The Technium

Every Organism Is a Hack

Technology breeds hacks, little clever tricks to cheat the rules. More importantly, life breeds hacks. Every living organism cheats its way to survival. If life is any guide, then, for every rule about technological we can highlight, we’ll be able to find a technology that has hacked around that rule.

In an almost annual ritual, a large media company will announce the newest unbreakable copy-protection scheme, and in a matter of hours hackers in a far-away desperate country will have cracked it. It doesn’t matter how many double flip, 12-guage, flowbitz modulators the new scheme has, the hackers will game the system and devise ingenious countermoves that nullify the innovation. For the year or so it takes for the cheat to permeate the culture, the company has a small advantage. Within 12 months, any high school kid with access to an Internet café will be able to download a freeware program making it trivial to circumvent the new rule. Then the following year the preyed upon industry will release another advanced novel work-around sure to defeat the parasite. And of course the parasite responds with equal cleverness. It’s an arms race of innovation and counter-innovation, of hack and counter hack, of cheat and anti-cheat.

This type of technological arms race is quite common. It is always energetically easier to steal stuff than secure it yourself, both in nature and in the technium. Where ever there are public resources, there will be attempts to thieve it. For instance, the computation cycles of a computer are a valuable resource which can be robbed. Computer viruses are designed to do just that. A sizable billion-dollar-per-year anti-virus industry has evolved to counteract them. With money thrown at them viruses and encryption are diminished, but never eliminated. They are merely deterred via an ongoing series of hacks and counter hacks.


The escalating ping-pong pattern of an arms race can be seen in the long history of life on earth as it co-evolves with its environment and in the quick history of any technological commons such as computers. The first feral computer viruses were passed from one computer to another via floppy disks. They infected the computer’s operating system. Because it was well-defined, the system could be walled to prevent future infections. The virus writer’s response to this armament was to hitch the virus to an application beyond the operating system, such as a word processor or spreadsheet. When an infected file was opened, the application’s “macro” would execute the virus code. The defensive remedy for this was to measure the official size of the application and eliminate programs that grew in size as virus code was added to them. The counter move was then to have the virus program toss out an inessential hunk of the application code of the same length as the virus, and so remain at the same size, camouflaged in the computer.

The counter-hack to this hack was to monitor program codes to see if it ever changed at all. The counter-counter hack was to hitch the virus on email file, so that it never really resided in the OS. When the afflicted email file was opened, it would ingeniously send copies of itself to hundreds of other email addresses listed in the computers address book, starting a viral epidemic. The counter-counter-counter hack was for a PC’s viral scanning software to broadcast a message to other computers (via a virus scanning company hub) announcing that it was infected by a particular identifiable virus, and therefore they should all eliminate it.

Hack and hack-back is the mode for all resource-based technologies. Arms races breed the ornate complexity that marks modern technologies. This snowballing complexity is why devices are often hard to use, hard to debug, hard to visualize, hard to adapt, and hard to fathom. Their convoluted lifecycles are the result of past parasites and co-evolution.

We can see the pattern in many realms. Here I’ve listed various technological public resources, and the subsequent pattern of hacks and counter hacks which embroider that technology. 

Resource       Parasite           Defense

Copies           Encryption             Cypher Hacks

Computer Cycles             Computer Virus              Anti-Virus Scanner

Attention                      Spam             Spam Filters

Reputation     Search Page Rank            Search Optimization

Front Page Position      Social voting                Mob-cracking

The latest resource to be subverted is the attention-grabbing front pages generated by social voting systems, like Digg, or Reddit. As readers surf the web looking for important, cool, or dumb stories, they can click a thumbs up or a thumbs down on any story, and thereby rank it. Web pages that accumulate many ups and few downs, are pushed to the front page of the voting site. With millions of readers voting, the final front page winners receive a huge amount of attention. And where attention flows, money follows. Little traffic’d websites that are suddenly promoted to the front page of Digg or Reddit can receive millions of visits, triggering thousands of ad dollars or merchandize sales. There is, then, an irresistible motivation to hack the system.  One cheat is to pay readers to vote for a story (or as they say, to digg a story). But every social voting site quickly devises an immune system to detected this trick. To circumvent that defense, one guy came up with a brilliant counter hack. Here’s how a recent Wired article put it, with my comments in brackets:

Then there’s Spike the Vote, a sort of Digg-based pyramid scheme in which members earn one point every time they digg an endorsed story. Once members have enough points, they can submit stories of their own to be dugg by the network. [So far, the standard con, easily deflected.] Recently, Spike the Vote’s owner, known only as Spike, sold the site on eBay. [Um, nice try, but doesn’t advance the game.] A Digg user named Jim Messenger bought the site and gave it to Digg, which promptly shut it down. [Wow, that’s unexpected but….] But Messenger wasn’t just being altruistic. He bought Spike the Vote because he knew Digg’s followers would put a story about what he had done on Digg’s front page. [Brilliant!] This, he figured, would attract customers to his search engine optimization business. [Jackpot! He made the money he paid for the site back, plus.]

