Hacking: What’s Hacking?

Specifically with computers, the word “hack” has a few specific meanings:

  1. Illegally gain access to a computer system.
  2. Improvise a solution to a hardware/software limitation, often implied as a creative solution.

Hacking has gotten a bad name, partly due to the cultural implications of the first definition. Both malware and social engineering can serve to completely destroy society by some of the most intelligent and immoral individuals, and the large-scale fear (often advanced by the hackers themselves) means most people are typically uneducated about the positive side of that brilliance.

More broadly, hacking simply means using something outside of its creator’s intended purpose (e.g., using an oven as a space heater). As a term, hacking usually implies computer crimes, but has positive associations within modern vernacular beyond computers (e.g., “life hacks”).


Whether intentional or not, a hacker will invariably defy social convention. They use errors, glitches, and hidden-away features to accomplish a specific purpose, which requires an inherent sense of lateral thinking.

As a result, neurodivergent people (such as autism, ADHD, and schizophrenia) are more gifted at hacking, though a rebellious attitude can mimic the same attitude necessary to find hacks.

Often, hacks require “reverse engineering” something, which involves designing something to produce the same output when you don’t know how the thing works. Some people are so brilliant their reverse-engineered attempts work better than the thing they were imitating!


Hacks can come from a wide moral spectrum of motivations, ranging from good (“white hat”) to completely unscrupulous or self-interested (“black hat”):

  1. Altruism – doing something unconventional to improve the public good.
  2. Fixing – improvise a solution to a legitimate problem.
  3. Curiosity – pure curiosity or the desire to solve a puzzle.
  4. Silliness – it sounded fun to try.
  5. Freedom – bypassing social convention to gain more freedoms.
  6. Merit – seeking public attention.
  7. Vengeance – vigilante justice or revenge against an individual/organization.
  8. Power – gaining some type of power without earning it, such as money.
  9. Destruction – gaining an anonymous reputation from the destruction they’ve caused.

But, in the public eye, there are at least 3 major classes of hacker:

  1. Observe and Exploit – building and destroying with terminals and code, often includes PenTesters.
  2. Unconventional Fixing – typically an engineering solution that either transforms mundane objects into clever fixes or fixes problems most people have blindly accepted habitually.
  3. New Perspectives – building mind-bending experiences that redefine how we see reality, typically only attainable by a genius savant.

The following are a collection of the 3 major categories of hack. They are not exclusive, but the hope is to show how hacking transcends limits, in every direction.

Observe & Exploit

Sometimes, all it takes to hack is to notice some small detail, then use it for some sort of advantage. Or, sometimes, many small details.

Exploiting perspective:

Exploiting social expectations:

Exploiting official rules:

Exploiting financial rewards:

Exploiting reputation:

Exploiting trust:

Unconventional Fixing

Fixing labor problems:

Fixing nuisances:

Fixing waste problems:

Fixing DRM and proprietary blocks:

Saving money:

Adding features:

Reviving old technology:

Thoughtful gestures:

New Perspectives

We all wonder silly things on occasion, such as “What would happen if Abraham Lincoln met Genghis Khan?” These are practical questions that hackers were legitimately able to answer.

Most of the brilliant ideas on this page and this page also fit this profile.

Breaking perceptual expectations:

Breaking perceptual expectations in a social setting:

Re-using old things for new purposes:

Adding purposes to existing things:



Adding design to otherwise overlooked experiences:

Changing what everyone expects to stay the same:

Reinventing for the purpose of learning:

Reinventing with specific constraints out of curiosity or challenge:

Using new technology for old tasks:

Using old technology for new tasks:

Using technology for new tasks way beyond what anyone expects of it:

Inventing something entirely new:

Thoughtful gestures:

Exploring overlooked domains: