Hacking histories

Amadu‘s brief history of hacking toward our Community Hacking project – coming soon

We would suggest that to enable a systematic debate and understanding of ‘hacking’ as social praxis, we ought to look at the application of the concept in two main domains, namely techno-scientific and socio-political domains. This will enable us to unpack the term in relation to:

etymology: the origin of the concept.
attitudinal dimension: the moral ambiguity around ‘hacking’ and the attendant pejorative-complementary discourse.
intentionality-functionality: the practical purpose or function of ‘hacking’.
creativity/innovation: ‘hacking’ as a creative and innovative activity.
cultures/subcultures/communities of ‘hacking’: the way the above dimensions: etymogical, attitudinal, functional and creative perspectives are contingent on the terrains in which ‘hacking’ occurs or is manifested.
denotative-connotative: The ways the above, in turn, determine/influence the denotative/dictionary and connotative/additional meaning ascribed to the concept.

The Techno-scientific Domain

In trying to understand the etymology of ‘hacking’, we would prefer to talk about the folklore rather than the history of the concept in an attempt to trace its origins. This is because there are many narratives to explain how the concept and practice of ‘hacking’ emerged and became incorporated into contemporary public discourse. Whereas history is subjective, but expected to be a precise and accurate record, folklore, although rooted in historical narrative and passed down across generations, is not expected to carry the kind of accuracy as history should. This is because its mostly verbal form of transmission and its inherent performance element makes folklore vulnerable to variability and manipulation. A word of caution though! History could be handed down verbally too, just as folklore could be accurate, written down and passed through generations. Nonetheless, folklore is associated with traditional stories, gossip, myths and legends, all of which are traditional art forms that are characterised by dubiety, as might be with history.

In the context of on-line practice, folklore is arguably evident in folksonomy, which encompasses the classification or social tagging and naming of items that is dependent on reaching a bottom-up consensus among users (Vander Wal 2004). As a user-generated clasification, the practice enables the evolving of new terms and their application to new concepts. Folksonomy, as a form of on-line folklore practice, therefore makes possible the introduction of multiple perspertives through the use of different words to describe the same thing. In this regard, and in contrast to taxonomy, folksonomy lends itself to the emergence of uncontrolled vocabulary in the use of on-line content (Earley 2007). We would argue therefore that folksonomy, unlike taxonomy which is controlled vocabulary, facilitates the adaptability and creation of knowledge and makes the Internet (on-line) and virtual spaces instruments for the democratisation of information. This is because, although a collection of terms generated by an individual for personal use, such terms may be incorporated/appropriated into the collective vocabulary or narrative of on-line users.

Against this background, folklore has it that ‘hacking’ originated from the realm of technology as student slang at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) between 1950 and 1960. MIT is said to have been amongst the first institution to offer courses in computer programming and computer science and that it was on such a course that group students taking a class on artificial intelligence came to coining the word ‘hacker’ to refer to their ability to take a computer programme and get them to perform actions not intended for that program. It has also been suggested that the term was used to convey a sense of performing a “practical joke and (a) feeling of excitement because the team member would ‘hack away’ at the keyboard hours at a time.” (Moore R., 2006).[1]

Examples of ‘hacking’ folklore associated with MIT include: in 1964, MIT students (hacks) placing a convincing replica of a campus police car on top of the Institute’s Great Dome as a form of practical joke. Ward (BBC 27 Oct 2000) argued that ‘hacking’ originally meant “an elegant, witty or inspired way of doing almost anything”. Since then, the practice of ‘hacking’ has been evident in or applied to other subcultures and communities, and not just limited to technology.

In the 1970s, ‘phreaking’ or phone hacking emerged by which ‘hacks’ manipulated telephones to make free calls. A legendary figure in this respect was, a phreaker John Draper, who discovered that a whistle included as a free gift in boxes of Captain Crunch cereal emitted a 2,600 hertz pitch which was the frequency used to indicate operator calls to phone exchanges. Blowing the whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone hence meant that the call was seen to come from an operator and hence no charges were levied on the call. Not only did John Draper become known in the hacking world as Captain Crunch, but his work is seen to have inspired Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who went on to found Apple Computers. By the 1980s, ‘phreaking’ was evident in computers in the form of Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), which is believed to be the precursor to the yahoo groups of today. In addition to enabling individuals to post messages of any kind of topics, the BBS specialized in disseminating information on how to break into computers, how to use stolen credit card numbers and share stolen computer passwords. Known as ‘cracking’, the practice entails the circumventing computer security and unauthorized remote computer break-ins via a communication networks such as the Internet.

