A Benevolent Social Hack: I wanted Alan Turing to be raised into the pantheon of great Britons, but I felt it would be hypocritical to do so without recognising that Britain treated him so badly.
A Benevolent Social Hack
Saturday, 12 September 2009 10:14 Hrs
❝ 'I wanted Alan Turing to be raised into the pantheon of great Britons, but I felt it would be hypocritical to do so without recognising that Britain treated him so badly.' — jgc

Today I witnessed a social hack by a UK hacker who in the space of a month turned around 60 years of history. What did it take? A simple idea, a measure of determination, some imagination and a bit of luck. What did he achieve? He persuaded the government of the United Kingdom with the help of fellow citizens, to acknowledge the maltreatment of a deceased fellow Hacker. [0]

What is a Hacker?

You might have heard of Hackers in the media. [1] Those pesky 12 year-old boys and their computers at it again, breaking into Government computers and causing millions of dollars damage. If you believe the media, Hackers are also responsible for numerous other electronic sins when the most likely explanation is probably a poor choice of operating system. [2] Hackers have something of an image problem. In fact the term Hacker has been hijacked and misused. It used to mean a person who playfully enjoyed puzzles, reveled in understanding complicated and building new technology. Hackers tend to be benevolent. Less interested in exploiting for gain [3], more interested in mastery and exploits to show amongst their friends. [4]

Malevolent vs Benevolent

Instead, the media cottoned onto the term Hackers to describe malevolent behaviour and the broken understanding has persisted ever since. [5] So Instead of using the correct technical term Cracker, the term Hacker has now become synonymous with bad. Here is a simple way for you to correct this.

❝ Whenever you hear the term Hacker in the media, ask yourself, ‟is the behaviour benevolent or malevolent?” If it’s malevolent substitute Hacker for Cracker.

If the behaviour is benevolent you are getting a definition closer to the original idea describing a Hacker. So to summarise, Hackers are curious and benevolent by nature, enjoy understanding the and mastering the complex and creating new technology. [6]

A social hack

Just as Hackers enjoy creating new technology, sometimes malevolent Hackers, Crackers, try to engineer people for information. [7] Exploiting the cognitive biases of humans for personal gain. [8] I can only think of a few instances of social hacks being done for good instead of evil. [9] Today, I witnessed a benevolent social hack. An example illustrating how Hackers are positive. An existence proof of a ‟social hack” for good, not bad. But first a short detour into computer technology history.

If there is a birthplace of modern hackers you might be tempted to think MIT. [10] But you’d be wrong. Modern computer technology had it’s birthplace in the United Kingdom. First there was Charles Babbage. Babbage created a mechanical calculating device, Ada Lovelace supplied the software programming. The first hardware and software development team. [11] Babbage and Lovelace might have supplied the early inspiration but it took the Second World War, another 83 years [12] to encourage the theoretical framework and a complete working example of what we now know as Computers to exist. And at the centre of all this was one man, Alan Mathison Turing. [13]

Alan Mathison Turing

❝ Turing is the original Hacker.

He excelled as a mathematician, code breaker and computer scientist and had a measurable effect on the infant science of computers with the creation of the ‟Turing machine” [14] and the thought experiment, ‟Intelligent Machinery”. [15] Turing also designed calculating machines, part electrical, part mechanical to crack the German Enigma and numerous other algorthyms to help crack encrypted messages vital for the German war machine. [16] In the mid to late 1940’s, Turing continued to apply himself to the big problem of the time, outlined in ‟Computing Machinery and Intelligence” [17], software for the Manchester Mark 1 [18] and developed the ‟Turing Test” [19] as a means to test if a machine is in fact intelligent.

❝ Turing was clearly a man of his time, able to influence the future course of computer technology to build a better world.

Turing was also a man born into the wrong time. Turin’gs crime was his sexuality. In a time where sexual orientation was not a choice but law, Turing was persecuted. Turing was subject to unethical medical procedures by the UK Government. The same Allied government who turned to ordinary people like Turing to help to defeat Germany. To defeat the Nazi regime and put a stop to the extermination of Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and anyone else who didn’t fit the plan for a master race.

The idea behind a social hack is to somehow change the way people behave, perceive and judge. A social hack is much harder to achieve than a playing around with technology. A social hack relies on being able to persuade other people to do something they might not originally think of, want or imagine possible. A good social hack is done to improve some aspect of society for altruistic reasons.

Recognition, gratitude, apology

Almost a month ago a UK Hacker and nerd, John Graham-Cumming, wrote about [20] a petition [21] he was organising to get the UK Government to formally apologise to Alan Turing.

