Hacking as a broad phenomenon and the hackstable future

The always-interesting Venkatesh Rao turns his attention to the shopworn phrase "hacking" (as in "body-hacking," "college-hacking" and so forth), and concludes that it is actually underused. Hacking, in Rao's view, is "a pattern of local, opportunistic manipulation of a non-disposable complex system that causes a lowering of its conceptual integrity, creates systemic debt and moves intelligence from systems into human brains." And yeah, that's got a lot of obscure and difficult ideas in it, but the essay in which he unpacks it is, as ever, well worth your attention, especially for the idea of "hackstability," which Rao says is "an alternative to collapse."

All you can hope for is to keep hacking and extending its life in increasingly brittle ways, and hope to avoid a big random event that triggers collapse. This is technological deficit economics.

Now extend the argument to all of civilization as a single massive technology that can never be thrown away, and you can make sense of the idea of hackstability as an alternative to collapse. Maybe if you keep hacking away furiously enough, and grabbing improvements where possible, you can keep a system alive indefinitely, or at least steer it to a safe soft-landing instead of a crash-landing...

So what is the hackstable future? What reason is there to believe that hacking can keep up with the downward pull of entropy? I am not entirely sure. The way big old cities seem to miraculously survive indefinitely on the brink of collapse gives me some confidence that hackstability is a meaningful concept.

Collapse is the easiest of the three scenarios to understand, since it requires no new concepts. If the rate of entropy accumulation exceeds the rate at which we can keep hacking, we may get sudden collapse.

Hacking the Non-Disposable Planet

(Image: There I fixed it, a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from dan4th's photostream)


  1. Underused?  Because I came hoping to find a narrow definition of “hack” since it’s virtually meaningless these days.

    I thought that “perpetually on the precipice of collapse but for a few haphazard and unstable makeshift solutions” was not called, “hackstable” but, “kludgey.”  It’s a generally undesirable state because all it takes is one big upset to send everything over the edge.

    1.  Hackstable as it applies to repairing/replacing a toilet: using a plastic wedge to stabilize the toilet on a non-flat floor.  The wedge stays, but will not probably need to be replaced, and it fixes the wobbly loo.

      Kludgy applied to the same problem: a plastic cup under the perpetually leaking fill/cutoff valve.  The valve doesn’t get any better, will probably get worse, and you still need to occasionally empty the cup.  The cup is a temporary solution at best.

  2. “Hacking as a broad phenomenon” – uh, because it’s been around for about 2 million years?

  3. Why is Venkatesh so hung up on collapse being a bad thing ?  Needs to define collapse first.

    The article is all a bit narrow too, its just a 1st world view. Deal with the metaphysical aspects of the ‘Electric Leviathan’ and maybe they’ll be an answer in that. Phrases like ‘clean evolutionary model’ and ‘slow dampening of the creative-destruction dialectic’ are deeply unsettling, and waaay too totalitarian in their subtext. They also show a bad, and limiting, bias. Too much subjective bias in general really, I mean.. your problem is not my problem or is it etc, etc. The economics arguments are just kak, sorry ;)

    Damn interesting though, its set me thinking. Not that as another poster has already pointed out that this ‘hackstability’ thing described has been going on for many many years already. I mean, how do you think we got where we are now ?

  4. Why do we have to hack things now instead of Mickey Mousing them like we used to?
    Has the term “Mickey Mouse” fallen victim to the current atmosphere of copyright litigation fear?

    Get off my damn lawn!

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