Hacking Hacked! The Life Cycles of Digital Innovation

Söderberg, Johan; Delfanti, Alessandro
Science, Technology, & Human Values

The association of hacking with computer software is gradually changing, as new walks of life are being explored with a hacker mind-set. The creation of “hackerspaces” or “makerspaces” in cities around the world has facilitated the spread of hacker practices to new fields of engagement, such as open hardware development and do-it-yourself (DIY) biology. This evolution brings with it a renewed need to analyze the significance of hacking from a historical angle and in relation to its role in industrial and institutional innovation. The works that compose this special section of Science, Technology, & Human Values draw on the idea of recuperation and suggest that such a theoretical framework is a productive tool for analyzing the life cycles of digital innovation. Three papers examine the process of recuperation following a red thread that runs through many recent works on hacking. “Recuperation from below” captures the essential meaning and promise of hacking, which is to use technology to serve ends other than those originally intended, starting with the computer (which is itself a product of the military–industrial complex). This evokes the emancipatory promises that are invested in reverse engineering and the repurposing of tools and technology. Our proposition, and that of the contributing authors, is that the job is only half done if we rest content with restating this promise (Troxler and Maxigas 2014). As the saying goes, “two can play that game,” and hacking can be hacked. Hacker practices and innovations are adopted, adapted, and repurposed by corporate and state institutions on a regular basis, thus made to serve other ends than the (emancipatory) ones claimed at the outset. By saying this, we do not deny that there is a potential in hacking, only that this promise must be weighed against the likelihood of a future recuperation of the same practices.