Santa got us a SodaStream appliance this Christmas. It seems like a useful device to carbonate flavored tap water but rather narrow in it’s application and costly to operate. One of my first questions before even reading the manual was to Google how people are hacking the thing in ways to find new culinary applications and reduce operating costs (purely for informational purposes only). When prestige media publication like the New York Times publishes an article about hacking SodaStream appliances, you know “hacking” has gone mainstream.
The word “hacker” derives from a 17th century term for a physical laborer swinging a hand tool like a hoe. In the 1960s the word became associated with computer programmers. Today the term “hacker” is broadly used to identify both digital criminals (eg identity theft and DDOS server attacks) as well as creative technical geniuses who reverse engineer complex systems to build new systems of unforeseen new value. Here is wikipedia’s definition:
A hacker is one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming and circumventing limitations of programming systems and who tries to extend their capabilities. The act of engaging in activities (such as programming or other media) in a spirit of playfulness and exploration is termed hacking. However the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful. Activities of playful cleverness can be said to have “hack value” and are termed hacks (examples include pranks at MIT intended to demonstrate technical aptitude and cleverness).
Today a hacker’s target isn’t just limited to trying to improve piece of computer software or hardware. Today people are hacking everything from their car’s gas mileage (hypermiling) to their bodies (eg blogger Tim Ferriss) to make modifications that increase performance, reliability and/or longevity. A number of Internet website have sprung up to create communities around these efforts or to cover the general movement like lifehacker.com.
( Make Magazine started in 2005 and they have a great website too )
Concurrent with the tendencies to generalize hacking beyond traditional engineering targets has been the rise of the Maker Movement. This formally arose in San Mateo, CA near Silicon Valley around 2005 sparked by the rapidly decreasing cost of computing power, hardware, 3D printers, drones, and other components that now give individuals access to creative tools formerly only available to corporations.
The Hacker and Maker Movements have expanded beyond engineers and programmers to include designers, artists and many others. Just as a doctor is trained to view the human body and disease, engineers are trained to see beyond the existing solution, gain a deep understanding of how all parts inter-operate at multiple levels and, at the highest level, be able to fundamentally redesign a system for optimal performance or even entirely new applications.
Although medicine gets more positive coverage in prime time dramas, science and engineering is at the forefront of a human discovery, is intellectually unbound and far more open and rewarding for creative visionaries. The best engineers do not just accept the world as it is, but to actively engage, improve and tailor it to their ends and for all humanity.