Hacking and Counter-cultural Rebellion
Hacking and countercultural rebellion
Hacker innovation is based on a set of cultural ethics and behaviours designed to deviate and oppose the mainstream via rebellious acts or rejection of incumbent values and supporting institutions, by enabling a technology to do something it was not originally intended to do. It could be argued that hacking actually occurs in the first place because of this countercultural rebelliousness –infringing laws, copyright and claims for intellectual property ownership. Sony’s suppression of the ‘Other OS’ firmware feature for example served to further motivate and militarise hacker communities because of its anti-hacker policy. The corporation went to great lengths to protect and control its proprietary information resulting in potential piracy impacting shareholder value. If Sony had successfully found ways in which to incorporate and absorb homebrew and amateur software development into its content value ecosystem, then a countercultural hacking (and cracking) backlash would have been arguably less counter-culturally significant. Whilst at the same time allowing the firm profit from increased platform content available to all consumer types. The main battle for firms dependent upon property rights rent appropriation is in preventing piracy and not the potentially useful generation of complementary end-user hacker innovations. However the over simplistic and somewhat romantic dichotomy of hacking vs. (open, socially minded, constructive, honest.) cracking (secretive, malicious, dangerous) posed by Levy, does not simply imply allowing one type of generative hacking whilst preventing non-generative piracy. Hackers can easily carry out cracks and piracy concurrently and one type is not bound to being either generative or non-generative but may be a combination of the two. The resultant reaction for firms not dependent upon hacker innovation sources is a general blanket policy blocking all external hacking and cracking activities altogether.
If firms took a more progressive stance, how would generative hacker innovation activities change if the firm were openly prepared to integrate and absorb external outputs? How would legitimising essentially countercultural acts affect the generative outputs of collaborative hacker innovation networks? How and when should firms strategically open up and integrate with hacking generativity? And what are the strategic possibilities and consequences of opening up and incorporating generative innovation activities from external hackers? These are just some of the many questions and research problems that inevitably emerge once hacking is viewed as potentially important, valuable and essential to innovation within firms.
Why is consumer hacker innovation gaining momentum now?
The profit driven growth and resultant nature of innovation itself within large firms is closely related to hacker activities. Extreme lead user hacker innovators are dissatisfied with the traditional assumption that all consumer needs are best served by the producer developed module configurations and design, protected by IP rights and priced above the cost of production and distribution. In the hacker mind set, basic needs are satisfied by a given technology and are subjected to deconstruction and modification to more closely align them with individual needs (irrespective of IP rights), produced for free and distributed within digital technology networks.
Incremental innovation driven by the need for constant user upgrades in particular may be subject to increased hacker activities that seek to break upgrade treadmill cycles of small and marginally significant improvement differences in a given technology class [Dewar and Dutton, 1986]. New modular features and performance improvements to the software component can be easily ported over from the latest artefact versions once hacked-open and retro fitted to older hardware models to enable the performing and execution of the new functions from latest generation innovations to the old, negating or postponing planned consumer obsolescence and growth strategies for firms. Generally speaking the rate of change for computer hardware chip performance improvements cycles doubles every eighteen to twenty four months, therefore hackers have a large hardware performance window open to keep pace with software component changes, negating the need for incremental hardware upgrades at all in some cases throughout this period [Schaller, 1997]. This effect is particularly enhanced in light of the current post economic crisis and public austerity measures. By retro fitting devices through acts of hacking allows for the latest module functionality (for no cost at all) on older hardware and operates as a form of innovation bootlegging, negating the annual requirement to upgrade to the latest incremental hardware advances.
In terms of the wider capitalist economic system, hacking in this sense poses a clear and significant emerging disruptive impact upon cyclical consumption that underpins continued economic growth paradigm. As one hacking blog puts it: ‘with great hardware comes great opportunity’ and it is these opportunities that hackers so intensely seek out. Hacking products changes them in fundamental ways by boosting underlying capabilities and adding features through taking advantage and exploitation of modular architectures found locked away within them (that underpins and reflects the structure of the entire IT industry they operate in). This has several implications for firms who design, develop and manufacture such devices (both open and closed) once they are in the hands of hacking consumers. Continued deployment of the Linux kernel in consumer electronics based on Open Source knowledge (free source code, devoid of licensing fees and per unit royalties) offers firms a quick and cheap product development path when compared to in-house development of commercial operating systems. This may provide an attractive proposition in the short term, but groups of hacker innovators will soon turn artefacts into disruptive technologies. Disruptive in the sense that consumers may be much less inclined to invest in the latest hardware model if a hacked, fully optimised and feature-rich device can be configured with software alternatives downloaded and installed on a device (for free) without the need to upgrade the physical hardware itself.