From the above practices, two distinct but interconnected senses of the term ‘hacker’ and ‘hacking’ in the domain of technological science are discernible: the modification of use and the breaking of codes/security. This often came together in particular ways to establish particular but interconnected ‘subcultures’ (we are uncomfortable with term) in the domain of technological science: computer programming and computer security.

In the former sense of the term ‘hacker’, emphasis is put on modifying computer programmes/technologies so that they can perform new uses, while in the latter the emphasis is placed on breaking security features, either as an end in itself or as a way so that the technology can be used in ways other than originally intended. It has been suggested that the terms ‘hacker’/’hacking’ might be restricted to the first sense, whilst the terms ‘cracker’/’cracking’ might be used to refer to the second set of practices.

Hackers from the programmer subculture usually work openly and use their real name, while computer security hackers (pr crackers) prefer secretive groups and identity-concealing aliases. Also, their activities in practice are largely distinct. The former focus on creating new and improving existing infrastructure (especially the software environment they work with), while the latter primarily and strongly emphasize the general act of circumvention of security measures, with the effective use of the knowledge (which can be to report and help fixing the security bugs, or exploitation for criminal purpose) being only rather secondary.

There is another sense in which ‘hacking’ and ‘hackers’ include ‘hobbyists’, in which case individuals show commitment and passion in being creative in a given field in ways that are similar to professionals. An example often cited is that of ‘circuit bending’, a practice associated with the techno-music sub-culture. By this way, ‘hobbyists’ customized the circuits within electronic devices such as low voltage, battery-powered guitar effects and small digital synthesizers to create new musical sound. This results in the creation of the strange, dis-harmonic digital tones that became part of the techno music style. ‘Hobbyists’ are in the main customers of products who rather than just accept the manufacturer’s design of a product, will try to adapt it to their tastes in order to get a desired aesthetic and utility value. It has been observed that such activities have been tapped into by manufacturers in an attempt to widened customer base and profit margins. This is by the appropriation of ‘hacker’/’hobbyist’ generated designs or specifications into new products that are sold into the market. The ‘hacker’ or ‘hobbyist’ therefore transforms from a consumer to what Toffler (1980) referred to a ‘prosumer’. In this situation the role of producer/profesional and consumer merges to participate in the design and production requirements of products through mass customisation. Manufacturers adapt or create their products to the specific requirements of consumers in order to keep the latter satisfied, while generating profit.

The activities of prosumers may be the result of diminished income and resilience of individuals to survive. For example, economic self-sufficiency activities such as individuals growing their own food, repairing or adapting appliances rather than buying new ones, and individuals creating their own media rather than buying into corporate media establishments or mass culture are substantiation of ‘prosumerism’. Others argued that ‘prosumers’ include consumers who rather than just accept or purchase what is on sale would actively search the market and seeks to influence the market (Crakburn). Prosumers therefore do not only influence or dictate design, aesthetic and utility values, but also influence the markets. In our view, prosumerism arguably makes consumers part of the creative and marketing or pricing process, as they impart their individual and or collective preferences.

