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The non-technical hacker

The term “hacker” has morphed in meaning over the years. It started off as a way to describe folks trying to circumvent computer security (and it still is), then it became more of a pop-culture reference to web developers in general (still is), and today a term that’s frequently appending other types of specialties and industies.

Growth HackerLife HackerDesign Hacker” just to name a few.

Exploring and debating the “value” of these emerging subcultures is fascinating, and I’d like to throw a new fork into this discusion: The non-technical hacker.

Now I know there are folks who will scoff at this idea, but hear me out.

If you take away the literal tools a hacker has historically used, ultimately this person is “someone who enjoys exploring the limits of what is possible.” To me, that means using any kind of tool in ways they weren’t originally intended. Which also means then that scientists, artists, and essentially any creative person, is a hacker.

While the internet is obviously technical, I believe there’s a perception that there are two types of users out there. Technical people who know how to augment and create their own internet experience through coding, and the rest of us who use the creations that others have coded. You can read a bit more about this in an earlier post I wrote.

I see non-technical hacking as the grey area in between, and it’s a growing group of people from my perspective. They’re the ones who perhaps understand the basics of html, use browser extensions, and use the latest web applications, but it’s much more than that. I think the essence of this type of person is someone who can find existing hacks and leverage them in new ways to change or create how people behave online. This might manifest in the form of using a social network for an unintended purpose, crowdsourcing a product, or even something as simple as weaving together a clever IFTTT formula. I respect this kind of combinatorial creativity on the web, and I encourage readers of this blog to explore how their own web habits can be hacked to produce new open-source tools and ideas for others without ever writing a line of code. Perhaps such a task is even MORE challenging than coding because of how limiting it can be.

Personally, I have a huge respect for technical hackers and I’ve been trying very hard to teach myself Ruby for the last few weeks. While this process will likely continue to be slow for me, the logic and creative process I’ve developed from trying to stitch together other people’s creations has been incredibly valuable. If I’m ever able to achieve my goal of being able to manage machines (thanks Sean Devine for that thinking) I know that I’ll be thankful for the effort I placed on expanding the grey area of non-technical hacking. There are plenty of people out there who understand the mechanics of telling machines what to do, but being able to think of new tasks for our silicon-based friends is something that (even from my non-technical viewpoint), is quite rare.

Kudos to the hackers out there, whatever their choice of tools may be. If you would like to keep tabs on my non-technical hacking discoveries, follow me on Kippt.


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  • edwardboches

    I have been an “organization hacker,” a “hacker from the periphery,” and a “relationship hacker.” My next frontier is education. Needs it badly.

    • Len Kendall

      Edward I’m so glad to hear you’re taking on education. I agree it does need it badly. Higher education especially is the next mortgage crisis with kids having a terrible ROI on their very expensive educations. Looking forward to your outputs over the next year.

  • Tony Santos

    I had a similar “ah ha” moment on this topic a few months back. It stemmed from the stories I was reading about a lot of hackers in the 70s doing things without computers at all, figuring out how to get free rides on the bus, free long distance phone calls. I think you’re dead on when you describe it as “someone who enjoys exploring the limits of what is possible.” Some of the coolest things hackers have done historically had little or nothing to do with a computer or computer code.

    • Len Kendall

      I think your last line says it all. Historically speaking, the computer hacker is a modern concept. That said, as more of our universe and sciences become digitized, I do think that there’s a real value in teaching code as a second language in school in addition to traditional ones like Spanish, Chinese, etc.

  • Matthew Knight

    I’d always thought that ‘hacker’ in its original form was the person to threw things together, without too much care, in the desire to create something new. whilst it has its roots in technology, i don’t think the hacker ethic is really about technology, but rather the belief behind it. i’m a hacker, i have been for years. I accidentally fell into being a professional developer, but left that behind me, as I realised i was always a hacker, and hackers don’t always make good ‘production quality’ code, but they can construct things rapidly to test an idea, ready for later finesse.

    i’m frequently behind the curve on specific skills and technologies, but i’m still able to hack things together (perhaps just out of paper and tape) to demonstrate an idea.

    so hacking, to me, is not about technology, but using the materials and resources which you have available to test and express ideas.

    this form of hacking extends way beyond technology, and way beyond individuals.

    there’s no reason why a hack cannot be created by a group of people with varying skills, some technical, some not. i’m a firm believer in the power of the team, and more hacks could/should be created through collaboration, to share skills and their possibilities, to remove the ‘fear’ around using a new tool/technique.

  • Elmo Elsen

    “[...] then it became more of a pop-culture reference to web developers in general (still is) [...]”
    Um, what? I’ve never heard this. Sorry, that’s wishful thinking from web devs.

  • Joshua Drake

    “tools a hacker has historically used” like model trains?


  • renasboy

    So everyone mixing redbull with alchool is a hacker now?

  • Charles @

    Let’s not get into a semantics debate. The word can mean whatever you want it to mean. If you want to be called a hacker, then call yourself a hacker. If not, then don’t.