Originally Published: Friday, 22 September 2000 Author: D. Clyde Williamson
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Std View]

To Hack or Not To Hack

When I was seven years old, I took apart my dad's record player. When I was twelve years old, I took apart the metronome that Dad gave me for guitar lessons. From the record player, I learned about wheels and belts; from the metronome, I learned that a big box with a flashing light and a dial could be made out of an incredibly small amount of hardware. Then I learned that the small amount of hardware had transistors on it, and it was doing some pretty cool stuff in that tiny physical space.

When I was seven years old, I took apart my dad's record player. When I was twelve years old, I took apart the metronome that Dad gave me for guitar lessons. From the record player, I learned about wheels and belts; from the metronome, I learned that a big box with a flashing light and a dial could be made out of an incredibly small amount of hardware. Then I learned that the small amount of hardware had transistors on it, and it was doing some pretty cool stuff in that tiny physical space.

So I started learning about transistors. I went to the local electronics store and found all sorts of neat electronic toys. From there, I graduated to HAM radios and a 286 XT. I took it all apart, learned how it worked, then put it all back together.

That's how I learned, and that's how I got where I am today. I've hacked together laser light shows using VIC 20's as controllers. I've built wireless LANs with ham radio signals. All in the name of Higher Learning. I was recently going through some stuff that was owned by my great-grandfather. While he didn't live in the days of transistors and the Internet, he was a hacker. You see, Pap was a blacksmith, and everyone sort of considered him the weird guy that was always making odd stuff. He built an iron hook that fit on a ladder rung and held a paint bucket. It stayed on the ladder because he had figured out how to make use of the center of gravity. When Pap got old, he took up golf. After a stroke, he couldn't get much swing behind his clubs, so he welded iron on the back of them, and let gravity help him play.

There have always been hackers, people who didn't simply use the tools given to them, but abused them. They tore them apart and made them do things that they were never intended to do. There will always be hackers, unless companies like Digital Convergence have their way.

Digital Convergence, just in case you've been in a cave for the past several weeks, is the company that makes the CueCat. The CueCat is a cool barcode scanner that is being given away for free at Radio Shack, and being sent in the mail to subscribers of Forbes and Wired.

What happens when someone gives me a cool piece of hardware? Yep, it goes the way of the record player, metrnome and other neat stuff I've ripped apart. Young hackers, all over the country, did the same thing. People figured out how it talked to their computer, other people figured out what bits of hardware did what, and still others wrote software drivers for Linux, which DC hadn't supplied.

Digital Convergence's response was immediate. Cease-and-Desist letters went out and lawyers threatend these hackers, all in the name of Intellectual Property. This is a very immediate, and direct threat to future generations of hackers like me. If I hadn't been able to tear stuff apart and learn how it worked, I would have gone nowhere. It wasn't interesting for me to use my computer. It was interesting for me to break it, then fix it. It wasn't a challenge to run a program, it was a challenge to figure out why it did what it did. If that curiousity had been quashed at a young age, I most likely would have pursued other employment. If you look at people who changed the face of the computing world (our heros), they followed the same path. If that path is denied, there is a very real danger that creative thinkers will disappear from the Computer Science landscape.

I wouldn't be worried if Digital Convergence was the only culprit. Sadly, Digital Convergence is only one of the many companies that are trying to stifle curiousity. Do you remember the I-Opener? It was basically a cool network computer. However, as soon as someone tore it apart to see how it worked, the company flipped. The current mess with DVD players is another example.

If a company makes a cool piece of hardware, I'm excited and happy to buy it from them. However, if they try to keep me from learning how it works, why it works, and what I can do to make it better, then I'm very upset.

I'm not against companies making money from their products. I would have bought a CueCat - they didn't have to give it to me. Companies that want to use a "loss leader" business model can concentrate on the 95% of people who will simply use the tools they're given. Why can't they let the other 5% break the hardware, improve it, and make it do things that it was never designed to do?

There is a new law in the United States called the DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act), and it makes me afraid for the future. I'm not talking about "Big Brother" or "1984". I'm afraid that if my children take after me and Pap, they'll have to break the law in order to hack the electronics that are in my home.