Re-defining and Understanding True Hacking

From Hacker Innovation: Redefinition and Examination of Outlaw Sources of Generativity for Future Product Development Strategies (2014) by Mike Pinder
Jump to: navigation, search

Hacker mind-sets

In order to understand the hacker mind-set and ethical underpinnings, it is vital to establish the underlying beliefs that ground attitudes towards capitalism and the wider modern economic system surrounding it.

The network society in which hackers fundamentally operate, organise, innovate and disrupt can be traced back to through proceeding scientific revolutions and emerged at a very specific moment in history. Thomas Kuhn describes technological paradigms as a conceptual pattern that sets standards for performance by organising the available range of technologies around a nucleus that enhances the performance of each [Kuhn, 1962]. In his view the industrial revolution firstly enabled humans to generate power and distribute energy via human ingenuity and artefacts without being solely dependent upon the natural environment in its existing natural state. Energy generation in this sense enables activities by powering-over nature and overcoming the limiting conditions of own individual existence. Water, steam, electric and nuclear power allowed for new forms of production, consumption and social organisation for the evolving industrial society. The avant-garde today being the post-industrialist knowledge economies found in the West in which hacking primarily functions.

The industrial society is comprised of factories, corporations, bureaucracy, and the phasing-out of traditional agricultural labour in place of large-scale urbanisation; international transportations systems, centralised social systems, mass-media and-mass communications. The rise of mass communications and the Internet in particular made fundamental changes to the control of knowledge and information and have challenged the way in which wealth, power and meaning is generated. Information processing, communication and innovation technologies (computer micro chips, network connectivity and associated costs) essentially impact upon the industrialist paradigm itself; specifically on how the generation, control and application of knowledge occurs.

The value in the Internet today comes from linking-up of artefacts in the virtual and real world into new combinations, built upon and extending the configurations of its original architect in modular forms. This re-combinatorial and reconfigurable nature of intellectual property artefacts provides a key source of innovation in the post industrialist networked society. The process of innovation is also subject to recombination and reconfiguration, particularly in the latter stages of the product life cycle (PLC) via acts of hacking to create new artefact combinations or arrangements that in turn support further spirals of meaningful knowledge and information for the system as a whole. The hacker entity freely facilitates this recombination and reconfiguration irrespective of prior intellectual property rights and law that are perceived as a perverse abstraction unto itself; a concept claiming private ownership rights over nature, whether supported and justified by post-industrialist legal regimes or not. In this sense, the configuration of social structures supporting the organisational arrangement of human relationships to production, consumption and power (framed by culture) is unrestrictedly subverted, distorted and reconfigured by hackers.

Information society

The information driven society was partly invented and developed by a culture of open data sharing, collaboration and cooperation found within ARPAnet experiments and scientific as well as academic research communities. Researchers were free to examine others findings as well as test and further develop others ideas. Self professed hackers designed and built the technologies underpinning the Internet (Unix, Linux, communications protocols, sockets and layers) that make the Internet work and they believed in simply building things for societal value, not destroying them as the popular media would have us presume. Hacker ethics originating at MIT in the generative context, only to have meaning subverted by continued usage referring to computer criminals in the early 1980’s when students broke into rooms that housed campus mainframe computers in order to test out new programs and written code. They believed in freedom of information and voluntary mutual help. In their eyes, legal and institutional barriers only prevented a good solution to a creative problem from being found and simply forced people to re-invent wheels. They believed a solution to a problem should not have to be solved twice and intellectual property and private ownership rights simply create barriers to creative problem solving, resulting in epistemological and idealistic confrontations with the establishment, culminating in a spectrum of hackers acts along an illegal-to- legal dimension.

Hacker culture is a fundamental concept grounded in a specific set of ethical foundations that underpin the networked, post industrialist society and is embedded in a set of cultural beliefs, values and general world economic view. Whilst widely misinterpreted in popular culture, hackers can provide vital sources of innovation that are instinctively and habitually disregarded as simply disruptive, illegal, dangerous and irrelevant to organisations activities.

A wider contextual understanding of hacker activities is needed, devoid of misleading popular connotations and bias, to draw attention to the ways in which hacking acts can generate sources of important value for the innovating firm. By demonstrating how hackers can be vitally beneficial to firms, not simply disruptive and counter productive, it is hoped that general attitudes and policymaking will reflect the subtly changing attitudes to hacker activities already slowly taking place. In so doing should allow both private ownership and open ownership property regimes to exist more complimentarily in a mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship towards the same goals.

