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all culture is hacker culture

On February 27th covering , ,

At a tech-business event where I was talking with people about the dynamics of creative groups, a fellow offered that we are becoming a hacker culture, meaning that young people are prone to alter or repurpose software and devices to their liking, to evade DRM and copy protection and generally make things work the way they like.

He’s right– but this isn’t new at all. Sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss spoke about the concept of bricolage, which is usually translated as tinkering or using what’s available to create a new thing. Hacking, in other words. Levi-Strauss posed this as a basic process in the creation of culture.

I recently got to converse with Keith Shocklee and Hank Shocklee, the “Bomb Squad” producers of Public Enemy and so many others. Brilliant guys, generously open and very relaxed about all their accomplishments (and very tolerant about talking with someone who is not remotely cool enough to talk with them — me). Keith thinks that one force that created hip-hop was the removal of music programs from public schools — kids who were enthralled by music and wanted to make music didn’t know how to play instruments, so they invented new ways of doing it using tape decks and turntables. The hip-hop methods of production and orchestration involved repurposeing samples and bits of sound from elsewhere — and also repurposing tools to accomplish this. Hacking on two levels, in other words.

“Hacker” is just a new word for a person using basic form of creativity: sometimes devious or transgressive, it’s using an old thing in a new way, or finding a way around an obstacle. Sometimes a hack is destructive and inelegant, like using a violin as a hammer. Sometimes it’s ingenious and opens the door to a whole new thing.

UPDATE: I’ve gotten some interesting comments on this, especially from folks who saw the link in Hacker News. It’s made me consider whether it is better to keep a narrower definition of “hacking” (creative things with computers and technology) or to widen it, as I have, to embrace a hacking attitude toward all things. I prefer thinking of this hacking as something fundamental and important in human nature, but I can understand people not wishing to dilute the meaning of the word. (Thanks for the link, Abhijit).

6 Responses

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Don McArthur

Mar 5 at 22:06


Nonsense. The vast majority of human culture is the antithesis of hacker culture.


Mar 5 at 23:29


Mozart was not in any sense a hacker. But his work was definitely adding to “culture.”


Mar 6 at 0:22


Don McArthur,

That’s kind of harsh as well as untrue.

Read the last paragraph again.


Mar 6 at 3:27


You might get a lot of flames for this, if for nothing else than hackers would be insulted as being compared to anything normal. =P

Read Stallman’s “On Hacking.”


Maybe you’ll change your views.

Caleb Cushing ( xenoterracide )

Mar 6 at 7:36


I agree with response 1 because most people simply aren’t that clever. however, a much larger percentage of society may be a kind of hacker more than most computer hackers would like to admit.

So I’d say I generally agree with your statements, just not to the extent that you say they run.

Andy Freeman

Mar 6 at 12:08


The problem with the argument is that “getting around an obstacle” isn’t an essential part of “culture”. Lots of cultures don’t exist to get around obstacles.

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