As noted by technology and psychology researcher Sherry Turkle, contemporary software often appears as opaque ‘black boxes.’ In the introduction to the 2004 reprinting of her 1984 book, The Second Self,1 Turkle notes the reframing of the term ‘transparency’ in computing over the last two decades of the 20th century. Previously, using command line-based systems like DOS, “things felt transparent when computer use felt analogous to working on a traditional mechanical device, like a car.” By the mid-‘90s, however, with the advent of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) with ‘file’ and ‘desktop’ metaphors, “when people said that something was transparent, they meant that they could immediately make it work, not that they knew how it worked.” The ease of use of modern software means that, for example, Facebook boasts that it connects over two billion users globally as of June 2017.2 But it also introduces a more hierarchical model where the companies developing such ubiquitous software prevent their users (consumers) from inspecting or probing the underlying programs and algorithms. Still, an oppositional ethos persists in the form of ‘hacking’ culture — not in the sensationalized sense of mysterious coders bringing down governments and corporations, but in the curious and critical work of everyday people, questioning the nature of the reality presented to them. Media theorist and philosopher McKenzie Wark, in his 2004 work A Hacker Manifesto, writes: “Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colorings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world.”3 Hacking, then, is as much critical and subversive as it is projective, revealing the previously unseen; that is, it is an act of design.
Across my interview subjects, whether the term hacking is used or not, a mindset of hacking is clearly present. Anna, the digital artist and game designer, depicts the chasm between programmers working on products for commercial consumption and hackers as a fundamental difference in interests: “You have some folks who are very, very interested in making a beautiful, perfectly functioning, glitchless [software]. And then you also have people who are… interested in the thing itself because it has this weird logic and poeticism intrinsically.”4 This Warkian ‘weird logic’ and ‘poeticism’ lurking behind seamless interfaces proves an attractive line of inquiry for designers working with technology. For Anna, such investigations lead to artwork self-consciously using code as an expressive medium, including pixel art, Twitterbots, and browser extensions that modify the user experience on certain websites (for example, by replacing one common phrase with another). Common in all these projects is a usage of software tools in ways that their developers did not necessarily intend. Used toward creative ends, Anna’s subversive hacking practices can result in new forms of aesthetic expression.
Other interview subjects harness hacking toward more practical ends in their work. For some, it’s a necessary step to doing design work at all. David, the PhD student in a technology-oriented architecture program, succinctly describes how given digital tools inevitably fail to address certain design scenarios: “There’s many parts of computer science that are basically trying to understand the problems, break [apart] the problems, and solve the problems… [But] especially if you work with architecture or art, you cannot make that into a rational problem.”5 When a design problem has not been (and perhaps cannot be) completely, computationally rationalized, an alternative for a technologist is to seek different ways of using their given tools, and in the process transforming them. Speaking about the boundaries of an architectural design software, Revit, Paul, the architect and technologist, said:
“When you’re doing more radical design, you’re constantly forced to trick [it]… There are so many different ways that you can just push a little bit or misuse a feature or hack or tweak in order to extend or expand the capabilities of these existing design platforms to get them to do what you want.”6
In the architecture and construction industries, Revit is known as a software with a wide vocabulary — it models not just abstract geometrical forms, but also stairs, doorways, heating and cooling equipment, etc. However, the breadth of its knowledge is always incomplete, and technically-informed designers supplement it, simultaneously constrained by and creatively empowered by the limitations of the software. Paul describes an example from his work at a large architecture company: “I saw a tutorial today on our intranet that was on how to use curtain walls to model railings. A curtain wall is not a railing… But from Revit’s standpoint, in terms of this element as being a collection of behaviors… a curtain wall is actually a really good representation of a railing.” A wall becoming a railing: One element stands in for another, and in doing so, the designer questions both elements, interrogates the defaults of their tools, and sees the tool and the work in new ways. However, it is admittedly a challenge to question and overcome the defaults of software that is presented as comprehensive in its scope. By extension, designers working computationally must take a second glance at notions of computational logic itself, which appears as a complete, closed system, in order to become more adept interrogators of technology.
1. Turkle, Sherry. The second self: Computers and the human spirit. MIT Press, 2005. ↩
2. Facebook, “Two Billion People Coming Together on Facebook.” https://newsroom.fb.com/news/2017/06/two-billion-people-coming-together-on-facebook/, Accessed November 6, 2017. ↩
3. Wark, McKenzie. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press, 2004. ↩
4. Skype interview with Anna, July 18, 2017. ↩
5. Skype interview with David, July 24, 2017. ↩
6. Skype interview with Paul, August 2, 2017. ↩