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.

Laughing about the unspeakable: Using humor as a medium to talk about rape

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

By Kari Storla

Warning: Links in this article will direct you to websites that contain discussions of sexual assault. While nothing explicit is mentioned in this post please proceed with caution.

How do you speak about the unspeakable? When we want to address an issue that is at best often talked around and often not discussed at all, does it matter what medium we use? Magazines, TV, the Internet—if something is a taboo subject, what difference does the technology make? Potentially quite a lot. You can argue—and I certainly would—that the simultaneously lauded and decried potential for being both anonymous and/or physically removed from the conversation can allow for more frank discussions about rape and rape culture. However, talking about things online, however helpful it can be, is by no means a cure-all.

Talking about the taboo requires thinking about how we communicate in new ways. Sometimes that means adopting new technologies, but it can also mean communicating in a different manner. This requires a different way of thinking about what, exactly, a medium is. Often when we think about a medium, we think about a technology. We discuss how the advent of the Internet changed (or didn’t change) the ways that we communicate. We classify our entertainment based on what technology they use—film, video games, written word, etc. Media have become synonymous, in many ways, with technology. All of that is important but it also presents a very constrained view of what a medium can be. Rather than just viewing media as technologies, we can also think of them as ways of communicating, regardless of the technology used.

Presenting things in a non-intuitive way can be one method of generating conversations around a taboo subject, for example, using humor to talk about rape. We won’t expect discussions of rape to use humor—the contrast between the two can be an effective way of talking about something we otherwise have difficulty discussing. Humor is a medium that can be used in order to address issues in ways that non-humorous approaches can’t.

In regards to using humor to talk about rape, a prime example of this is Jessie Kahnweiler’s short film, “Meet My Rapist” (previously available on YouTube but has since been made private; it was recently shown at the Slamdance Film Festival). The film is an imagining of what would happen if Kahnweiler (quite literally) ran into the man who raped her years before. It explores a number of questions that cannot be answered in real life: what would their interactions be like? What would she say to him? How would other people react as the rapist tags along to family dinner? Through the nearly silent but omnipresent figure of the nameless rapist, always in the background as Kahnweiler goes about her day-to-day life, the film explores the ways in which rape can continue to affect someone in the long-term.

According to Kahnweiler, “A lot of what’s out there now makes it really easy for the audience. Like ‘yeah, rape is bad, I don’t like rape either!’ But it’s not doing justice to the reality of rape culture right now. The conversation tends to end before it even has a chance to begin.”  “Meet My Rapist” is an effort to change that, to start up continuing conversations. It does so through the medium of humor.

Ms. Magazine explains that the film works on the basis of “the matter-of-fact nature of each scenario and of Kahnweiler’s dealings with the people around her, who simplify and co-opt her experience to the point of absurdity.”  One scene depicts Kahnweiler informing a friend that she was raped. Her friend immediately launches into a barrage of questions: “But were you like really raped? Were you drunk? Was he cute? Was he white?” The scene is played for laughs, especially a bit later when Kahnweiler’s friend hunches over and sniffs that “as your friend, this just really affects me,” leading Kahnweiler to ask, “can I do anything for you?” It’s certainly not the way we think telling someone that you’ve been sexually assault should go.

And yet, reactions and misconceptions about rape like the ones voiced by Kahnweiler’s friend are unfortunately all too common. The humor of the situation, the fact that such situations seem so absurd on the surface and yet ring so true to the experiences of many who have been sexually assaulted, is what generates conversation.

Of course, the use of humor in regards to discussions of rape isn’t something that everyone approves of. There are ongoing debates about whether or not rape jokes can ever be funny and, if they can be, what does a “good” rape joke look like. (Here are a few samples). Issues surrounding rape jokes have recently popped up in the news again, being featured in an episode of Law & Order: SVU and also being part of a school news report on rape culture that led to future content of the school’s publications needing to be approved by administrators. Still, regardless of whether or not a rape joke is good or not, or whether any humor about rape is well intentioned, there are going to be some people and some circumstances where humor isn’t the right approach.

