Hacking the Church

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When we think of hackers, the typical picture which comes to mind is of a socially awkward high school male (Matthew Broderick excluded). He has cooped himself up in a darkened bedroom next to a computer, attempting to change a school grade or break into a Department of Defense server. However, hacking can be used to describe more than electronic breaking and entering. Hacking can also describe a certain mindset or philosophy. A hacker is someone who finds a way to connect their coffee maker to the Internet or cobbles together their ideal media center from scavenged parts. Hackers find creative solutions to problems that the average person has not considered a problem yet. Perhaps the best way to outline the hacker philosophy is to describe what hackers like.

Hackers like to share. The Internet is an integral part of hacker culture because it allows them to share their work and connect with people of like interests. Far from hoarding their designs or discoveries, hackers like to put pictures, videos, and instructions of their hacks online so that others can use them to hack. Sharing is both a way of showing of, “Look at my hack” and inviting outside input. Because the Internet is such a big net, a hacker is likely to find others with similar interests. Knowledge and advice on obscure subjects can be shared freely over the Internet, resulting in more innovation. If enough people become interested in the same thing, they can form a virtual collaborative community. Though these people may never physically meet, their collective efforts can achieve more than one single person could alone.

Hackers like to void warranties. Hackers characteristically use objects for reasons other than their intended purpose. They are able to see possibilities in things that the designers had not foreseen. This obviously causes tension between hackers and non-hackers. Non-hackers see hackers as breaking expensive and properly functioning equipment. Formal institutions are traditionally at odds with hackers. They fear the discovery of trade secrets, the bad name that unknowingly hacked products might give their brand, and loopholes in systems designed to maximize profit. The result of a hackers work is often a wreckage of broken parts, but also learning and sometimes innovation.

Hackers like to question authority. It is the rejection of the authority of an engineer or company lawyer which allows them to find creative solutions. This can lead them to reject authority in other areas. Yet hackers are not anarchists, on the whole. They recognize that organization and hierarchy are needed to accomplish anything meaningful. Hackers instead tend to form meritocracies. With the absence of a contract binding them to a project, hackers choose to follow people according to perceive merit or skill. As evidence of their respect for authority, their exists in the hacking world the title of Benevolent Dictator for Life. This is a person who has recognized merit and therefore is given final authority in all matters relating to a project. Hackers, then, are not anti-authority. Rather they they rejects systems of authority that they view as autocratic.

Hackers like open source. open source generally refers to computer software whose program code has been made free for anyone to see and use by its creators. This is in contrast to close-source or propriety software, whichis treated as a trade secret and protected by patents. By putting your code out in the open it allows other people to tinker, experiment, and learn from it. The process of creating a computer program turns into a collaborative process with input from anyone, anywhere who wants to take the time to help. An example of this is a group of programs called LibreOffice.

LibreOffice is an open source alternative to Microsoft Office. Go to its website and you can download its Office suite for free . Anyone who wants to take a part in developing it and fixing bugs can do so, as long as they can demonstrate their ability to actually do those thing, i.e. their merit. The project is watched over by a non-profit, but almost all the development and coding is done by volunteers all over the world.\

Wikipedia is an example of open source applied to the development of an encyclopedia. The breath and detail of its articles would be impossible to achieve through close-sourced means. Encarta Encyclopedia, which charged a subscription fee and was maintained by a paid team of editors, is an example of the failure of a proprietary approach to an online encyclopedia. Open source can be extremely nimble and responsive to change. One could find the results of the latest presidential election on the candidates articles almost at the same time as they were published on the news.

Lastly, open source is cheap. The Linux computer kernel started as a personal hobby. The current estimate of its worth if it had to be recreated today using propriety methods is between 1.4 and 3 billion dollars. All this from the work of volunteers and donations of code from companies. Of course, there are drawbacks.

You can’t run a business by giving your product away for free (though some creative hacks on this difficultly have been found.) Traditional software companies obviously feel threatened by anything promising to do the same things they do for free and can be biased against them. Open source products may be rough around the edges or lack the visual polish that propriety software has. When you rely on volunteers some stuff just doesn’t get done.

Finally, there is problem of forking. Sometimes there is disagreement about the direction of a project. Because of the free nature of the association, people may decide to “fork” the project by taking the current version of the program and proceeding to developing their own branch. LibreOffice is an example of a fork that eventually became more popular than the trunk from which it came.

Hackers like t-shirts and hooded sweatshirts. They like them even better if they hack familiar imagery to make a reference to some kind of tech known only to insiders. It could be a rebellion against a culture of shirts and ties, but the love of t-shirts comes mainly from the fact that they are comfortable. Since hackers judge people on merit instead of externals, like the ability to buy expensive suits, they opt for comfort. Mark Zuckerberg has famously stuck to hacker fashion as he moved into the world of business. For a hacker nothing beats a comfy t-shirt and pair of jeans.

With this picture of hacking in mind, I will proceed next week to look at what hacking could look like within the church.

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