The above folklore narrative illustrates the nebulous origins of the concept of ‘hacking’ even within the domain of science and technology and its subcultures: mechanics, computers (both programming and security), telephonics and techno-music. Nevertheless, the running thread is that ‘hacking’, in our view, is a conscious technical act or practice that individuals undertake in an ingenious, creative and innovative way (Steven Levy, Hackers, 1994: 23) towards a preconceived outcome that was not intended by the original creators of the ‘thing’ that is ‘hacked’. We suggest that for want of clarity, the term ‘hacking’ is reserved or applied to ‘legal’ activities, while ‘cracking’ is for the ‘illegal’ trangressive ones. We acknowledge that this dichotomy may not be clear-cut and fails to recognise the possibility of a continuum of ‘hacking’ and ‘cracking’ practices. Nonetheless, it is intended to serve a heuristic purpose that is informed by public discourse of ascribing ‘good’/’bad’ or ‘legal’/’illegal’ to ‘hacking’, a moral ambiguity that we explore later. The outcome of both ‘hacking’ and ‘cracking’ is a modification or a ‘new creation’ of that ‘thing’ in ways that were unavailable to the ‘hacker’/’cracker’. They therefore have a structure and a process, both of which are underpinned by imaginativeness, intentionality and functionality. As a ‘legal’ activity therefore, ‘hacking’ encompasses ‘hobbyists’ and ‘prosumers’. As ‘hobbyists’, they are not necessarily professionals, but amateur enthusiasts seeking to adapt and influence the aesthetic and utility value of a product. ‘Hackers’ are ‘prosumers’ because they openly and ‘legally’ participate in the designing and production chain from the outset as well as influencing market forces.

We will now look at ‘hacking’/’cracking’ in the context of social and political processes and relations. This type of ‘hacking’ is not just of everyday objects, but also of everyday life situations. We refer to this as the social domain. The ways in which this domain shares the features of intentionality, functionality, imaginativeness and creativity with that of techno-scientific domain, particularly in relation to the structures and processes of ‘hacking’/’cracking’ are considered.

The Social Domain
Dan (2011) argues that ‘ social hacking’ is a metaphor for the practices and actions that exploit (or explore) weaknesses or deficiencies in a system for it to behave or function in a certain way. The metaphor is drawn from the techno-scientific domain in which ‘hacking’ entails identifying weak points in the flow of information (pathways) in a system such as a series of servers and attacking them (Dan 2011). This enables the system to behave in a certain way. It is also a metaphor for intervening in social processes in such a way that there is no singular complex solution or approach. ‘Hacking’ in this case is about simple approaches that are fluid, constantly evolving and responsive to specific social circumstances. It enables continuous learning and builds on knowledge and skills gained aimed at improving and changing behaviour.

Kulikauska (2004) argues that individuals actively engage in groups (online and offline) to help each other remake and restructure their lives and their world as well as to challenge social norms (laws and morals). By challenge, we refer to both breaking and not-breaking social norms to facilitate action by linking and bringing together different individuals and groups. The process encourages other social actors or agents to create and link up with other worlds, communities and networks. ‘Social hacking’, is therefore a bottom-up approach to encourage action in a creative use of trial and error procedures. Its end product is social engagement, social connection/connectivity and social networking. Its has transformative potential to foment mass culture and nurture communities.

‘Hacking’ as a social, or in Crabtree’s conception ‘civic’, phenomenon depends on reciprocity, as illustrated in gaming (a sub-culture AGAIN NOT SURE I’D USE THIS PHRASE within the techno-scientific domain). As Crabtree (2003) explains when people are stuck in a computer game, they will go to a gaming community online, and ask others for advice. Other gamers will help on the principle of reciprocity; they will sometime in future expect someone else (including those they have helped) to help them out with their gaming problems. Reciprocity is a form of harnessing social capital among society’s members on the principle that you scratch my back, I will scratch yours (Dan 2003). In the social domain, Crabtree argues that “as in computer games, reciprocity means helping someone because, at some unspecified point in the future, you will need someone else to help you out too”. Therefore, through reciprocity people turn to each other when they encounter everyday problems (civic, social, political, economic etc.) to access knowledge, skills, advice from others who have expressed similar problems in a bid to solve or help overcome them. Crabtree refers to this as ‘civic hacking’. The social and or civic dimension to ‘hacking’ becomes a manifestation of individual and collective resilience to cope with emerging problems and demands that citizens (non-citizens too) encounter in their everyday lives in the community. This is not to say that ‘hacking’ is always motivated by reciprocity. It might be that there are altruistic and communitarian reasons behind an individual’s sharing of skills and resources to facilitate ‘hacking’. For example, helping others may be a source of ‘feel-good’ factor as well as perceived as a civic and social responsibility that an individual owes to others.

