Hacking & Designing
Paradoxes of Collaborative Practice
Originally published in The Critical Makers Reader: (Un)learning Technology
The concept of hacking is not discipline-specific; it is not exclusive to the field of computer programming. For this reason, designers and design educators freely use hacking terminology to describe design.1 The hacking approach implies a ‘critical and playful design practice inspired by historical and current hacker, net art, “do-it-yourself” and “re-mix” cultures and practices’.2 However, I will argue here that this appropriation of hacking terminology by designers misses out on addressing the sociality inherent in hacking practices. Hacking seems enticing, holding out appealing modes of self-determined making. Yet if we ‘critical’ designers flirt with these modes, we also need to interrogate why hacking communities are known to be inaccessible to ‘women, minorities, or other underrepresented groups’.3 We need to move beyond fetishizing the hacker mode of production, and instead investigate the convoluted social construct of hacking—including its frictions and dilemmas.
The Practice of Hackers & Designers
As a designer, educator and member of the Amsterdam-based workshop initiative Hackers & Designers (H&D), I have long identified with modes of hacking. One concrete example is ‘Levels of Autonomy’, a workshop centered on self-driving cars in which participants hack remote controlled toy cars.4 By repurposing the switches on the controls, and applying sensors and micro-controllers, the toys slowly transform into miniature self-driving cars, which can follow a line and stop in front of obstacles. The making process is accompanied by discussions about the sociotechnical implications of the self-driving car. Modes of hacking in the context of the self-driving car workshop describe foremost a mentality—a defiant yet playful attitude to making.
H&D is not the only initiative advocating hacking approaches within art and design contexts. Hacking events fill the agendas of many cultural organizations. For these organizations, hacking is a way to emancipate users of technology from being passive consumers to becoming critical makers. However, the implications of hacking remain unexamined in initiatives such as Hack the Body,5 Hacking the News,6 or Hack Your Style.7
The experiment below posits a conversation between two stereotypes: a hacker (H) and a designer (D). This imaginary discussion expresses my suspicions toward designerly approaches to hacking, and questions whether hacking could become a distinguishable and critical form of designing.8 The dialogue is based on conversations and personal experiences engaging with hackers,9 designers and artists. It also draws from anthropological studies of hacking culture and more recent debates on the hostility of hacking environments.
D: In recent years, designers and design educators have started using hacking jargon to rethink design methods and come up with new approaches for design. H, you are a real hacker. Do you see problems in the appropriation of hacking jargon by designers?
H: I doubt designers actually understand what hacking means. Hacking is not a method you can first learn and then apply. Neither can you conceptualize hacking by means of design. Designers need to learn how to write, read, and fix code. They need to get literate before they can call themselves hackers.
D: So you think designers only look at those aspects of hacking they can relate to, but ignore the others? I would actually argue that designers’ ways of making are not alien to the practice of hacking. Most designers I know use hacking terminology as a way to describe a specific approach to making. Isn’t hacking a way of making?
H: Hacking might be a way of making. But it could be also a way of breaking. A hacker—just like a designer I imagine—finds pleasure in creating. But hacking is more of an attitude than a practice.
D: I can see that. Actually I think it is the attitude you are mentioning that is particularly interesting to us designers. Hackers seem to put forward a self-determined and sometimes unruly attitude to making.10 You can apply hacking modes to a huge variety of circumstances. That’s why designers freely use hacking terms to describe what they do. Hacking is not exclusive to one discipline, is it?
H: Hacking might be an attitude towards making. But this attitude is tightly connected to the practice of writing software, debugging, running and maintaining systems, which is—and this is important to acknowledge—continuously frustrating! Hackers are exposed to things not working. The hacking attitude that is so interesting for you designers is a direct result of encountering resistance, over and over again. Hackers have developed a tremendous tolerance to frustration because we are constantly fighting code. It is the thin line between frustration and pleasure that is important to understand when describing a hacker’s mode of production.
D: That hacking mode you are describing is in fact something I recognize in my own practice. As designers, we learned how to work skilfully and smoothly. We do things spontaneously, ‘without thinking’ so to speak, drawing on tacit knowledge. There are instances during design processes when this tacit knowledge is disrupted.11 The material or tool can behave differently than expected. That disruption might be pleasantly surprising, or unpleasantly disturbing—frustrating as you said before.
H: There is what is called deep hack mode,12 which is a bit different than what you describe. Entering a deep hack mode is the ability to enter a state of high concentration. In any case, I object to the idea of chance within hacking. Code is either working or not working. If it’s not working it means someone made a mistake that needs to be fixed. I might fix the code in a straightforward way, or I fix it in ways nobody has thought of yet. The latter is called a good hack.
D: So the fact that nobody has thought about it yet qualifies a line of code to be a good hack? Is it important to you that your code is recognized by others as a unique piece of work? Is there a social pressure involved in hacking?
H: Hacking, as I experience it, is definitely a social activity. Although we might not often meet in person, there is a general understanding amongst hackers that the technologies we are building and using are created by a vast amount of other people. I wouldn’t want to call this social pressure. I want to come up with good hacks in order to contribute to projects greater than what I could produce on my own. By the way, documentation is crucial for code to be reusable by others. I always make sure my code is clean and beautiful before I publish it. If hackers like my code it means what I made is effective. It’s a compliment when someone uses my code.
D: Interesting. So coding is a social practice, but also an aesthetic one?
D: So there might be another commonality between Hackers and Designers. Hackers too like to simplify and visually communicate through the work they produce.
H: I get it. You are trying to find out if the hacking approach can be useful across disciplines. You want to gain hacking insights in order to obtain a better understanding of your own discipline. You know, I don’t even care about your so-called design methods. All I want to make clear is that there is more to hacking that needs to be considered. Hacking is not a method. If you dig a little deeper you will come across complex forms of interactions, which shape what hackers produce and how they produce it. You cannot learn hacking like you would learn a skill, a subject, or a method. Hacking derives from and contributes to an ecology. You need to be embedded in the ecology in order to understand its workings. You designers tend to glorify hacking and forget about a whole lot of dynamics that are at play in hacking culture. Hackers cannot be described as a homogeneous group. There are many tensions and contradictions within hacker communities. Some hackers make money, some are activists, some are criminals—yet they might all work together on the same project.
D: I’m curious; the sociality you are addressing seems to relate to what people call the ‘hacker ethic’—a foundation for dealing critically and creatively with technology.1314 But what you are also saying is, while hackers share a common ethical ground and work together, they also disagree and fight?
H: Yes, but they don’t fight about politics. They fight about code and its principles and I can assure you, they don’t care about politeness.
D: What would you say are the consequences of the diverse intentions and motivations inherent in hacking practices? Do you think that the plurality of different personalities and beliefs enables a productive form of friction?
H: Well that depends on what you consider to be productive, and what is included and excluded when you refer to ‘different personalities’. Friction might actually be a core characteristic of the hacker mode of production. But if you ask under which conditions these practices produce code, you might find that these practices are productive only for those who are resilient enough to expose themselves to direct confrontation. To some people, hacking environments can come across as insensitive, judgmental, and hostile. There are people who are either not used to such environments or who are not willing to work within them. By only looking only at the bright side of hacking culture, there is a danger of overlooking certain characteristics of a strand of makers who—besides their many positive achievements—have also produced alt-right deviations and non-inclusive spaces. Some say that these hostile environments make non-male and non-white makers, or makers above the age of 30, feel unwelcome.15 ‘There are many examples that demonstrate the hostility women face while working in online hacking environments. In a hate-mail entitled “Death to Women’s Rights” on the [Debian-women] mailing list, a man expressed how much he despised women because they complain there is no[t] enough women in male-dominated but successful fields’.16
D: Right. I also heard about the recent controversy with the aggressive rhetoric used by Linux kernel creator Linus Torvalds.17
H: Torvalds is notorious for his political incorrectness.
D: He’s been called out on verbal abuse and personal intimidation in his online communication.18
H: After being publicly confronted by a female Linux developer, Torvalds was forced to revise his ‘code of conflict’,19 which promoted ‘no-filter feedback and bluntness as the natural and more successful state of open source software development’.20
D: Apart from the ethical dimensions, hacking culture encompasses peculiar pedagogical facets. Hackers promote open access to information, unlimited possibilities for exchanging knowledge, and the right to learn. On the other hand, confrontational rhetorics—I’m thinking for instance of ‘RTFM’ (read the fucking manual)—mark another pedagogical dimension of hacker culture: the importance of technical self-cultivation.
H: The confrontational nature of hackers’ ways of communicating with each other is essential to their modes of co-producing. Only by practicing a radical transparency and directness are hackers able to express—through their work—their positions and along with it, their partiality and omissions. They sustain space for others to confront them.
D: So would you say that the ability to work collectivity is so crucial that hackers will open up the work they produce? How is this openness put into practice?
H: The constant state of exposure—and along with it, a sustained vulnerability—is enabled only through constant and meticulous practices of documentation. Far from covering up our bugs, we openly acknowledge and even explain them. We don’t hide problems.21 The virtue of transparency is that it makes actions accountable. The community is built upon social dynamics that are informed by frictional interaction. Those frictions mark hacker culture. Through constant exposure to the possibility of potential disagreement and dispute, hackers are constantly ‘making and remaking themselves’.22
D: I think I get your point. We can’t talk about hacking without also talking about community, infrastructures, and inevitable cultural codes. The paradoxes you described bring about important frictions within hacker communities, and are crucial to an understanding of the hacker way of working. These frictions don’t seem incidental. No, they’re actively made, widely publicized, and openly negotiated. Instead of idealizing a hacker archetype, designers could learn more from the dilemmas of this maker culture. This, in turn, might help them reflect on the missed opportunities and weak points of their own practices. Designers should disseminate their work in ways that force still-vulnerable processes to be exposed and possibly contested. If we stop clutching so tightly to the paradigm of making ‘convincing work’, and instead embrace the limits of our practices, designers could create our own ecology of frictions.
