Saturday, December 8, 2012

We Need More Hacking

As a long-time nerd, I've seen the work "hacking" change a lot over the years. Originally, it referred to the work of hobbyists who would design and build their own computers. These would include Steve Wozniak, who designed the first Apple computers in the proverbial start-up garage. But there were lots of these people, centered around big universities and (what we now call) meet-ups. Eventually, the emphasis changed from hardware to software around the same time that the first computer networks were deployed. "Hackers" were now people who would figure out how to break into those networks, usually by writing specialized bits of software to exploit the almost non-existent security of the time.

Now, the term "hacking" is quite different. This morning, I read an article on how to hack a Chipotle burrito. You can get advice on how to hack your career, and there's a particularly good website called "Lifehacker", which is dedicated to hacking almost any aspect of your life. Hacking doesn't necessarily involve computers at all -- it could be anything.

At first glance, the term "hacking" seems to have morphed into something completely different. But I don't think so. Hacking is the same activity it always has been -- the difference is that it's applied to different targets. What these uses have in common is that hacking consists in getting some complicated system to do something it wasn't designed to do. Consumer electronic components weren't designed for building personal computers; computer networks weren't designed to be used in new, weird ways by outsiders; and Chipotle wasn't set up to allow customers to have extra ingredients in their burritos. Hacking is just the activity of taking control of a system for your own purposes. The best hacks are the ones that elegantly cause the system to do something totally and completely different from its intended purpose. If you can get the folks at Chipotle to put extra chicken in your burrito for free, that's a pretty good hack. But if you can get them to change the oil in your car, that's a great hack.

Hacking is usually associated with smart individuals or small groups of people who are intelligent, curious, and playful. It's morally and legally neutral. Hacking is good or bad depending on the target, who's doing it, and what they're accomplishing. But some of the most effective hackers today are not kids in garages. Quite the opposite -- they're the biggest, most sophisticated entities in the world.

Take one example: high-speed stock trading. High-speed computers with ultra-fast network connections are configured to exploit the stock market, making pennies on individual trades so quickly that they soon amount to vast fortunes. If that's not an impressive (in the morally neutral sense) hack, I don't know what is. The system is as complex as anything we've built; it's designed to create liquidity and find efficient uses for money. But it's been hacked, and now does something totally unrelated to its intended purpose. It's ironic to hear that some of these players are worried about hackers when they themselves are among the best hackers in the world.

Homework: Identify the largest, most ambitious hack in the world.

Our system of higher education sucks, and it's getting worse. As an Associate Professor in a big state university, I've watched the quality of our students' education plummet over the past few years. Students have taken the brunt of the economic problems faced by the university, there are fewer (and worse-paid) faculty, more non-tenure track faculty, increasing class sizes, smaller numbers of available courses, and increasing pressure on departments to keep their "numbers" up. Honestly, I don't understand why more faculty won't acknowledge this simple fact.

But somehow, miraculously, year after year, there continues to be innovation and exciting advances in the United States. I don't understand how this remains possible. A pessimistic response would be that we're just cashing in on the investments we've made in the past, and so those innovations will gradually dry up. A more optimistic response would be that there's something else that's keeping us going, despite our best efforts to ruin higher education.

My opinion is that the truth is somewhere in-between these two positions. Our pace of innovation is likely to slow down. Innovation will move to India (not China) because that country is now loaded with educated, ambitious computer-literate people. And the people with entry-level tech jobs are tomorrow's inventors and entrepreneurs. But we have been saved from the worst of our mistakes by the accidental fact that the United States happens to have a very hacker-friendly culture.

Hacking goes by different names, but it's all the same. Some call it "entrepreneurship"; others call it "disruptive technology"; others "innovation". We hold up small businesses as the heroes of our economy because small businesses, in order to survive, must hack the system, or else they can't compete with the Goliaths. Most of us aren't looking to Google or Microsoft for the next "Big Thing"; we're looking at small-time operations that are probably flying under the radar. We'll probably be slow to recognize when the next Big Thing hits, precisely because it will be a hack. All of a sudden, some system will be bent to the will of whoever had the idea for that particular hack, and we won't know what hit us.

From a personal perspective, I wonder what I should do as a teacher. My students will be ill-served if my own courses do nothing but reinforce the mediocrity and conformity of my institution. I try to turn my students into people who are a little bit more skeptical of everything (including the university), and I try to never lie to them. But to be perfectly honest, teachers have to learn how to better hack their own schools. That includes me, for sure. I haven't figured out how to hack my university yet -- it's downright intimidating in terms of its inertia and mediocrity, and therefore much more difficult to hack. But every semester is another test. I'm working on it.