Traditional Conceptions of Hacking

From Hacker Innovation: Redefinition and Examination of Outlaw Sources of Generativity for Future Product Development Strategies (2014) by Mike Pinder
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Heterogeneous meaning

The term hacker is a controversial term with a variety of definitions and meanings in multiple settings and contexts, generally used with negative connotations. Hacking occurs in a range of contexts –some positive and some negative- but in all cases, a purposeful change occurs to an artefact’s design or function whether desired or not by a third party. The original architect, designer or engineer may never have intended or envisaged a hack to occur, for many reasons such as preservation integrity, security or control of intellectual property, but it happens none the less.

Hacking can be used to generate meaning and value as an outcome, or it can be used to destroy corrupt or act as simple inconvenience; but in all instances it is a conscious act by a group or individual adapting or modify a technological artefact to affect the cause-and-effect relationship involved in achieving its designed and desired task outcomes, whether for good, bad, constructive or destructive purposes.

What is a hack?

The hacker noun embodies several acts by dictionary definition; again not explicitly referring to positive or generative acts but those in which a person:

  1. ...uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data (an enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user).
  2. person or thing that hacks or cuts roughly [Dictionaries, 2012].

These definitions provide a level of insight into the various broad contexts in which the term can be used. Interestingly hackers are clearly distinguished from those in the context of computer security environments, to those involved in skilful programming of computers by users. One implies illegal and negative consequences, whilst the other, a wider sense of knowledgeable usefulness.

The second definition evokes fragmentation (to chop, cut, notch, slice or to sever an object with heavy, irregular blows) and originated as a term in carpentry where wood workers would use aggressive and rough working tools to fit beams and joists of wood to fit together in an acceptably neat but crude manner. Hence connotations: to break-up, damage, injure, mutilate, mangle and reduce something to many smaller constituent parts. It conveys a sense of harsh but gradual defragmentation and destruction of an artefact using little thought with broad appreciation of a desired outcome achieved with much force in the pursuit of an intended perhaps constructive end.

In the computing domain, a hack embodies several meanings once again. To quickly find any possible solution to a problem faced, or a time-consuming effort that produces exactly what is required in spite of trade-offs or consequences. It can also mean to write a clumsy or inefficient code to reach a desired outcome through bootstrapping of available resources where they may be scarce. To hack and a hack are generally conveyed negativity in some way via an aggressive and poorly considered action, based on limited resource, whether financial or physical in order to achieve a desired outcome.

These connotations hardly evoke a sense of creativity, well thought-out and considered design or indeed innovation, yet the term is increasingly being used in creative contexts. There is little wonder why the term is frequently misinterpreted and reinterpreted through continued and evolving cultural usage in varying contexts over time. It can be applied to such a spectrum of generative and destructive acts as outcomes of a hack. [1]

Conflicting polysemic use in popular mainstream media and culture creates further ambiguity and distorts accepted and existing meaning; placing emphasis and focus on a certain hacker class (in the negative, non generative sense) and creates ambiguity about other potentially more accurate and realistic drivers for hacker activities and what can be achieved within them.

Illegal-to-legal acts

The hacking landscape essentially spans along a key dimension: from illegal to legal activities. Along this dimension, acts of hacking can be seen as malicious and disruptive to creative and generative, depending upon one’s point of view, culture, politic, interest or any other bias or personal interest. Despite the heterogeneity of uses, the term ‘hacker’ has predominant popular connotations toward the illegal end of the spectrum particularly driven by the media as news stories break (and sell) involving various forms of hacking towards the illegal and negative extreme [Hamilton, 2011] [Schlesinger, 2011] [Webster, 2011] [BBC, 2012] including blockbuster Hollywood films that further reinforce a particular stereotype of hackers as deviant and destructive criminals.[2] A recent content analysis study by Gordon (2010) looked at characters and plots of 50 popular movies from 1968 to 2008 and found that 44 characters were portrayed as good hackers and 10 were depicted as essentially bad hackers. This implies that taken as whole, popular portrayals of hackers do not necessarily predominate toward illegal and devious activities, but in fact focus more on positive portrayals. While this seems to suggest negative portrayals of hacking may not necessarily originate from popular cinema script writing, the research merely takes a quantitative approach and fails to take into account the impact of individual, negative hacker-portrayal films and their influence on popular culture and opinion as a whole, most likely due to the complexity and cost of such a research. Further, more conclusive research would need to assess the individual impact of negative portrayals with for example, data from box office, rental, and home entertainment revenues in order to draw stronger empirical conclusions on the causal mechanisms and actual cultural influence of negative and positive portrayals and possible resulting cultural influence on overall stereotyping impacts. What does emerge from this study however, is that popular cinematic stereotypes have a general bias towards positive or good hacker community values; but despite this, varying cultural and popular impact may be more significant and stem from those films that portray hacking in a more negative or dark side sense.

