The Contested World of Civic Hacking

(Part of the Hot Spot series “By Any Media Necessary”

By Andrew Richard Schrock
Ethical Engineers?

Engineers of the 1960s and 1970s were vexed by the path their profession had taken. Many leaned to the political left and objected to the “military-industrial complex” that was promoting an agenda of technological progress through an escalating Vietnam War, the rise of nuclear technologies and a wasteful space race. The majority of engineers followed one of two professional paths: they swallowed their objections and continue to buttress the status quo, or quit in protest.

In Engineers for Change Matthew Wisnioski describes an awakening by a cadre of engineers who advocated for ethical reform while working within government and industry. In his words, “a small and vocal minority attempted to redefine engineering by rethinking the nature of technology through collective action” (p. 6).

Stephen H. Unger, one of these reformers, believed that because engineers were key allies for pushing against the tide of a rhetoric based purely on technological progress. His argument was that because engineers understood how technology worked and saw the inside of government, they were key to its improvement. In the introduction to Controlling Technology: Ethics and the Responsible Engineer, Unger describes his book as addressing:

7c39b34ab8d7d54653b1c3a6da7b152c.jpg“…the problem of democratically controlling technology for the benefit of mankind. Its central thesis is that such control cannot be accomplished entirely from the outside. Those who are developing and applying technology must take responsibility for the consequences of their work and participate in directing it towards humane ends. This must be done in cooperation with their fellow citizens, and an important part of their task is to ensure that the general public is properly informed about the technological alternatives, as well as about impending problems.”

Tech-savvy geeks in our current cultural moment are confronted with equally ethically dubious uses of technology by our government. Edward Snowden revealed that the same ideologies of openness that drive open data initiatives also enable a hidden back-channel of massive surveillance. Big data is the buzzword for extracting value from information, yet it is unclear what unintended consequences might arise from this speculation. Through a representative democracy we implicitly back the use of drones dropping munitions on targets tracked by no more than a cell phone, leading to civilian casualties.

In the current day hackers, rather than engineers proper, are often first to note and object to the intense contradictions in government’s use of technology and ideology that positions dire consequences as inevitable. Geeks and pre-geeks come to understand themselves as hackers through a variety of paths. Some become involved through free and open-source software (F/OSS), while others discover hacking through involvement in a hackerspace. These cultural offshoots can have vastly different histories, participants, goals and trajectories. Never the less, some boundary drawing is necessary to capture nuance in individual experience while denoting a family resemblance to serve as a provisional definition.

I approach civic hacking as both a system of government entities, organizations and residents cohered through open data and software production, and a set of tactics that seek “thick” or maximal participation in this system. Beyond this, competing definitions are emerging through competing top-down bureaucratic (open data initiatives, claims of politicians, policy making), organizational, and bottom-up (hackathons, decentralized software production) participation.

In this post I focus on the latter question — the nature of civic hackers’ political participation — by comparing civic hacking tactics to those used by two other strands of hacker culture. One employs an model of protest (Anonymous) and another is a corporate production culture that belies political ideologies behind production and a hacker lifestyle (Facebook). These strands serve as comparisons to situate civic hacking as a similar “third way” for political participation similar to Unger’s ethical engineers.

Digital Activism

First there are hacker cultures that are politically active through technology, either overtly or through shared work. Anonymous is a digital protest ensemble that is constantly undergoing changes in membership and technologies while members splinter off to engage in a range of issues and efforts. Their preferred mode of collective action — distributed denial-of-service attacks (DDOS) — started by being simply technologically disruptive and have moved towards taking advantage of online mediation in other ways. Molly Sauter traces how Anonymous, emerging from online culture, moved from “hacktivist” to distributed digital activism, co-evolving their tactics and enlarging their membership. In this way they moved from being framed as “a tool of direct action to a tool of media manipulation and identity construction.”

Anonymous predominantly operates on the internet, but also use any medium necessary to make themselves heard. As Rhea Vichot argues, offline modes can be equally vital. Her work describes how the emergence of Anonymous through Project Chanology and into the streets coincided with an understanding of themselves as a movement, troubling easy dichotomies of “online” and “offline” communities. In Sauter and Vichot’s work we can see how the digital tools used by Anonymous co-evolved with the needs of the group members’ tactics for protest.

Corporate Hackers

Wall At Check-in Station for Facebook

Then there are hackers for whom technology is simply integrated with their professional life. Facebook famously claims the terms hackathon and hacker. To Mark Zuckerberg, the “hacker way” simply means bootstrapping: “an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration.” At Facebook hacking is a mode of production disguised as a lifestyle. Employees have the luxury of living within a fast-paced world of technical challenges. They are assured by a constant stream of posters produced by their in-house art print shop that they are doing the right thing by connecting everyone in the world. They never have to confront the repercussions of this search for the next billion users.

Hackers have always crossed over into technical occupations as part of professionalization. Yet, Facebook’s love affair with hacking is something new. They invert hacking’s valence as a branding strategy to both drive and deny a political agenda. It’s tempting to lament Facebook as not being “real” hackers. But beyond that many Facebook employees are bright geeks, Facebook’s invoking of hacking has meaning for our current cultural moment. Here might be the sting in the tail of the oft-noted “pragmatism” of hacker culture when applied to corporations: as much as it unites hackers to work on shared political causes, it can also further a neocolonialist vision and easily slide into “solutionism,” in the words of Evengy Morozov.