Hacking and the ‘Moral Ambiguity’

‘Hacking’ is a practice that is fraught with moral ambiguity in both the techno-science and social domains: that of whether it is acceptable or non-acceptable to practice ‘hacking’. Whereas stakeholders within these domains are inclined to accept and encourage the practice, for instance through ‘prosumerism’ as discussed above, others might not and are hostile to ‘hacking’. For example, ‘Ikea’ is widely believed to be receptive or even created ‘Ikea Hacker’, a blog dedicated to enabling customers or ‘prosumers’ to design and modify Ikea products that are later manufactured and marketed by the company. On the other hand, hostility to the practice is commonplace such as that of Microsoft’s lock out of Xbox hackers reflect upon the latest Microsoft K’nex hacking programme, as oppose to the Sony PSP problems and approach, plus the LG vs Sony . The pejorative conception of the term is compounded by contemporary media representation of ‘hacking’ as criminal and social delinquency. ‘Hacking’ in this sense is associated with criminal acts such as identity theft, credit card fraud and other computer-related crimes.

My hunch is that communities always functioned on a basis of reciprocity that was both asynchronous and asymmetric! The web is no different.

Consequently, the criminal connotation is believed to have caused a segment of the computer community to ascribe the term ‘hacker’ to those engaging in legal activities. They ascribe ‘cracker’ to those engaging in nefarious ‘hacking’ activities including those performing computer break-ins. Nonetheless, the term continues to be used by actors in the techno-scientific field for two reasons: firstly, the intended meaning should be based on the context of usage in order to clarify which meaning is intended (pejorative or complimentary); secondly, the practice describes a set of skills which are used for various reasons including nefarious criminal activity.

The moral ambiguity of ‘hacking’ also emanate from the difficulty in deciding who should have or not have the ‘right’ or authority to determine the rightness or wrongness of ‘hacking’. The question revolves around whther the onus is with the manufacturer or the customer. In other words, is it the manufacturer who has the right/authority or the customer who purchases the product? Put in another way: does the individual has a right to ‘hack’ or adapt something they legitimately bought and owned, and should the manufacturer have a right to prevent customers from ‘hacking’ a product they legitimately bought? (Hudson and Creslak 2011). While customers may argue that they have a right to adapt a product they have legitimately bought to improve its functionality and aesthetics, and therefore legitimate innovation, some manufacturers consider such actions to have negative effects in the use and enjoyment of some products. For example, manufacturers of gaming argue that cheating that is hacking-facilitated through adaptations of software ruins users gaming experience. They also argue that such practice encourages piracy. The varying attitudes are also evident in the social and political domains. The moral dimension to evaluating ‘hacking’ further strenthens our suggestion for the distinction between ‘hacking’ and ‘cracking’ , or by extention between ‘social hacking’ and ‘social cracking’. Where the perception is that the activity is ‘illegal’, transgressive or contravenes social norms, we suggest that it consitute ‘social cracking’. Conversely, perceived ‘legal’ but transgressive or socially deviant behaviour could be ascribed as ‘social hacking’. The next section, will further explore this normative approach to evaluating the concept(s).

need to decide how much to open this up to embrace questions of piracy and online theft – for me the discussion about moral ambiguity should fold in the shift in policies that acknowledge these acts.

The Political Domain & the Big Society
Although the term ‘hacking’ is hardly used in political discourse and policymaking, we argue that it has semantic resonances/applications in politics or the language of politicians and policymakers. This is particularly with regards to the characteristics of ‘hacking’ as immanent in the tehcno-scientific and social domains that can be deployed to describe the activities of political elites and their policies and those of citizens and non-citizens in response to such policies.

Individuals participate in activities (both deliberately or inadvertently) to circumvent policies, rules or regulations that are restrictive and that socially exclude them. Their actions may not always be legal or illegal, but have intentionality, functionality and immaginativeness. The actions are necessitated by a desire to cope or survive the limitations of policies and inherent bureaucratic mechanisms or systems. They are therefore a manifestation of resilience and active or in some cases proactive social action at the individual and or collective level. However, as in the techno-scientific and social domains, these activities are underpinned by moral ambiguity. The extent to which such individual and collective interventions are acceptable or not acceptable, justified or not justified and whether or not they constitute social deviant behaviour are bound to be debatable.

