Specifically with computers, the word “hack” has a few specific meanings:
- Illegally gain access to a computer system.
- 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.
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”):
- Altruism – doing something unconventional to improve the public good.
- Fixing – improvise a solution to a legitimate problem.
- Curiosity – pure curiosity or the desire to solve a puzzle.
- Silliness – it sounded fun to try.
- Freedom – bypassing social convention to gain more freedoms.
- Merit – seeking public attention.
- Vengeance – vigilante justice or revenge against an individual/organization.
- Power – gaining some type of power without earning it, such as money.
- 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:
- Observe and Exploit – building and destroying with terminals and code, often includes PenTesters.
- Unconventional Fixing – typically an engineering solution that either transforms mundane objects into clever fixes or fixes problems most people have blindly accepted habitually.
- 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.
- Julian Beever: chalk art that matches the viewer’s perspective
Exploiting social expectations:
- Slacktyping: typing only when someone else is typing
- Reliably guessing the daily Wordle word with tweets
Exploiting official rules:
- Wisconsin’s Democrat Governor vetoed individual letters to turn school funding until “2024-2025” to be until “2425”, effectively funding schools for four centuries
Exploiting financial rewards:
Fixing labor problems:
- A farming robot that can kill 100,000 weeds a day, 15-20x a human’s labor
- A developer designed 4 8-foot-long handwriting robots to send mass handwritten mail
- Smartbolts that inform you whether a bolt has been tightened
- Building a lay-down desk with hardware store parts
- Fixing a broken RJ45 clip by 3D printing another one
Fixing waste problems:
Fixing DRM and proprietary blocks:
- surfsonar: embedding sonar into a surfboard with a Raspberry Pi
- HomeMirror: make a programmable home mirror with an old Android cell phone
Reviving old technology:
- Lytro Unlock: unveiling all the features of a formerly trendy camera
- Reviving the Pakon film scanner
- Game Boy Camera Canon EF Mount: adding a telephoto lens to an old video game feature
- Driver adventures for a 1999 webcam
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.
Breaking perceptual expectations:
- Bizarre and Unusual Uses of DNS – FOSDEM 2023 summarizing many ways DNS has been reused
- Zoomquilt: an infinitely zooming image
- Grant Woolard: smashing unrelated songs together
- Adult Swim’s Keith Crofford: mastering the art of being unsettling
- Rhei: a liquid clock
- A 407-piece mechanical clock that writes the time
- Titanium Cyborg Eye: dramatically improving a glass eye
Breaking perceptual expectations in a social setting:
- Secret service interrogation: the story of Steve Wozniak (who helped create Apple) having trouble with the Secret Service over legitimately printed $2 bills
- Bullet time photo booth: creating a photo booth that creates a panoramic bullet-time video
Re-using old things for new purposes:
- David Irvine’s Re-Directed Art: thrift store art made awesome, also here and here
- Turning an old Amazon Kindle into a eink development platform – liberating the Kindle
- Receipt printer for GitHub issues: making software debugging more physically interactive
Adding purposes to existing things:
- SmartEarrings: earrings that are also headphones
- Nettle Magic Project: cards that can be tracked instantly with a barcode
- DNS Toys: silly ways to use the DNS system
- Emoji to Scale: the emojis, proportionally-sized
- Make wood appear glass-like by painting hydrogen peroxide onto wood, letting it bake in the sun, then filling the holes with a marine resin
Adding design to otherwise overlooked experiences:
- Command & Conquer Red Alert installation program – a stylistic way to install programs
- Willard Wigan and Jon Almeda: microscopic designs
- Trimble GPS receiver: a fun way to market 1993’s revolutionary new GPS technology
Changing what everyone expects to stay the same:
- Super Mail Forward: emails that change as they’re forwarded
- Peggi: a DIY chording keyboard
- TOTP tokens on my wrist: getting one-time passcodes on an old watch
Reinventing for the purpose of learning:
- Rebuilding a USB keyboard from scratch
- A high school student fabricated an integrated circuit with a lithograph in his garage
- 80386DX ISA SINGLE BOARD MICROCOMPUTER: rebuilding a late-80’s computer via reverse-engineering
- Building a new Win 3.1 app in 2019: redesigning an app using 27-year-old constraints
- Building a PS1 style retro 3D renderer: redesigning the original Sony Playstation’s graphics
Reinventing with specific constraints out of curiosity or challenge:
- The Alexander piano: a piano with a full non-copper-coated bass string
- A curved basketball hoop where almost every shot goes in
Using new technology for old tasks:
Using old technology for new tasks:
- There oughta be a WiFi Game Boy cartridge: because the Game Boy didn’t have internet access at the time
- Rotary Keyboard: replacing 10-key with a rotary dial
Using technology for new tasks way beyond what anyone expects of it:
Inventing something entirely new:
- Semaphore: typing with your entire body
- EEG Cat Ears: scanning brainwaves to operate a novelty hat
- Haxophone: A Raspberry Pi implementation that’s similar, but not entirely like, a saxophone
Exploring overlooked domains: