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Hacking receives growing attention among social scientists during the last five years. Researchers particularly in the fields of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) and Computer-Supported Collaborative Work (CSCW) but also in the social sciences generally have begun to study hacking empirically—investigating hacking as a practice and as cultural phenomenon.
However, Fefe, an influential blogger of the German hacking community, warned against collaborating with researchers:
„In letzter Zeit gibt es eine auffällige Häufung von Befragungen und wissenschaftlichen Studien zu Hackern und Piraten, wie die Szene funktioniert und so weiter, auch bei Hackerspaces und insbesondere auch bei Gruppen wie Occupy und co. Wenn so jemand bei euch anklopft, sagt ihm bitte nichts. Nur weil die freundlich und nett wirken, muss man noch nicht kooperieren.
Nanu, hat der Fefe was gegen Wissenschaft? Nein. Aber was die meisten nicht auf dem Radar haben: Solche "Studien" werden von den Bösen gemacht. Dahinter stecken Public Relations Consulting-Firmen, Risk-Management-Firmen, Politikberatung, Thinktanks. Die haben Angst vor uns und wollen uns ausforschen. Und wie macht man das? Man schickt unverdächtige V-Leute. In diesem Fall nerdige Wissenschaftler, die freundlich anfragen.” (7.2.2013, blog.fefe.de/?ts=afed4222)
In this talk, I will not be able to speak about undercover spying for corporate or government interest (because I don’t know any more about it than Fefe). Instead, this talk will be about the research that some of those ‘nerdy scientists’ that Fefe mentions do—researchers like my collaborator and me who thought: Hacking! Yes! That’s an interesting phenomenon, and it is important! For many social scientists, hacking is interesting because it challenges their academic thinking and their academic vision. It challenges the categories in which some research fields usually think (e.g., ‘the user’ as opposed to ‘the designer’). And it also can challenge how disciplines such as HCI (who perceive themselves as advocates for prospective users) envision themselves.
The talk offers a glimpse of the spectrum of research about hacking in HCI, CSCW, and adjacent fields. Researchers in these fields portray hacking very differently. The spectrum ranges from “transgressive craft” to “innovative leisure practice,” from skilled craftsmanship to ad hoc kludging, from an individualist pursuit to a community mission, from an expression of liberalism to an exclusive practice of cultural distinction. Some researchers see hacking as an illustration of how to defy technological determinism, i.e., the conviction that the technological determines the social, a position that social scientists typically fight ferociously. Other researchers see it as the future of “end-user innovation.”
Clearly, there is often vested academic interests in the ways in which social scientists portray hacking. In some cases, there is an interest in emphasizing the economic value of hacking, highlighting its creative and innovative potential. In other cases, there is an interest in emphasizing the pedagogical value of hacking, highlighting its potential as a means of teaching and learning. In still other cases, there is a conceptual interest in hacking or an interest in its cultural value. And yes, in some cases there is clearly an interest in simply preventing hacking.
My personal motivation to study hacking has a lot to do with my conceptual interest in notions such as ‘use’ and ‘design.’ Is hacking using, is it designing, is it both? And I find it interesting to note that hacking practices often react to a condition where the possibilities of ‘use’ are perceived as very limited. But my personal motivation to study and write about hacking in the HCI/CSCW community also stems from discontentment with the way in which HCI/CSCW research often sidelines the political visions of hacking—most notably, the vision of ‘open,’ community-driven technology that is an ‘expression of liberalism’ (Gabriela Coleman).
My motivation to give this talk is to communicate research back to those who are the subjects of research. The research discourse is, besides the mass media discourse, an important place for creating a public image of ‘the hacker.’ Moreover, I would like to discuss Fefe’s warning—“do not talk with researchers,” is that what 32C3 thinks? And what, after all, is hacking?