Hacking Hardware at Berkman Center

If Ethan Zuckerman apologizes for being three days behind in blogging his notes from a Berkman event, how much do I have to apologize for being three weeks behind?

On January 30th, Beth Kolko spoke at the Berkman Center luncheon series on “User, Hacker, Builder, Thief – Creativity and Consumerism in a Digital Age.”

You can see the video (.mov link) or download the audio (mp3) at Media Berkman.

As usual from the Berkman Center (I wish I could go every week to these talks) it opened more questions than it answered. I’m the guy asking a very rambling and not so articulate question about the simultaneous appearance of a popularized DIY ethic (Make magazine et al) and the DMCA with its tighter limits on what you can “hack” in the broadest sense.

My “notes” follow – not really notes but a series of near quotes and interesting bits – hopefully enough to pique your interest to go listen to the MP3 or (better) watch the video.

Studying the developing world / emerging markets – and the tech usage patterns

Two key arguments:

1. Thinking about emerging markets as the locus of bottom-up creativity, not just a market to be exploited with older tech

2. Recuperating the term hacker.

Background: Postmodern feminism and Paul Smith – constructed subjectivity but also empowered subject.

We’ve become adept at reading UGC as resistance – rewriting the empire. But in the digital age adoption and adaptation are twin frames not opposites.

Patterns of technology adoption in resource constrained environments have as much or more to teach us than traditional user centered design about what makes technology work for humans.

Use of “outdated” technology – retrofit strategy. Use of what we see as single user computers as multiuser environments – three people, one computer. Internet cafes and games. community businesses, mixture of internet access, LAN games, sometimes movies/ring tones – doesn’t need to be a pure internet cafe.

The local WOW environment – setup their own WOW servers, with their own rules to account for the difference in universe size.

Voice over IP, Internet Phones in cafes, individual landlines converted to pay phones, trade in cell phone cards and minutes.

The whole idea is to study patterns of emerging use as opposed to user-centered design or participatory design.

We need to bring the same recognition of resistance to technical hacks – we have sophisticated readings of cultural resistance but not of hardware hacking.

Non-expert, non-credentialed, not requiring arcane knowledge.

How users hack systems and make them usable and relevant – these activities can be generalized and learned from.

Playing with fera-fluid, power-tool powered drag races, tesla coils, high altitude weather balloons, RFID tags, social implications.

The challenge is that increasingly this work gets categorized as illegal.

The Ford motor company, calendar; cars which you can’t work on because of proprietary software and DCMA issues.

That move from user to hacker is similar to the move from reader to co-author – this is the UGC of the hardware world.

Great question (Ethan Zuckerman) – what about motivation and context for the activities – Make readers in silicon valley don’t have the same motivation or context as these emergent markets (necessity versus play)

What about economic motivations – Etsy.

Interesting paradox – we get more attention to DIY and hacker ethic – right at the same time that a whole legal framework gets vitiated.

What are the lessons here for design? What about the design of multi-modal and modifiability into consumer devices?

Challenges to the DMCA – the successful challenges have been won on the grounds that the invoker of the DMCA is trying to push a copyright claim too far. We still need to keep pushing on the notion that learning and experimentation are necessary and protected by the first amendment but we haven’t gone far there.

Legal Framework still to come.

Is there a more commons-based, pre-industrial (post-industrial) approach to this whole framework? Getting away from procuding, consuming resisting. Grazing, or something?

There are problems having 9 networks but it is a hell of a lot better than having none.

The issue with solidarity across american geeks and the emerging world is that the us geeks have no clue what the technology challenges are in Ghana. [Guilty as charged, there.]

There some moments of effective cross over. Every now and then it does happen successfully.