Sure, humor can open up a lot of doors to conversations that might not otherwise happen. But that doesn’t mean it should be the only medium we employ to speak about the unspeakable. More solemn modes of communication have their purpose as well: Patricia Lockwood’s poem, “Rape Joke,” for example, or Project Unbreakable, which showcases photographs of people who have been sexually assaulted holding up signs that describe their experience

The idea isn’t that one of these methods is better than the other. Rather, it’s that they each do different things. The use of humor doesn’t negate the possibility for “real” discussion, but it isn’t the only avenue for it either. What’s important isn’t that one medium is always chosen over another, but that all appropriate media are used in order to communicate effectively and generate dialogues. Talking about rape, rape culture, and what we can about them, are important, however we start those conversations. It’s not so much a matter of “by any media necessary” as it is “by every media necessary.”

I, Too, Am USC

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

By Diana Lee

“Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are devalued, our presence is questioned – this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”

Launched on March 1, 2014, “I, Too, Am Harvard” is a photo campaign that features portraits of over 50 black students at Harvard College holding up dry-erase boards with handwritten examples of racist comments, microaggressions, talk-back messages and quotes, or other difficult interpersonal and institutional interactions they’ve experienced as students at Harvard College. Touching on issues of tokenism, assumption of lack of intelligence, the myth of meritocracy, color blindness, devalued and dismissed perspectives, stereotypical exchanges, and other problematic interactions, the visually impactful campaign resonated with many people and rapidly spread across the Internet, including inspiring minority students on other campuses to create and share similar projects (e.g., “I, Too, Am Oxford,” and “I, Too, Am OSU”).

Through the powerful images of black college students holding the racist comments or response statements in their hands, with “#itooamharvard” boldly printed next to their faces, the Tumblr campaign challenges stereotypic representations and public imaginings of who attends and belongs at our nation’s universities, increasing visibility of not only a diverse group of black students on Harvard campus, but also working to shed light on the kinds of institutionalized and interpersonal racism students of color face on a daily basis.

Race (together with other aspects of identity, like gender) is a fundamental, hierarchical organizing system in U.S. society, and the way we interact within our institutions, systems, and interpersonally are governed by our respective positions (or perceived positions) in the matrix. The extent to which these identities and positions are challenged also changes depending on context. Contrary to the idea that race doesn’t matter anymore because we have a black president and are post-Civil Rights, racism is unequivocally not a thing of the past, nor does it only manifest in intentional, individual, overt acts of discrimination. As illustrated by the many examples in “I, Too, Am Harvard,” racism oftentimes takes the form of microaggressions.

“Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010, p. 5).  The key here is that unlike overt, deliberate acts of discrimination, microaggressions are frequently unintentionally committed, with the perpetrator either unaware of the actions or comments, or considering them to be neutral or even positive (for example: “You’re so articulate for a black person”). Although each individual microaggression may seem to be small and easily brushed off, the impact comes from the cumulative experiencing of these interactions, which “have the lifelong insidious effects of silencing, invalidating, and humiliating the identity and/or voices of those who are oppressed” (Sue, 2010, p. 66). Microaggressions have tremendous effects on the well-being of individuals, including impacting short and long-term psychological and physical health, and impeding equitable access to educational and employment opportunities (Pierce, 1995; Solórzano et al., 2000; Steele, 1997; Sue et al., 2007; Sue, 2010; Yasso et al., 2009).

For those of us who care about access, justice, and equity in formal and informal educational spaces, this is something we should take seriously and work to address, now.

Aside from first understanding and acknowledging that these interactions occur and are in fact important (which is another thing “I, Too, Am Harvard” effectively makes you do), it is also important to think about how best to support students who have already been experiencing these kinds of interactions, for years. Some of the key protective factors against microaggressions have increasingly been researched by scholars, and they include helping people cope and learn to navigate these situations through building supportive peer and mentoring relationships, and communing with communities of people with similar experiences.

