We Have Always Been Hackers

April 01, 2019

We Have Always Been Hackers

From cave drawings and hand-carved flutes to CPUs and machine learning, we, humans, have always been hackers. Our evolution is technology. We didn’t appear in the Garden of Eden and, upon being cast out, grudgingly pick up hoe and axe. Did we evolve to use tools or did tools evolve us?

In The Beginning Was The Command Line…

“Ideas come and go, stories stay.”

-Nassim Nicholas Taleb

My first computer was a TI-99/4A. With the exception of the terminal, which loaded on boot, all applications were accessed via cartridges inserted into the unit. Data was stored on magnetic tape (cassettes!) and there were a number of peripherals available, but I only recall us having the very popular text-to-speech box. I loved it. My favorite thing was playing “Adventure”-like games. I played them with Mom and we drew elaborate maps of the landscapes we were exploring. There were GUI games available on the TI, but they weren’t nearly as much fun.

As is inevitable in the march of progress, we eventually needed to upgrade from the TI-99/4A. My mother was a school teacher and while she had access to Apples at work and would have preferred we get one, my parents couldn’t justify the cost and so, like the majority of Americans, we went Microsoft. I don’t remember the manufacturer as, like today’s PCs, it was housed in a generic case. It was a revelatory experience transitioning from the command-line to a “fully-featured” GUI. What more, the PC had storage. We no longer needed to record our game progress and programs to cassette. This was the dawn of the era of Sierra. I loved every game Roberta Williams produced. As tedious as it was to install each installment of the King’s Quest series by copying data from 5 or so 5-1/4” floppy disks, I did appreciate being able to easily access the inner depths of our PC while learning BASIC and some basic C.

It seemed there was always something wrong with our computer. Our PC’s didn’t stay new for long. I have no doubt that many of the ailments our computers suffered were caused by me poking around and tweaking things I didn’t fully understand. Sorry Mom and Dad. Home was a small town in rural Utah and my secondary education provided few opportunities. Art was the only class that opened a window to a world beyond corn fields and feedlots, so I picked up the pencil and drafted my own future. I left home for college to study painting, but once there, I found myself immediately drawn to the tech labs and shifted my focus to digital media.

I’m an entirely self-taught developer. I started teaching myself HTML and CSS and minimal amounts of JavaScript in art school to create a portfolio and my first “app”. I’ve never taken a formal CS class. I taught a web development course while attending grad school and currently teach a coding bootcamp at a prominent university. I attribute my upbringing to my success as a developer. My parents are not wealthy. I’m lucky that they saw the value and potential in owning a home computer and found the money to purchase one. I’m especially lucky that it was terminal-based as the transition to development was smooth and natural for me. In addition to access to a computer, I had access to a yard and tools. I played outside. I built things. I made my own fun. I was born a hacker. And so were you.

We Have Never Been Modern

In his 1991 book, Bruno Latour makes the claim that We Have Never Been Modern, arguing that modernity is defined by a dualistic distinction between Nature and Society, where Society is all things human, ie: politics, economics, art, culture, you name it; and Nature (with a capital ‘n’ to emphasize its constructed, well, nature) is all that other non-human stuff out there. This is in contrast to pre-modern people, who did not make this distinction between Nature and Society. We have never been modern because, as much as we would like, and believe we do, we are unable to cleanly divide our world into these two spheres.

Latour defines two practices that we moderns use to construct our position in the world. The first is translation, which “creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second is purification, which “creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other.”

So long as we consider these two practices of translation and purification separately, we are truly modern — that is, we willingly subscribe to the critical project even though that project is developed only through the proliferation of hybrids down below. As soon as we direct our attention simultaneously to the work of purification and the work of hybridization, we immediately stop being wholly modern, and our future begins to change.

Bruno Latour, “We Have Never Been Modern”

Climate change, for example, is a hybrid of multiple concerns, not just environmental, but economic, political, and personal as we are all experiencing its effects in multifaceted, manifold ways. And yet, we can see how political figures and surprisingly large populations refuse to look at the evidence with nuance and instead insist on purifying the issue.

Anyone who produces and creates a product, whether it’s a painting in a gallery, an auto on the floor of a showroom, or an app for a smartphone understands the separation between what happens ‘above’ and what happens ‘below’. The hybrids proliferate as the product is being developed: iterations, prototypes, tests, focus groups, meetings! Then the deadline arrives and along with it, the big reveal.

