I use the word “hack” advisedly in this column. It sets off alarms for GT Staff Writer Lucas Ropek and columnist Dan Lohrmann, who think in terms of white, gray and black hats in their coverage of cybersecurity. And the word’s use here should not be confused with a life hack, that broad basket of shortcuts and novel productivity tricks some people use to get through an average workday.
There are other variations on this theme, often combining playful ingenuity and applied innovation. Consider Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak before Apple during their phone phreaking phase — hacking into telecommunications systems, especially to obtain free calls — in the early 1970s.
Wozniak is credited with designing the first digital blue box, an electronic device that generates the same tones employed by a telephone operator’s dialing console to switch long-distance calls, allowing the user to make free calls illegally. Wozniak used his Blue Box to satisfy his curiosity about how telephone networks worked. He gleefully concedes that the Blue Boxes made a great platform for pranks, which he employed liberally at the time. For his part, Jobs saw a business opportunity and sold them dorm room to dorm room. For the engineer and the marketer, it was the precursor to a breakthrough in the computer industry.
A half-century later, the legal cost of long distance has been driven to zero. Blue Boxes are now museum pieces. But phreaking is more than a footnote to history, because what we cannot afford to lose is the curiosity to explore, to disrupt and, in the spirit of Woz and his fellow phreaks, to prank.
Take a couple of recent examples.
Exhibit A: The Smart Potato, spotted at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas with tech components imported from France by inventor and entrepreneur Nicholas Baldeck. Built off the back of a classic Idaho russet potato, Baldeck integrated an antenna he calls the Neuraspud that, along with a companion smartphone app, uses artificial intelligence to tap the superior decision-making powers of the potato. If it sounds like a Woz-worthy prank, here’s your prize: Baldeck’s point is that much of today’s ballyhooed tech doesn’t do anything useful, or anything at all. But if his product’s Indiegogo campaign — which had reached $5,831 at the time of this writing — cracks six figures by the time it closes, Baldeck says the second release will be Potato Blockchain.
Exhibit B: The Google Maps Hack project looked innocent enough. Picture a small red wagon pulled down an otherwise empty Berlin street by an artist named Simon Weckert. The artist had packed the wagon full of 99 borrowed smartphones. From the sidewalk, it looked benign. But as Weckert pulled the phone-laden wagon up and down random streets, the distinctive red lines signifying massive traffic jams emerged on Google Maps. There was latency, but slowly and surely, the wagon and its digital payload tricked Google Maps. The company concedes its algorithms cannot yet filter for a red wagon full of phones.
Are these modern hacks completely benign? Perhaps not. If they are not, it is because the larger environment is more toxic than it was when Wozniak and company were pranking in the early ’70s. But Woz’s characteristic curiosity, creativity and inventiveness become all the more important as the problems we face become more complex, the landscape becomes more crowded and the common expectation too easily defaults to “there’s an app for that.”
Weckert reminds us that his wagon and phone experiment was about more than having a little fun at Google’s expense. Paraphrasing media philosopher Marshall McLuhan, we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us. Weckert says, “I have the feeling right now that technology is not adapting to us, it’s the other way around.”