The new consumer, first, king, now hacker?


Paul S. Ottelini, a rising star at Intel is now being identified as the person most likely to be made the new CEO there.

In 1992, he was appointed a chief of sales and marketing, an appointment he protested. But it was his new position that helped him rise. His revelation:

“The history of the industry was the better-mousetrap syndrome: You build a faster thing and the world will beat a path to your doorstep. But as the industry matured, that no longer become the best way to look at the problem.”

Ottelini wanted to talk to the consumer, not just the engineers. This consumer-centric point of view prompted Ottelini to create the “right hand turn” that began to transform Intel from 2001 onwards. Co-workers say Otellini helped “push an entire company from where it [was] most comfortable.” The consumer was now “king” at Intel. Naturally, we’re pleased to see that this fundamental notion of the marketing literature (usually attributed to Theodore Levitt’s influence in the 1960s) has now come to rest at Intel.

Intel’s change of heart comes perhaps not a moment to soon. For there is evidence that the consumer is shifting from king to hacker. The Wall Street Journal reports that there is a “growing breed” of hardware hackers who “rip apart gear to change both form and function.” No sooner have videogames, cell phones and other gadgets hit the shelf that useful “hacks” appear on line.

Joseph Torrone has just published a book called “Hardware Hacking: Have Fun While Voiding Your Warranty.” There was a time when software hackers got all the attention, but Mr. Torrone recently gave a talk at Las Vegas tech conference to a crowd that was standing room only. Recently, the MIT-trained engineer, Andrew “Bunnie” Huang figured out how to hack the Xbox motherboard. Microsoft responded but their supplier Nvidia was left with a surfeit of old chips and took a $21 million dollar write-down which they blamed on the “MIT hacker.”

It is unlikely the ordinary consumers will ever demand this degree of control over the technology but it seems to me we are looking at a familiar lifecycle here. In the early days of technology, the engineers know best. No one consults the consumers. Competition enters the scene and now it’s necessary to supply what the consumer actually wants. Eventually, even this is not enough. The consumer, acting not as kings, but hackers, being to rebuild according to their own specifications. The final moment of responsiveness comes from the consumers themselves.

We have seen this sort of thing happen in the realm of consumer products. Susan Fournier of the Tuck School at Dartmouth observed the consumer effectively reinventing product meanings for their own purposes, happily indifferent to what the corporations had in mind. (We may see these consumers as descendants of the Fluxus art movement, the way Greil Marcus sees punks as descendants of the Situationist International.) It is now widely supposed in certain marketing circles that consumers routinely “hack” the meanings of a brand and reengineer them as they wish.

I can hear the engineers (tech and brand) rubbing their hands with delight. Fine, let’s go back to giving them what we want. They are just going to hack them anyhow. But, no, the tech and the brand have to be within shouting distance of the consumer to have any hope of finding a consumer prepared to hack them. The corporation still has to do its homework. It has to consult the consumer carefully and often.

But there is a larger challenge on the horizon. Andrew Zolli gave a presentation to the Global Business Network recently in which he noted the Andre the Giant phenomenon, the practice of stenciling an image of a former wrestler on billboards. This was an effective hijacking of commercial messaging for non commercial purposes. He also noted the “all your base are belong to us” phenomenon where kids demonstrate a new ability to handle the messaging technologies. We may add to this, Burning Man, the art/tech festival that is described as an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression” and held each year at Black Rock, Nevada. We may add to this the torrent of zines that appear each year, and the reinvention of pop culture that takes place continually, best described by Henry Jenkins of MIT. This represents a hacking of the very technologies of communication.

Where culture leads, commerce must follow. This is what makes it more responsive to innovation than social arrangements that privilege elites and other “smart pants” who believe, like engineers, that the world should come to, or at least conform to, “us.” But now that the consumer acts less like a king and more like an anarchist, commerce really has its work cut out for it. Keeping up with the “consumer hacker” will pose a new challenge, encourage a new ferocity of interaction, and create a new dynamism.


Duncombe, Stephen. 1997. Notes from Underground: Zines and the politics of alternative culture. New York: Verso.

Forelle, Charles. 2004. So Your Roomba Vaccums…Does It Also Take Pictures? Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2004.

Fournier, Susan. 1998. The Consumer and the Brand: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research. Journal of Consumer Research 24, no. March: 343-73.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual poachers: Television fans & participatory culture. Studies in Culture and Communication. New York: Routledge.

Marcus, Greil. 1989. Lipstick Traces. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Rivlin, Gary and John Markoff. 2004. Can Mr. Chips Transform Intel? New York Times, September 12, 2004.

Andre the giant “obey” website: here

“All your base are belong to us” video here

Burning man website here

5 thoughts on “The new consumer, first, king, now hacker?

  1. Steve Portigal

    Check out

    The story of how Shepard Fairey created the various Andre memes (the first was the deliberately nonsensical “Andre the Giant Has a Posse”) is pretty cool, there’s a great short film at (I don’t know if you can watch it or just purchase it) that tracks some of the earliest days. I quite enjoy spotting the corruptions and evolutions of it I find whenever I travel (I have a photo of Andre Agassi Has a Posse from Tokyo, for example).

  2. Gabriel Rossman

    It’s interesting that the basic design can facilitate or hinder hacking. In software this is obviously the main reason for Half-Life’s success, but I wonder how many hardware products owe their popularity to a tinker-friendly design.

    I remember reading about an inventor who made insect robots that worked by direct stimulus response but when he took the design to toy companies they insisted on replacing his direct sensor-motor connections with a microchip, to make reverse engineering more difficult. On the one hand, you have something like a tivo, where it uses off the shelf parts and open source software.

  3. Grant

    Steve: Thanks for the details. I heard somewhere that Shepard Fairey is now a brand for hire. So much for his outlaw status! Best, Grant

    Gabriel: Thanks. Yeah, you would think open source would be the way of encouraging, allowing consumers to adapt the technology (or the brand) for their own purposes. The first example I remember of this was a modest but interesting one. When they built Regenstein library at the University of Chicago, they waited to see where would people would approach the library before installing the sidewalks. In any case, open source allows the consumer to customize and as long as corporations are a step behind consumer expectation, this has to be the way to stay in touch. Still, lots of corporations will insist on closed source and this will make open source a competitive advantage for players with their wits about them. Thanks, Grant

  4. steve

    These kinds of generalizations make me nervous. It seems to me that the earliest stages of the product cycle are at least as much dominated by hacker-consumers as the later ones. Think about ham radio, early PCs, hi-fi systems, early automobiles, etc. In each case, only a fairly sophisticated user could even handle the product, and there was lots of hacking and trading of intormation and tips. It’s also clear that delivering a foolproof and aesthetic experience often involves giving up some modularity and hackability–that’s why Apple’s stuff is both pleasing and hard to hack.

  5. Robin

    I have a friend who has an Xbox with a Wi-Fi Card and a 250gig hard drive. Not only does it have all his games on it, but it acts as a media server for his entire 2000+ CD collection. What’s funny is this is Microsoft’s vision of the future of Xbox. My friend just didn’t want to wait for MS to build it. So I guess there is consumer group in front of early adopter. Early Adaptors.

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