Monday Musing: Hacking, Creativity And Cool

Posted on April 2, 2012


The critic has sauce.

There’s a cinema ad I see sometimes… I think it’s for a phone or something. So, a singular failure as an ad, but as an inspiring piece of film-making it hits the nail on the head. It basically shows people (mainly young and pretty people, but you can’t expect social realism in a phone ad) going about their daily lives, finding ways to be creative about what they do, finding modes of jouissance in the banalities of their existence, be it dancing while ironing, putting detailed artwork in the suds of a partially washed car, parking a bicycle by jumping off it moments before it lands in the rack, breakdancing with an ad-board strapped to their back, repurposing every post-it pad in an office as a slinky… It’s a nice idea, but of course we don’t usually have the time, and the banalities of life usually drain us of the creative energy required to continually interact with our environment in that way; and of course the advertisement doesn’t show us the hundred times each little vignette needed to be practiced, or the thousands of hours it took to learn the skills involved. This is the promise made by the advertiser: if we buy their product, we will be re-invested with that energy, that desire to learn and play, that irrepressible creativity. So one thing they want to associate with their product is simply youth: excitement in the face of the unknown, the sense of limitless possibility and the need to play. But the people in the ad are not simply finding new and creative ways to do their office jobs, or refining their ironing technique to get the job done quicker: they are all shown either doing something with no obvious purpose, or doing things in a way which may well be slower or less ‘efficient’. They are having fun. Put that way, it sounds relatively trivial, but I’d like to argue that having fun is one of the most profound and subversive things you can do. Having fun with things that are meant to be boring, or re-purposing boring things for the sheer hell of it, or to ends unrelated to their original purpose, but that reflect your own sense of play and creativity, is downright revolutionary. People do such things in all sorts of areas, and give many different names to their activities, but there’s a word that describes that urge and that subversive methodology to a tee: the word is hacking.

Hacking, and hackers, are words that originate in the world of computer programming; they are frequently understood as referring to methods of breaking security or encryption, but members of hacker cultures are disdainful of those who focus on such tasks, and indignant at media portrayals of them as hackers, referring to them instead as crackers. There’s no definitive single meaning for the term (and I don’t intend to get into hacker history or etymology), but it refers to subcultural groups of computer users which share some or all of the following characteristics (from Wikipedia):

  • Creating software and sharing it with each other
  • Placing a high value on freedom of inquiry; hostility to secrecy
  • Information-sharing as both an ideal and a practical strategy
  • Upholding the right to fork (branch off from a main development stream)
  • Emphasis on rationality
  • Distaste for authority
  • Playful cleverness, taking the serious humourously and their humour seriously

It should be immediately obvious that some of these characteristics are shared with other groups: for instance, creating, sharing, and a distaste for authority might be taken as defining characteristics of the DIY music communities I write about. However, the central, defining act of a hacker, is the hack: a hack is a particular form of intervention, where something is analysed, understood, de-constructed (figuratively or literally) and repurposed to the hacker’s own ends. As originally understood this applied to software, but it applies equally much to physical technologies: to re-wire a phone so that it serves as the remote control unit for a low budget spacecraft is a hack. But you may think I’m stretching it a bit to suggest that someone having a bit of a bop around while they do the ironing is hacking, so let me offer an example given by a true hacking insider. Richard Stallman is the originator of the GNU Project, and therefore pretty much the parent of the entire free/ open-source software movement; he described John Cage’s 4’33” as a hack. That’s a fairly radical repurposing of the term: in fact you might say that Stallman hacked the language to make his statement, but of course it’s perfectly clear what he meant by it. What he’s done is to redefine the theatre of hacking, to change a term that describes things that can be done to particular kinds of system, into one that describes a particular way of doing things to systems. He’s taken the characteristics of a technique and recast them as a philosophy; that philosophy is what I’m talking about, and I don’t think there’s a better term than hacking to describe it.

