Friday, 17 June 2011

We need a Pan-Hacker movement.

Some decades ago, computers weren't nearly as common as they are today. They were big and expensive, and access to them was very privileged. Still, there was a handful of people who had the chance to toy around with a computer in their leisure time and get a glimpse of what a total, personal access to a computer might be like. It was among these people, mostly students in MIT and similar facilities, where the computer hacker subculture was born.

The pioneering hackers felt that computers had changed their life for the better and therefore wanted to share this new improvement method with everyone else. They thought everyone should have an access to a computer, and not just any kind of access but an unlimited, non-institutionalized one. Something like a cheap personal computer, for example. Eventually, in the seventies, some adventurous hackers bootstrapped the personal computer industry, which led to the the so-called "microcomputer revolution" in the early eighties.

The era was filled with hopes and promises. All kinds of new possibilities were now at everyone's fingertips. It was assumed that programming would become a new form of literacy, something every citizen should be familiar with -- after all, using a computer to its fullest potential has always required programming skill. "Citizens' computer courses" were broadcasted on TV and radio, and parents bought cheap computers for their kids to ensure a bright future for the next generation. Some prophets even went far enough to suggest that personal computers could augment people's intellectual capacities or even expand their consciousnesses in the way how psychedelic drugs were thought to do.

In the nineties, however, reality stroke back. Selling a computer to everyone was apparently not enough for automatically turning them into superhuman creatures. As a matter of fact, digital technology actually seemed to dumb a lot of people down, making them helpless and dependent rather than liberating them. Hardware and software have become ever more complex, and it is already quite difficult to build reliable mental models about them or even be aware of all the automation that takes place. Instead of actually understanding and controlling their tools, people just make educated guesses about them and pray that everything works out right. We are increasingly dependent on digital technology but have less and less control over it.

So, what went wrong? Hackers opened the door to universal hackerdom, but the masses didn't enter. Are most people just too stupid for real technological awareness, or are the available paths to it too difficult or time-consuming? Is the industry deliberately trying to dumb people down with excessive complexity, or is it just impossible to make advanced technology any simpler to genuinely understand? In any case, the hacker movement has somewhat forgotten the idea of making digital technology more accessible to the masses. It's a pity, since the world needs this idea now more than ever. We need to give common people back the possibility to understand and master the technology they use. We need to let them ignore the wishes of the technological elite and regain the control of their own lives. We need a Pan-Hacker movement.

What does "Pan-Hacker" mean? I'll be giving three interpretations that I find equally relevant, emphasizing different aspects of the concept: "everyone can be a hacker", "everything can be hacked" and "all hackers together".

The first interpretation, "everyone can be a hacker", expands on the core idea of oldschool hackerdom, the idea of making technology as accessible as possible to as many as possible. The main issue is no longer the availability of technology, however, but the way how the various pieces of technology are designed and what kind of user cultures are formed around them. Ideally, technology should be designed so that it invites the user to seize the control, play around for fun and gradually develop an ever deeper understanding in a natural way. User cultures that encourage users to invent new tricks should be embraced and supported, and there should be different "paths of hackerdom" for all kinds of people with all kinds of interests and cognitive frameworks.

The second interpretation, "everything can be hacked", embraces the trend of extending the concept of hacking out of the technological zone. The generalized idea of hacking is relevant to all kinds of human activities, and all aspects of life are relevant to the principles of in-depth understanding and hands-on access. As the apparent complexity of the world is constantly increasing, it is particularly important to maintain and develop people's ability to understand the world and all kinds of things that affect their lives.

The third interpretation, "all hackers together", wants to eliminate the various schisms between the existing hacker subcultures and bring them into a fruitful co-operation. There is, for example, a popular text, Eric S. Raymond's "How To Become A Hacker", that represents a somewhat narrow-minded "orthodox hackerdom" that sees the free/open-source software culture as the only hacker culture that is worth contributing to. It frowns upon all non-academic hacker subcultures, especially the ones that use handles (such as the demoscene, which is my own primary reference point to hackerdom). We need to get rid of this kind of segregation and realize that there are many equally valid paths suitable for many kinds of minds and ambitions.

