Tinkering with Design: The Convergence of Design and Hacking
What if you could press a button, and have a machine build you any product you wanted? What if the knowledge that has long been the domain of engineers and industrial designers were freely available? What if anyone had the means and the know-how to modify their physical environment, to tweak and subvert the objects produced for them by designers and manufacturers?
If one had to choose a patron goddess for hackers, it would have to be Mētis. The first wife of Zeus and the mother of Athena, Mētis was the original goddess of wisdom and magical cunning. In Greek, her name could be loosely interpreted as “tricks of the trade,” the kind of insider knowledge one gathers through doing. The French philosopher of the everyday, Michel de Certeau, translates mētis as “ways of operating”: “clever tricks, knowing how to get away with things, hunter’s cunning, maneuvers, polymorphic simulations, joyful discoveries, poetic as well as warlike.”
Certeau proposes that in modern societies the means to actually produce things are held by a few, and that the majority of people are marginalized by being reduced to the role of consumers. Yet when we go shopping for food, we don’t just buy what is available. We form our own strategies and tactics, maneuvering between the demands of the recipe, the tastes of the people who will eat the food, and what is actually on the shelves; the decision to replace one ingredient of the recipe with another takes but a minute. Thus, even as consumers, we create our own spaces to re-assert ourselves. These specific ways of using—the strategic possibilities of mētis—are what we produce.
One can argue that the first group of people who called themselves hackers were, in fact, using an extreme form of mētis. These original hackers were students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1959, who found all kinds of unauthorized ways to use a computer given to MIT by IBM. Within a few years, an unwritten Hacker’s Ethic emerged out of their work, and a commitment to manipulate and improve any status quo became a sort of guiding principle for all future digital hackers, well into the 1980s.
Already by 1975, hacker groups like the Homebrew Computer Club in California had moved to hardware hacking, manipulating electronics rather than software. The first Apple computer was in fact a direct descendant of this wave of hacking. Steve Wozniak built the Apple 1 completely by hand in 1975 and brought it in to show to the Homebrew Club. Wozniak gave away the instructions for that first Apple for free. In Wozniak’s words, “Eventually Steve Jobs came and said, ‘Why don’t we build it for them?’” The rest is history.
Meanwhile, vast simplifications in electronics technology in the 1990s made it easier for hackers to start manipulating consumer products. In 2005, Dale Dougherty, a co-founder of O’Reilly Media, a publisher of computer books, founded a DIY magazine called Make. “People had started to take things apart, like the early TiVo cable boxes,” Dougherty explains, “and I thought the future of computing would not just be in computers, but it would be out in the world itself, too.” Make would become one of the most influential magazines of the hacker movement in the U.S., mentoring and nurturing people like the hacker Bre Pettis, who worked for the publication between 2006 and 2008.
The magazine also opened the movement up to people with a wider variety of interests. The term “maker” began to be used for people who wanted to take things apart and put them together, but who were not necessarily interested in sophisticated technology. The word “hacker” took on connotations of tech-fetishism with the result that the “maker” designation is now often used as a less extreme term. Once Make magazine had organized the first Maker Faire in 2006, the word stuck. Then in April that year, O’Reilly Media launched Craft magazine, and brought a lot of craftspeople—now called “crafters”—into the community.
The terms used to describe hackers have continued to proliferate. From French, via the writings of the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, comes the word bricoleur, conveying the impression of a disorganized handyman. The Wall Street Journal used the verb “tinkering” to describe what people do at hacker collectives like NYC Resistor, and this word has been claimed by many as a sort of blanket term for hackers and makers. However, having a fluid identity seems to actually help the hacking movement along, by allowing people to venture into new modes of working. “Especially among the hackers who came from the software world, there is now more respect for skill in actually making things,” says hacker and digital security consultant Eleanor Saitta. “There is more of a culture of getting your hands dirty.”
Over the past four years, all kinds of projects have come out of this culture. Some of these are but small interventions, allowing people to ameliorate the objects they use. British design student Jane ni Dhulchaointigh worked with a team of material scientists to develop Sugru—a play-doh like substance that sticks to almost any surface, and hardens into shape. On her website, Dhulchaointigh asks her customers to “Hack things better.” “Make your stuff last,” she tells them. “Hack it perfect for you.” And they do, sending her photographs of repaired mugs, new handles for penknives and zany cases for cellphones. Time magazine listed Sugru among the 50 best inventions of 2010.
Other hackers take more critical stands. In 2006, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags were integrated into U.S. passport cards, despite concerns that anyone with an RFID reader might be able to steal important personal information from them. Saitta began to hunt for a metallic cloth from which to make shielding wallets and pouches. But San Francisco–based hacker Chris Paget went one step further. Standard RFID readers can read information from six inches away. Using components bought on eBay, Paget hacked one of these readers to work at a distance of 30 feet, effectively decimating the claims of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Department that the RFID tags were perfectly secure.
This concern with flows of information is built into the foundations of the hacking movement. When Bre Pettis declares the “Epoch of Sharing” and advocates the easy exchange of ideas within communities, he is echoing one of the earliest tenets of the Hacker Ethic—that all information should be free. In his seminal book on digital hackers, senior Wired magazine journalist Steven Levy explains:
Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems … from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and even more interesting things. They resent any person, physical barrier, or law that tries to keep them from doing this. … In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt.
The other thing hackers are incessantly obsessed with is tool-making. In a sense, the desktop 3D printer Makerbot is itself a tool, but its accompanying website Thingiverse.com is full of computer files for vises and clamps, wrenches and screwdrivers that can be made on a 3D printer. Anything can be made into a tool, including outdated Makerbot parts. Donutman_2000 has uploaded instructions for converting the MK4—the plastic extruder that used to come with the first version of the Makerbot—into a nifty little Plastic Welding Gun.
In developing his idea of the bricoleur, Levi-Strauss pays special attention to tools. The engineer has a task, and he conceives and procures raw materials and tools that are suitable for that task. This kind of thinking is alien to the bricoleur, who must always make do with what he has. What tools he needs must be found only among available resources, no matter what the task may be. The engineer operates within the necessities of the task, the designer within the parameters of his brief, but the hacker operates within the possibilities of his tools.
In the real world this plays out in two ways. When considering the Makerbot as a final product, for instance, the engineer might revel in the very existence of such a technology, while the hacker would only be interested in what it could do. When considering the Makerbot’s purpose as a tool, the designer might wonder what it could make, but hackers, as we have seen, are concerned with how the tool can make more tools. Mētis is indeed the presiding goddess of the hacker’s world, where cunning must be used to take something apart, and then put it back together so that more cunning may be used to take it apart again. For a hacker, there is no such thing as a finished product.
In 2005, writing “A Manifesto for Postindustrial Design” in I.D. magazine, design educator Jamer Huntalready prophesied that we will inhabit that world, populated not with industrial goods, but with codes that can be “manipulated, changed, improved, hacked and produced in multiple variations in myriad places.” He wrote at the time that “there is no single product that embodies this new process completely.” But we now have the Makerbot, and with it, a demonstrably new way of conceiving of the material world.