Philosophy of hacking

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The definition of hacking is controversial at best. Anyone familiar with the hacking scene probably has some intuitive feelings towards what is meant by hacking. Connotations of creativity, subversiveness and tinkering with highly complex technology are quite broadly accepted. Nevertheless, hacker groups and individuals have had furious discussions over its definition, ranging from cybercrime to kernel development. This goes to show that hacking is not rooted in or defined by one specific subculture, there is no one coherent hackerscene. It has been described as a community of communities, sharing a relation to technology that has digressed from the normative approach. We can thus with relative safety describe hacking as 'an approach to technology'. This begs two questions:

  • What is technology?
  • What is the hacking approach?



Technology comes from the Greek techne: art, skill, craftmanship. It shares the same fate as hacking in not having one clear concisive definition, but let us examine two common ones:

  • The practical application of knowledge or science
  • The making or using of tools or systems to accomplish a task

From these we can derive three aspects of technology.

  • It is based on human knowledge
  • It involves creation
  • It is a means to an end.

These aspects may form the basis for finding, or at least getting closer to, the essence of technology. The aspect of being a means to an end implies instrumentality, which in term implies causality. Owing much to the analysis of Heidegger, we will take a classical approach to unraveling causality, how it connects with the other aspects and what light it may shed on the essence of technology.


Dating back to Aristotle, we can identify 4 causes: (1) the causa materialis, the material to which the result is indebted; (2) the causa formalis, the shape or form into which the material enters; (3) the causa finalis, its telic end and (4) the causa efficiens, which brings about the effect that is the end result.

According to Heidegger these four causes are "the ways, all belonging at once to each other, of being responsible for something else". "They let what is not yet present arrive into presencing" [1]. Plato: "Every occasion for whatever passes over and goes forward into presencing from that which is not presencing is poiesis" [2]. The aspect of creation we identified earlier was understood by the Greeks as an act of poiesis, a bringing-forth. This bringing-forth is to be understood as the ''coming into unconcealment of something that before was concealed'' [1]. It is an act of revealing and what is revealed is Truth.
Technology is thus not mere manufacturing of means to ends, not merely applying knowledge, it is a way of revealing, of finding Truth.

Modern technology

One of the most characteristic aspects of modern technology is its highly complex nature, owing to scientific progress. Modern technology depends on science and vice versa, modern science with its multitude of complex tools for gathering empirical data depends on modern technology (it theorizes over what the application of this technology reveals about nature). Together they form a circle of reciprocal dependence and progress out of which knowledge of nature is produced. So let us have a brief look at the development of human understanding of nature from the ancient towards modern scientific paradigms. Particularly relevant is the change in our understanding of causality:

  • A rejection of the causa finalis, in particular by Bacon: "But of these the causa finalis, far from being beneficial, that it even corrupts the sciences, ..." [3]
  • Hume's first definition of causality focussing purely on objects: "An object precedent and contiguous to another, and where all the objects resembling the former are placed in like relations of precedency and contiguity to those objects, that resemble the latter" [4]*
  • Kant's explanation through natural law "everything that happens, that is, begins to be, presupposes something upon which it follows by rule" [5].
  • Into a deterministic view of the world, as illustrated by Laplace: "We may regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its past and the cause of its future." [6]


This 'progress' in understanding causality is examplary for the development of human understanding of nature. Since the enlightenment we have seen an increasing positivist tendency towards explaining the world around us in terms of empirical data combined with and induced into laws of nature expressed in formal logic.
With this advancement of science and technology, how we understand what is being revealed in the process of creation is narrowed down to what can be objectified. The truth we are faced with needs to be enframed in terms of physical objects and formal logic. We have become blind to the full scope of Being with all its potential revealing itself to us and instead build up our predetermined framework around it. Only what is calculable in advance counts.
Linked to this objectification, modern science has a tendency to either suspend judgement on metaphysical questions regarding the nature of Being or simply cast them aside as nonsense. Methodologically the metaphysical question of 'What is?' has been replaced with the functional question 'How?'. Giving (relative) certainty on how the objects around us can be manipulated according to the laws of nature, "Being-as-such gives way to Being-instrument" [7]. Nature becomes projected as potential instrumentality. This potential instrumentality is actualized in technological development, narrowing technology down from skills, crafts and arts to pure instrumentality.
Having lost track of its telic end, this instrumentality becomes constrained in its own framework, serving no purpose other then to objectify and further instrumentalize Being. Technological development becomes methodologically entrapped in a cycle of instrumentalization. In constructing the materializations of this instrumental understanding of Being, it builds entities of control over nature, revealing how nature can further be controlled. This "technological understanding of Being produces a calculative thinking which quantifies all qualitative relations, reducing all entities to booleans, programmable information, digitized data." [8] It creates its own self-reenforcing rationality aimed at total control over nature and establishes a technological apparatus that understands only the logic of utility, control and domination.
The apparent neutrality of science and technology means little more then it being devoided of all value, it is neutral only insofar that it appears fully amoral. This may hold in the case of science in-and-of-itself, insofar as it remains strictly in the realm of the theoretical, but technology materializes this theory, gives it an agency and thereby places it in the realm of the practical, a concern of ethics. Yet it can only grasp that which is of the mind insofar as it is strictly rational, as it can be expressed in logical/mathematical terms, it has no knowledge of human feelings, of happiness, appreciation for beauty, etcetera. On all this which it cannot grasp it 'suspends judgement', a polite term for dismissal als nonsense or falsehood. With this dismissal, the technological apparatus has to a large degree cast aside humanity, depending on it solely to provide labour for the further development of its ability to control. Where once technology was aimed at liberating humanity from the toils of nature, it has now grown to be part of an apparatus aimed at controling all of nature, humanity included. Its logic is that of control and domination, leaving no space for human reason or intervention outside of the processing of streams of data that are the objectified and quantified observations regarding the world around us.