We all know the stories of Edison, Tesla, Disney, Ford… long hard hours working in the shop, endless iterations, failed prototypes, 99 lightbulbs, 10,000 hours. We know that the oil that fuels our economy and constitutes the majority of our objects is brought to us by dirty, sweaty laborers on rigs thousands of miles away. Yet, we do nothing about it. Deep down we don’t care. We want transcendence. Mired in the muck of the present, disillusioned by the promises of the future, we don’t want to be here. We want God. But we know God is crossed out. So we consume. We want whatever slice of heaven we can afford before we die. We want children but we know there’s no hope so we do whatever we can to set aside a slice of heaven for them, too, at the expense of someone elses children. My future of squalor is more important that yours.

We want, need, that transcendence. That shiny object is the promise of Science and of God. Sleek, clean, purified. In your pocket.

We Have Always Been Hackers

Underneath the opposition between objects and subjects, there is the whirlwind of the mediators.

-Bruno Latour, “We Have Never Been Modern”

If it is necessary to invent a new position for this strange generation of both a political and a scientific content, the invention is currently underway. Call it hacking, making, tinkering, citizen science, DIY. The understanding that every engagement with the Object pole, the scientific content, is an engagement with the Subject Pole, or political. The homeowner who installs a garden in the front yard is not only engaging directly with the processes of photosynthesis, mineral transfer and propagation but, whether consciously or not, is taking a political stand, making a political statement on the production of food and our disconnection from its production. The choice may be economic, it may be leisure, but it is in any case political as well as scientific. There is a science to growing food, though it may not be “advanced”.

Hacking is a refusal to recognize the modern Constitution. We construct Nature. Therefore, the hacker, the DIY enthusiast, constructs Nature, recognizing that the materials to do so are drawn from nature. We construct Society. The hacker, the DIY enthusiast, constructs Society as he or she sees fit, also from materials drawn from nature. This engagement with materials, these practices and processes that simultaneously construct Nature and Society, yet refuse to recognize a division, are an ecological aesthetic, one that situates the everyday in its environment.

Hackers build tiny laboratories that muddy up the purified spheres of Nature and Society.

If You Can’t Open It, You Don’t Own It

The first computer I purchased for myself was a 13” Powerbook G4 in 2002. Prior to that I managed to get by using the computers available to me in libraries or dedicated labs. I was a student in the Studio for Interrelated Media (SIM) at Massachusetts College of Art and, as is still the case, the art/design world at the time preferred Apple computers, so that’s what I bought. And I loved it. The thing was a beautiful workhorse, far superior to the junk I used as a kid. I pushed it to its limits, editing video and processing audio ruthlessly day and night. But after four years of hard use it started to show its age. Though I loved my G4, it was far from perfect. Each time I upgraded the OS, it slowed in a degree that was not commensurate with the “enhancements”. With each update I found myself relearning the interface and finding it more and more dumbed down. To add insult to injury, I was shelling out about $100 for each new version of OSX, which is a lot for a young artist. But this didn’t shake my faith. I was in the club and no way was I going back to Windows. So when I got to grad school, with my first student loan check, I purchased a 15” MacBook Pro, the first generation with Intel chips. I was sorely disappointed. Not only did I find the changes to the software obfuscating for a power user, the hardware didn’t perform as well as my G4 and suspiciously went into rapid decline just after my AppleCare package expired.

It was around that time that I had a studio visit with the avant-garde filmmaker Babette Mangolte. We discussed the turn of cinematic production from analog to digital and the tools now available to media producers. She told me she was learning C to write her own video compositing scripts to get effects that were singular and unique and not available in any NLE software. After my meeting with Babette I began to focus on the medium, in the McLuhan sense, and became very good at discerning what software package with which a given artwork was created and how the constraints of that software influenced the final product. At the time, artists were primarily working with Final Cut Pro and After Effects, though some were venturing into Maya. It’s much harder to discern today as the capabilities of individual software packages have increased alongside the proliferation of new editing and compositing software (not to mention widespread adoption of Processing, OpenFrameworks and MAX/MSP/PureData). What does it mean when the means of production are abstracted? For Mangolte, in her youth, filmmaking was a hands-on, material process that required splicing cellulose with a steel knife and tape at an editing station. For most artists today, it’s a GUI with icons to be dragged and dropped in a timeline on a laptop.

