Hack – all the things?

For this year’s Association of Internet Researchers Conference 2016 in Berlin, I hosted a roundtable on “Hacking Cultures: Hack all the things?” together with Tim Jordan, Sebastian Kubitschko, and Karin Wenz. Starting at 9am on the first day, the panel was not overly busy yet… But: we had a great, small round of participants and hence a fascinating discussion. Thanks to everyone who joined in, and a special thanks to Angela Krewani for moderating the session! If you missed the roundtable and are curious what it was about, read more about the session and the ‘lightning talk’ which I contributed.

Our roundtable: “Hacking Cultures – Hack all the things?”
You can hack your food, your furniture, your wearables, spaces (such as museums), biology, and even your life ‒ at least according to topical websites and social media. Very recently, we have witnessed that actually things, as in “internet of things”, seem to be particularly vulnerable to malicious hacking (which some of you might consider “cracking“). The list of supposedly ‘hackable’ things and domains is long and broad.[1]


The term ‘hacking’ has its roots in phreaking (phone-freaking), hobbyist computing, programmer subculture and the early MIT hacks. Today, it is closely associated with illegal activities and computer security issues, and also with coding for free and open source software. However, in recent years it has been increasingly used in a more figurative or metaphorical sense. During our roundtable, we explored what kinds of practices have been labelled as ‘hacking’ in online contexts. In initial ‘lightning’ talks, we presented contemporary examples of hacking and how they relate to (earlier) meanings of the term. Karin Wenz gave insights into biohacking; Tim Jordan reflected on hacking in relation to oppositions such as cracking; and Sebastian Kubitschko presented his empirical research on the Chaos Computer Club in Germany. My own presentation dealt with the recent popularisation of ‘making’ and how it relates to practices of hacking:


Lightning talk: “Hacking and/as making: ‘As squares are to rectangles’?”
Currently, we can observe debates and controversies in contemporary hacker cultures which have resulted from the rise of the maker movement. In my presentation, I addressed the following three positions describing the relation between hacking and making, from the perspective of hackers:

  1. Making is an element of hacking: in this sense, all hackers are makers, but not all makers are hackers.
  2. Making is a presentable, family-friendly term for hacking: in this view, making has an advocacy function and promotes hacking.
  3. Making is a term which commercialises hacking and takes away its subversive, creative potential.

Some of you may know that the MAKE magazine was originally supposed to be called HACKs. When asked about the naming of the journal its founder Dale Dougherty told the story that his kids neither understood the title nor liked it. And this made him reconsider:

Originally I was going to call it Hacks Magazine […]. While hacking is a wonderful way of viewing the world, “making” was a more positive framing for customizing and
changing the world. (source: https://theblueprint.com/stories/dale-dougherty)

When reading his answer, it also becomes clear that Dale might have been concerned about the commercial sustainability of a project called “Hacks”. What his comment implies is not only that making is a “more positive framing for customizing and changing the world”. It also implies that hacking is too strongly associated with illegal, disruptive activities as that it could be used in the title of a commercial magazine.

This issue goes as far back as to the 1980s, when prominent hackers such as Richard Stallman and journalist Steven Levy tried to establish a meaning of hacking which was not synonymous with illegal IT security infringements. As we are all aware, these attempts were not particularly fruitful.

In the hackerspace KnoxMakers (what’s in a name?) this discussion has been continued with particular regards to the notion of “making”.  The members’ posts illustrate common views on the relation between hacking and making.

First of all, it is suggested to see making as element of hacking. Using the comparison “Hacking is to making as squares are to rectangles”, it is implied that all hackers are makers, but not all makers are hackers.

You are making something when you hack, but you aren’t necessarily hacking something when you make.’ (source: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/knoxmakers/s6pOlvQm-7o)

A second position is that making is a more ‘family-friendly’, unthreatening label for hacking. It is used to speak about hacking practices while pragmatically trying to avoid confusion around hacking.

I called us a Makerspace when talking to them […]. I did not feel like I was compromising integrity of something I believe in […] I was just communicating content with my audience in mind. (source: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/

Lastly, a third, more critical position is that making is a term which has been put in place to commercialise hacking. It is seen as closely related to Make magazine and an alleged sell out of DIY culture.

I acknowledge that there’s an advocacy component to it [making] that is arguably good, but it doesn’t win me over. Ultimately, I see MAKE as co-opting or “recuperating” […] hacker subculture for commercial purposes. (source: https://groups.google.com/forum/#!topic/knoxmakers/s6pOlvQm-7o)

In conclusion, on the one hand, we might hence argue that we have ultimately lost the term hacking to news and government reporting on cybercrime anyway. It could then be said that the term “making” serves as transmitter through which hacking practices and expertise can be popularised. However, there is obviously concern in hacking communities that this threatens the subcultural identity of hacking and simply illustrates its commercialisation.

A remaining question, which I suggested for discussion in our roundtable, was therefore: “Is making hacking’s new Other – its new opposition – or: Is making the new hacking?”



[1] Take a look at e.g. https://foodhackingbase.org, http://www.ikeahackers.net, https://hackaday.com/category/wearable-hacks, http://biohack.me, and http://www.lifehack.org.

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