Digital technology

This space for intervention is where digital technology comes in. The computer, a material realization of calculative abilities that used to belong solely to the mind, has to a large degree taken over the abovementioned processing of streams of data. Armies of burocrats and accountants who used to hold a position of power within the technological apparatus have now been obsoleted. They have been replaced with a much smaller army of engineers and computer scientists who tell the computer how to process said data. Digital technology hence further narrows down the space for human intervention. Yet does digital technology intrinsically fall under the same logic of control and domination? This may be somewhat harder to assess as software poses a large number of ontological questions. Lingering somewhere between materiality, theory and language it remains a philosophically largely unexplored territory.
Regarding the computer as a fully deterministic logical framework, one may be tempted to conclude that there is nothing that can be revealed through the creation of software that was not already calculable in advance, that there is no difference between the revealing and the enframing and that the metaphysical 'What is' is essentially the same question as the functional 'How'.
Such a conclusion rests on the false equation of the computer being deterministic and it being predictable. Even for a theoretical perfect Turing machine, the exponential increase in complexity makes predicting its output for all possible states impossible. Real life computers may not have infinite tape length, but their memory sizes are large enough to ensure that full predictability is practically impossible. Adding to that, real life computers suffer from interventions through hardware malfunction or random number generators, further falsifying their predictability.
Computer science aims at controlling the unpredictability of the computer. The nature of the computer becomes enframed as pieces of code and datastructures are turned into objects, ready to be utilized. With the possible exception of cryptography, anything that was revealed in the creation of software that did not match the precalculated results is cast aside as bug to be fixed. In doing so, digital technology becomes subjected to the same logic of control and domination that is prevalent throughout the entire technological apparatus.

The hacking approach

Now that we have explored the problematic nature of the normative, scientific approach to technology, it is time to ask how is hacking any different? To give a short answer, hacking is irrational. It is irrational in the sense that in the eyes of scientific reason, hackers are a bit mad. Perhaps the most illustrating example is the hackers' fascination with bugs. Making technological devices do something they weren't meant to do is a large part of what hacking is all about. Be it through exploiting buffer overflows or cleverly using bugs in the commodore 64's video chip to perform visual tricks thought to be impossible in the original design, to the hacker bugs are filled with potential.
This illustrates an approach that is radically different from the methods of computer science. To the hacker, the computer is not something to impose precalculated routines on. It is something to be explored. What is revealed in the creation of software is not enframed in a predetermined vision of what software is supposed to look like, but is taken in to its full extent. In that sense, hacking is a form of poiesis, it is an act of seeing what nature has in store for you rather than bending it to your will.
This poietic aspect comes to light even further when we examine the role of aesthetics in hacking. The ideal code of a hacker is not merely functional, it is poetry, which may well be its only function. Where a computer scientist may describe the clever use of a couple of goto statements as an ugly hack, to the hacker the ingenuity of finding potential in unconventional methods has an appeal to beauty. It displays an understanding of the nature of the computer outside of the logic of computer science. The hacker's playful curiosity and desire to express creativity within the computer-imposed framework of formal logic transcends code into poetry. The rational, objective understanding of software development through the methods and mechanisms of computer science are replaced by the subjective interpretations of what has been revealed in the process of creation. As for the purpose of hacking, ask a hacker why or to what end she does what she does and chances are the answer will be 'because I can'. Though clearly a case of false (or lack of) conciousness, it does negate the rational utility prevalent in modern technology. It has a sense of ambiguity to it that comes with exploring the unknown rather then forcing it into predetermined structures. It sets a path of self-determination in the finding of Truth through the application and development of technology.


In conclusion, hacking can be seen as an approach to technology which is radically different from the normative scientific approach and is more akin to the ancient understanding of techne, including the realm of the arts, yet different in connecting theoretical with poietic knowledge, transcending their oppositions. Though operating in the same realm of formal logic, it defies the rationality of control and domination and replaces it with a sensibility aimed at a subjective understanding of the world around us, opening up the possibility of self-determination in our interaction with technology. Because it operates within the realm of digital technology, it has the potential of intervening in the technological apparatus, imposing on it more human sensibilities.
Note that this potential does not make hacking an instant recipe for liberation or revolution. There is a dialectic link between hacking and the modern scientific approach to technology. On the one hand, as scientific and technological progress creates more complex devices and software, the hacker gets more to play with, more to explore and subvert. On the other hand, the moment a hack is discovered, it is subject to being enframed, either by 'fixing' the bug from which it was spawn or by incorporating the technique into the normative engineering practices by adding it to the set of predetermined methods by which software is to be developed. All potentiality that is revealed in the hackers' explorations can and will, once actualized, be objectified. The time inbetween discovery and enframing provides us with a margin of play, a temporary autonomous zone if you will, in which we can freely adjust the technological apparatus. But to move beyond these ever-shifting margins it is necessary to challenge the hegemony of positivism both in the sciences and in engineering practices. Hacking needs to be disruptive so we may create a more wide-spread understanding of technology that goes beyond utility, control and domination.




[1] Martin Heidegger - The question concerning technology
[2] Plato - Symposium
[3] Francis Bacon - Novum Organum
[4] David Hume - A Treatise of Human Nature
[5] Immanuel Kant - Critique of Pure Reason
[6] Pierre-Simon Laplace - A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities
[7] Herbert Marcuse - One-dimensional Man
[8] Iain Thompson - Heidegger on Ontotheology: Technology and the Politics of Education