Rather than lament hacking as being “overloaded,” in the words of McKenzie Wark, I argue we should “see what kinds of social forces are overloading them” (and examine where this might lead). Communication, both informational and ritualized, has been implicit in previous work on hacker cultures, identities, and publics. I’m interested in using communication through, around, and with hacking as an inroad to examining participation and power dynamics during a time of semiotic expansion.

Hacking as Civic Engagement

Long Beach Code for America Brigade, February 28th.

Civic hacking promises a mode of participation that lies between complicity and protest. At best, it might open up space for considering how hackers, geeks and pre-geeks can participate in civic causes. Technology is still an intrinsic part of a geek worldview — a source of intense debate and pleasure. Indeed, similar to other hacker cultures, civic hackers desire participation through technological production that values direct action and expertise over deliberation. As a cursory glance at related movements such as urban prototyping would suggest, there are also key differences. Unlike many hacker cultures, civic hacking confronts community-based social problems and embraces, rather than buries, identity and affiliation. In this sense, civic hacking is a “thick” mode of participation in community issues common to civic engagement.

There is another sense of local in addition to a focus on geographically-situated communities. The recent federal invoking of civic hacking belies how civic hacking and open data initiatives exist mostly at the local level. New York City, San Francisco and Chicago are held up as models of how to distribute open data and create new software, the dual lifeblood of civic hackers. To civic hackers, apps serve as working evidence: to provoke a conversation or encourage an initiative. There are certainly significant disputes among civic hackers as to what outcomes are possible, but center around software as objects that can travel and change opinions and processes. For example, Jacob Solomon (CfA fellow 2013) worked with San Francisco’s human services agency to create an app to improve the complex and difficult experience of receiving food stamps through re-thinking the process and integrating an SMS texting alert system. He describes the most important role of civic hackers is to “raise the value of user centered design in government.” Similar to Unger, he advocates for an humanist shift in the way bureaucrats employ technology.

Civic hackers are re-imagining of how government might operate, and engage with what Henry Jenkins refers to in the video introduction to these blog posts as a “civic imagination.” This notion is by definition speculative. But I should emphasize that civic hackers are not simply “white hats,” a friendly face to be contrasted with “black hats” engaged in activism. This dichotomy commonly used to describe hackers is coarse and perpetuates misunderstandings about groups’ goals and methods. Both activism and civic engagement engage with political causes and both can lead to positive change in law and government. Civic hacking is simply a different mode of engagement than other hacker cultures that engage politically in an activist mode (Anonymous) or not at all (Facebook). And it’s no less fraught with conflict.

High Stakes

Belief in technological progress has only gained momentum with an increasing reliance on code and open data at local, state and federal levels. Civic hackers are thrust on to a different sort of front lines. Despite the long odds, I argue that their voices and diversity of interests are important because they present a competing vision to the more prevalent top-down vision for civic hacking that draws on cyberlibertarianism and emphasizes mutual aid over government improvement.

Nowhere is this vision more palpable than in the rise of “civic tech.” The Knight Foundation recently described “civic tech” as framing for-profit “sharing economy” companies such as AirBNB and Waze as the connection between open government and community action. Even though some rightly saw this as a stretch, benefitting individuals through transactions rather than society, this corporate-friendly notion of “civic tech” is gaining traction. If you ask the corporate partners in hybrid hackathons what they are interested in, you will get vague responses about wanting to “extract value” and “seize opportunities.” This vision of civic hacking aligns with Crabtree’s initial definition from 2007 or O’Reilly’s notion of “algorithmic regulation.” For another day, perhaps, is a fuller discussion of how open data initiatives threaten to recycle perpetually just-on-the-horizon promises of software and sensors doing the heavy lifting of governance.

The second vision for civic hacking is more liberal-democratic and oriented around improving governmental processes. Efficiency is still a motivation, but it recognizes the encroachment of corporate interests as a central cause of concern and prefers limiting their influence, or even seeing open data as a way for governments to gain more control. Anthony Townsend makes such an argument in Smart Cities where he advocates for a “civic code” to go with open data initiatives and services built from them. He advocates for increasing public ownership, transparency, and careful use of crowdsourcing.

Townsend’s point was that relying on civic hackers could slip into their being a long-term source of free labor. Much of the future of civic hackers relies on the movements of corporate and government partnerships. There is ample disagreement here as well. Michal Migurski describes Code for America as part of a “shift in power from abusive tech vendor relationships to something driven by a city’s own digital capabilities.” In other words, quite opposite from David Golumbia, who sees CfA in a cyberlibertarian mode of driving businesses, Migurski argues that city’s production of open data can help it gain ground against these encroachments.

Civic hackers are on the front lines in a tangled world of infrastructure and rhetoric around technological progress and politics. At best, civic hacking evokes an alternative mode of civic engagement, modeling algorithmic citizenship through code and data that is simultaneously locally-instantiated and global. Few participants in hybrid hackathons share a vision of government disintermediation, as it’s difficult to employ solutionism when you encourage cultural specificity and include community organizers and activists in your ranks. Despite this potential, significant risks are emerging as governments fall into previous rhetorics of technological progress, and corporations draw on open data to sap rather than bolster public goods. These tensions through civic hacking and open data represent a critical moment in modernity, demanding engagement and participation even as they produce new and murky ethical dilemmas.


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