Stereotypical popular cultural understandings of hackers can be visually represented and reflected by searching Meta data keywords from digital media libraries found in stock photo databases such as Getty Images.[3]

Image database Meta search for 'hacker' from Ghetty Images

Here the hacker is portrayed mid to late twenties individual, concealing their identity visually by wearing a hooded sweat shirt (often associated with youths, gangs and vandals), working-away on several expensive and possibly stolen computers using hacker software with global reach, in the small hours of the night in a parent’s basement, fuelled by cans of Red Bull, cups of coffee and junk food.

Since the 1980’s, mass media has reported on computer network intrusions, security breaches and digital thefts under the term ‘hacking’, focussing on the illegality of such acts and reinforcing the criminal elements associated with the term. The original meaning has been slowly distorted-away from the playful creativity of skilled crafts people, into deviant criminal acts carried out by cyber criminals and terrorists alike. The hacker has become a post-modern artefact where origins have been distorted and new divergent meanings have arisen from perpetual media repetition of alternative signifiers and signifieds, slowly legitimised and widely accepted as fact within mainstream culture without question.

The illegal-to-legal dimension of hacking is reflected and transmuted in existing typologies of hacking with emphasis on cultural signifieds and depictions found in mainstream media.[4] Current typologies span from black to white hats (black referring to illegal, negative impacting activities and white to more legal, beneficial activities). The illegal hacker is by association assigned to the dark side, whereas the ethical, good hacker is assigned to the legal lighter side.

History is littered with hacker-innovations of all types and some have been a driving source for entire industries to form. Some of the most influential firms today have based their corporate culture on hacker ethics, claiming to have a countercultural heart beating within them whether true or relevant today or not. However the hacker term still brings with it dominant, negative connotations from deviant individuals and groups of cyber criminals who break into computers in order to steal personal data, disrupt services, commit fraud amongst many other highly illegal and controversial activities. The reality however is somewhat different and such illegal activities form only one end of an entire spectrum of non-generative to generative outputs of human labour. An emerging definition refers to everyday consumers and end-users who modify, customise, innovate and improve existing consumer technologies and products with the aim of increasing functionality, performance and usage in new and unintended contexts by its original architects and designers.

Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg recently attempted to redefine the popular conception of hacking in an open letter to investors in early 2012:

The word “hacker” has an unfairly negative connotation from being portrayed in the media as people who break into computers. In reality, hacking just means building something quickly or testing the boundaries of what can be done. Like most things, it can be used for good or bad, but the vast majority of hackers I’ve met tend to be idealistic people who want to have a positive impact on the world [Staff, 2012].

For Zuckerberg, hacking is a route to continuous innovation and improvement through boundary-pushing iterations and rapid prototyping of code; not from breaking and entering into computer networks to steal valuable information.

Google Inc., operates a similar management strategy and culture called ‘20% time’ or ‘pet projects’ where employees are free to work on projects of personal and passionate interest for 1/5th of employee time. Like Facebook, many of Google’s most valuable innovations have emerged from an open and freethinking hackeresque corporate culture initiative.[5]

Having looked at the current broad cultural understandings of hacking and the semantic problems varying contextual term usage generates, the next chapter will focus upon common underlying origins found within communities and will trace back its genesis to tensions between capitalism and communism as forms of organising human labour and output. In order to promote clarity and understanding of a broad range of hacker activities (and to open up a research stream within innovation studies), I will give a brief description of each type of negatively-perceived hacker activity and discuss further examples of emergent hacking with the goal of engendering a more positive perception within the academic, business and cultural domains to stimulate future research enquiries.

NEXT: Chapter 2.1 - Re-defining and Understanding True Hacking


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  1. Interestingly in the golfing world, a hacker takes on opposing meaning altogether in a mocking and insulting sense, synonymous with a poor player, lacking in any degree of skill at all and more widely as someone who enthusiastically pursues a sport to a highly poor standard and level of skill. In this context the term is used to denote meaning in the opposing sense to computing, programming and technology.
  2. Skyfall (2012), The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009), Die Hard 4.0 (2007), Swordfish (2001), The Matrix (1999), Track Down (2000), Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999), Enemy of The State (1998), Independence Day (1996), Goldeneye (1995), Hackers (1995), The Net (1995), Die Hard (1988), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), WarGames (1983) and Tron (1982) to name a few.
  3. Meta keyword search for the term hacker available at: GB&family=creative&assetType=image&mt=photography&excludenudity=true&p=hacker (retrieved April 20, 2012)
  4. One of many typical cinematic uses of moral black vs. white dichotomies (dark vs. light, evil vs. good): Lucas, G. (1977). Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope G. Lucas. US, Lucas Film.
  5. Google’s 20% or ‘pet projects’ time is not a new idea; 3M adopted the practice in the 1950’s with the same innovation driven intentions helping to conceive Post-it Notes and Masking Tape product successes.