On nearly every syllabus in the MFA Studio Arts program at the University of California, Irvine was Walter Benjamin, Guy Debord or Frederic Jameson. Dissatisfied with the prescribed readings, I investigated other luminaries ranging from Georges Bataille, Lewis Hyde, and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri. Somewhere in the midst of the madness that is an MFA program, I picked up a copy of Richard Sennett’s The Craftsman. I am the first Nielsen to go to college. I hail from a long line of carpenters and stonemasons, so I was very interested in reading a work that investigated the philosophical and academic implications of craft. In a nutshell, Sennett defines craftsmanship as: “The desire to do a job well for its own sake.” There are two key take-aways from The Craftsman:

  1. Making is thinking
  2. Learning to work well enables people to govern themselves and so become good citizens

If only both of these statements were true!

One of the many examples that Sennett uses to illustrate this thesis is the Linux kernel and its contributors. I’d heard about Linux, but I thought it was scrolling green terminal output on black monitors for Hollywood hackers and geeks. Reading Sennett write about Linux in such a way that connected free, open source software to craftsmanship (and radical, avant-garde politics) piqued my interest. Unhappy with the standard computing options and wanting a deeper understanding of the means of media production, I made a leap into the void and built a Linux desktop. It was my first rig and my first distro (Ubuntu). The learning curve was steep and the new environment put a serious hamper on my creative output as there was no 1:1 correlation between the tools with which I was familiar. I began working with OpenFrameworks and while a Visualist-In-Residence at The Institute of Cultural Inquiry, created my first truly open source art works.

The provocative, Shakespearean title of Douglas Rushkoff’s 2010 book gives us this directive: Program or Be Programmed. In the concluding chapter, Rushkoff writes:

For the person who understands code, the whole world reveals itself as a series of decisions made by planners and designers for how the rest of us should live. Not just computers, but everything from the way streets are organized in a town to the way election rules ( are tilted for a purpose vote for any three candidates) begin to look like what they are: sets of rules developed to promote certain outcomes. Once the biases become apparent, anything becomes possible. The world and its many arbitrary systems can be hacked.

If your answer to the question, “Program or Be Programmed?” is yes, then you will invariably find your way to open-source software. Not only does it level the economic playing field, it actively invites, encourages, and insists on user participation. It is a process, not a product. The software isn’t developed with a specific end-user in mind. The software is developed with a specific future in mind.

Though FOSS may have its limits, it’s so much more interesting to be engaged in the process, and, where FOSS software works, it works so much better than its proprietary counterpart. Before I left Utah for greener pastures, I worked for many years as a wilderness survival instructor. Using FOSS tools is not dissimilar. Starting a fire with a bow-drill and compiling a software package from source are two open technologies on a long, fascinating continuum.

Towards an Ecological Media Ecology

The future emerges directly from the objects we design.

-Tim Morton, Being Ecological

After graduate school, I took a job as an Exhibit Technician at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. One of my many duties was to update and repair ailing exhibits. Many of our installations were powered by PureData, which is open source and cross-platform, so when and where possible I would revive the lagging Windows PC with a minty fresh installation of Linux. Many of our mechanical installations were built on PICChips so I swapped out the dusty microcontrollers with new Arduinos, writing and troubleshooting the new scripts in crawl spaces and back rooms with a Linux-powered laptop. Our exhibits were instructing the public on the preservation of the natural world while behind the scenes my team and I were quietly working to preserve the technical infrastructure that enabled their experience. My biggest project at the museum was overseeing the installation of a scale-model of downtown Los Angeles. It was a delicate operation and to ease the minds of vested interests, I created an animation in Blender explaining the procedure. It was a proud moment both for me and for FOSS.

Open source software (and hardware) are steps towards “sustainability” for several reasons:

  1. Economical: for a cash-strapped institution like the Natural History Museum, not spending on proprietary tools is a small step to staying out of the red. Furthermore, a number of the systems installed in exhibits were rendered null when the company behind them went belly up. No documentation. No access. No choice but to start over, which is costly, especially at scale.
  2. Environmental: if you can open it and repair it, you will keep it (out of the landfill) longer.
  3. Political: being (mostly) free and accessible to anyone with a computer (and an internet connection), it breaks the digital divide and circumnavigates the issue of software/intellectual property piracy. Additionally, it models new forms of community through bottom-up emergence and active participation from its users.

