Yesterday while I was browsing Y combinator’s, hacker news site, my 10 year old suddenly sneaked up on me. The word hacker immediately caught her attention. The conversation that followed went something like this
Her — Daddy.. ins’t hacker a BAD word? Why are you reading this?
Me — No, not at all. Why do you think so?
Her — I heard so in school.
Me — (now really curious) What exactly did you ‘hear’?
Her — Isn’t it someone who breaks into ‘stuff’ and steals ‘stuff’?
Me — No, not always. Hacking is just a different way of doing things.
( That was the best definition I could come up instantly).
Determined to protect the sprit of hacking, I went on to explain what I really meant. The conversation went for another 10 minutes or so before she got distracted by something. For her the most interesting part of the conversation was when I showed her the UNIX curl command to access a URL. The only way she knew how to access a URL was via a browser, so this was pretty exciting for her.
The nonchalant conversation above with my daughter however actually reflects to more widespread mindset about the term hacking in general. What is more disturbing is the fact this mindset is not limited to the physical word. For instance if you do a Google image search for the term ‘hacking’ 99% of of the results will be images of masked or hooded dudes,pirate flags or something that references a digital crime or an exploit. As a kid, if that is the first impression you got, then there isn’t much hope.
I got my first computer in 1996 while I was still in my first year of college then. It was modest windows intel 80386 PC with 32 MB of RAM. After about a month or so having got myself comfortable with the windows operating system and it’s office suite. I started to explore more. It was times when dial-up was a premium and broadband was unheard of, so almost all of my research was offline. (Yeah! imagine doing this now). I stumbled upon this awesome computer magazine (Chip) which came with a CD with a linux distribution. It was a revelation for me who had never seen or heard of an operating system that actually was FREE. So I read more until I was confident enough to wreck my well running PC by installing a new OS. Obviously my friends thought I was crazy. That was my first dual boot, my first linux installation and my first hack. I fell in love with Linux long before it became mainstream and entered the enterprise. Needless to say that my first hack still helps me today.
Hacking also helps making the learning curve exciting no matter how steep it may seem. For instance when I am trying to learn a new programming language or technology, rather than starting grounds up with the syntax, functions and modules and probably getting bored out half way through, I often find my self doing the opposite. I think of a problem that could be solved using the technology or language in question. Then I move on to Google and github. Chances are someone out there would have have thought of a similar problem and probably coded something similar in a public repository. I fork out the repository and start hacking the code. As I hit hurdles I open the book. The approach keeps me hooked and stay on the learning path which now is more exciting than going though the chapters sequentially. Don’t get me wrong here, there is absolutely nothing wrong with first picking up the book or taking a basics course and I have done that often too, but this is more fun!
But hacking goes beyond just technology and into the physical world. Hacking kindles creativity, it is a hotbed for new ideas. The “Hole in the wall” experiments by Sugata Mitra is an education hack that is perhaps the most well documented of them all. In summary Mr. Mitra’s experiment was a computer was placed in a kiosk created within a wall in a slum at Kalkaji, Delhi and children were allowed to use it freely. This work demonstrated that groups of children, irrespectively of who or where they are, can learn to use computers and the Internet on their own with public computers in open spaces such as roads and playgrounds, even without knowing English. The topics and the rate at which these children learned new things amazed Mr Mitra. All this without any formal classroom and without any actual teachers. You can hear more about this experiment his is amazing TED talk here.
As with everything else in life, hacking also has two different view points. Every now and then there seems to be a backlash against hacking with the debate that is it really worth time and effort? Of course for me the question is pointless. The real question is, can you really afford to ignore hacking? Isn’t the risk of not exploring and not challenging the status-quo more? What could be more disappointing than not asking the questions or not exploring a different way doing things or solving day to day problems?
As for my daughter, It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that level and standard of computer science education is way below what it should be. Specially in the K-12 category. That is slowly changing thanks to organizations like CoderDojo. But the pace of this change is slow. Try having your kid submit a coding idea as a project for his or her science fair and you will probably relate to the point I am trying to make here. If you cannot, your child is really lucky, DONT change schools.
Schools and teachers in general play a vital role here and it’s really important that kids are not introduced to hacking as a taboo but rather as a way to explore their creativity.