Monday, November 1, 2010

Philosophy of hacking

Found an interesting post on Lifehacker

It wraps a philosophical context around the activity of hacking and the mindset. I doubt that many hackers have ever conceptualized their motivations in such a way but the piece does have a certain resonance.  I certainly have never felt that disobedience was my motivation. Usually it was just my frugal farmboy upbringing that motivated me to fix whats broken and extend the life of anything that is useful. Growing up my reality was that if I couldn't fix it or make it, I didn't have it.

But back to the article. I can see the association that the author is making, and I think it has merit. Mainly because I can't really think of a good argument against it, but I am still wary of suggesting this argument captures the general motivation of most or all "hackers".

The argument gets a little shaky when you drill down into the semantics. "Disobedience" semantically is not really the over arching motivation for most hacking projects, I would suggest that in the way the author was using the term, its more a means to an end. In that a hacker has to "disobey" the rules not to do what they are doing, but they are doing it for "X" reason. "X" may be anything from fixing a bug, to adding features, to working out how something works to trying to impress someone and get lucky ... whatever. Disobedience is simply a means to an end.

The interesting implication that the author did not make was that the willingness and the ability to be disobedient are essential to successful hacking.  The idea of not being afraid to "void your warranty" and not being afraid of "bricking it". This is essentially risk taking behavior in another form along with a degree of confidence combined with technical experience that leads one to suspect that something is possible.

To extrapolate this train of though, its possible to suggest that the environment of warranties and license agreements and all manner of other "rules" sets that impede the fairly natural instinct of "taking it apart to see what makes it tick" is an environment that habituates curious people to ignore these rules and thus be less worried about them in other aspects of their lives. Life is just more straight forward when you ignore most of these unenforceable rules ("Thou shalt not mod thy game console") and threats ( "void your warranty") and get on and hack your device/software/web service/file format etc into whatever shape you currently need.

I would also suggest that hacking is an emergent phenomenon in any complex structure. Once a system gets sufficiently complex, opportunities emerge for something else to find more direct ways to exploit resources within that system. This may not be to completely break the system, rather just to subvert parts. Look at all the parasites inside ant and bee colonies. These genomes have accidentally found strategies to hack an otherwise all encompassing system with no "legal" opportunities.  The result being that they make out like bandits.

Alternately, look at any large organisation and consider all the "proper channels" and the way people naturally find ways to get their jobs done even when parts of the system are malfunctioning ( bad manager, poor communications, horrible enterprise software etc) people find ways around things and the more they get used to going around the obstacles, the less they "follow" correct procedure in other issues. Eventually they habitually look for the most straight forward way to achieve the ends and the system re-aligns or sections are discarded. 

Hacking is all around us. Every day I see people who have no idea what's inside a computer or what to do with a hex editor hacking away at corporate systems. They use telephones to talk to other parts of the organisation and avoid sending emails through "proper channels" or they feed systems information and data that they know will be accepted, even though its technically wrong, just to avoid having to deal with broken enterprise software systems. They talk their way around problems and obstacles to get things done. These are not the idealized "geeks" taking apart technology and making things in their bedrooms but its still hacking systems to get results that are otherwise not possible. Are these people "disobedient"? In a way, certainly. Is their motivation "disobedience"? I think not. In many cases its very much the urge to keep the system working and to fit in and not be the "exception" that forces them to hack the system.

This leads to an interesting question. Will they continue to hack the system when the need is no longer there. Does this "breed" disobedience or will these people return to being rule abiding citizens once the enterprise software is fixed or the passive aggressive supervisor has been fired? Is "hacking" simply a case of people "finding the path of least resistance"?

I think there are some people who, having had to learn the skills and techniques of hacking their particular problem will never forget these skills. The question is if they will ever again be in an opportunity to need to employ them. For other people, I would guess that the discomfort threshold required to have to hack a system is sufficiently high that they will probably never go back to it, once the itch is scratched. Because, at the end of the day, Hacking is hard, risky and often involves swimming against the flow in many ways. This can include threats to comfort, safety and security ( loose a job, legal action, fines, social stigma etc) so these put pressure on some pretty basic motivations. Which means that generally the motivation to hack is dampened by many of the rules that the "system" has been constructed from, otherwise it would not be a system in the first place.

Ok, enough D&M.

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