“I, Too, Am Harvard” is an example of young people anchored in supportive peer groups and communities, coming together to take a stand both on and offline against institutionalized, systemic, and interpersonal racism. The photo project is part of a larger campus movement seeking to raise awareness and change institutional practices and policies regarding racism on college campuses. Like the genesis of so many other powerful movements, the organizers came up with the idea for the campaign rooted in their own experiences and in conversation with friends and community members. Sophomore Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence wrote a play called, I, Too, Am Harvard, based off of 40 interviews with black students on campus she conducted last semester, and fellow student Carol Powell photographed the Tumblr photo project participants. Both students are members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the oldest existing Black organization at Harvard, whose website states that “Kuumba strives to do what we can with what we have to leave a space better than it was when we inherited it. This essence permeates our performances, our community work, and the relationships we build with others.” Where are these spaces and people on your own campus, workplace, or community?

Young people are increasingly using the Internet – through blogs, spoken word, comics, gifs, Facebook and Twitter hashtags, Instagram and Tumblr movements, videos on YouTube, and more – to connect and organize online and offline, using whatever tools and resources they have to actively participate in their world, including, in this case, challenging limited and problematic conceptualizations of race in the U.S. and beyond. The students that started “I, Too, Am Harvard” used their experiences and resources and put forth this campaign that resonated with a lot of people domestically and internationally, inside and outside of college campuses. They came together, organized, and stood up, collectively saying, “This is not ok, we are here, and we belong too. This is a problem. What are you going to do to help?”

Administrators, faculty, and school staff can ask what structures, systems, and organizations are in place for students to share and learn how to address these kinds of experiences in a receptive environment that does not silence their voices and invalidate their experiences, nor unfairly place the burden of change on the students experiencing these daily forms of racism (and other forms of -isms). Students of color are already asked explicitly or taken implicitly to speak on behalf of their racial, ethnic, or national groups. In addition to the cumulative everyday burden and stress of micraoggressive and oppressive institutionalized interactions, a top-down approach to addressing these kinds of issues perpetuates the inequities and misses an opportunity to collectively address these problems. And furthermore, this false dichotomy I’ve emphasized so far, between students and staff, is only used to illustrate different power dynamics and positionalities within colleges and universities. Faculty and staff of color (and those of other marginalized groups) also experience microaggressions in multiple directions (from bosses, peers, students, etc.). This is a huge issue that impacts the everyday lived realities of a lot of people.

We live in a society where multiple, interlocking, hierarchical organizing systems (such as race, gender, class, sexuality, nationality, ability) are systematically working to maintain and perpetuate privileged groups benefiting unequally over others, and these systems are replicated in our institutions (such as schools) and interactions (such as with microaggressions) at the political, economic, and cultural levels. If we can agree that putting the common good above individual interests ultimately serves to benefit us all, once again the question then becomes, what can we each do, with where we are and what we’ve got, to help make this whole system work better for more people? Whose voices are being heard? How are people at all levels being included in the process of working together to identify issues and come up with short and long-term solutions? The students have spoken. What will be the response?


Pierce, C. M. (1995). Stress analogs of racism and sexism: Terrorism, torture, and disaster. In Willie, C., Rieker, P.P., Kramer, B., Brown, B.S., (Eds.), Mental health, racism, and sexism (277-293). Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press.

Solorzano, D. G. (1998). Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11(1), 121-136.

Solórzano , D., Ceja, M., Yosso, T. (2000). Critical race theory, racial microaggressions, and campus racial climate: the experiences of African American college students. The Journal of Negro Education, 69, No. 1/2, 60-73.

Steele, C. (1997). A threat in the air: How stereotypes shape intellectual identity and performance. American Psychologist, 52, 613-629.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

Civic Data Hacking and Government Open Data Initiatives

This is an initial post thinking through the implications of “civic data hacking” as part of an ongoing collaborative research project.