In addition, there is the debate about who has the right or moral authority to decide these activities as indescretions. In the sense, the question is: is it the policymakers and political elites who formulate such restrictive and socially exclusive policies or citizens who are the targets of such policies? We do not intend to enter into such a polemical debate. Nonetheless, we are interested in exploring how political and policymaking elites and their discourses, vocabulary (or vernacular) and logics of public policy, particularly that of the emerging policy of the ‘Big Society’ intersect with those of ‘hacking’, as applied in the social and techno-scientific domains. We hope this will demonstrate how concepts and vocabularies emerging in relation to the Internet could usefully be applied to understandings of off-line contemporary relations, practices and identities, and vice versa.

We argue that much of the vernacular (discourse and vocabulary) and the logic ascribed to their usage by the new coalition government to describe community and their roles within the so-called ‘Big Society’ agenda would seem, to share many of the characteristics of contemporary forms of the Internet. Commonly described as Web2.0, users of the Internet embrace a new read/write relationship with much of the content of the Web and have provided vital dimensions to a previously highly top down environment. In contrast to Web2.0, the early internet (Web 1.0) was populated by content that was written by vendors aimed at the public. Large companies provided the gateway to the web and in some cases controlled the content that was primarily accessible (AOL, British Telecom). Subsequently information felt as though it was ‘read’ only. As social computing technologies were developed, companies such as Google and Yahoo capitalised upon the potential for publicly generated content, opinion and statistical data. Our experience of the internet is now one in which contributing is very easy and taking responsibility for what and who we join, take part in and produce is central to how we benefit. This move from a top-down or elite-led (web1.0) to bottom-up or grass roots-led approach (Web2.0) and inherent widenning of access to and participation in policy or service delivery, information and public knowledge, among other democratic ideals, is arguably akin to ‘open source planning’ as key chracteristic of the ‘Big Society’ agenda. This possibilities have resonance with Web2.0, where individuals could access and participate in on-line deleberations and could have control of its content that constitute a bottom-up approach to the generatingof content.

Under ‘open source planning’, individuals and communities are encouraged to participate in civic engagement and collaborative work to find immaginative and sustainable solutions to everyday social, political and economic challenges they face. The coalition government Green Paper 14 stated that ‘open source planning’ was inspired by the software industry, where the aim is to make computer programming accessible or open to all in a flexible and adaptable way. Its proponents argue that this promotes transparency and free access that would contribute to quality improvement at a lower cost in the software industry. The logic of the coalition therefore is that through the ‘Big Society’s’ ‘open source planning’ mechanism, citizens (and non-citizesn) would be encouraged to participate collectively and collaboratively in local initiatives and the inherent decisionmaking processes. This is with a view to influence and shape all aspects of intitiatives that will make policymakers transparent and accountable to citizens and noncitizens who are the recepients of such service provision. By so doing, ‘open source planning’ becomes a bottom-up process that transforms policymaking and service delivery from a centralised bureaucratic control system to one that is grass roots-led, and therefore is decentralised and localised.

Such ‘localism’ or ‘localisation’ implies that citizens are active as well as proactive social actors of sustainable development of their neighbourhoods and communities hitherto the exclusive terrain of bureacrats and elected representatives. The service is therefore more likely to be tailor-made to the needs, tastes and specifications of local people, and at the same time in a better improved quality. It makes service users (citizens) not only to be consumers, but ‘prosumers’ as they become stakeholders in the design of services from the outset of their conception and formulation. Like ‘prosumerism’ in the techno-scientific and social domains, service users through ‘open source planning’ become part of the collaborative design of services through public consultations, among other channels. The role of citizens and non-citizens, as service users, merges with that of service provider and policymaker insofar as to influence the design and delivery of services to meet local needs and tastes. This has the potential of reducing structural inequalities to access and benefit from welfare services as policymaking and service provision moves from a one-shoe-fits-all design approach. The latter is replaced by diverse designs to suit the specifications of diverse communities in the polity, a phenonmenon that shares an affinity with mass customization of ‘prosumerism’ . While this is not profit-driven, at least in the view of political elites, it might be that the local-specific but diverse design approach in service provision is motivated by financial economics. For instance, some political commentators, politicians (both proponents and critics of the ‘Big Society’) claim that the reduction in bureacratic bottle-necks of policymaking and service delivery and the opening up of service provision to a wider market and the attendant demand lead to reduced cost and improved efficiency. The creation of a ‘Big Society Bank’ to finance social enterprises, charities and voluntary groups is perceived to promote diversity in the markets and enterpreneurship. The end product is, as was the case with software industry, that service provision will open up to market competion culminating in better quality and lower cost.