1 WdKA Minor Programmes / Presentations 2018, https://www.wdka.nl/news-events/minor-programmes-presentations-2018.
2 Anne Galloway, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Lalya Gaye, Elizabeth Goodman and Dan Hill, ‘Design for hackability’, Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, (2004): 363-366. Also available from: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/221441240_Design_for_hackability.
3 Lint Finley, ‘Linus Creator is Sorry. But Will He Change?’, 17 August 2018, https://www.wired.com/story/linuxs-creator-is-sorry-but-will-he-change/.
4 Hackers & Designers, https://hackersanddesigners.nl/s/Projects/p/Levels_of_Autonomy.
5 ‘Hack The Body’, Baltan Laboratories, http://hackthebody.nl/.
6 ‘Hacking the News’, MU, http://www.mu.nl/en/about/agenda/hacking-the-news.
7 ‘Hack je stijl!’, Het Nieuwe Instituut, https://hetnieuweinstituut.nl/hack-je-stijl.
8 For instance, H&D claims to engage participants in developing critical standpoints through modes of hacking—by getting your hands dirty rather than a distanced critique of analyzing and reflecting on technological products.
9 Referring to hackers I describe mostly—but not exclusively—software developers within my proximity who use and contribute to Free/Libre Open Source Software (F/OSS). While such hackers are not explicitly political, they are idealistic about the code they write. They gather and build communities mostly on the basis of skills rather than ideologies.
10 Graham, Paul. ‘The Word Hacker’, April 2004, http://www.paulgraham.com/gba.html.
11 Donald Schön, Educating the Reflective Practitioner, San Francisco, London: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1988.
12 Jargonfile, http://catb.org/jargon/html/D/deep-hack-mode.html.
13 Paraphrasing Frank Rieger’s quote ‘Die Hackerethik ist die Grundlage für den Umgang mit den diversen ethischen Problemen, die sich beim schöpferisch-kritischen Umgang mit Technologie (auch “hacking” genannt) stellen’. in Frank Rieger, ‘Hackerethik—eine Einführung Verantwortung und Ethik beim schöpferisch-kritischen Umgang mit Technologie’, Chaos Computer Congress, 27 December 2018, https://media.ccc.de/v/35c3-10011-hackerethik_-_eine_einfuhrung/.
14 The term hacker ethic, when used by hacker communities such as the Chaos Computer Club, refers back to Steven Levy’s notion of hacker ethic as ‘an ethic seldom codified, but embodied in the behavior of hackers themselves’. Levy, Steven. Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution, London: Penguin Books, 1994 (1984).
15 Ali Spivak, ‘Inclusion Includes You Let’s talk about How Inclusion Benefits All of Us’, Mozilla devroom, Fosdem 2019, 2 February 2019, https://fosdem.org/2019/schedule/event/inclusion_includes_you/.
16 Paraphrasing from: Yuwei Lin, ‘A Techno-Feminist Perspective on the Free/Libre Open Source Software Development’ in: Gender and IT Encyclopedia, Idea Groups, 2006.
17 Jon Brodkin, ‘Linus Torvalds Defends his Right to Shame Linux Kernel Developers. “My Culture is Cursing”: Linux Kernel World is a Hostile Place—By Design’, Ars Technica, 16 June 2013, https://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2013/07/linus-torvalds-defends-his-right-to-shame-linux-kernel-developers/.
18 Linus Torvalds, ‘Linux 4.19-rc4 released, an apology, and a maintainership note’, posting to the Linux Kernel Mailing List, 16 September 2018, https://lkml.org/lkml/2018/9/16/167/.
19 Steven Vaughan-Nichols, ‘Revised Linux Code of Conduct is now officially part of Linux. With the release of the Linux kernel 4.19 came not just new features and bug fixes, but the new Linux Code of Conduct as well’, ZDNet, 22 October 2018, https://www.zdnet.com/article/revised-linux-code-of-conduct-is-now-officially-part-of-linux/.
20 Nick Statt, ‘Linus Torvalds returns to Linux development with new code of conduct in place: Torvalds took a self-imposed break to rethink his controversial treatment of others’, The Verge, 22 October 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2018/10/22/18011854/linus-torvalds-linux-kernel-development-return-code-of-conduct/.
21 See also: Debian-Gesellschaftsvertrag: 3. ‘Wir werden Probleme nicht verbergen Wir werden unsere Fehlerdatenbank für alle Zeiten öffentlich betreiben. Fehlermeldungen, die von Personen online abgeschickt werden, werden unverzüglich für andere sichtbar’, Debian.org, https://www.debian.org/social_contract.
22 Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, New Jersey, Oxfordshire: Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 27.