Now that I've mentioned the demoscene, I would like to add that all kinds of artworks and acts that bring people closer to the deep basics of technology are also important. I've been very glad about the increasing popularity of chip music and circuit-bending, for example. The Pan-Hacker movement should actively look for new ways of "showing off the bits" to different kinds of audiences in many kinds of diverse contexts.

I hope my writeup has given someone some food of thought. I would like to elaborate my philosophy even further and perhaps do some cartography on the existing "Pan-Hacker" activity, but perhaps I'll return to that at some later time. Before that, I'd like to hear your thoughts and visions about the idea. What kind of groups should I look into? What kind of projects could Pan-Hacker movement participate in? Is there still something we need to define or refine?


Jeremy said...

Great article! I highly recommend Douglas Rushkoff's "Program or Be Programmed" which talks about how people are being left behind by increasingly sophisticated tech and why we need more democratization of hacker-fu. I reviewed his book here.

viznut said...

Sounds interesting, thanks for the recommendation! I've somehow managed to miss Rushkoff altogether. However, I've been recommending Jaron Lanier's "You Are Not A Gadget" to everyone, and it seems to share the core idea that programmable systems tend to program people rather than vice versa.

Recently, I've been thinking about whether the concept of game mechanics would be a good tool to describe what's going on. Video games signal success and failure to their players, leading them to play in specific ways. A lot of non-game software has similar signalling, but I guess that, for now, it is mostly just an unintentional, emergent consequence of how the software (and especially the interface) have been designed. However, there's a massive underlying potential to control the masses in subtle "game-mechanical" ways, and once the "web 2.0 elite" realizes this to its full extent, we'll be in trouble unless we have a strong movement that encourages people to transcend the mechanics.

andrezj said...

Control of technology. It's really a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it's of course better if more people can understand the technology and resist big powers (state, capital, etc). On the other hand, that's what the 70s hacker-entrepreneurs tried to accomplish. Their thoughts embedded computers in a libertarian understanding of freedom/control, which could easily be translated into consumerist computing. You are in Control with your Personal control and You can change the world. iHacker.

As a consumer, it's fucking difficult to not cave into the easy temptations. If someone already made a good Gameboy software, then why not use it? Most chipmusic today is made with preset samples in LSDj, but is often contextualized as hacking. I disagree. But still - they do have more control than most musicians (in relation to the h/w ofcourse).

To me personally, hacking is about hands-on trial and error with systems. Not the knowledge itself, but the method. But I'm not a programmer and perhaps that is why I don't value coder competence the same way as you.

andrezj said...

...because also - if people are programmed by programmable system, then it could also be argued that you get more control by not using computers at all. Check this documentary for more on that, hehe:

viznut said...

Programmable systems are special in that they have several possible levels where hacking is possible.

Developing a thorough understanding of a pre-made software application may, at its best, lead to a kind of symbiosis between the user and the tool. Something comparable to how skillful musicians relate to their instruments. Apparent limitations no longer matter, they become characteristics. The user may find new tricks that were never anticipated by the author of the software. To me, this is definitely a valid form of hacking.

Programming represents another level of hacking, comparable to building of one's own tools and instruments and modifying existing ones. Now that we have a huge toolbox available without any programming, the step from helplessness to deep application level understanding may actually be more useful than the step from premade applications to independent programming. An artist's imagination may map to a simple prebuilt instrument just as well as to a virtually unlimited set of elementary building blocks.

I don't think it is possible to escape the "risk of being programmed" by abstaining from computers. In this sense, the whole human civilization is a programmable system, and unless you are aware of its mechanisms, it will program you. (However, it may be true that it may be easier to stay in control if the interface remains as fixed as possible).

zero reference said...

Interesting. If we break down 'hackers' into two types, those who become hackers primarily because of their own nature, and those who do because of their environment (without disallowing a healthy degree of interaction between the nature and the nurture), it sounds like you're concerned about the second type of person - someone who could become a hacker somewhat, but would need to learn or be exposed to a certain stimulus to become so.

Considering this pedagogical bent, I think that technology is less important than design, education, and philosophy. Consider that Alan Kay was a musician. 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' by Paulo Freire presents one perspective on education of the masses and how people can realize their potential.

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