Hackasaurus, X-Ray Goggles for the Web

Atul Varma wants everyone to know how the worldwide web works. He envisions a generation of web makers: people as at home in the code language underlying the web as in the sites and social media tools that sit on its surface. This vision led Varma to spend the last year developing a neat new online tool for youth, called Hackasaurus.


Sponsored by the Mozilla Foundation, makers of the popular Firefox web browser, Hackasaurus is essentially a pair of digital x-ray goggles, which youth can use to see through the surface of any web page to view the underlying HTML code. The tool allows them to play with and easily modify the code and instantly understand how modifications affect the content and appearance of the web page. In this way, youth can hack into, rewrite and remix any piece of online content from within their local computer browser--and even share remixes with friends--without altering the source code on which a web page's original appearance depends.

For Varma and others on the project, being a hacker is a good thing. The term suggests a person fluent in the language underlying common systems and tools, someone with the curiosity and courage to take them apart and reassemble them in new ways in answer to particular needs. This is the impulse behind much innovation. It is also the impulse behind the worldwide web's original design as an open-source system of flexible building blocks anyone can assemble to share information that is readable by any web browser on any computer anywhere on the planet.

"When I was growing up in the nineties," Varma recalls, "my peers, we all knew HTML. To be online back then you needed to know how to code. Then a year or so ago it hit me: all these amazing things happening on the web now, all these applications and new kinds of social media, are really just an evolution of a language everyone was using back then. And that people might be forgetting the value of that language."

A couple decades into the internet era, it is easy to forget the radical vision that gave rise to the web as an open-source information system and made possible all the slick new applications and interfaces we depend on. Forgetting this vision is especially easy for the growing number of young people whose only affordable access to the web is through mobile phones and mobile applications, where source code--and often URLs--are hidden, and unregulated wireless carriers freely restrict access to certain types of information and interactions. The Pew Research Center estimates this total population at about 18% of African Americans in the U.S., 16% of Latinos and 10% of Caucasians. For this population, the expectation of the web as an open system and public good is already in peril, and with it their power to participate creatively as builders and innovators in the web's continued evolution.

In his book Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford chronicles an analogous transition in the attitude of Americans toward machines. He reminds us that, once upon a time, most every driver had enough practical knowledge of a car's inner workings to attempt some basic repairs, whereas today most drivers cannot imagine what goes on under the hood. The car has become an inscrutable system that either functions well or is replaced. And this loss of collective hands-on knowledge has altered expectations around the openness and, ultimately, the repairability of a car's many systems. But Crawford goes deeper. He argues that losing the ability to tinker with the tools we use amounts to a loss of satisfying kinship with and mastery over the material world. And it may be that out of this sense of mastery came much of the innovation and dynamism upon which America's reputation as an economic powerhouse rests.

In the internet age, the Hackasaurus project strives to deliver teens a similar sense of mastery. "Using the tool has already proved incredibly empowering for the teens we co-developed it with," observes Jessica Klein, Design and Learning Lead on the project. She goes on to tell the story of one seventeen year-old youth from the Bronx. At a recent test of the tool in New York City he spent hours writing a story about his own life, then, with one click, inserted it as a top story on the New York Times home page. There was a moment of surprise and sheepishness, when he looked around the room as if he had broken something. Then he sat back from his laptop with a smile of deep satisfaction. "For him," Klein says, "in that moment, the web became a different place, full of possibilities. And not just about posting or sharing content. But about participating in the code itself, in the universal architecture of online experience."

Image: flickr/oxymoronical