James Crabtree positioned civic hacking in 2007 as “not primarily about representation, participation, or direct access to decision makers.” Rather, it’s about “mutual-aid and self-help.” The central idea is that reciprocity and knowledge aggregation on the internet can be leveraged to improve community well-being through work on shared projects. This is a personal, thick and impactful form of participation, in Ethan Zuckerman’s terms. More recently, civic hacking has been used to describe efforts working within government efforts, particularly the Obama administration’s alignment with “Gov 2.0,” which includes leveraging social media and transparency for social change. Governmental organizations have taken to using hackathons to increase citizen involvement with data, working within limited resources to accomplish complex tasks in a short period of time. To government entities, “hackathons” can be a way to employ data sets, involve outside participants, and serve as PR. In this reading, civic hacking is a seamless melding of government goals for efficiency and community improvement and hackers’ relishing of a challenge and venue to demonstrate technical prowess. I’m calling this practice “civic data hacking” to differentiate itself from other ways hackers become civically engaged, such as activism (hacktivism), and encounters with different types of materials (hardware hacking, bio-hacking).

Hackers have a long history of using technology to develop expertise and bring about change. While the term refers to many different types of motivations and affiliations, code is their primary voice, and they are united in a belief that “information should be free.” This gives meaning to Lawrence Lessig’s coining of “code is law” to describe how computer programs are a powerful mode of regulation on the Internet. Through Gabriella Coleman’s perspective, the politicization of hackers is a relatively new development and doesn’t fall neatly along a traditional left-right axis. Hacker subcultures have come to understand the importance of code as free speech through legal conflicts that criminalize activities of members. From quite a different place, hundreds of hacker and maker spaces (HMSs) have emerged worldwide to provide a physical space for tinkering and collaborative learning. Here there is – as with hackers more broadly – a wide range of types of civic engagement. Some HMSs closely align with local organizations and donate effort to charities, while others exist mainly as for socialization. Still, I would argue that even these HMSs serve as significant spaces for members to connect with technical knowledge and collaborative possibilities. These shifts in hacker culture have reduced barriers to entry, encouraging possibilities for political awareness and self-expression.

Government players imagine hackers as interested in solving pressing social dilemmas by sorting through and crunching piles of data. Indeed, hackers have always been interested in organizing around causes that threaten a free flow of information. However, this redefinition clashes with hackers’ distain of authority and enthusiasm for openness during the current cultural moment. In the aftermath of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, widely viewed as stemming from an over-zealous prosecution, the government is seen as an unreliable steward of the people’s interests. Because the government can use sufficiently vague laws such as the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) to prosecute individuals, they are able to define acceptable uses of information in various ways to suit political goals. This makes hackers and F/OSS enthusiasts nervous, as “open access” is a radical and complete transparency, not just a convenient way to crowdsource work. Transparency is a political imperative and the rules are non-negotiable. In response, many hackers have dismissed civic hacking as a move to co-opt the term. However, this neglects what could be beneficial outcomes. Hackathons can reach outside the scope of groups who would traditionally consider themselves hackers, which tend to be closed and paranoid. Results of hackathons include code, functional apps, and other assets that be instructive to more diffuse, internet-based publics. The term “hacker” has already been repurposed to describe various types of groups that don’t share much in the way of common lineage. If anything, the term “hacker” has proven to be infinitely mutable and slippery.

Might civic data hacking’s invitation to participate and code serve as a meaningful form of “thick and impactful” civic engagement, despite these conflicts? Government entities see hacking as a motivation and opportunity to partner with various local organizations to promote various open data initiatives. As Kevin Driscoll points out, government has a long history of taking an interest in amateur technical cultures. Yet, hackers have political perspectives of their own, even around many of the same terms such as open-access, and many bristle at the attention. While it’s clear that the government won’t permit embarrassing information to come out of hackathons, working with code and data is a qualitatively different type of civic engagement. It seems reasonable that hackathons could lead to positive effects to citizens such as learning and more direct relationships with government entities. Apps are currently a buzzword tied to hackathons (there is even a “Civic Apps Competition Handbook”) but are really no more than mobile software that can be easily developed and deployed to increasingly popular mobile devices. Government entities can lack forethought about the last mile of open access, and put information online in obscure locations or locked in formats like PDFs. Perhaps civic data hacking is best framed as a kind of investigative journalism, where participants are free to uncover more effective ways for citizens to view data and access government services, even if they retain a certain cynicism about the endeavor.

