The Hack Animal
Human Investigation and Manipulation of Complex Systems
Introduction: Redefining the Hack
“Hack” has many different meanings. It’s an old word, so that shouldn’t surprise anyone. It can mean a small horse-drawn carriage, a fish-drying rack, to chop roughly with a bladed instrument[i].
In a strictly modern sense, it is often associated with computers. More specifically, with the action of gaining illicit access to the inner workings of computers[ii]. To hack is to use techniques, skills, and knowledge, generally available to few (and thus arcane) to manipulate computers and computerized systems in ways which often seem, from an outside perspective, illicit or wrong.
This latter definition is not what I am talking about in this (missive? diatribe? essay?) though it is reflective of the definition I’m choosing to use. A definition, I’ll add, that has languished largely forgotten.
The definition I want to use here is this: to hack is to study and manipulate complex systems to one’s own ends. I choose to argue that what defines, or perhaps identifies, human behaviour more than anything else is this: we are, as a species, hackers.
This definition of “hacking” was not created by myself. It sprang largely from the activities of students from MIT. For these people, hacking was not a vindictive or maleficent activity, nor was it directed necessarily at computer systems. Those familiar with hacker history often deplore the fact that the wider community has identified “hacking” with computer crime. Fine, often enough such activity is used in a negative way from the perspective of the average person, so the average person seeing it as inherently negative can come as no surprise.
But what I’m trying to put forward here is that the “hack” isn’t necessarily good or bad, but that it is in fact one of the most defining and fascinating aspects of human behaviour. For the MIT hackers, it was all about studying and learning to manipulate complex systems. I will argue that this is what we, as humans, do so well that it is almost worthy of defining us.
I know how to manipulate locks. I’m not an expert, but most of your general-purpose key-based locks will yield to my manipulations in fairly short order. If I haven’t practiced, maybe not, but when I’m in practice, generally a lock will open in under two minutes if I give it my undivided attention.
A lock is a (minimally) complex system. The way to pick it is to understand and manipulate it in terms of its weaknesses. In the general pin-tumbler lock you buy from the hardware shop, this is relatively easy given a little knowledge and a little practice. You don’t even need particularly good or refined tools, in many cases. Just a knowledge of the system and an awareness of its weaknesses.
More complex systems with more restricted weaknesses (high-security locks built with finer tolerances and false pins, for example) require more knowledge and more refined skill to manipulate. It is, however, always still possible to manipulate them. What a human can make, a human can fuck with.
Locks are, of course, a very restricted set, but they do well enough to highlight the point: I learned how to pick locks when I was fourteen years of age, from reading one book. Took me about five hours to get a good grasp of what I was doing. Five hours out of a lifetime. The human mind is very good at analyzing complex systems and working out how to manipulate them. Just look at what’s involved in being a member of human society…