This is of course only the beginning of the infinite game. Technologies establish rules of engagement via their standards and protocols, but as soon as they are in place, new technologies come along that will break those rules. I can’t think of any generalization about technology that is not disobeyed by at least one invention.

The same thing is true of biological life. I can’t think of a single biological rule (rather than a rule of physics) that is not broken by some organism somewhere. There are many shared essentials that bind the realm of life: all organisms share a common DNA; genes are inherited from ancestors; sexual reproduction requires male and female; no information flows from the body to genes; But species survive by hacking these rules. Indeed, cheating the current game is the ONLY way species survive.

For instance take that last rule: plants make their own food, while animals don’t. Three or four different taxons in the tree of life contain species that make a living by cheating this expectation. These organisms form a symbiosis with tiny cells filled with chlorophyll. Their balls of green and brown, called zooxanthellae, are the same plant-like ones that fill the empty spaces of static calcified coral polyps and provide them food. But a few more radical organisms take the hack a bit further. They roam about totally mobile like a true animal, yet they feed off the solar power of their internal zooxanthellae symbionts. They are solar powered slugs, or jellyfish, like the sea slug Placida dendritica shown below. They are animals that grow their food inside them.

Solar Sea Slug

The zooxanthellae are the brown/green fuzz inside its tubular body. Curiously, since they don’t inherit the solar panels, not every Placida dendritica individual is able to secure these solar collectors from their environment; in those cases the slug is a lighter shade of purple-white, like its tail.

This trick of being green is a brilliant hack. It probably has tremendous value if it could be bio-mimicked in technological systems.  No doubt there are biological subversions to the hack, parasites that are trying to game the innovation. If there were technological equivalents of zooxanthellae, there would be technological parasites trying to take it down as well.

Every organism and every technology is hacking the system, trying to work around the established order, and break the rules. Out of this constant unruliness comes constant destruction, incredible inefficiency, inevitable disruptions, and amazing diversity. No trick is too outrageous, no rule too sacred. Every success is a hack that works, and anything that works is a hack.

  • Kevin Kelly


    I really should research more about the solar powered slug, but I don’t know exactlly how much power they get directly from the sun. That they get any is a neat hack.

  • While reading your post on co-evolution, I was thinking about an insightful article by Stuart Kauffman (Sante Fe Institute) in the McKinsey Quarterly quite some time ago. Topic: The Red Queen Effect. I hope this might be of interest to you:

  • morgan

    Nice ideas, thanks for sharing! I love your blog and will add it to my weekly reading list.

    The analogy here does not hold up when one considers the intentional aspects of technological development. A popular misconception in evolutionary theory is that the organism (solar panel slug) is some how in control of their destiny and intentionally passing on instructions to the next generation to get around challenges faced in their lifespan. The “hack” doesn’t really have the same meaning in the world of evolution since nothing there is intentional or deliberate, evolution is based on the compositional make up of the gene and there’s no intentionality involved, it’s a game of chance and probability, not a deliberate attempt by any one thing to get around the rules.

  • Stewart Brand

    Bloody brilliant, Kevin. Best survey of digital virus history I’ve seen.

    On the bio side, some say that sex (and death) arose as a hack solution to the problem of fast-evolving parasites.

  • I doubt if he was the first to think about the subject, but John von Neumann may have been the smartest modern thinker to write a monograph on The Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata.

    I am heartened to see that good writers like Kevin Kelly are carrying that tradition forward.

    Technology breeds hacks, little clever tricks to cheat the rules.

    It’s pretty easy to beat any system of rules — at least the kind of rules ginned up by politicians, lawyers, and other legislators working within the confines of word-based languages.

    It doesn’t take a whole lot of mathematical awareness to appreciate that functions beat rules hands down. For every rule, one can readily devise a function that outperforms it.

    Nature and technology are fairly competent at generating functional systems. A functional system can beat a dysfunctional collection of rules any day.

  • YS

    Another terrific piece.

    I’m curious about these organisms in the last part — does that mean they only have to eat a limited number of times in their lifespans until they’ve acquired enough zooxanthellae to become fully self-sufficient? Or do the symbionts just become something like a major food source that nonetheless must be occasionally replenished or supplemented?