But what I’m most interested in is a post-sustainable future. It’s more than a matter of simply ‘greening’ our media. We need a rethinking of media. Our drive to build the future is destroying it.

All that language about efficiency and sustainability is about competing for scarce highly toxic resources.

-Tim Morton, Being Ecological

When you work with your hands, even if the materials are microcontrollers and wires, you have an investment in the material world, in objects. When you are in the practice of making things, you think about how other things are made. This mode of thinking is ecological. You are aware of the connectedness of things.

If you don’t believe me, take up a hobby.

I’m writing this essay on the Linux desktop I built. I know what’s in the box. I have intimate understanding of how the components connect. As I type I faintly hear the fans that I installed whirring; I can see in my mind the heat sink sitting atop the CPU; I know where the GPU is mounted on the motherboard; the gaudy RAM sticks jutting up nearby. Before going through this process, these were just abstract concepts. Unfortunately, these hardware components are still abstract concepts as I am unable to create any of them myself, just as Thomas Thwaites discovered in The Toaster Project, our technological processes are far removed from our everyday lives. When considering any given component, a motherboard, for example, somebody, some team, designed it, they made it out of materials extracted from the earth, leveraging years of work by engineers who came before them. Every device we use is an assemblage, and the components of each device are themselves assemblages, not just of materials, but of ideas that allow them to perform their operations. Computer science is the negotiation between an abstract, conceptual ideal and material constraints. We can conceive of infinitely complex programs but they must run on hardware.

We evolved in loops. We are our extensions. There was no break between the first humans use of stone tools and now. We are still stone-throwing machinic assemblages, though we have smartphones in our pockets. We are unaware of all of the loops in which we participate with our smartphone: wifi, carrier networks, geo-data, the elaborate infrastructure that allows me to find a nearby coffee shop and post pictures of my handcrafted cappuccino. It’s not just one loop, it’s a multitide of loops. But that was always the case. The stone-throwing wasn’t just one loop, but many.

The stone-throwing machine is a complex multiplicity of loops between the eyes and the arm, calculating the distance between the stone and its target, the weight of the stone and the exertion necessary to propel it, the shift in parallax as the target flees, and on and on. Today our hunter-gatherer extensions are compressed into smarthphones, an elaborate infrastructure of loops that allows me to make geographical calculations when finding a nearby coffee shop.

Loops within loops. Constant cycling hybridization as I interact with my environment and it interacts with me. Even now, as I write, the loop of the keyboard pushing back against my fingers, limiting the speed at which I am able to type, which affects the input of my thoughts as they are represented to me on the monitor, nested within the larger loop of the network to which my comptuer is connected and the power plant delivering electricity on which it runs. Not to mention the fluctuations in light and temperature mixed with the caffeine affecting my brain chemistry which alters the speed, if not the quality, of the input as I write.

We interact with objects which interact with us which alters our subsequent interactions.

Every action is ecological. Every developer intuitively knows this even if we refuse to entertain it. We work against the limits of our hardware, but it is also our hardware that allows us to do what we do. How much RAM do I need? Do we render this client-side or server? The data we collect must be stored somewhere. There is no ‘cloud’. The servers are on the ground, maybe even undersea. More like a ‘fog’. I previously discussed my Linux rig as an assemblage of components. We can extend that thinking one step further. Understanding that my computer is composed of objects that are manufactured in parts around the globe, from materials that were drawn from the earth, I cannot call this computer mine without mining. The materials that compose it were extracted from the ground by individuals in far off places and assembled by individuals in other far off places. How do we get from raw materials to computers in our pockets?

  • nature
  • laws of physics
  • lumped circuit abstraction
  • digital abstraction
  • logic gate abstraction
  • memory abstraction
  • finite-state machine abstraction
  • microprocessor abstraction
  • assembly language abstraction
  • programming language abstraction
  • cat videos

We can see the massive disconnect from nature to our interconnected consumption. Very few of us understand, let alone are aware, of the layers of abstraction between the means and the end.

