Sketching with Code

Using the Word "Hacking"

The word “hack” can confuse people who’ve not come across it before, other than in the context of a “hacker” doing something illegal or malevolent, and as a result, the term “hack day” can be quite scary.

Last year I attended National Hack the Government day with Rewired State. It’s a day for people to play around with open data sources provided by data.gov.uk and others, to experiment and play with what’s possible now that we have such a large number of data sets open to us.

Amusingly, the sign on the door had omitted a crucial word, and read “National Government Day”, presumably because someone, somewhere had lost their nerve or misunderstood what it was all about.

I think that fear of “hack”, “hacker” and “hacking” isn’t something to be ignored. I also think that it might be potentially unhelpful in enabling people in any organisation to do the “internal sales” piece in order to get a hack day to happen, or to propose more experimental ways of working with digital media and technology.

I regularly find myself having to explain that if I say I’m a hacker, I don’t mean of the evil kind, and that it’s a different thing entirely. I’d be laughably bad as a real hacker, I’m sure, although in my work it’s important to know a bit about web security so that you can protect against all but the most serious of “real” hackers. As I’ve learnt, as a result, anyone who tells you anything is absolutely secure is wrong.

I think that that fear of hackers is only growing as a result of the press that Anonymous, Lulzsec and others have been getting, as well as the barrage of password security fails, virus alerts, phishing scams, and general internet nastiness that we all have to learn to navigate around daily. So it’s no wonder that suggesting (the other type of) hackers and cultural folk get together to do interesting things is met with a little confusion and trepidation.

If we, as hackers (of the hackday attendee variety), are advocating playful, experimental, creative approach to working with technology, I do wonder if the term “hack” is limiting our ability to do that. So perhaps, by using “hack” as a term, we’re deliberately limiting how mainstream this approach could one day be? Is the real idea that hacking should always be on the periphery and the province of the maverick, inventor, geek?

Perhaps that’s why I’ve used the phrase “sketching with code” for this project - It might be that I wanted to talk to a wider audience than those who would feel comfortable reading about “hacking”, so I omitted the word “hack” unconsciously.

If not “hack” and “hacker”, then what could we use as an alternative shorthand? “Creative technologist” has been doing the rounds for a long time, and I know some people who self-identify with that term successfully, so perhaps that’s adequate to a degree.

Yet I struggle to find that noun for the rapidly-produced, quickly-knocked-together demonstrator, or the verb for taking things apart and putting them together in an interesting or unexpected way.

I suspect I am doomed to be that guy at the dinner party who gets a wide eyed response from the person sitting next to him when asked “so what do you do?”