Hacking

Right, let`s start right at the beginning. My topic is called ‘Dementia Hacks’. This stems from my own understanding of hacking which is less to do with internet crime, but more to do with appropriation of items and ideas, of free access to tools and a lot with hardware and blinking lights. Hacking can board around the illegal, often without the intention of harming anyone – apart from maybe big corporations. A good example for the kind of hacking I will refer to mostly is the Magic Lantern project, in which a new firmware has been created that makes use of all the possibilities of a Canon Camera. “Unlocking its potential” to say it cheesy. It allows people to make full use of the hardware of their camera, even though the original software might not support those functions. Even though it might stop people from getting more expensive cameras, it does get people to buy Canon Cameras in the first place. It is an open source project in which people from all over the world come together to refine the code and give their advice which features would be advisable in the first place. Coleman (2013, 98) give a good account of this kind of hacking:

“Hackers are thus attuned not simply to the workings of technology but also seek such an intimate understanding of technology’s capabilities and constraints that they are positioned to redirect it to some new, largely unforeseen planes.”

Steinmetz (2015, 133) epmasises the element of control in this approach to hacking:

“The breaking of restrictions—both technological and legal—on software and hardware is another way that hackers demonstrate ownership over technology. The presence of restrictions means a third party is asserting control on the relationship between hackers and technology.”

I decided to draw on the image of hacking as a project title, even though it is a buzz word at the moment, because I am interested in this kind of spirit. In ideas about appropriation, about creativity, about making full use of items and ideas available. To fill the ‘buzz’ word with life, I started researching how hacking is defined in literature.

Looking at the literature available, I do not seem to be the only one struggling to specify what hacking is or what specifies a hack. Thomas gives a very important distinction what a hacker is and is not:

“Hacker culture has proven incredibly resistant to most forms of incorporation. On the surface, it appears that hacker culture could be easily incorporated in terms of the computer. But it is important to remember that the material object of the machine has little (or nothing) to do with hacker culture itself. Thus, the incorporation of the computer as a machine has almost no impact on hacker subculture. Hacker subculture is about information.” (Thomas, 2002, 153)

This separation between hacking and the computer is a very important one as it takes the emphasis away from the activity of programming, but more towards the philosophy behind hacking and the intentions and goals achieved. In this post I will focus on this and refrain from looking into hardware hacking which will be the main focus of another post.

Even though it may be physical or digital in output, hacking leads to a change, to a new ‘product’:

“Both Himanen and Wark define hacking`s essence as the ability to create new things, to make alterations, to produce differences.” (Jordan, 2008, 7)

The addition that hacking can also be about ‘alterations’ is important in my opinion as this relates strongly to the question of usability. If a product becomes more usable through an user-initiated alteration, this might constitute a hack with this definition. The addition ‘to produce differences’ also links to ideas of customisation. It highlights an important distinction on interface design:

“Tendencies towards increasingly transparent interfaces are most commonly discussed in terms of the ways in which they make the technology more manageable, yet less accessible.” (Thomas, 2002, 151)

Even though pre-defined sets of customizations might make the technology in case more accessible or interesting to a large number of people, it might leave out others, who are then unable to change it in a way that suits them.

Thomas (2002, xxi) highlights the social philosophy that underlies hacking, which relates to many descriptions of HCI:

“Instead, throughout this work, I argue that what hackers and the discourse about hackers reveal is that technology is primarily about mediating human relationships, and that process of mediation, since the end of World War II, has grown increasingly complex. Hacking, first and foremost, is about understanding (and exploiting) those relationships.”

Lindsay (2003, 33) offers a slightly different view on hackers, when talking about the history of the TRS-80:

“It was possible for individuals to have their own personal computers if they were able to assemble the many pieces of electronics that came in the computer kits and make them all work. Doing this required some specific hobbyist skills, and much persistence and perseverance. It was into this ‘hacker’ culture (in the original sense of the word as ‘hobbyist’ or ‘enthusiast’) that Radio Shack introduced the TRS-80”.

Even though it can be digital or material in nature, there is one distinct point that has been highlighted by all authors on the subject, but is best expressed by Coleman (2013, 93): “Hackers value cleverness,ingenuity, and wit.” There is an aspect of playfulness in hacks that stands in strong contrast to the illegal and dark image often shown in the media.

Creativity, exploration and playfulness, which are part of this culture, is something I want to look into deeper in relation to design and design for dementia as well.

Steinmetz (2015, 127) explores eight motives in hacker culture, of which point “(3) a sense of ownership” is new and relevant to this post. He describes that “the craftsperson possesses a sense of ownership over the item, being completely unalienated in their labour.” (Steinmetz, 2015, 133) It resonates with the issue of appropriation, which has been mentioned above and which will be explored further in another post. In this context I want to explore if altering objects or crafting solutions by oneself is related to making sense of the dementia diagnosis and acknowledging it.

He goes on to say that hacking involves a sense of “autonomy” (ibid, 134) which is interesting to transfer to the relationship between dementia, identity and motivation.

Transgression is a relevant element of hacker culture as discussed by Steinmetz (compare Steinmetz, 2015, 139) He quotes one of his participants saying that ‘Hacking has to have that goingoutside-what-people-think-you-should-be-doing.’ (ibid) which places hacking outside of popular culture and turns it into a subculture. Even though not necessarily illegal, there is an element of breaking the rules within hacking culture.

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