Another area of resonance between the off-line ‘Big Society’ discourse, Web2.0 and on-line ‘hacking’ is around the issue of access to public knowledge and information by grass roots individuals. It has been argued that Web2.0 has improved and widened public access to knowledge and information that was hitherto restricted and available to elites. Through ‘tweeting’, ‘blogging’ , ‘face books’ and other social media, individuals can formulate, disemminate and acess their own and others’ news and information much more easily and at lower cost than before. They become avenues for networking, sharing and mobilising resources among individuals toward social, political and economic ends. The practice by politicians to sound public opinion and consult in an adhoc basis on their policies and actions through ‘tweeting’ and ‘blogging’ is an attempt to be part of the network society that is becoming more commonplace. It is also an indication that attempts are being made by elected representatives to elicit the views of the electorate and to engage them in collaborative democracy, albeit an issue/practice that is debatable. Individuals can also probe, query or seek information from their elected representatives through such media. The widening of collaborative democracy and access to public knowledge underpins the coalition government’s recently commissioned ‘public government data’. The latter creates an individual’s ‘right to data’ of government-held datasets including the publication of local crime statistics on a monthly basis. We argue that is constitutive of a ‘network society’ by which political elites hope the public can hold service providers and public officials to account and leading to improved quality provision. Through govertnment’s ‘open data’ policy, politicians expect their constituents to learn about developments and initiatives elswhere in the state and for them to link up or network with other citizens in their community and beyond. This has the potential for re-designing or copying other intiatives that have been successful as well as enabling the comparison of performance of public officials and their service provision.

We argue that the networking or ‘comparing of notes’ is contingent to some extent on reciprocity and resilience. This is becuase individuals and groups can share their experiences, skills and resources with others in other parts of the polity who are faced with similar social challenges to help them cope. They, in turn, would expect others to reciprocate in a similar manner. Such reciprocity and resilience among users to solve societal challenges is parallel to that of Web2.0 users, an agency that is tantamount to ‘civic hacking’. In addition, there is also a reciprocal benefit for individuals for feeling as being part of a community. This gives them a feeling of belonging and identification with their community (virtual and actual) and a sense of sharing a common purpose with others (Tonnies 1957). This social processes and relations mimick the process of ‘file-sharing’ in Web2.0 where individuals depend on each other to pull skills and resources together for mutual benefit.

So far we have agued that the ‘Big Society’ policies act as a catalyst and product of civic engagement, ‘prosumerism’, improved access to public information and knolwedge and accountability by public officials. This potentially contributes to the empowerment of citizens. This is because when individuals have access to information and knowledge; participate in the formulation and delivery of policies and services; can make choices among welfare services and hold public officials to account, they become empowered social actors. Such empowerment either individually or collectively was the motivation behind the emergencve of Web2.0: where social media and its networking potential would facilitate individuals’ access to information and communication beyond their immediate community. The ‘Big Society’s’ originators, British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that ‘open source planning’, among others, will enable people feel powerful enough to help themselves and is the “biggest, most dramatic redistribution of power from elites to the man in the street”. In addition, the holding to account of service providers and freedom to shape and choose services, is argued by the ‘Big Society’ proponents to engender competion that can lead to lower cost, innovation and enterpreneurship. We have also argued that the above chracteristics of the ‘Big Society’ share parallels with ‘hacking’ as conceptualised in the techno-scientific and social domains. Against this background of commonalities in both process and relations, we suggest that it is a form of or is designated as ‘social hacking’. ‘Hacking’ in the techno-scientific, social and political domains therefore enables: a fluid and evolving response by individuals to challenging circumstances (intentionality), access and participation in decisionmaking, civic engagement, connenctivity and networking, innovation and learning, and a fit-for-purpose (functionality) approach.

