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Why the Hacks Series

by Rael Dornfest
October 2003

Peggy Rogers/Ms. Computer at The Miami Herald gets the Hacks vibe in Hack Your System: It's a Good Thing. She writes:

Why on earth promote hacking? It seems like such a dirty, secretive practice. The reason is that many hacks are actually good, permitted and useful, some for even computer newcomers.

. . . [M]any hackers . . . operate on the up and up; they go under the hood of tech products, legitimately experimenting to add features and expand the capabilities of digital hardware, search engines, games, other software and websites. They find or create features that are not obvious, not included in official manuals and help files, or not known even to product creators.

As I'm the series editor for the O'Reilly Hacks Series, Ms. Rogers sent me some questions to inform her article. My responses were based on my own thoughts about and passion for the Hacks Series and the hacker-cum-participation ethic. What follows is based on that conversation.

Why now? Why come out with a series of hacks books for general consumers (as opposed to strictly for nerds) at this point? Are hacks getting easier to perform? Are web sites and software programs more conducive to hacks these days? Is it felt that general consumers are becoming more educated and more able to perform hacks?

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  1. We're 20 years into the PC era. Even non-technical people are getting pretty used to dealing with, troubleshooting, and fixing digital devices, so hacking born of necessity means it's not as scary as it used to be.

  2. Eric Raymond said, "Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow." Now Eric was talking about bugs--aberrations or errors; but that philosophy can be equally applied to spotting new features. With the sheer number of people--consumers, business persons, and techies alike--using the vast array of available computers, operating systems, applications, and consumer electronics devices, there are more chances for someone to find an interesting bit to twiddle with and turn into something useful.

  3. The pervasiveness of the Internet means being able to share hacks, whether they're initial sparks of an idea or the actual code to make that idea happen. There's this wonderful meme of the LazyWeb, "the idea that if you wait long enough, someone will implement that wacky idea you had . . . (or already has!)." So while you may not know how to implement a hack, you can certainly broadcast the idea on your weblog or web site and chances are it'll reach someone who has the tools or know-how to make it so.

  4. The gospel of openness is spreading. Operating systems, applications, services, and even hardware are increasingly more open to fiddling, scripting, automating, repurposing, or otherwise hacking. The TiVo-user hacking community is prying open its boxes and either augmenting TiVo's built-in functionality (e.g., adding hard drive capacity, a web interface, etc.) or repurposing the machine entirely to meet its needs. Apple's Macintosh OS X operating system is now a candy-coated shell wrapped around the Unix operating system, bringing with it not only the stability of Unix, but the expertise and hacker ethic that has long existed in that realm.

The hacker ethic begins with a spark, an annoyance, or pure-and-simple curiosity. You're setting up your preferred television lineup with TiVo and wonder if there's some way to do this while you're away from home. Or that Mac OS X email application doesn't appear to import your addresses from that other Windows email application and it just plain should. What happens if you expose the rich mountain of Google data to hackers via a programmatic interface (the Google Web API)? How do you turn a store-front like Amazon's into a syndicated e-commerce engine? (Take a gander at the Amazon Associates program for the answer.)

Typically, the hacker will think nothing of popping the top off that device, poking about the innards of that application's database, or scraping Google's web page in search of useful data. There's an air of participation: why just use the device or application at hand in the way it was intended when you can take it beyond its means, feed it back on itself, and integrate it with bits and bobs from elsewhere?

The average consumer is accustomed to taking what's given, finding it just about good enough or excellent at some things, and rotten at others. While the thought of how this should just work, or why it shouldn't work the way it does, is there, it's the know-how that's missing. A friend (I'm afraid I can't recall who) phrased it this way: "Once the screws are in, the secrets are trapped inside and there they'll stay."

Bringing the hacker ethic, this air of enthusiastic participation, to the consumer, particularly the power user or near-power user, is what the Hacks Series is all about. The books introduce--or, indeed, in the case of Amazon Hacks, re-introduce--consumers to the tools and services they use every day, take them in directions they never would have thought to travel, and teach them something along the way. The books turn what is usually rather patterned usage into deeper familiarity, curiosity, and the power to do more.

Are there any particular hacks, and hack targets, that are especially popular? Would Windows, for instance, be one of the top targets, or any other software program or web site? Are there more hacks available for any particular web site, software program, or device?

Hacks usually emerge at that nexus point where there are limited established and intended ways to do something and enough of a crack to slip through. While the hacker ethic has typically been stronger in the Unix and online world, we're seeing it pop-up in consumer electronics devices as they become more feature-filled, complex, and enabled. As the web is used more these days for interaction than reading and writing, so too is there a growth in and diversification of services, whether intentionally enabled or discovered as a side effect.

Obviously, those who do choose to open their data or inner workings via a Web services interface or the like are bound to reap the benefits. I'm sure Google and Amazon have both learned substantial lessons from their consumers that they'd perhaps not otherwise have learned from their internal developers.

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