Friday, February 27, 2009

Why We Hack: All is Still Not Right with the World

Checkout at the local supermarket. The food conveyor belt is one that works automatically but stops when an object is detected by the little eye at the end of it. A marvel in engineering?

Apparently not, since the cashier, like all cashiers everywhere I guess, uses the top remainders after a pack of plastic shopping bags is torn off as a manual stop control for the belt. When he wants it to move, he slides the plastic wedge to the side. When he wants it to stop, he slides it forward.

When he takes your credit card, if it doesn't work, he wraps a small piece of receipt paper around the card and slides it through the machine again. It works. "Use some tape on the magnetic stripe to clean it off," he then tells the customer.

After I finish with my groceries, I go outside and unleash my dog from the shopping cart guard rails. To do this, I have to unhook the dog, take off the chain which I wrapped around and then threaded through the ring above the clasp, and re-hook the dog.

We hack because we must hack. Because all is not right with the design of our everyday things. Sometimes this is on purpose: a manufacturer thinks they know better than us, or a corporate policy has been substantiated into a physical barrier that is supposed to prevent us from doing things "the wrong way". Sometimes it's just by accident: the item was cheap, not available, we haven't figured it out yet, haven't got enough market for it, or haven't noticed that everyone else is struggling with the same nonsense that we are. Or maybe we just like hacking.



Gerald McD said...

How right you are! I am often frustrated by changes made in product or package design, all with the intention (I believe) of making "improvements." Many of these changes are not user-friendly, practical, or pleasing. I am sure, from experience in human resources work, that many such changes are the result of employee suggestion programs, for which employees are rewarded financially or otherwise, or are contributed by contract "experts" who must produce something to justify their fees. Some food companies have changed recipes of their mainstay products, losing me as a customer in the process. Everyone wants to invent a better mousetrap, even if there are no mice to eradicate. My motto: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Now, more to your point -- I think a lot of our "hacking" is just the expression of human ingenuity. It's fun to modify things to make them "better" for ourselves. It gives us a feeling of accomplishment to fit the world to our needs. Besides, few things in the world meet everyone's expectations or needs, except for clean air and clean water (where they are available).

Yehuda Berlinger said...

Gerald, I think hacking will grow as the economy slows down.