Hacking around

MovieParties headerWhen I’m not following the humming, one of my other lives is as the Producer at MovieParties, where I sell movie scripts for kids’ parties. A few weeks back, a message from my ISP told me that the MovieParties website had been hacked and that they’d taken it offline as a precaution. They invited me to restore a clean backup and reinstall the latest versions of all the required plugins.

Yeah, right.

Many late nights and a complete rebuild from scratch later, the site was back up, leaving me with a sore neck and an impotent sense of rage against the machine.

While I was working to recover my hard-won Google ranking, my brief flirtation with hacking was still raw; but a friend reminded me that hacking has its roots in something altogether more constructive and altruistic. After all, if the bright young things at MIT in the 60’s hadn’t played around with code with a similar level of obsession, the free and open source software movements – and probably the Internet itself – may well have taken a lot longer to evolve. Sometime in the early 80’s – probably around the time of my followthehumming diaries – hacking in popular culture started to mean bad stuff, rather than the good stuff from which it had evolved.

If I look back my usual followthehumming timespan of 28 years to 1987, we were hacking around on machines like the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, BBC Micro and later the Amstrad CPC. We spent hours copying out BASIC programs from computer magazines and de-bugging them when they gave us the inevitable RUNTIME ERROR. We were close enough to the guts of these machines to gain a sense of how they worked and to understand the way the software that ran them interfaced with the hardware they sat on.

With the laudable exception of the Raspberry Pi, there’s little around on a decent scale that does a similar job today. Everything is BIG. Big machines, big networks, big data. The fact that you can alter something somewhere on the other side of the planet is cool, but this same distance can also breed indifference if it’s not part of something constructive – and I don’t just mean Minecraft. Without the intimacy of hardware and software barely big enough to handle one another, the consequences of hacking round for any reason at all are harder to see, let alone feel.


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