Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Survival Hacking

The Wikileaks controversy/scandal/nightmare has once again brought the term "hacker" back into the public discussion.  For a large number of people in the general public, the word "hacker" has connotations of the misuse of technology, usually for purposes of theft or digital vandalism.  However, other people who have known hackers have a more balanced view, realizing that there are a large number of people who are considered "hackers" that instead like to take existing technology and find ways of using it to do new things that the original designers never intended it to do.  These hackers are also often employed in various technical and academic fields and find that their experience with hacking helps them better understand the technology they work with, as well as providing value added benefits to their employers.

Hacking doesn't just extend to high-tech devices, but also to low-tech ones and situations as well, and several examples come to mind.  The first one is from watching Pair Survival, when Cody Lundin made a "canteen" out of a plastic bag and a hollowed out piece of wood.  Following this, there is the often-cited advice to carry a condom or two as a spare water container.  Next on the list is whoever thought to take surplus SKS bayonets and make tent pegs out of them (they're not going to break like flimsy plastic and can be driven into almost any kind of ground).  Finally, if anyone watched the second season of The Colony, the survivors rendered down rotten pigs to make ersatz diesel fuel.

While there are countless other examples, I wanted to use them to point out the difference between improvisation and "hacking," which is putting technology to a new use.  For example, if you don't have a rain poncho, and you have a garbage bag, it can be an improvised poncho.  This is basically substituting one thing for another thing of similar form and substance.  "Hacking," by contrast is taking something and thinking of a radically new and different use for it. 

As civilization moves into the next Dark Age, there are going to be plenty of pieces of technology available, but people will see them and not be able to think of uses for them.  If we are able to think like hackers, finding new and inventive ways to use what's just sitting around, then we are going to be one step ahead of the game of personal survival and better able to preserve and protect our accumulated knowledge.


  1. Hi John! A sometimes forgotten aspect of hacking is when you get your hands on some technology and it lacks documentation. No user's manual, no schematics, no call center to help you. Mystery tech, maybe not even sure at first what is is or what it's supposed to do. The hacker explores the system and writes his own manual. Big fun!

  2. Very true -- it is a lot of fun to mess around with unknown tech! Part of the intent of the Leibowitz Society's Repository is to at least give people a starting point when trying to figure stuff out. I think that people underestimate how quickly collective social amnesia about technology, culture, etc, is going to set in as conditions get progressively worse and daily survival (in terms of securing food, water, shelter and safety) pushes out more abstract concerns.

    A good example of this is how quickly people forget how to mundane tasks on computers. People who are exposed to them every day generally have no problem, but for people who are not focused on them, it can be difficult to do much outside of the minimal stuff, simply because it's not their focus (just like it will not be the focus of people after a collapse).

    On a lighter note, have you ever been to http://www.kingofobsolete.ca/ ? I would consider the "King" to be a bulldozer hacker and he has some neat stuff on there. Dozers, etc, will likely be useful for a long time after a collapse simply because it's possible to make fuel for them and they are designed to rough conditions.