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A definition of computer hacking.

Computer hacking refers to the practice of modifying or altering computer software and hardware to accomplish a goal that is considered to be outside of the creator’s original objective. Those individuals who engage in computer hacking activities are typically referred to as “hackers.”

Let's suppose that there is another world and it's equivalent to electronics do to the material used and method of manufacturer the share certain properties with biological systems.

"Which ones?"

An Absence of Software.

Sensory organs don't need to be programed to sense, nor do legs need to be programed walk, or hands to grasp; their functionality is encoded by genes.

Genes could be thought of as the firmware of biological systems, they are also difficult and potentially dangerous to change. If changes are made it would take time for the effects of the change to come to fruition.

With this other world having an organic paradigm for the design of it's electronics analog how would computer hacking work if it was possible at all?

  • I can see something equivalent to the usage of to similar "Brain–computer interfacing", where to hack you connected a device to the system to be compromised and sent signals that supplanted the ones coming from the CPU.
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    $\begingroup$ I am not sure I get your question. Lungs are meant to let us breathe. But we use them also to inflate balloons at kids party. Would that be an hack? $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch Mar 27 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ If I'm understanding this right, you could spoof signals into the organic/hardware system using light or other forms of energy. Visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations are a form of this for the human body. $\endgroup$ – David Mar 27 at 13:37
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    $\begingroup$ "Sensory organs don't need to be programmed to sense, nor do legs need to be programmed walk", if that were true babies would be walking and talking on day 1, rather than doing so after 9 months of development and several years of QA and performance testing. $\endgroup$ – Giter Mar 27 at 13:39
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    $\begingroup$ You may want to read about phreaking, the subculture of pushing telecommunications devices beyond their designed functions; phreaking was the original source from where the hacker subculture sprang. How to dial a rotary-disk phone without moving the disk (because it's locked), how to convince a payphone you have paid withour paying, how to obtain free long-distance calls etc. etc. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Mar 27 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ your real problem is such computers will not be able to do anything we associate with computers today, they won't be good for calculations, modeling, statistics, or a thousand other things that rely on precision. $\endgroup$ – John Mar 27 at 13:44
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This is a Frame Challenge

Sensory organs don't need to be programed to sense, nor do legs need to be programed walk, or hands to grasp; their functionality is encoded by genes.

You're confusing various aspects of computer construction. Suggesting that eyes need not be trained to see is like suggesting that a computer doesn't need a graphics card to operate.1 It's true that no amount of programming will connect a graphics card, and (from the perspective of our metaphor) once connected, programming is "no longer required" to see the pretty picture on the screen.2

So, let's get our metaphors straight.

  • The existence of an eyeball is like a graphics card in a computer.

  • The ability for the brain to "see" using the eye ball is more like the BIOS component that allows a computer to comprehend the presence of the graphics card.

  • The ability to appreciate anything painted by Picasso is software.

Which is why we humans have the phrase, "an acquired taste."

There are a great many things our body can do with "BIOS." It can pump blood, breathe, blink, grasp, possibly even walk.3 But there are an infinite number of things that the human body (and brain) must be trained to do. Like riding a bicycle and mathematics. Indeed, the term "muscle memory" reflects the "software" (training) required to do something the body isn't simply "preprogrammed" to do.

How does this relate to hacking?

Traditional computer hacking means changing the software so it does something it wasn't intended to do. This may or may not be desirable (generally, it's always undesirable to somebody). But the human body can be hacked.

  • Theoretically, the genetics can be hacked to change how any aspect of the body performs. For example, you could change DNA such that a newborn would have ultraviolet spectrum sight. This would be similar to changing the graphics card.

  • Biologically, an existing brain could be physically altered to change how it interfaces with the body. Simplistically, the brain could be changed to blind the person. This would be similar to messing about with BIOS.4

  • Programmatically neurons & synapses could be modified to change how someone thinks about something, how they'd react to a situation, even the language they speak. This would be the equivalent of hacking software.

And we already have a word for it: brainwashing.


1Well, true, computers don't require a graphics card to operate, but if a human wants to play World of Warcraft it's required. Stay with me, this'll all make sense.

2This makes a lot more sense if you're old enough to remember how the Apple I computer worked.

3My jury's out on this one, BTW. I'd never want to test the theory, but I'd be curious to know if a baby, left completely alone (not even animals) and having no stimulus or reason to stand would nevertheless stand and walk. Maybe, but there isn't enough credible proof to simply make the claim, IMO.

4and anybody who's bricked a computer because they messed up a BIOS update knows that's a place where angels fear to tread.

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    $\begingroup$ Wow! We tackled this question in a very similar way! And posted at almost the same time, too! $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 27 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar, :-) it occasionally happens. Have some rep! Great minds think alike. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 27 at 14:37
  • $\begingroup$ Upvoted yours as well =D $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 27 at 14:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus the effect of drugs? I've seen malware/viruses hijack my browser (hallucination), I've seen it grind my CPU to a halt (lethargy) and spin my drive into oblivion moving data around (amped up, out of control). I'm not convinced the "super strength" that comes with PCP use can be duplicated, and I'm sure the computer can't be assessed to perceive anything as "desirable" (a "high"), but replicating the physiological effects - easy. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 28 at 23:49
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    $\begingroup$ re: PCP super-strength, isn't that just overclocking? $\endgroup$ – Jesse Amano Mar 29 at 17:35
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What makes you think that biological systems don't use software?

They do use software - and quite a lot of it. In fact, except some very selective functions around the body, almost every interaction you have with environment around you is governed by some sort of "brain software". The way this biological software is encoded isn't in zeros and ones, but what your synapses do is by no means that much different from what your computer is doing right now as you read this text.

