12. March 2014 · 4 comments · Categories: Opinion

When the word hacker is mentioned it often conjures up the image of a nerd gone bad breaking into computers and stealing data. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a hacker as: “hack·er noun \ˈha-kər\computers : a person who secretly gets access to a computer system in order to get information, cause damage, etc. : a person who hacks into a computer system”. 

 Photo by Adam Thomas

Photo by Adam Thomas

When you look further down at the full definition of hacker one of the definitions reads: “an expert at programming and solving problems with a computer”. It is this definition that I want to stretch out and expand on.  In a blog post on innovation reflections from ICOT I suggested that in order to be innovative we could explore developing a hacker mindset.  What I meant by that is students developing skills and dispositions to find workarounds for existing systems – it is a way of thinking that is opposite to the traditional ‘create from ground up’ and is more ‘top down’.  Top down involves breaking things apart which allows a person to gain a deeper understanding of how things work, which in turns allows them to use these things in new ways that were not originally intended. A good example of top down and finding workarounds to existing systems is Johnny Lee, who turned a $40 video game controller into a digital whiteboard, a touchscreen and a head-mounted 3-D viewer.  The TED talk: Free or cheap Wii Remote hacks shows the potential of the hacker mindset when used for creating and not damaging.

The future will a be planet that has less resources and more demands upon it. Having people in it that are innovative and have extreme problem solving skills will be a useful asset for future generations. I don’t think hacking should be solely synonymous with computing either.  The term Life Hack emerged around 2005 and refers to solving problems in non-obvious ways.  In April 2013 a New Zealand initiative called Lifehack ran a weekend where a bunch of lifehackers used their skills to create new technologies and media solutions to tackle mental health. This isn’t the only place where the hacker mindset is being used to create new and innovative ways of doing things.  The leadership team at  Hobsonville Point Secondary School spent numerous hours hacking the NZ curriculum resulting in an exciting new approach to schooling. You can read more here.

I also like Zarino Zappia’s take on hacking that has hints of challenge and persistence in it:  “hacker /ˈhækər/ n.  A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. […] One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations”.

So I would like to propose another definition of what a hacker is: A person who changes existing systems in any field by using extreme problem solving skills that result in new and better ways of doing things.

It is a shame the term ‘hacking’ has such nefarious connotations when it can also have such productive and creative outcomes.  We shouldn’t be scared to teach our kids how to think outside the box by employing some of the thinking skills displayed by hackers.  We encourage our children to be creative by ‘building and inventing’ but I think there is a lot to learn from breaking things down and figuring out how stuff works by finding alternative access to seemingly impenetrable things. What if hacking looked like this:

Photo by Peter Huynh

Photo by Peter Huy

At Taupaki school the year 7 and 8’s are using Hackasaurus as part of their digital citizenship focus. This is a great proactive approach to guiding students to hack in responsible productive ways to produce creative outcomes.

A hacker mindset is another tool in the thinking tool box. Hacking is being creative – it is being innovative – it is extreme problem solving.  It takes persistence and courage to keep playing, tinkering and trying different things until something works – that is the hacker mindset.