Whether we consider ourselves artists, creatives or developers, we have a responsibility to consider the ecological implications of our work. What are the resources that our product will draw upon? Furthermore, does the product itself further the divide between subject and object, Nature and Society? Does it add yet another layer of abstraction to the technological stack? Or does it enlighten and reveal to us a truth about our situatedness in an environment.

The STEAM Rainbow

I graduated UC Irvine in 2009, at the bottom of The Great Recession. It was a bad time to have a terminal humanities degree. I was lucky to walk into a job at the Natural History Museum whereas many of my peers struggled for years to make ends meet. Shortly after starting at the NHM, I convinced my brother to not only move to Los Angeles, but to give Linux a try. As a web developer, Linux greatly improved his workflow and as a human being, Los Angeles greatly improved his quality of life.

During the financial crisis, two complementary trends gained steam (pun intended): the STEM pipeline and Maker culture. Obama inherited an economic mess and pushed STEM curriculum as a means for recovery. “Learn to code” was the rallying cry. Hacker- and Maker-spaces sprung up across the country. Museums and libraries clamored to get on board, too, and carved out space for labs. My brother and I who both worked with technology, were wary of this rhetoric. The STEM pipeline was greasing the wheels of capital and the lubricant was the American mind. The emphasis of STEM initiatives was competition with foregin powers (see: China) and not on innovation. Where was the creativity? Where was the art? What if we thought of it as a rainbow, rather than a pipeline?

Jay and I began to collaborate on projects and developed The Hello World Program, an educational and entertaining webseries teaching computer science basics. We initially wanted to produce the series entirely with free, open source software. But after investigating all of the available NLEs and DAWs we realized that our fidelity to FOSS would leave us devoting more time to troubleshooting than to production. That said, we produced all of our media entirely on Linux-based machines. All of the motion graphics were produced using a combination of Blender, Synfig, Krita, GIMP and Inkscape. Our audio was processed with Audacity and Ardour. Our video was edited with Lightworks and our music composed in Bitwig.

Terminal Humanities

The challenge in modern life and education still remains to reintegrate poetry and physics, art and chemistry, music and biology, dance and sociology, and every other possible combination of aesthetic and analytical knowledge, to foster people who feel that they want to know and know that they want to feel.

-Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, Sparks of Genius

I used to consider my MFA a liability. While the Studio Arts graduate program at UC Irvine is terrible, the rest of the university is world-class. If the arts faculty bothered to show up for class, they would simply “facilitate a discussion” and leave as quickly as possible to beat traffic back to their hovels in Hollywood. I took a page from their book and began skipping the required classes and instead audited lectures across the bridge in the critical theory department. My diploma is worthless, but the problem-solving skills I acquired are invaluable.

As our world is increasingly structured around formal languages, dependent on digital technologies, and driven by data analysis, translation becomes a very valuable skill. The humantiies are a means to think outside the rigid constraints of formal languages; liberal arts are an escape from the trap of computational thinking. The concepts we need to teach our young (and old) learners are critical thinking skills, skills that translate across disciplines.

The feedback loop established between me and my computer returns a balance between rationalism (the machine) and ineffable processes. It is a negotiation. I cannot make my computer do everything I want it to. I do not have complete mastery over it. In fact, if one feels one has attained mastery over one’s computer, one has willingly submitted oneself to the limitations of computer logic. It’s not that the computer is doing what you tell it. It’s that the computer is allowing you to feel mastery while keeping you well within its confines.

Perhaps the problem with the humanities is the human.

Technological Continuum

The line drawn from the stone axe to the smartphone is not so long. Flint knapping, fire-making, basket weaving: these primitive technologies underwent the same (if not more) rigor of prototyping and iteration in order to perfect their product and technique. A long process of trial and error. Our technologies are the solutions to historical problems. Every technology is a hybrid, an assemblage of answers to earlier questions.

The hacker, the maker, the DIYer, the tinkerer, teaching him or herself electronics, taking apart gadgets to see how they work, making conscious decision to perform all computer activity via open source software, these are not only scientific, but political actions. It is choosing an open, democratic future. It is embracing and erasing the dividing line between Object Pole and the Subject Pole. it is a hybrid practice. it is also not a hybrid practice. It is simply a practice. it is not new. Humans have been engaging with their environments in this manner since The Dawn.

We have never been modern but we have always been hackers.

Jared Nielsen

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