‘Distaste for authority’ is central to all this. I don’t mean that just in terms of not wanting to be subject to a hierarchy, but more fundamentally: in hacker culture it entails a determination to make up your own mind what to do with something, rather than taking its originator’s word for its uses. So a piece of consumer electronics is not a set of components unified into a device whose uses are to be found in its operators’ manual: it’s a resource to be adapted or disassembled as required, for uses to be found in your own imagination. The boundaries between and within devices and resources are to be defined in use, not given by a manufacturer. This same principle can be, and has been, applied to creative languages, stylistic lexicons, distribution networks, finished artworks and public spaces, by a wide variety of groups. Here are a few examples:

  • Skateboarding: hacks public urban spaces, as well as (originally) existing sports technologies (surfing and roller skates)
  • Dub reggae: hacks multi-track recording technologies and recordings
  • 1940s hipster culture: hacks language (‘hep talk’) and fashion (zoot suits)
  • Hip-hop: a whole culture of hacking, although its proponents seem a million miles from the mainly privileged, white college kids that are usually seen as hackers
    • DJs hack existing records and playback technologies
    • MCs hack language (sometimes in multiple and sophisticated ways)
    • B-Boys hack urban spaces, and the techniques of dance, gymnastics and martial arts
    • Graffiti artists hack public spaces and the techniques of visual art
  • Cyberpunk fiction: hacks the stylistic tropes and established language of science fiction

I could go on, but the list doesn’t mean terribly much in itself, and I don’t want to get sidetracked into arguing for the hackish nature of each example (or I’d be here all day). You might look at these examples and think that I’m just re-labeling stylistic innovation and underground subcultures as hacking, and you’d be right, but I believe I do so with good reason.

For me the central aspects of these practices, which they have in common with members of the Homebrew Computer Club finding ways to make the Altair 8800 play tunes, are these:

  • Creativity in spite of banality: when presented with a seemingly banal, commonplace situation, environment or resource, the hacker sees an opportunity for creative intervention; every propelling pencil is a potential artists’ paintbrush
  • Subverting and repurposing: nothing is taken as given, but everything is questioned, interrogated and analysed, until its usefulness to the hacker has been discerned; it is then applied to whatever ends are being pursued, either as is, by exploiting unintended side-effects of its operation, or by destroying it and re-using its components
  • Doing things with style, the ‘cool’ as a way to reclaim cultural capital from the mainstream: to computer hackers this would be a side-effect of their shared interest in technology, whereas to other sub-cultural groups it may be the entire point; both are correct, but they are seeing the same thing from different angles

The last aspect may seem to be the least important, but for me it’s central. This is what creates the space in which hackers’ practices are free to be enacted. Most computer hackers would never describe themselves as cool: in fact they would proudly claim the opposite; this is an important aspect of their subculture. They’d be quite likely to describe a hack or a piece of technology as ‘cool’, on the other hand; and they will certainly be able to tell from a brief conversation with someone whether they have the knowledge, attitude and lingo to be a member of their group. A sense of style may look very different when articulated within different cultures, but it remains a sense of style: many people see the idea of cool as an exclusive, cliquish and undesirable thing, but it is inevitable that members of particular interest groups will want shorthand methods to discern whether others share their interests. I could easily get into a digression on subculture here, but that’s something I’ve written about before.

My point is that by establishing certain points of identification, particular non-mainstream or non-élite groups can carve out a territory for themselves that allows their members both agency (the capacity to act creatively) and social status (the opportunity for that agency to be recognised). By always finding ways to do things better, we can find ways to make our lives easier and our work both more efficient and more rewarding; but in finding ways to do things with style, to find elegant solutions to problems of our own defining, we can hack every situation to our own ends. As I said to start with, we don’t all have the time to do all the things in the advert I described (which I have now found on YouTube to be a Nokia ad known as ‘The Amazing Everyday’), but there is always a way; by claiming a situation, however tedious, as an opportunity for your own creativity, however tiny that opportunity might be, you are hacking it, subverting it, and making it your own.