An apology for the mistreatment he received on behalf of the government. Well almost a month later after many emails, blog posts, twits later, John persuaded the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown on behalf of the government of United Kingdom to publicly apologise to Alan Turing for his maltreatment and recognise the importance of Turing’s technical and scientific contribution to the war effort and science and technology in general. [22]

The most rewarding surprise is the discovery of existing members of Turing’s family who now get some closure on the matter. In 2012 it will be the centenary of the birth of Turing London on June 23. [23] For nerds and people who work in computing, the Turing year is going to be big. Maybe not as big as Y2K, but big enough.

So thank you John for this benevolent ‟social hack”. A reminder that Hackers do good things. A reminder that in a just society, people and Hackers alike should be judged by their achievements and not their race, religion, sex or orientation.


[0] ABC News, Reuters, ‟Brown sorry for code-breaker’s 'appalling' treatment”, [Last Accessed: Saturday, 12th September 2009]

[1] mit.edu, Bruce Stirling, ‟The Hacker Crackdown”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[2] Wikipedia, Storm botnet: In 2007 a Storm botnet controlled by criminal gangs estimated to total between 150,000 to 1 million P’Cs to enable a distributed denial of service attack. It was reported that up to eighty percent of the machines involved used Microsoft Windows operating system. [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[3] It has been known for Hackers have exploited their knowledge to gain access and excessive CPU access and I suspect the fascination for lock picking probably has a very practical reason behind it. Historically this was a necessity as access to precious processing time was limited. Limited enough to hack a solution. You can read more about early Hackers here by "Eric Steven Raymond", "A Brief History of Hackerdom", [Accessed Friday, 11th September 2009]

[4] Woz.org, Steve Wozniak, ‟Letters-General Questions Answered (Woz on hacking)”, [Accessed Friday, 11th September 2009]

[5] The confusion between Hackers and Crackers means to use the word Hacker means, ‟bad” to most people.

[6] catb.org, Eric Steven Raymond, ‟The basic difference is this: hackers build things, crackers break them.” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[7] Scientific American, Herbert H. Thompson, ‟How I Stole Someone’s Identity”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[8] Wikipedia, ‟A cognitive biases is a hickup in rational thought that can be used by Crackers to socially engineer a human for malevolent (bad) reasons.”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[9] Dashes.com, Anil Dash, ‟Bill Gates and the Greatest Tech Hack Ever”, ‟I have a bit of trouble with this one but it’s worth looking at despite the involvement of Microsoft.” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[10] mitadmissions.org, Michael Snively, ‟Hacking/Snively”s Blog: If you’ve never seen ‟Hackers” then you’re depriving yourself and should make a point of getting on that train.” I get asked about hacking at MIT a lot, which is natural;” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[11] Wikipedia, Ada Lovelace, ‟She is mainly known for having written a description of Charles Babbage’s early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine. She is today appreciated as the ‟first programmer” since she was writing programs-that is, encoding an algorithm in a form to be processed by a machine-for a machine that Babbage had not yet built.”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[12] computerhistory.org, Charles Babbage, ‟1849 is the year Babbage is reported to have created a version of his analytical machine.” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[13] alanturing.net, ‟Born 23 June 1912 in London, died 7 June 1954 in Cheshire, United Kingdom. Computer scientist, mathematician and cryptographer.”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[14] Wikipedia, ‟Turing machine”, [Accessed Friday, 11th September 2009]

[15] Wikipedia, ‟Computing Machinery and Intelligence. A paper written in 1950 for ”Mind” in which Turing discusses artificial intelligence, proposes the ‟Turing test” of intelligence and asks important questions such as, 'can machines think?'”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[16] Wikipedia, ‟Cryptanalysis: Where Turing works at Bletchley Park during the Second World War in order to crack German cryptographic cyphers.” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[17] abelard.org, A. M. Turing, ‟Computing machinery and intelligence” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[18] computer50.org, ‟Manchester Mark 1: By April 1949 was generally available for computation in scientific research in the University. With the integration of a high speed magnetic drum by the Autumn (the ancestor of today’s disc) this was the first machine with a fast electronic and magnetic two-level store. It in turn was the basis of the first commercially available computer, the Ferranti Mark 1, the first machine off the production line being delivered in February 1951.” [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[19] Wikipedia, ‟Turing test”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[20] jgc.org, John Graham-Cumming, ‟Alan Turing deserves an apology from the British Government”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[21] number10.gov.uk, John Graham-Cumming, ‟number10.gov.uk: E-Petitions: Submitted by John Graham-Cumming - Deadline to sign up by: 20 January 2010 - Signatures: 31,172” [Accessed Friday, 11th September 2009]

[22] number10.gov.uk, ‟Treatment of Alan Turing was 'appalling'⁙ [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]

[23] cs.swan.ac.uk, ‟THE ALAN TURING YEAR”, [Last Accessed: Friday, 11th September 2009]


bio Another Scrappy Startup ☮ ♥ ♬ ⌨

alt url seldomlogical.com/socialhack.html

contact Peter Renshaw