Hackers ethics, passion and the roots of work

The underlying roots of hacker ethics and mind set can be traced back to direct challenges to the idea of the protestant work ethic [Weber, 1905]. Weber argued that the capitalist spirit is found in the implicit obligation individuals feel towards undertaking productive work, enforced by religion and God. Members of society are made to feel obliged to work and to find contentment in professional working activities as one’s natural God given duty. For hackers, motivations to work are entirely different. The driving force behind value creation in life comes from the passion to create artefacts of great social value, rather than merely for money and capital generation. The same ideals and vision carefully crafted and communicated to consumers by large innovative corporations who go to great lengths (and cost) to emphasise corporate social responsibility and a wider societal purpose in the world. It has long been established that firms who understand consumer’s driving passions (legal or illegal), are far better suited to creating relevant innovations and value, if they are closely aligned and directly connected to underlying consumer passions.

Basic work ethics and organisational factors for hackers do not originate primarily from work or capital gain per se, but from passion and desire to create something socially valuable. This explains the predominant view of firms such as Microsoft as the enemy of hackers with its focus on wealth generation, closed code, proprietary systems and appropriation rents from its patent portfolio and strict licensing model (in spite of a recent strategic shift towards financing and encouraging the development of Open Source software). For hackers, when profit, growth and wealth generation are the dominant focus for a firm, passion is no longer the central driving force behind innovation and creation, therefore something to be entirely wary of. Hackers also believe that innovators should directly profit from their socially beneficial efforts, but not profiting from closed information to others.

The term hacker has a broad and general definition that spans the illegal to legal dimension but essentially encompass all hacker classes as an expert or enthusiast of any kind [Himanen, 2001]. This term generally applies to anyone with a passionate interest in any domain in the information age. Unlike most typical users who see computers, networks and devices as black boxes that can enhance productivity; hackers see computers, networks and devices as sources of entertainment just like any other personal hobby. They are driven to understand and master a technology because it personally interests them and provides pleasure, joy and excitement, not merely as something that reduces uncertainty in performing a desired task in the workplace [Rogers, 1995].

[Hackers are] people who love and understand the technology they use. These are people who can "hack" together a solution to a problem with a soldering iron and a few paper clips. People who modify operating systems because they don't like the way they work [Robson, 1999].

Hackers have a strong sense of play; are prepared to take risks in exploring a technology and care deeply and passionately about their interests.[1] As Burrel Smith of Apple stated: ‘you can be a hacker carpenter... It has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you’re doing.”

Apple is an example of a habitually innovative and disruptive firm, marketing itself upon core countercultural ethics, similar to those found in hacker communities. Technology in their eyes should be used for your own purposes outside the control of large firms. Apple wishes to outwardly express its image as a group of freethinking rebels, troublemakers and technological radicals, akin to popular hacker culture. This may have reverberated with consumers when Apple was fighting against market domination by the likes of Microsoft and IBM, but becomes somewhat contradictory when it is now Apple who dominates markets as the most valuable company in history. The philosophy behind the hippy chique becomes hippy control freak within closed systems, gated communities, centralised control and vertically integrated products that lock users into proprietary platforms. Rather than echoing radical rebelliousness, vertically integrated software and hardware screams instead, proprietary claims to private ownership and ‘a firm knows best’ attitude most strongly detested within hacker ethics.

This holds true at least for hardware development by adopting a closed strategy, firms like Apple lock out the possibility for social product development inherently generated within the network society. There is no desire to be more responsive to the external environment because the environment does not know yet what it wants and Apple intuitively does. This has been made clear one successful and dominant design product launch after another. Firms like Apple however are somewhat rare and demonstrates an uncanny ability to develop truly radical unknown innovation for consumer needs that do not yet exist. The hacker ethic is sacrificed in order to create a seamless and simple mass-appealing product, but in so doing resists any form of user empowerment and flies in the face of the fundamental nature of networked information technologies themselves. By contrast in its software domain, Apple opened up its software development kit (SDK) and created the App Store in order to leverage the hacker ethic and creativity from external communities and firms alike by commercialising external generated applications to run on all its hardware devices, which in turn spawned an entire market economy and is well en-route to displacing the desktop/laptop market entirely in the coming years.

Habitual behaviour by industry innovation leaders deliberately closes-off external boundaries in the competitive landscape, dismissing it as externally generated noise that serves only to blur internal creative vision and direction in the fuzzy front end of the design and innovation process as it only creates fragmentation. However for those firms able to see value from external customers, consumers and stakeholders, external ideas, resources and hacking have the potential to provide vital waypoints, design trajectories and market direction to help reduce uncertainty in the innovation process. 

NEXT: Chapter 2.2 - Extant Hacker Typology

blog comments powered by Disqus


Purchase E-Book (ePub & PDF) Version

You can read the monograph for free online here or you can purchase an ePub and PDF version for your smartphone, tablet, laptop or desktop e-reader.



  1. Impassioned hackers who care deeply about the technologies they use and develop, ironically, are key attributes employers search for when interviewing potential candidates because it increases the likelihood