Why We Hack: The Benefits of Disobedience


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Sometimes disobedience is necessary and good when rules fail us, and it’s at the core of why we hack. Hacking is a means of expressing dissatisfaction, confounding the mechanism, and ultimately doing better. Here’s why it’s so important.

Much of today’s entertainment focuses on vigilantes, serial killers, and traditionally bad people. The common thread? They all promote disobedience as a virtue. How do you relate to a serial killer like Dexter? You do it because he murders other serial killers—read: bad people. He does something wrong because good behavior won’t accomplish what needs to be done. (See also: Batman.) It’s this same mentality, this same brand of unrest, that fuels all kinds of disobedience. In particular, it’s why we hack.

What I Mean When I Say “Hack”
Hacking can be defined a few ways, from the more innocent type of life hacking we generally talk about to the darker side of the spectrum where people are actually carrying out highly illegal actions. Here, we fall somewhere in the gray middle, where hacking disobeys companies, circumvents copyright laws, and challenges people to do more with what they’re given. Hacking is a brand of disobedience that both expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo and does something to change it. This is the kind of hacking—and disobedience—that’s beneficial and good.

The Reasons for Disobedience

It’s hard for a lot of people to justify disobedience because it often involves breaking rules, if not the law. There’s always at least a shred of incorrectness to disobedience, even if it’s committed for all the right reasons. Hacking gets a bad reputation for those reasons as well, and to really understand why hacking is so important it’s necessary to look at its roots: civil disobedience

Though certainly not the first instance, the idea of civil disobedience was popularized by Henry David Thoreau in his aptly titled 1848 essay Civil Disobedience. Wikipedia summarizes the thesis nicely:

It argues that people should not permit governments to overrule or atrophy their consciences, and that people have a duty to avoid allowing such acquiescence to enable the government to make them the agents of injustice.

Why It Matters

We’ve seen numerous examples of the benefits of civil disobedience over time, from Gandhi’s campaign for independence from the British Empire (e.g.: the Salt March), to the Civil Rights Movement in 1950s and 60s America (e.g.: Rosa Parks), to the more recent Gay Rights Movement. With issues that have been around for some time it’s easy to see, historically, how each group is denied rights and, at strategic times, chose disobedience as a means of fighting back. It all seems obvious now, but oppression and disobedience aren’t necessarily all that different. For example, the Nazi party came to power because of civil unrest. Disobedience was a key component in Hitler’s rise to power. For a more contemporary example I won’t make comparisons to current political movements, because nothing is quite on the level of the third reich, but instead offer up something that’s a little controversial:

Take Antoine Dodson’s (of Bed Intruder fame) new iPhone app that takes sex offender tracking a lot further by identifying sex offenders through the wonders of augmented reality. The general assumption is that sex offenders are bad people and knowing their locations allows us to stay safe and keep our loved ones safe. The problem, however, is that sex offender databases suck. They suck because the definition of a sex offender is so broad that it includes people like Wendy Whittaker (full text at The Economist) who engaged in sexual activity with another minor who was below the age of consent. While there are definitely bad people who belong on such a list, there are plenty—like Wendy—who do not. We’re catching too many dolphins with our tuna nets, so to speak, and it’s these sorts of unjust and ineffective laws that define oppression. It’s our often emotional reactions that let people in desire of power (in this case, politicians) step in, willing to be so tough on sex offenders that they’ll throw a net to catch anyone vaguely criminal, and slowly turn us into willingly oppressive people without even knowing it. While it feels like disobedience, it’s not. This is one of many reasons why disobedience is necessary.

Why We Hack

So what does this all have to do with hacking? Let’s look at two examples: Napster and Apple. Napster was really the beginning of the music sharing movement, which largely revolved around stealing copyrighted music by trading it online with others. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) quickly stepped in and made major efforts to catch and sue as many music thieves as possible. In some cases they caught people they were after, but many people were sued by the RIAA despite their infraction either being minor or possibly non-existent.

It is, again, the same situation: a group of people react emotionally, act without thinking, and hurt innocent people in the process. Despite the oppressive nature of the RIAA, file-sharing services were an incredible example of positive disobedience. They demonstrated the desire for purchasing and sharing unprotected digital music online, created the market for portable media players, and have reoriented the music industry more towards the benefit of the consumer. While the RIAA’s witch hunt brought a number of casualties in the process, the immense change brought by the existence of music file sharing services—a simple act of disobedience—changed an entire industry.

That inevitably leads us to Apple, iTunes, and iOS. Apple quickly recognized the desire for people to buy and trade music legally, so they released the iPod and iTunes. A music store quickly grew as part of iTunes so people could legally purchase digital audio content. Initially, this content was locked down by digital rights management (DRM) copy protection, but dissatisfaction with its limitations eventually moved the music industry away from using it all-together. Today, you can buy music on iTunes and virtually any online music store with no DRM, leaving you the choice to share it with as many people as you want or simply keep it to yourself. What you do with your music is now your choice.

Apple recognized the problem with complex user experiences and attempted to create simpler, easier-to-use products. Their idea with iTunes had less to do with the legal consumption of music and more with the convenience, and they’ve applied this paradigm to all their products. With more and more people using computers and the internet, Apple’s strategy has been to build the hardware and software that was the easiest to use. As a result, over the years, Apple has created two things: some pretty impressive hardware and software, but also a locked down platform that purportedly protects us from viruses, pornography, and other things Apple believes we don’t want.

While no one can argue that Apple’s been successful doing this, many of us who love their products but want the ability to do more are fed up. Lively communities for building Hackintosh Macs and doing amazing things with jailbroken iOS devices demonstrate the desire for the option of openness. When we purchase a product, said product should not make an effort to prevent us from using it in the way we want. Somewhere along the line, people started believing that when Apple says you shouldn’t jailbreak your iPhone, it was actually against the law to do so. That’s simply not the case.

We hack because we want to do better. We hack because we want to demonstrate the desire for greater possibilities. We hack because we’re sick and tired of being caught in a net designed for other people. We hack because it’s fun. With the internet becoming the world community, hacking is our form of civil disobedience. It’s our way to passionately tear down and rebuild, confound the mechanism, and express dissatisfaction through improvement. It’s about doing better, not breaking the law.

In addition to hacking, the Do It Yourself (DIY) movement is a kinder form of disobedience. We’ve grown into a society where processes are so streamlined and tailored to the customer’s convenience that we don’t need to make anything anymore. Instead we can work longer hours at our jobs and come home to a house cleaned by a robot vacuum and sit down to eat the seventh take out meal of the week. It’s not that these conveniences are inherently bad, but when something breaks (as a Roomba often does), you have to be prepared to vacuum yourself. At those times, you’re reminded how it’s important to know how to clean, how to fix things around the house, and how to cook so you can do it when you need to or want to. There are so many things we’ve neglected to learn or have forgotten because convenience has stripped them of their relevancy. The DIY movement stands behind the belief that forgetting how to do things is, culturally, a bad thing.

The need for disobedience comes in many forms but it all stems from being denied something we sorely need in our lives. While it’s not always the right answer, it’s hugely important. We need to keep on hacking so long as we’re angry, frustrated, and dissatisfied with the status quo. We can sit around and complain, or we can do better. For me, it’s a pretty easy choice.


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