The Born This Way Foundation and Bullying

When I started my Ph.D at USC I was just wrapping up a major writing project for the Berkman Center working with danah boyd on online bullying and sexual solicitation. In retrospect, the latter has faded, whereas harassment and bullying remains an extremely pressing issue, particularly when exacerbated by LGBTQ suicides. In fall of 2009 there were few campaigns that were based on empowering youth. The alternatives were basically glorified PSAs, or astroturfed “online communities” that no kid would consider spending time on. That’s why Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation has me particularly geeked out.

Lady Gaga and her mother Cynthia Germanotta formed the Born This Way foundation, which was launched at an event last week at Harvard University. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation donated 1 million dollars, and Lady Gaga pitched in $1.2 million. It’s founded on three pillars:

Safety (creating a safe place to celebrate individuality)
Skills (teaching advocacy, promoting civic engagement, and encouraging self-expression)
Opportunity (providing ways to implement solutions and impact local communities)

Their press release talks of exploring the best ways to “reach youth and create a new culture of kindness, bravery, acceptance and empowerment.” Gaga was quick to describe the foundation as focused on grassroots “youth-empowerment” rather than just bullying, but this seems to be the first area they have staked out, as evident in the working papers assembled and hosted by Berkman and discussion at the event launch. Here is why I am hopeful that this is a valuable step forward:

1. Re-framing of bullying
As danah boyd and John Palfrey note in their 20 Elements that you Must Know (created for and linked from, ““Bullies” aren’t the source of the problem; they’re often a symptom of the problem.” Bullying is imbricated with a litany of other risk factors, including substance abuse, sexual abuse, and depression. Mary L. Gray, now at Microsoft Research, advocates for more education about difference, rather than linking homophobes to the “cause” of suicides. Generally, we have a “limited capacity to celebrate difference.” Weeding out bigots isn’t going to alleviate the problem. We need to offer kids an alternative that addresses environmental factors and a positive way they can act on their altruistic impulses through a transmedia activist network.

2. Helping youth connect and find their voice
One way we can think about how Born This Way can move forward is to think about how it differs from previous attempts to help LGBTQ youth. The “It Gets Better” campaign was started by columnist Dan Savage and his husband in September 2010 to address the serious problem of suicide among LGBTQ youths, who remain at increased risk. It eventually migrated to its own website, and now hosts over 30,000 videos. It was an admirable campaign focused on connecting and giving hope to LGBTQ youth. However it was also criticized for framing self-harm and suicide through the lens of the privileged white male who has the ability to move to a large city and go to college. It also presumes a certain type of environment, one that must flee to survive; Mary Gray’s In the Country, for example, presents a different vision of rural queer. Many of the suicides in recent memory (e.g. Tyler Clementi) have been college students, which opens up the possibility that not addressing bullying among youths merely leads to adults who exhibit the same behavior, and it’s hardly a “rural problem.”

I applaud the success of the campaign, but disagree with its framing of who has a voice and when. Saying “it gets better” is that it is a statement that you must wait for your life to get bearable. This is a reflection of the very dire circumstances youth find themselves in, but it also neglects to give youth a more empowering message. For many youth, it could be easily argued that it must get better NOW.

3. Transmedia Platforms
Participatory culture requires low barriers to entry and spreadable content to flourish. Gaga is well-situated to capitalize on her network. As has been pointed out, Gaga just passed 20 million Twitter followers, and unlike many celebrities, she also follows a good portion of them (140,000) back. Conversations and testimonials are also sparked on YouTube in the comments section of her videos. It Gets Better focused on the importance of video testimonials as a vehicle to deliver extremely emotional messages. Gaga has been a vocal friend to the LGBTQ community, such as when she thanked “god and her gays” at the 2009 VMAs (later clarified/expanded on the eve of the Equality March). It’s unclear the role of the Born This Way website; right now all features is a blog, basic information, and a way to post your picture on the site.

