by Alec Custer
In the popular Pokémon video game series, players can use any of the in-game PCs to “release” their unwanted Pokémon back into the wild. Once a Pokémon has been released, it permanently disappears from the player’s inventory, never to be caught again. It’s left up to the player’s imagination just how these rejected Pokémon are returned to the outside world, or of what their futures hold. It’s a surprisingly cold and mechanical process, especially considering how much importance the series places on forming close emotional bonds with your captured monsters.
Despite its place within a fictional, virtual world, this anecdote of using a digital interface to “release” a physical thing into the material world is incredibly relevant to my hack. Interestingly, the Davidson College Library website uses similar language of “releasing” to describe the process of using the PawPrint system, a software that lets students and faculty wirelessly transmit documents from a personal or school computer to a compatible on-campus printer. The online FAQ instructs users to “swipe your CatCard at one of the PawPrint printers to release your documents.” Though I’m not sure I’d go so far as to argue for some deeper meaning behind that instruction, the word “release” does have significant connotations that a more typical verb (namely, “print”) lacks. “Release” implies relinquishing ownership of something and making it available to the rest of the world. Players release their Pokémon, much like a biologist releases a once-injured animal; musicians, authors, and movie studios release their works to online and brick & mortar retailers; and government officials occasionally release classified documents to the public.
This language of making private things public doesn’t quite line up with the PawPrint system – at least not with its intended use. Typically, PawPrint operates according to the two-step process envisioned by its creators: students first print their own documents from a computer, and then pick up their own documents at a printer. For this hack, I sought to disrupt the standard process by exploiting the fact that the PawPrint software requires the user to enter a Davidson username (but not a password) before processing each job. Using this loophole, I was able to effortlessly forward documents to other students without their knowledge. The feat was made even easier by the fact that Davidson assigns all student usernames using the same formula of “first two letters of first name + entire last name.” This fact, coupled with my access to the student directory, meant that I had the entire student body as my mailing list. Over the course of three days, I used PawPrint to send send inane chain messages to roughly three hundred (mostly) randomly selected students. In doing so, I pushed the PawPrint software to more fully embrace its language of “releasing” documents. Whereas PawPrint typically never sees its documents change hands between printing and pick-up, my hack broke this trend and re-purposed a wireless printing service into a message forwarding one.
The notion of public interaction with a formerly private object was not only fundamental to the theory behind this hack, but also to its success. Much like the hacks of spaces we discussed early on in the course, my software invasion also demanded a public audience in order to succeed. The proposed hack of whispering and coughing into the library intercom loses its effect entirely if the library is empty, and in the same vein, my own hack falls flat on its face if students don’t complete the procedure and release their spam. From a few YikYak posts and overheard comments, I know that at least a few of my chain messages arrived in the hands of their recipients. But I’m also sure that a sizable number of my three hundred letters never saw the light of day, whether thanks to PawPrint’s 24-hour job expiration window or simply because people were leery about printing something they didn’t recognize. Certainly, I only needed one completed print job in order to declare the hack a success, but I succumbed early on to a desire to stir the pot. I forwarded as many emails as I could as quickly as I could in a desperate attempt to generate conversation about and awareness of my hack on campus. Thus while my software invasion was not a hack of a particular location, it depended on public recognition in the same manner as such hacks, and fought for the same goal of altering – however briefly and marginally – the collective consciousness. To borrow from Nick Montfort’s theorization of the five layers of software, this was primarily a hack of PawPrint’s outermost layer, its reception and operation, asking its users/readers/recipients to reflect on how they normally use and “make sense” of PawPrint.
Alright, but to what end? What sorts of thoughts did this hack inspire in its audience? Obviously, without talking to any of the poor recipients, I can only guess. I actually aimed to divert readers’ attention from the documents’ contents, for fear of letting the what overshadow the how of my PawPrint invasion. Early in my planning, I did flirt with the idea of positioning the contents at the center of the hack, and thought about filling my messages with images, advertisements, or gossip. Yet as soon as I realized the similarities between my misuse of PawPrint and the normal use of the now-archaic fax machine, I decided to prize the overall process and experience of receiving the documents above their actual contents. To this end, I filled each message with silly callbacks to another mostly extinct tech phenomenon: the chain e-mail. My hack thus warps the function and output of a familiar and modern technology to resemble two dated ones, calling attention to both. It’s a small but significant variation on a phenomenon we’ve discussed in class: once a technology breaks, we become more acutely aware of the technologies underneath. Here, by contrast, my misuse of a technology reveals not merely its own underpinnings but its ancestors’.