The next speaker at "Compromised Data" is Robert Gehl, whose interest is in critically reverse-engineering social media as a form of critiquing and producing alternatives to current social media platforms. This builds on reverse-engineering approaches in engineering, economics and law, on science and technology as well as software studies, and on critical humanism.
Reverse-engineering is a method of producing knowledge by dissociating human-made artefacts. Such knowledge is then used to produce new associated artefacts that bear some relation to the old. Some reverse-engineering has merely functional and pragmatic reasons, but in other cases reverse-engineering takes a more critical perspective, using for example in actor-network theory or conducting an ethnography of the infrastructure by following the actors.
Reverse-engineers do not consider technology to be ideal, but to be ready to be dis- and reassembled; to reverse-engineer is to accept the heterogeneities and explore the possible permutations of specific artefacts.
Reverse-engineering is forward engineering in reverse: it leads back from the finished artefacts to the design decisions originally made to bring then about. This utilises the artefacts themselves as well as the design documents used to develop them, the technical, organisational and social infrastructure which gave rise to them, etc. Reverse-engineering provides an antidote that new things are simply new: it traces their links to the past.
The legal aspects of reverse-engineering must also be considered here. It is legally protected in the US and Europe; the sale of an object is akin to publication, and the legal owners of objects are therefore entitled to probe them through reverse-engineering and away even (within limits) produce and sell copies of the original object. (The situation is more complex for digital objects such as software, however, and software companies continue to fight against more permissive legal frameworks.)
A critical form of reverse-engineering explores the political economy of production; it seeks out the contradictions within the objects it encounters, in order to plot out the ways forward toward a better system. Robert uses the example of TalkOpen.info as a short-lived alternative to Twitter, populated largely by some 250 hackers during its two-month run.
TalkOpen was a pragmatic response to the problems of social media. It pragmatically drew on the conventions of Twitter by providing a microblogging service, which users had already been trained in through their exposure to Twitter itself; it emerged during the Occupy movement, and was therefore motivated largely by and attempted to recreate the Twitter that was a key tool of free expression (during the Iranian revolution or the Arab Spring), rather than the latter-day Twitter with its much more commercial orientation; it built on StatusNet, an open-source platform which reverse-engineered Twitter technology under an open source framework (and thus under a legal framework which specifically permitted and encouraged reverse-engineering); and it responded to what was seen (rightly or wrongly) as Twitter's regime of censoring specific unwanted topics and hashtags.
The approach of TalkOpen's approach to reverse-engineering is to recognise the good in an existing technology and to embed it in a new technology which removes the negative aspects. While the specific project may have failed, this does not negate the possibilities inherent in reverse-engineering as such.