However, there are risks that are inherent in the ‘Big Society’ chracteristics: ‘open source planning’, ‘networking’ or a ‘network society’, Web2.0, and market dynamics. We call these ‘risks’ because they are vulnerable to yielding outcomes that were not intended by political elites in ways that are similar to ‘hacking’ in the techno-scientific and social domains. Simply put, we argue that there are risks associated with the ‘Big Society’ for individuals and communities that share parallels with those of a virtual society. We suggest that this is ‘social cracking’. For instance, the ‘Big Society’ agenda has been criticised as a facade for ‘uploading’ or ‘downloading’ of social problems by the coalition government to citizens. The view has been that it is another tool to deflect the harsh consequencies of the current economic austerity programme as welfare services are ‘cut’ or ‘downsized’. The expectation therefore is that as individuals struggle to cope with the ‘cuts’ on public services and welfare benefits as well as with the overall harsh economic downturn, they will device ‘social cracking’ strategies. Through these strategies, individuals and communities will access resources that was previously untapped or were excluded.

Whether or not the strategies are ‘social hacking’ or ‘social cracking’, they have the chracteristics of a community (virtual or actual). This is because they are a manifestation of empowerment, resilience and resourcefullness by individuals to access or generate benefit beyond that which the state is currently willing or able to provide. Both are proactive, creative, bottom-up social actions and networking, contingent upon reciprocity as well as atruism, and fraught with moral ambiguity. We acknowledge that this is speculative and normative, and therefore propose that research energies ought to be devoted towards an empirical project to investigate the intersections between online practices (virtual communities) and offline practices or the daily experiences of individuals and actual communities. We believe that the metaphor of a Web 2.0 approach to new forms of governance offers a contemporary understanding of community processes and one that anticipates how people are likely to turn to ‘creative’ processes to sustain their lifestyles. The nature of the investigation will offer radical insights into how the network society will develop any means possible to overcome the financial cuts that are likely to impact upon them. Of the many problematic strategies that such empirical studies are likely to be record, there will be an equal number of completely new processes that will challenge traditional models of community support. These new constructive processes will offer new methodologies with which to facilitate aspects of the ‘Big Society’. We can anticipate that by definition, these methods will be best understood through the use of cross-disciplinary research: social science, arts and humanities and industrial models of co-design, as we now outline in the final section.

Toward a Research Agenda
We suggest that any empirical study should focus on these two areas: firstly, to undertake a literature review and conceptual path clearing (analysis) of ‘hacking’ and secondly, to explore and develop understanding about the relations, processes and discourses involving citizens (and non-citizens), ‘hacking’ and the ‘Big Society’ agenda. The reseracher’s interest should be in trying to understand the kind of ‘hacking/cracking’ that individuals undertake as a social and political process, the discourses associated with these prcatices, the factors that underpinned these and the ramifications for community participation in the ‘Big Society’ agenda of the current UK coalition government.

Some research objectives could be:

1. Considering the ways in which the vernacular of the Internet can usefully be applied to understandings of social relations and practices.

2. Understanding and investigating local residents’ beliefs, practices and actions of ‘hacking’.

3. Investigating how ‘hacking’ in communities is organized and implemented.

4. Considering the ways ‘hacking’ can contribute to (or subvert) and shape the participation of communities’ in the ‘Big Society’ agenda.

We envisage that any research aims will posit the following set of research propositions to guide the study:

1. ‘Hacking’ is perceived by individuals/communities as a ‘survival strategy’ and resilience in circumventing prohibitive welfare policies or their social exclusion.

2. Individuals involved in ‘hacking’ as a social process are in a reciprocal relationship with each other.

3. ‘Hacking’ is a dynamic/organic social process that evolves/changes in terms of resilience, scale, visibility and impact over time and in response to social, economic and political exigencies.

