Hackers: the new Navy SEALs, sages, and manufacturers of the 21st Century

Ayesha and Parag Khanna talk about hackers.

Ayesha (left) and Parag Khanna talk about the future. Photo: KH Yeo

Hacking is a dirty word among the mainstream public; the result of media attention latching onto hackers who deface websites, steal passwords from email accounts, and erase family photos from a reporter’s laptop.

But an alternate meaning exists, and it could gain widespread currency in the very near future. Hacking, broadly defined, is not just breaking things. It’s finding ways, often involving the clever use of technology, to make something better. That includes hacking parenthood, our homes, our food, and our lives.

In the 21st Century, hackers are poised to become the world’s most prominent problem-solvers. It’s already starting to happen: Hackers are employed to counter and neutralize their black hat counterparts, while Facebook acitively promotes a ‘hacker culture’ within its edifices.

“It’s the hacker community that we should really encourage,” says Ayesha Khanna, founder and director of the Hybrid Reality Institute, a research and advisory group ‘focused on human-technology co-evolution, geotechnology and innovation’.

“These are the people that will take the interest (in technology); they work in communities, they know this stuff better than we do. They will eventually be a kind of SEALs that will tackle the more criminal aspects of the cyberworld.”

Together with her husband Parag Khanna, who is also a director at the institute, they were in Singapore, their newly adopted homebase, to speak at an SGE-organized fireside chat on Hybrid Reality, a word which they coined in their new TED book.

Without going specifically into its contents and what ‘hybrid reality’ is (suffice to say, this book review gives a very forceful and rip-roaring critique of the book’s proclamations), they reinforced existing notions of where technology is heading and its wonderful and scary implications for humanity.

Dominate technology; don’t let it dominate us

I want to touch on one of these notions: that hackers will play a more dominant role in an increasingly complex economy where technology becomes ubiquitous and invisible at the same time. More industries are being run on and disrupted by software. Venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, in his famous essay, believes that “software is eating the world“.

His language reveals a fundamental fear that people have with technology. It suggests that, as one audience member puts it, technology is an autonomous, monolithic thing that could one day supplant us as a dominant species. In fact, we already know that it has put people out of work, and will continue to do so.

While technology has been with us for thousands of years, it has become more intricate: it takes one man to start a flame and craft a knife, but 5,000 scientists to run the Large Hadron Collider. According to noted Australian inventor Kia Silverbrook, the number of breakthrough inventions has not kept up with the spike in patent applications in recent decades.

The end result? While our parents probably had no trouble explaining to their children how a lightbulb works, we are facing problems explaining everyday technology like servers, 3G networks, and quantum computing to our children.

We also become passive consumers of technology, well-aware of its magical properties, but ignorant of its potential for harm.

But such an attitude is defeatist and certainly not our only option. Technology is not a thing in itself, but a manifestation of our humanity.

Quoting Kevin Kelly, the former executive editor of Wired Magazine, Parag and Ayesha talk about instilling in our children an intuitive sense of technology. Doing so retains their sense of agency.

“They need to understand the basic rules: algorithms, loops and conditions. There are many ways to teach them.  This gives them a sense of control and direction, a sense that we can do things with technology,” says Ayesha. Universities and schools too play a role in imparting tech literary to their students, she adds.

Yet these steps are not enough. Not everyone has access to technological knowledge or enlightened educators with a keen sense of the future’s trajectory.  Not everyone cares either: Just ask the millions who expose their private data and personal information online. They are either unaware of the consequences or willing to trade in their security for convenience.

The onus then is on hackers to bake ethics into their hacks to ensure that they cause maximum benefit but minimal harm.

But just how might this code of ethics look like?

Cyberanthropologist Steven Mizrach argues that hackers have employed an informal code of ethics for self-regulation. While applicable more to system intruders, many of these principles, for instance protecting the privacy of those being hacked, are applicable to software developers.

What we find is that hackers can play three potentially useful roles in society.

Become a hacker, or at least get to know one

First, by using technology to expose those who wield technology in an unethical manner, hackers can serve as our protectors. That was the case with Singapore-based mobile developer Arun Thampi, who discovered that an app called Path has been uploading address books onto their servers. That expose led to a media firestorm, prompting Path to backtrack and Apple to change its private policy.

Second, hackers can educate us on how to utilize technology. Hacking culture, with its emphasis on freedom of information and sharing of knowledge, underpins the open education movement sweeping Silicon Valley right now.

Lessons from top educators and technologists on programming and web development can be found on sites like Udacity, edX, and Coursera. By democratizing education, knowledge which was only available in the beating heart of Silicon Valley is now available to anyone with a tablet and an internet connection.

And third, hackers build tools that enable the masses to harness technology. Besides building proprietary apps and web services, many geeks are part of the open-source movement, which espouses that software or hardware design should be freely available for all to use and modify.

By making these schematics freely available, tech hobbyists can leverage on crowdsourcing to build their own software, 3D-printer, drone, or any technology-enabled device at a fraction of the cost.

Here’s what’s happening: the open-source movement lowers the barrier-to-entry for people to jump into the hacking culture. Instead of being passive consumers of technology, we become creators.

3D printing could, for instance, expand into an industry in itself where printer manufacturers, software developers, designers, and entrepreneurs develop tools for us to design and manufacture at home and then sell our creations online.

No doubt, people will always abuse technology. Just like how 3D printing can be used to make beautiful and unique objects at low costs, it can print guns too.

We have many reasons to fear the destructive potential of technology. But sitting out is not an option. Only by actively participating can we counter the effects of those who use technology for their selfish gains.

And what about the rest of us who are not so tech-saavy? Well, we are only helping ourselves by learning enough to communicate with a hacker, even though they may speak alien.

After all, it’s very likely that we will work for one in the future.

(And yes, we're serious about ethics and transparency. More information here.)

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