Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Hackers and Entrepreneurs

One of my former students, Dawn, under the duress of a graded assignment, referred to Envirofit as "a perfect hack." I wasn't sure whether this was a good or bad thing.

The popular view of hackers is that they are semi-alienated, clever people, toiling away to bring down a system. They wear black, rarely go outside, play fantasy games and, once in a while, end up on the cover of Newsweek or in court. Right? So a perfect hack would be a bad thing... and certainly not something of which I would wish to be a part, being a professor and all.

But "perfect" is such an intriguing and attractive word...(a bit like a flame to a moth)... and Dawn is such a pleasant person. What's more, she's Canadian! It just didn't seem possible that she was calling me a borderline sociopath.

So why is Envirofit a hack? For Dawn, it is both the way our retrofits are grafted on to the existing technology (a dirty old motorcycle engine) and the way our company is trying to effect systemic change.

Paul Graham seems to know quite a bit more about Hacking than I- probably because he writes software, lives in California, and went to Stanford (all clues indicating that he probably is, indeed, a hacker). He writes:

"To add to the confusion, the noun "hack" also has two senses. It can be either a compliment or an insult. It's called a hack when you do something in an ugly way. But when you do something so clever that you somehow beat the system, that's also called a hack. The word is used more often in the former than the latter sense, probably because ugly solutions are more common than brilliant ones.

Believe it or not, the two senses of 'hack' are also connected. Ugly and imaginative solutions have something in common: they both break the rules. And there is a gradual continuum between rule breaking that's merely ugly (using duct tape to attach something to your bike) and rule breaking that is brilliantly imaginative (discarding Euclidean space)."

Joseph Schumpeter said entrepreneurs play a role in the "creative destruction" necessary for economic and social advancement. Building on this, I often refer to entrepreneurs as "revolutionaries with a business model". But I think Dawn and Paul have provided me with a more positive view of hacking. Both hackers and revolutionaries seek to change a system, but hackers try to tweak the system to change itself. They rewire the system, then utilize the resources of the system to change itself. So maybe entrepreneurs are more like "hackers with a business model".

Anyway, Dawn, I'll take it as a compliment!


Anonymous said...

In this case, the hackers are more effective than the revolutionaries. The revolutionaries would replace the polluting two-stroke engines with cleaner four-strokes. That would mean the old two-strokes would almost surely be put to some other use, continuing the pollution. The hackers improvised, taking the machinery that already existed and making it better, solving one problem without creating another one.

Anonymous said...

It's definitely a compliment. I've hung out with so many geeks I'd forgotten that this derisive interpretation was still hanging around. (And then of course Paul Graham has the ultimate disambiguation rant.)