Thursday, 13 October 2011

Johnny Hacktotum, 1955-2011

[Steve's] dad, Paul -- a machinist who had never
completed high school -- had set aside a section
of his workbench for Steve, and taught him how
to build things, disassemble them, and put them
together.  From neighbors who worked in the
electronics firm in the Valley, he learned about
that field -- and also understood that things like
television sets were not magical things that just
showed up in one's house, but designed objects
that human beings had painstakingly created.  

The anecdote above is my favorite from the recent gush of biographical material regarding Steve Jobs.  It gives us a picture of the young Jobs, encouraged by his adoptive dad to take gizmos apart and put them together again.  (It even raises the question:  If Jobs had grown up with his biological parents, would he have become a hacker?


Today, mainstream usage of 'hacker' mostly refers
to computer criminals, due to the mass media usage
of the word since the 1980s... This usage has become
so predominant that the general public is unaware that
different meanings exist....

So what are those other meanings?

My own dad used to tell the story of how, as a kid who aspired to hacking, he wanted to figure out what made a lightbulb work so, as a matter of course, or rather, as a matter of exploring its inner workings, he broke one.  Oops!  His mother was not pleased...

In that regard, Steve Jobs was lucky.  His dad not only encouraged him to get inside of gizmos, he gave him a space especially dedicated to doing so, and provided the tools as well.

On 'How to Become a Hacker,' Eric Steven Raymond writes:  "Hackers solve problems and build things, and they believe in freedom and voluntary mutual help," adding:

To behave like a hacker, you have to believe that
the thinking time of other hackers is precious, so
much so that it's almost a moral duty for you to share
information, solve problems and then give the
solutions away just so other hackers can solve new
problems instead of having to perpetually re-
address old ones.

To our working definition, we therefore need to add:  hackers are not only committed to the principle of getting inside of things.  They also have a natural antipathy to secrets, which they regard as a means of exercising coercive control over the common ownership of knowledge.


Paul Graham, in 'The Word Hacker,' expands on the history of the term:

Hacking predates computers.  When he was working
on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to
amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret

Okay, so what makes hackers different from criminals?

Graham goes on:

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one
would want to do such things.  Another friend of mine
once got in trouble with the government for breaking 
into computers.  This had only recently been declared
a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative
technique didn't work.  Police investigation apparently
begins with a motive.  The usual motives are few:  drugs,
money, sex, revenge.  Intellectual curiosity was not one
of the motives on the FBI's list.  Indeed, the whole concept
seemed foreign to them.

B&E, where the police are concerned, comes with a motive.  People commit a crime when they transgress boundaries they're not supposed to in order to steal, rape, or otherwise take what doesn't belong to them.  But Graham raises the crucial question:  what does it mean to violate that boundary out of a spirit of inquiry?

Wherein lies th'offense, that man should thus attain to know?
Paradise Lost, Book 9, lines 725-6

Hacking sometimes means breaking a lightbulb to see what makes it work.  Hacking, as in the case of Byron Sonne in Toronto, involves hacking into security systems, not to advance terroristic acts, but to identify the flaws in those systems.  Lock-picking societies perform a valuable service, discovering weaknesses that manufacturers are unaware of in their own products.  Hacking invariably involves finding a way inside the system to understand how it works and--if possible--improve on the existing system.  And yes, that means figuring out how to get past the barriers to entry, whatever they might be.


My 11-year old daughter spent part of the summer with her grandfather, who remains a hacker to this day.  Together, they repaired a broken ACER laptop.  The other night, my daughter and I took it out of its box for the first time, and she delighted in showing me where all the screws to open up the case were--especially the hidden ones--exulting in her ability to tell the difference between things that were really screws versus things that only resembled screws, in other words, ambiguous features that might throw a less expert hacker than herself off the scent. 

The long and short of it is that if you can't get inside of something, then you'll never really know how it works.

Years ago, I had the weird good fortune to attend a human dissection.  It was in the context of a class called The Body in Nineteenth-Century Literature.  A sign-up list for visits to the anatomy lab circulated but, because my friend Laura and I always sat at the back of the room (the better to compose lengthy criticisms of the professor's assumptions), we were the last to receive it.  The only remaining session was:  dissection of the human face.  Apparently no one else wanted to get quite that intimate with the corpse.  Laura and I were delighted.  In my free time, I had been reading Darwin's book on facial expressions in animals, while Laura was obsessed with the creation of life in Frankenstein.  At the dissection, we were given the job of spritzing water on the cadaver's face to keep it malleable.  As the pre-med students painstakingly stripped the skin away from the underlying nerve structure, I remember Laura exclaiming in awe:  "It's like watching an act of creation!"

That's what taking things apart amounts to, preparing to be a future Maker.


As my daughter said on October 6, with such truth, when she heard the morning news, "It's sad when anyone dies."  Yet, the reality is, politics swirl around Jobs' death and how it is received.  And it seems to me that his critics bear listening to as much as the people who honor his undeniable achievements.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt
former mayor Daley.  "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad
he's gone."  Nobody deserves to die - not Jobs, not Mr. Bill,
not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs.  But we 
all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's 

Many people took offense at Stallman's insensitive remarks about the dead.  Kyle Wescott, among those who posted comments, went so far as to berate Stallman for being an upstart nobody:

What products has this guy brought to market that have
enhanced people's lives?  This guy sounds like an educated
idiot and idealistic to the point of foolishness.

What Wescott and many others don't know is that Stallman wrote GCC, the GNU Compiler Collection (remember:  if you're a hacker, it's almost a moral duty to share information, solve problems and then give the solutions away), which Jobs used gratis to compile the Mac OS X.  Stallman is also the nonsalaried president of FSF (Free Software Foundation), who "popularized... copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software."


Apple's gizmos, with their sleek exteriors, their paper-thin interiors, have been described as fetish objects, as commodities that draw consumers like moths to the flame.  They are, however, to hacker sensibility, like garlic to vampires.  It's as if they say:  "If you use your home-made tools to pry me open, you'll be sorry...  I'll never be as beautiful again."  Add to the aesthetic deterrent, Apple's corporate policies that make it impossible for iPhone users to load anything onto their device without Apple's permission.  As put it:  "The internet allowed people around the world to express themselves more freely and more easily... Apple reversed that progress."

It's like the curse of Laius.  Remember that story?  The Oracle told Laius his son would grow up to kill him, so he abandoned his offspring on a mountain, with his ankles pinned together.  Which is why we have the Oedipus Complex today.

Raised as a hacker, Jobs sought to create devices that would be hacker-proof.

By all means, let's give the guy his due.  He was the 21st century's Hack-of-all-Trades, our culture's Johnny Hacktotum.  He hacked tech, he hacked advertising, he hacked design, he hacked corporate culture.  He cracked them wide open, figured out how they worked, and, in many cases, made them work better.

Personally, I am not waiting for the next Steve Jobs to lead the U.S. to new heights of innovation.  The Free Software Foundation is alive and well and every device I own runs like greased lightning on open source software.  (I'm literally richer for it.)  What I'm waiting for--with a wink to Kubrick--is for kids everywhere, in their garage or basement or somewhere, to hold a rock (or screwdriver or fingernail or magic spell) over an i-Product, seeking to crack or pry or seduce the thing open, plumb its workings, and make it run better--and more openly--for all of us in the future.

It was funny that many members of the crowd at OWS raised their iPhones and iPads like lighters at a Dead Concert to mark Jobs' passing.  'If not for Steve, we wouldn't be here'...  you know:  connected, wired, tweeting.  Indeed, without restrictions on open innovation and open source, without corporate censorship, who knows where we might be today?