Sketching with Code

The Hack as the Message

Is the hack what matters, or is it the message that you can send by doing the hack that’s the important thing?

I’ve been spending time looking at cultural hacks, attending events and talking to people who work in this way, and I’ve noticed three groups of hacks that I’d like to talk about:

Playful hacks

Attend one of the Culture Hack Days and you’ll see a bunch of enjoyable, fun little hacks being made in a 36hr period. These are often throwaway little ideas to demonstrate the beginning of an idea, ideas that point towards the “proximate possible”, or experiments with some new data/tool/API that’s become available.

Art hacks

These are subtly different, where people who self identify as artists create works of art that have a “hacking” component - altering the urban landscape in some way, doing things at the edges of legality, interfering with the way that things work in interesting ways. The recent Hack the City exhibition at Dublin’s Science Gallery is a good example of this kind of work - interpreting the interventions that these hacks represent as works of art.

Hacks that get backed

Then there are more developed pieces of work that start out as hacks, but through additional resources being put behind their development turn into larger-scale prototypes that can be put in front of a larger audience. Peter Gregson, London Sinfonietta and Dan Jones collaborated on the widely appreciated Listening Machine for The Space and Dan Jones when I spoke to him explained that he thought of the whole project as an “uber-hack”. They’d taken a hack and extended it into a longer-term piece of work that resulted in a finished thing.

The message

It’s quite artificial to divide up hacks into categories in this way, and I don’t want to suggest that it’s a good idea to pigeon-hole people’s work, but I wanted to talk about something I’ve noticed that seems to apply across all three.

It’s “the hack as the message”.

I’m interested in the idea that it’s not the actual hack that’s important - to the person making it and the organisation/person/city whose data/service/object is being hacked, it’s the fact that the hack is a message to others about what is possible.

Hackers are flexing creative muscles and in so doing sending a message about their availability for that kind of work (so it’s partly a promotion thing), but also they’re sending a message to other cultural and creative organisations about what could, or should, be done - with their data, with their assets, with the kinds of things they do, and in collaboration with people who have experience of making things in this way.

I think there’s a perception amongst both the cultural people and the hackers who attend Culture Hack, for example, that the cultural sector is somehow “playing catch-up” and needs to “embrace digital”. I also think that because the idea of “embracing digital” is so abstract, that through these small hacks we can demonstrate tiny little ideas without the risk of wasting public money or R&D budgets.

I’m not sure it’s true to say that the cultural sector as a whole is playing catch up - perhaps I need to look into this a little more - but certainly I’ve seen the surprise and delight of people who’ve come away from a Culture Hack Day with a very different idea of what can be achieved with technology.

Taking the example of Hack the City, I saw hacks presented as works of art, playing around with what can be adjusted in cities, often pushing boundaries of legality (surveillance drones, gaffer-tape street games, adjusting news websites when viewed over a particular network and so on ). Through these kinds of hack we’re seeing people playing around with what’s coming and what’s next and pre-empting the kinds of questions that we’re going to be asking ten years from now. That’s a different kind of message - the “what do you think of what’s happening now, and what’s going to be possible soon?” and “look how easy it is to make these interventions, you can do it yourself”.

With “hacks that get backed” (and I’ve worked on a few!) we’re moving from the realm of “little demonstrator” to “something that people actually use”. And here the message is subtly different. This is that “working in a hacky way we can make valuable things”, “hacks aren’t just throw-away things”, “through rapid experimentation we can take an idea to a product”, and so on.

Message received? I suspect that’ll be a future post.

Disclosure I’ve worked with Caper, who started Culture Hack Day, on a paid basis in the past, although we’re not working on anything together at the moment. I’m building a mashup site for Peter Gregson.