4. The policies of government serves as a trigger or disincentive for creative social processes like ‘hacking’ and the attendant self-reliance, belonging and identity formations and connectedness or disconnectedness among individuals.

5. The vernacular (discourses and vocabularies) of the Internet have resonances with social relations and processes at the inter-human/community level and that of the ‘Big Society’.

6. ‘Hacking’ have implications for the ‘Big Society’ agenda.

The research propositions should revolved around exploring the relationship (instrumental or discursive) between hacking, government policy and individual’s involvement in the ‘Big Society’ agenda. This is with a view to investigate: local residents’ perceptions and ‘hacking’ discourses, practices and actions; the motivations, benefits and shortcomings of ‘hacking’ (practices and actions); and the linkages between ‘hacking’ (discourses, practices and actions) and the ‘Big Society’. The assumption is that exploring these areas will offer empirical insights about local residents’ beliefs, practices and actions of ‘hacking’, among others, which will enable the extrapolating/speculating from these the ramifications for the ‘Big Society’ agenda. In addition, the reasons for not wanting to involve in ‘hacking’, where this is the case, will be teased out. Any research agenda should aim to generate outcomes that offer insights into the radical processes within communities that demonstrate a continuum between benign and more problematic ‘hacking’ strategies. In addition, any analysis of the social processes should identify the practical methods to support positive ‘hacking’ practices within the context of the ‘Big Society’. These will provide insight into the implications of using an extended metaphor derived from the contemporary internet to inform new models of governance and social responsibility.

Finally, the significance of the Internet in transforming community relations has been widely recognized, with there being considerable debate as to the degree to which it has fostered the development of virtual communities which have displaced territorial, face to face, communities. Such claims have been contested, it being claimed that on-line communications often supplement rather than replace off-line practices, although there has also been considerable attention paid to the emergence of a range of on-line practices, with a range of new terms being coined to express them (e.g., hacking, spamming, file-sharing, up-loading, down-loading), as well as older terms give new internet inflections (e.g., pirating, commons, navigating). Our suggestion for a research agenda will move from normative approaches to understanding the intersections (practices and discursive) between online and offline communities to one that is grounded in the experiences of citizens. Such empirical substantiation is urgently needed to enrich current debates on the operation and social processes (practices, identities and relations) of virtual and actual communities.

Comments are closed.

Related posts

The Future of… Things
The Future of… Things

I’ve been asked to provide a sort blog post following the question: The Future of… The propo

Climbing into the trolley: Cinema’s use of AI to extend moral and ethical dilemmas
Climbing into the trolley: Cinema’s use of AI to extend moral and ethical dilemmas

Since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, film-makers have given AI human characteristics in order to create


Transactions with another Since 2017 I’ve been leading an EPSRC funded project with Oxfam to explo

Matches that won’t light & hairdryers that won’t turn on
Matches that won’t light & hairdryers that won’t turn on

The closing scenes of Bella Tar’s eco-apocalyptic movie A torinói ló (2011) as the oil in the la

New Economic Imaginaries
New Economic Imaginaries

Amongst the works that have emerged through the ‘after money’ related projects which inc

Apocalyptic Design in the Capitalocene: Every-day Geopolitics and Blockchain
Apocalyptic Design in the Capitalocene: Every-day Geopolitics and Blockchain

OxChain conference paper at Postcards from the Anthropocene June 22-24, Edinburgh Chris Speed &

Plastic Dinosaurs
Plastic Dinosaurs

Short 7 minute talk / intervention into the Talbot Rice Gallery / Exponential event on the 24th of A

Things2Things and the KASH Cup
Things2Things and the KASH Cup

As the term the Internet of Things reached peak hype according to Gartner in the summer of 2016, a c

ArtCasting: Where does it take you?
ArtCasting: Where does it take you?

In 1991, during my undergraduate Fine Art degree at Brighton Polytechnic I was part of a small three

Bodystorming the BlockChain
Bodystorming the BlockChain

Context In April Design Informatics was invited to develop a Lab of Labs for Martyn de Waals Design