Hacking, Craft and DIY

I am a crafter myself. I handknit and crochet and I use many other textile based crafts, in the past to earn money from, at the moment in a more private, often reflective way. I am very aware of the perceptions around craft that have also been described by Hickey (1997, 89) in relation to ready available craft kits, which stand in contrast to “studio craft” in her opinion: “…self-sufficiency, thrift, sanitised natural materials, happy childhoods and the comfort of hearth and home.” But already here we see another side of craft mentioned, that of “studio craft”. The reasons people pick up crafts and the actual activities they engage in are plenty, which makes a classification complex. Same goes to say for both DIY and hacking. In his article about DIY , Design and Democracy Paul Atkinson categorises craft activities into four different classes, which are based on the motivation to take up DIY:  pro-active DIY, reactive DIY, essential DIY, lifestyle DIY (compare, Atkinson, 2006, 3)

The motivation and philosophy about hacking have been described in an earlier post. This article will mostly focus on hardware hacking. Even though hacking is mostly considered digital and uses coding as a technique, there is an aspect of hacking that is more material: “Hardware hackers take the spirit of hacking into material relations, finding new and novel uses enabled by the soldering iron rather than the command line” (Jordan, 2008, 123). Material development also links the idea of hacking to the hackspace (which will be discussed in more detail in another post): “From this rudimentary time line, it is evident that activities in hackerspaces have gravitated towards the physical.” (Maxigas, 2012, 5)

In “A brief history of hardware hacking” four classes of hardware hacking are defined:

“Personalizing and customizing. Often called “hotrodding for geeks” it includes modifications, custom skins, and even art projects (such as creating an aquarium out of a vintage computer);
Adding functionality. Making the system or product do something it wasn’t intended to do (such as converting an iPod to run Linux or modifying a classic Atari 2600 video game console to support stereo sound and composite video output);
Improving capacity or performance. Enhancing or otherwise upgrading a product (such as expanding the recording capacity of a TiVo box by adding a larger hard drive, modifying a wireless network card to support an external antenna, or overclocking a PC’s motherboard);
Defeating protection and security mechanisms. Included are finding “Easter eggs,” hidden menus, and backdoors in DVD players or video game consoles or creating a custom cable to unlock the secrets of a cell phone.” (Anon, 2006, 49)

DIY and Hacking are also connected in the area of ‘making’ as observed e.g. by Hyysalo et.al. (2014, 212f):

Although ‘making’ builds on a tradition of handicraft and ‘DIY’ (do-it-yourself), it today also includes (and more commonly refers to) use of digital manufacturing tools in handson fabrication of material artefacts, including electronics and physical computing experiments, furniture and items for the home or body and prototypes of all kinds.

More than in the other areas DIY and hacking, the role of tools and technology is discussed within craft. Dormer (1997, 138) dispels the common notion that crafts are done by manual labour: “Most things that are made by craft workers require tools, and some of these tools are elaborate, time-saving machines.” But still in many of these cases the tools still provide a close, material engagement with the material which is not the case in solely digital projects. Myerson (1997, 179) for example concludes that “This lack of a tactile or physical encounter with materials as the basis for decision-making in design is cited by many as the reason why computing cannot yet be regarded as a craft in its own right.” Dormer (1997, 147) brings the notion of tacit knowledge into the discussion: “Craft relies on tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is acquired through experience and it is the knowledge that enables you to do things as distinct from talking or writing about them.”

This knowledge can also be described as mastery of the craft, when knowledge goes beyond theoretical experience. This notion of mastery is eminent both in discussions about craft and hacking. Compare for example Thomas (2002,xvi): “Perhaps the most important element of hacker culture is the notion of mastery.” and Dormer (1997, 140): “…it is craft as knowledge that empowers a maker to take charge of technology.” Coleman (2013, 98) takes the notion further and brings in the element of innovation: “In essence, while hacking follows a craftlike practice, it is predicated on a stance of craftiness to move the craft forward. Hacking is where craft and craftiness converge.”

Innovation is also a topic of the post on hackathons and will be only mentioned here briefly. Interesting is the assessment by Grand (2006, 48) who relates hardware hacking and academic research:

“The do-it-yourself ethos of the hardware hacking community, coupled with the more structured approach of standard academic thinking will continue to lead to new and novel technology.”

Hacking is by far considered the most dangerous or illegal of the three activities. But even DIY and craft have a certain ‘subversive’ ring to it or can be used in this practice. The “Radical Lace and subversive knitting” exhibition (link to catalogue here) is one of the examples of this. Paul Atkinson (2006, 9) also describes elements of a counter-culture to DIY:

“It is interesting, too, that so many of the same issues are addressed by each author. Throughout, issues of emulation, class and taste are discussed, as are similar economic and social factors. What is of more interest here though, is how each article demonstrates different ways in which all forms of DIY have enabled the consumer to rail against the prescribed design edicts, and indeed, prescribed social mores of the time.”

This view stands in contrast to more “production-oriented studies”, which “take the existance of consumers for granted, and focus on their choices.” (Schot; de la Bruheze, 2003, 230) The authors go on to say that: “As a result, they tend to de-emphazise production and system building.” (ibid.)

The areas of hacking, craft and DIY do overlap and are complex to distinguish. This is also partly due to the fact that “… making is also a fast moving target. Technologies, practices and communities of makers have evolved rapidly during the last decade.” (Hyysalo et.al., 2014, 209)

Questions to take further from this research are: What are the motivations for people living with dementia to make alterations to their home, gadgets or environments? Can dementia hacking be considered subversive? How to classify alterations as crafts, DIY or hacking – and is this classification even neccessary?


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