america the competent

Here is hopeful news from the New York Times, headlined “The Electric Leaf’s True Believers Won’t Leave Well Enough Alone.”

It reminds me that there is a competent America out there, one that can still solder, do some basic math, and – as The Onion nailed it in its Steve Jobs obit – “sit down, think clearly, and execute…ideas.”

It also reminds me of the military hackers half a decade ago, who – faced with using Humvees that were ridiculously vulnerable to IED attacks – took matters into their own hands and began ‘up-armoring’ the vehicle on their own, using metal they could salvage or repurpose from other things.

These are the folks who slip into the cracks, taking on jobs that are urgent but not obviously profitable. Historically, they were called ‘hobbyists,’ though that fails to convey the grand obsessiveness with which they work, and often times the importance of the work they do. Hacking was the term of choice for a long time, until poisoned by that other kind of hacker. The brave effort to call them ‘makers’ has reached stasis – everyone who is one knows what it means, but the rest of the world doesn’t.

I’ll hold at hackers for the time being, and hope the term is ultimately reclaimed.

The other thing that interests me (and lots of other people) is the ambivalent relationship between the companies that build products and the people who improve them. On the one hand, hackers make things better. On the other, they call attention to the deficiencies in the product that existed to start. Hackers can save money for ordinary users – but in doing so, they can tear down high profit ‘enhancements’ the original manufacturer put in place. (In the NYT article, a hacker comes up with a way around buying an expensive ‘charging station’; Nissan responds by dropping its original price by two-thirds.)

Usually, hackers win the battle, but end with a stalemated war. I’ll bet Nissan will tolerate, even like the Leaf hackers – until they go too far. What’s too far? When hacking moves from enhancement to replacement. Hackers were part of mainstream commercial computer culture, even as they developed free tools like the internet. Hackers became the enemy when they replaced Windows and MacOS with Linux. (In the long run since, an uneasy peace developed after a cold war.)

What’s interesting is that hacking continues to move from the world of ideas to the world of things – it’s easier and cheaper to make stuff now than it has ever been, and the price continues to drop. This has been going on for several years. I don’t track the technology of hardware hacking closely, but from what I can see, those hackers are a long way from hitting a wall.


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