City City Bang Bang, Columns

On hacking as way of life

The idea of hackers and hacking is all around us today. From films that depict keyboard geniuses out to destroy the world or save it (the so-called black-hat hackers and the white-hat ones) to it being used as shorthand for ways of engineering outcomes innovatively, using clever shortcuts even in the physical world. In business the idea of growth-hackers is all the rage, while social media is full of ‘lifehack’ tips or smart ways to make our everyday lives better. Soon, like in the case of most ideas appropriated by business, it will stop meaning anything.

The classical idea of hacking is about infiltrating the internal mechanism of a process to infect it with a new intention. It smuggles in a new outcome by modifying what goes inside a process black box. We find it difficult to deal with hacking because it works on the inside, by utilising the blackness of the black box, and disrupting it to bring about effects that are other than those originally intended. In its more general usage, it comes to represent an outcome-backwards view of processes. We begin with what we want to achieve and then find a way not previously thought of, cutting through the niceties of established behaviour patterns. Labels and categories are given no respect; all that matters is what will work better, faster, cheaper and more easily.

Examples abound. Jugaad is a time-honoured Indian form of hacking. Lifehacks – previously known as gharelu nuskhas -are much in vogue, innovative methods of clearing blocked drains, peeling boiled eggs, opening beer bottles and the like. Terrorism hacks into us psychologically, by turning the tools of civilisation against itself. It implants disproportionate fear in vast populations by using violence in a calibrated but random way. Spying is hacking. If defeating the enemy is the goal then war is the traditional way, espionage and sabotage are hacking solutions. Many diseases are nothing but sophisticated forms of hacking. Organisms hijack various mechanisms in our body to further their own ends. In return, medicine is increasingly finding hackers’ solutions to problems. Immunotherapy, for instance, hacks into our immune system to activate it to tackle diseases that are otherwise difficult to deal with. New methods of malaria control are attempting to use a hacker’s mindset to tackle this otherwise intractable problem. Breeding a species of mosquitoes that cannot be infected by malaria, is one such solution.

Advertising is a time-honoured form of hacking. It is highly visible on the surface but its effects are largely invisible, making us act in ways that we may not otherwise, without knowing why. Increasingly, we are being hacked into by media. Fake news today changes the way we see the world without recognising that the kind of influence is being exerted on us. We believe in a certain view of the world without really knowing why we do so. Search engines hack into our sense of reality by privileging certain bits of information over others. Increasingly, data analytics create a world that appears to be common to everyone, but is, in fact, an illusion crafted cunningly for us and us alone.

Traditional ways of dealing with problems use the front door. Through knowledge, by attacking what is visible. Kill germs, educate and inform, beat back the enemy putting your own life at risk. By striving harder, by applying greater intelligence, by spending more money. Hacking uses every door, window and aperture to deliver its outcome. It seeks to undermine the problem, to subvert it, rather than solve it head-on with earnestness.

In a larger sense, culture is the original hack. Our hardwiring is based on evolutionary logic, which culture modifies. It overlays a new program over the original species-level software that we are provided with, and over time, that becomes our default operating system. We then spend such enormous energy hacking into culture, with new counter-cultural movements and ideas, that often we miss the fact that culture is by itself a hack.

Looked at this way, it becomes easier to appreciate how so many of our foundational institutions are forms of hacking. Education for one, which recruits waves of new generations, converts them into productive members of society by imparting kinds of knowledge and instilling notions of order, obedience and discipline. It sets up certain benchmarks of achievement and success that influence the rest of our lives. Religion creates a mental model of the world and of our relative place in it. We see cause and effect, action and consequence differently, while thinking of it as perfectly natural. Nationalism makes a constructed identity feel natural, giving us both a sense of belonging and separateness.

As the idea of programmability comes to the fore, the idea of hacking becomes much more visible and mainstream. Software is driven by human intention, it converts desire into output. Machines did the same, but there the relationship between input and output was far more constrained and less flexible. Software makes the idea of a machine more fluid. The mobile, for instance, is the closest we have to a universal gadget, being something that increasingly gives us access to virtually anything. With software, the fact that we can contrive outcomes that we desire by writing code becomes obvious. That we call it code is interesting for it implicitly recognises the nature of the subterfuge that we are engaging in.

As we get surrounded by various forms of hacking, visible and invisible, the need to build a greater awareness of this form of programming, and in many cases, try and build some form of resistance to it, grows. This is easier said than done, for hacking, by definition, worms its way through the innards of things. With the greater application of AI and biotechnology, hacking is likely to become more sophisticated and even more invisible. Which is why, it is often much easier to surrender to comforting illusions than to be in an ever watchful, suspicious mode.

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