Hacking for real-world change

In science fiction, technologies mediating human-computer interaction is a common topic allowing us to envisage how new emerging devices and systems may continue to redefine even further the interrelationships between humans and the world outside.

The extent to which humans as part of civil society are able to form independent decisions, ask questions, expose oppressive relationships and obtain access to truthful information may also be redefined, for example, by sophisticated hacking activities and DIY electronic technologies may be required to overcome systems of totalitarian media control.

There’s a view that human and technological realms cannot be comprehended separately from each other: they are in a constant process of interaction, in which technology also performs a social role. Technology then acts as a mediator through which humans make contact with the environment, the world around them. As a mediator, technology assists in creating the manner of interaction between those both sides (Ihde 1990, cited in Verbeek 2015: 218).

Gibson’s Neuromancer (2004 [1984]) offers some insights into the process of a possible redefining of this situation. The described interactions between humans and fictional technology are very similar to the concepts of immersion and augmentation relations (Verbeek 2015: 219-221). The cyberspace is the environment which immerses Case, the anti-hero, and coincides with the world around him.

While cyberspace is a virtual reality world, it is at the same time the technological realm where virtual actions lead to very real and tangible consequences. Case, for instance, hacks into corporate systems in the virtual world, having constant visual overview, however, of the real environment of corporate storage premises via a connection to Molly’s – an accomplice – optic nerve. Molly, thus, also demonstrates augmentation relations between technology and herself: her visual capacities are “augmented” in comparison with other humans. She is provided wireless connection to Case for communication.

Technology as a mediator, as a result, enables these two highly experienced criminals to overcome the restrictions of corporate security systems, and utilise the cyberspace to a maximum in order to pursue their objectives in the real world.

In the universe depicted by Quinn in Defiance (2015) hyperconnectivity represented by a complex network of interconnected devices and systems, is an inalienable feature of a high-tech world of the “ascenders” and last humans with their DNA still unaltered. Among depictions of  everyday “smart” technologies an interesting example of communication mediation, however, is provided when the main protagonist is required to contact a person outside the perimeter of the “ascenders’” Seattle.

Beyond the perimeter is a destroyed world of old Seattle, retaining signs of previous life. Smugglers from new Seattle in order to meet smugglers from the other side have to utilise a special (possibly self-made) device, which enables a person to stay invisible to ubiquitous sensing and tracking systems of the “ascenders” in the city. Once beyond the perimeter the person is not visible, as there is no tracking technology installed there. This example demonstrates how hyperconnectivity manifested by control systems eliminates agency of new Seattle humans to contact humans from the outside. Paradoxically, to perform an act of unmediated communication as person to person, humans from new Seattle are required to utilise a mediating technology – a DIY jammer.

In the previous example humans create a counter technology to be able to expand their freedom in terms of challenging authorities’ totalitarian control. As Kang and Cuff (2005) indicate, to avoid such ad hoc solutions in future, the principle of embedded responsibility – which presupposes creation of protection mechanisms preventing new technologies from trespassing against human rights and civil society norms – might need to be introduced nowadays. This may assist in escaping or reducing negative outcomes brought by rising capacities of hyperconnected systems to be potentially utilised against principles of free speech, access to information and political participation.

References

Gibson, William. 2004. Neuromancer. 20th anniversary edition. New York: Ace Books.

Kang, Jerry, and Dana Cuff. 2005. “Pervasive Computing: Embedding the Public Sphere.” Washington and Lee Law Review 65: 93–146. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=626961.

Quinn, Susan Kaye. 2015. Defiance: Prequel to the Legacy Human. https://itunes.apple.com/au/book/defiance-prequel-to-the-legacy-human/id1252650947?mt=11.

Verbeek, Peter-Paul. 2015. “Designing the Public Sphere: Information Technologies and the Politics of Mediation.” In The Online Manifesto: Being Human in a Hyperconnected Era, 217–27. Cham: Springer. https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007/978-3-319-04093-6#toc.

About the author

Dzmitry Pravatorau
By Dzmitry Pravatorau

The JxD Project is about imagining the journalism of the future. We are interested in using interaction design to propose new ways of for communicating and interacting with news and information that is in the public interest. On this site you can find out about our projects, download resources and see our publications.