Making and Breaking Hardware: Origins of the Hacker Ethos

Presented at ToorCamp 2018, June 21, 2018, 11 a.m. (50 minutes)

Unlike software, the basic language of hardware -- physics -- has not changed since the beginning of time as we know it. The notion that "hardware is hard" is more a function of society's changing mores around intellectual freedom, ownership norms, and economic values. During the dot-com boom of the 90's, the best and brightest shelved their soldering irons in favor of PHP and CSS. The West largely shed its electronics manufacturing base to Asia, while lobbyists pushed laws that criminalized exploration and reinforced IP monopolies. Now, we walk astonished through the streets of Shenzhen and marvel at their magical supply chain. Ironically, nothing fundamental has changed about hardware in the past 30 years -- we're still building CPUs using CMOS, systems using copper on FR-4, exchanging data on the same wavelengths, albeit with better modulation and a whole lot more patents. What we've forgotten isn't hardware -- what we've forgotten is what it's like to have the freedom to explore and innovate in hardware. If we forget the origins of the hacker ethos; if we don't fight to bring back these freedoms: we ultimately risk surrendering control over the very hardware that runs our daily lives.


  • bunnie
    bunnie is best known for his work hacking the Microsoft Xbox, as well as for his efforts in designing and manufacturing open source hardware, including the chumby (app-playing alarm clock), chibitronics (peel-and-stick electronics for craft), and Novena (DIY laptop). He received his PhD in EE from MIT in 2002. He currently lives in Singapore where he runs a private product design studio, Kosagi, and he actively mentors several startups and students of the MIT Media Lab.


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