Hard-Hacking & Soft-Hacking

by Brian Haven
@ 8:13 PM

, , , , , , ,

» Design Thinking
» Hard Hacking
» Participation
» Platform Thinking
» Research
» Soft Hacking
» Thoughts



In my previous post, I described the phenomenon of participatory culture and how institutions are no longer in control (see Making With People). There are several examples of how this participation manifests itself in the world, and the first examples I’d like to talk about are hard-hacking and soft-hacking.

Hard-hacking is the tangible sibling to soft-hacking, which I’ll describe in a moment. Hard-hacking occurs when a person makes modifications to a physical object after it has been introduced into the world. It involves altering the physical nature of an artifact to add, enhance, or change the intended functionality of that product. Hard-hacking also occurs in a lesser form when a person obtains a hack created by another individual and applies it to their artifact — they weren’t the original hacker, but they imposed the change made by someone else. In either instance, they changed a product in a way that wasn’t intended by the original designer, stepping beyond the complacent consumption likely desired by the originating enterprise.
[Slammed Civic from corey m stover on flickr]
For example, sub-cultures surrounding the modification of cars and motorcycles is rich with examples of functional enhancements to products and the social interactions that accompany these cultures. The hard-hacking of motorcycles, such as the Harley-Davidson, consists of ‘chopping’ up the bike — giving birth to the term Chopper — to alter both its performance and aesthetic. Similar behaviors exist among some young Asian-Americans in Southern California’s import car racing culture where members make performance and aesthetic modifications to import automobiles, developing rich social communities around their activities. Formerly, AOL chat groups existed for groups like the O.C. Racerz and Import Scene (see Victoria Namkung’s fantastic chapter, “Reinventing The Wheel: Import Car Racing in Southern California” in the book “Asian American Youth” by Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou).

Soft-hacking, on the other hand, involves the modification of digital objects after they’ve been introduced into the world. Modifications can include the writing or alteration of software as well as reforming digital images or video. Like hard-hacking, some people exhibit a lesser, yet still important form of soft-hacking. This occurs when a person doesn’t create their own soft-hack, but instead acquires someone else’s for their own personal use. In both instances, people are making changes to a product that wasn’t intended by the original designer.
[Original iPod from “Using An Original iPod In A Smart Car” at by Bruce McKenzie]
For example, the early days of Apple’s iPod were inundated with soft-hacking. The device was originally intended only to store and play music files, but savvy owners of the product quickly discovered the alternative uses it afforded. People created their own software to extend the capabilities of the device in ways Apple had not, originally, intended. Many software applications existed (and still exist) that enable file and music transfers from the iPod to other iPods and computers that don’t use iTunes. This is not how Apple intended it’s product to be used, but these tools have been around since the iPod’s introduction. More recently, people have “jailbroken” Apple iPhones to use on carrier networks other than AT&T. A vibrant community exists at iPodHacks where these activities are tracked and announced to interested parties.

It’s important to note that the social communities that surround these activities are as interesting as the hacking behaviors themselves. It enables the individuals with common interest to share thoughts, ideas, and their passion for the activity. It also supports the addition of new members as well as the propagation of the activity.


03 Feb 2009
I’ve talked about the four epochs of making over the...

This work on this site is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution - Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Fancy quote box styling courtesy of Joomsayer for Movable Type.
25 Jun 2009
The second example of participation is group assembly. Group assembly...

Leave A Comment