It can become further disruptive in that competitor proprietary code can also be ported over to a competing device. In this instance significant strategic challenges will emerge for firms who may be instinctively inclined to adopt an attack response to protect internally developed IP against hacker modifications and uses, but in so doing opening-up the firm to direct black hat cracker attacks by hacktivist groups resulting in potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of damage and incalculable brand damage, as was seen in the case of Sony and the PlayStation 3 games console.
Vast distributed teams of hackers collaborating via digital technologies, self organising into collaborative hacker innovation networks or CHIN’s have the capabilities and skills to develop software packages and modules more feature rich and compatible than those offered by manufacturers constrained by strict deadlines and product development cycles.  The pressure to meet tight product development cycles and deadlines within firms creates a vast opportunity for hackers to create and meet unmet needs within the wider marketplace. Fully optimised modular design configuration states are simply not possible to achieve by the firm, bounded to perform under tight and uncompromising R&D and production timeframes.
Critical interdependencies among components cannot all be resolved under such limits and firms rely on slow time deployment of resources to patch and fix bugs and problems retroactively as they emerge. This market gap and lack of resource deployment is addressed by hackers who spend their free leisure time outside of organisational working hours, driven by passion, freedom and creative inquisitiveness to deconstruct and set about solving interdependencies with far quicker release cycles than those capable by firms once a product has entered the general marketplace.
It could be that in the future collaborative hacker innovation networks function as a paid complementary, external skunk works for firms. Impassioned hackers could be given advance access to developer tools and modules so that firms and hackers could work synergistically towards the common goal of fully optimising a feature rich design module configuration for end user use. For this to take place, policy and IP frameworks will need to be developed and firms will need to gain board level support in order to begin thinking about implementing appropriate management strategies that can allow the firm to take advantage, integrate with and benefit from collaborative hacker innovation communities. It will also be the job of academic research and industry bodies to look into the black box of the hacker innovation to lead the way into this controversial but potentially fruitful innovation domain.
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- See Modai, concept for a new smartphone a phone designed for modular upgrading without the need to hack access to root access it first: http://www.fastcodesign.com/1665830/modai-a- concept-for-a-smartphone-with-replaceable-brains#11
- This idea goes against the general commercial interests of the firm and the generated impact of the primacy and recency effect involved in the consumer buying process. The primacy effect being that people tend to remember the first information than the last about an innovation presented to them. The recency effect being that people tend to remember the most recent information presented to them about an innovation. Combined together these create strong marketing foundations to drive the desires to adopt a new innovation. Hacking products breaks through this logic as it provides many of the new features, functionality and capabilities of new innovations, made freely portable to older hardware devices. The relative advantage gap is consequently narrowed or closed altogether and the likelihood of purchase somewhat diminished.
- Article on some of the most popular hardware boosting hacks: http://lifehacker.com/5925995/top-10- hardware-boosting-hacks.
- Cyanogen Mod: an Open Source, consumer hacker innovator replacement firmware for smartphones and tablets based on the Android operating system offering many features and functionality not available in internally developed firmware distributed by device vendors.
- Xbox Media Center (XBMC) for example is a cross platform media center capable of running on a range of devices, originally developed to run on hacked Microsoft XBOX’s. It can for example replace manufacturer software entirely such as Apple TV devices, offering much broader functionality and playback options. Many commercial hardware devices now use variants of XBMC to handle its media playback such as Boxee, Plex, MediaPortal, OpenELEC.
- [Dewar and Dutton, 1986] ^ Dewar, R. D. and J. E. Dutton (1986). "The Adoption of Radical and Incremental Innovations: An Empirical Analysis." Management Science 32(11): 1422-1433.
- [Schaller, 1997] ^ Schaller, R. (1997). " Moore's law: past, present and future " Spectrum, IEEE 34(6): 52-59.
- [von Hippel, 2012] von Hippel, E., J. Jong, et al. (2012). "Comparing Business and Household Sector Innovation in Consumer Products: Findings from a Representative Study in the United Kingdom." Management Science 58(9): 1669-1681.
- [Gloor, Paasivaara et al., 2005] Gloor, P., M. Paasivaara, et al. FINDING COLLABORATIVE INNOVATION NETWORKS THROUGH CORRELATING PERFORMANCE WITH SOCIAL NETWORK STRUCTURE.
- [Gloor, Putzke et al., 2005] Gloor, P., J. Putzke, et al. (2005). Studying Microscopic Peer-to-Peer Communication Patterns. Americas Conference on Information Systems.