard endures. At the annual Beard and Mustache 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 beard 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 beard 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 beard 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 Beard 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 beard — 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 beard 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 beard 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 beard. “Having a goatee seems like a bad idea, trope-wise. I don’t want to be a vizier.”
At the DefCon Beard and Mustache Competition, Ed Provost, a contestant old enough to remember BASIC, helped embellish the legend of the hacker beard for me. “I once heard there’s a relationship between how long your beard is, and how many points of root access you have to [various] devices.” In other words, the longer your beard, 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 beard 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 beard 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 beard 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 beard, 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 beards 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 beard, 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 beard 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 beard, 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.