In fact, I dare to say that biological systems use a much more complex software than the ones found in the regular silicon-based devices. If your engineers found a way to create devices that work by emulating living flesh biology, they are way way way way ahead than we silly humans.

They mastered an entire new form of software.

You are very offbase when you think that "grasping" is a functionality encoded by genes. Thinking about legs - what is encoded by genes is the functions PullMuscle(targetMuscle, Intensity, Speed) and ReleaseMuscle(targetMuscle, Intensity, Speed). It is up to the brain to figure out how to combine those in a way able to perform tasks. By trial and error, the brain eventually finds out the correct order of commands and the parameters needed to make a set of movements that enable walking, and by repeting those commands that work it eventually compiles this into a easy-to-use bit of muscle memory, that is stashed away and used as needed.

Nobody is born knowing how to walk or grasp or whatever. Our brains are just that good in making our fleshy hardware work even with limited instructions and information.

That's why you can learn how to dance, or how to play basketball, or how to drive. That's why using your mouse feels almost like using a part of your body - your brain learned and programmed itself to do so in a way that it is seamless to the conscious mind. MoveMouse(positionX, positionY, speed) is just besides GrabObject(...) inside your mind. Both of those came way after you were born.

Same goes for sensory organs - Somatic Sympton Disorder can be viewed as the brain bugging out and acting weird, causing sometimes things like blindness or deafness without any damage to the actual organs. It is no wonder that once the brain figures how to patch out and restart the broken "neural driver", this symptoms tend to go away.

They may come back again later tho - specially if you're still using Braindows Vista.

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  • $\begingroup$ Mixing metaphors is something that I worried about. I wanted a setting where the tech was much more physical and task specific, with altering/subverting it being more mechanical. Because so much of and why each part worked was built into it, in our terms firmware. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 28 at 12:57
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus The Nasa program used what you're thinking about - it is called Core Rope Memory. It is too bulky to be used in any semblance of portable stuff. And it was still software - changing a program for another one was a matter of just pulling a rope board and replacing it by another one. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 28 at 13:38
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Quite a bit ago, "programs" where mostly made of electronic parts and still could be easily swapped on and off. I see no reason why a civilization able to make advanced electronic devices wouldn't want to make it easy to change then as needed. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 28 at 13:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Keep in mind that even today software is purely electronic. The thing is that we made it so small and so easy to handle that it became something "different" on people's mind - but in the end, it is circuits all the way down. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 28 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus Keep in mind that even very old, analog and task-specific machines had a software of sorts in the form of plugboards to set them up for the task at hand. $\endgroup$ – T. Sar Mar 28 at 13:57
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I think you vastly underestimate the importance of epigentics to a degree that is really hard to overstate. The difference between an individual who is in a vegetative state due to a car accident and a Nobel Lauriate is almost entirely captured in things not within the genome. The pattern of synapses in a human brain is extraordinarily flexible. While there are some minimally hardcoded aspects, we know from research into those who suffer brain injuries that the brain is far more plastic than rigid. It is these systems that would be exploited by a hacker.

If you want a class act of an example, I recommend the TED talk by Apollo Robbins, The Art of Misdirection. In this 9 minute talk he both describes and demonstrates how he hacks the brain's software handling attention.

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  • $\begingroup$ What I'm looking for is what methods could be used to effect a system without going through software.Genetic modification is how you alter the functions of bio-systems, drugs are to. Artificially stimulating nerves is another. What else is there? $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 28 at 13:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Trismegistus The TED talk shows just how simple it can be. I mean, sure, you can get exotic, working towards Matrix style or Inception style plot lines, but it really is easier than we like to think. We are fundamentally reliant on our perceptions, and they can be fooled. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Mar 28 at 15:08
  • $\begingroup$ Misdirection is one, it's something that somebody with just a little tech savvy and a lot of legerdemain could do. I was trying to cover all bases on how someone who knew the setting's tech would attack it. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 28 at 22:51
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If interactions are possible, hacking is possible

Even in your posted definition of hacking: altering computer software and hardware - it's not only about the software. But let's set that aside for a second.

Anyone working on manipulating genetics (gene splicing, genetic modifications, etc) could be considered "hacking" the genes. In fact, a quick searches for "genetic hacking" and "hacking DNA" return a lot of interesting results.

Think of it this way: in the phrase "computer hacking", the word "hacking" is the noun and "computer" the adjective. Hacking is, broadly used, the manipulation of something outside the original design or intent.

You can also find hacking used in terms like "life hacks" and "food hacks".

So, if in your world, you find a way that doesn't have any type of computer software, the other elements and pieces of the system can still be "hacked". A hammer can be "hacked" to be a weapon instead of a construction tool. Any networking between computers can be "hacked" to send or receive fake information. Any physical system (robotic belt, machine, arm, etc) can be "hacked" by being manipulated in some way.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was stringing metaphors and terms together to try and get across my idea, a world where the tech was in our terms driven almost entirely by firmware. Much like how biological systems are controlled by genes. If you couldn't access a computer's software how would you subvert it's functions. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 28 at 13:24
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You probably use lab-made serums (injected via syringe), or actual viruses. Or maybe even a artificially-grown brain-thing that you use to hack into the machine

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to Worldbuilding.SE! We're glad you could join us! When you have a moment, please click here to learn more about our culture and take our tour. Generally, we prefer answers that are more than a sentence-or-two long that provide insight and justification for why the answer meets the OP's expectations. $\endgroup$ – JBH Mar 27 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ Here's the question, what would be the equivalent of interjection chemicals into a computer? I was using biological systems as an analogy for what i was envisioning, the settings devices aren't literally biological. $\endgroup$ – Trismegistus Mar 28 at 13:29

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