4. Celebrating Difference and Togetherness
One trick with capturing altruistic impulses through a movement is to still remain cool. As Amy Wilkins points out in Wannabes, Goths and Christians, “young adults employ freakiness as a mediating category between geekiness and cool” (p. 27). Goth dress style and “freaky bodies,” according to Wilkins, is shock tactic that lends greater power to their identity, while also being a marker of taste. Thus, Gaga dubbing her fans as “monsters” lets them define themselves, celebrating their difference by coming together through shared rituals and dress. This admittedly basic framing (I am side-barring for simplicity her music and very public history) stretches back to Stuart Hall and the Birmingham School of cultural studies. The question is if she can turn identity play into identity politics or a broader sense of community that avoids the pitfalls of Born This Way and can mobilize youth to change negative cultures and improve support networks.

The next step for us is to keep track of the foundation’s efforts while also comparing them to similar organizations focusing on LGBT bullying, such as the Make it Better Project, and participatory culture coming out of popular forms more generally, like the Harry Potter Alliance and Imagine Better.

Why Twitter’s hiding tweets by location accomplishes the opposite of censorship: It extends the reach of Twitter and censored tweets

There has been a huge amount of international discussion about Twitter blocking tweets based on the country in which you reside. If you’ve missed it, Twitter has publicly stated that if you make a tweet that your government claims breaks the law in your local country, they can request that Twitter block it. Twitter would then decide if they will fulfil the request. If they do, the tweet would not be visible in your country. The rest of the world would still be able to see the tweet.

Twitter is trying to thread a needle of being gaining entry to non-US countries while continuing to grow. They need to remain profitable through paid access to its firehose, promoted trends, and promoted accounts, all of which are research or marketing features. Alongside these very economic goals they also want to be a many-to-many communication medium for the entire world. It’s a pretty difficult thing to do — meet the requests of western marketers to sell products while providing a way for people to collude in the downfall of dictatorships.

You have to read between the lines a bit in their blog post: “we try to keep content up wherever and whenever we can, and we will be transparent with users when we can’t. The Tweets must continue to flow.” So let’s start a bit of deciphering to detail why I am not calling for a boycott of Twitter…

1. It is better that Twitter is mostly permitted in other countries than blocked entirely. Twitter cannot simply demand that countries let them into their corner of the Internet. Twitter functions because, like all Internet services, it relies on the layers of networking that make up the Internet. China has opted to try to block it, while during the “Arab Spring” it was heavily throttled in Syria. So there are examples of how a government can deem Twitter too much a risk and block it or make it unusable by fiddling with the inner workings of the Internet. As Nancy Messieh put it, “Twitter isn’t censoring you. Your Government is.” Asking Twitter to not delete tweets where they are breaking local law is a little unrealistic. Twitter will just cease to work in these countries if government or other entities muck with the underlying technology. Furthermore, it is better to have a technology with easy workarounds than an entirely unusable one.

2. Twitter has tacitly endorsed workarounds. Individuals have a long history of finding loopholes in online technologies. There’s currently an easy workaround to blocking by location that could easily be removed, but so far has not been. Other workarounds include proxy servers, which is one more complex way of getting around China’s blocking. Right now the workaround is exceedingly simple and known to anybody who cares to search.

Hey, I was just thinking, how easy would it be to make a Twitter bot use the takedown list to find and retweet from one country tweets that were banned in another, thus making the banned posts visible again? The answer is: really freaking easy.

3. Twitter will make all requests (complied and otherwise) public through ChillingEffects, which will amplify the “censored” topic. This point has been apparently lost in the vociferous objections to Twitter’s public policy of removing tweets. Google and others already have the same policy. This effectively turns the spotlight toward the governments or entities that made the request. In fact, it will probably amplify the message behind whatever the tweet was about, because the takedown requests appear to have enough information in them to figure out approximately what the objection was to the content. Remember also that people can view tweets in other countries.

Twitter is also not the only way word gets around online. It is one but not the only technology that can flow across borders, and works well in combination with blogs, news websites, and social network sites. Talk about an easy way for journalists to find their next story – what was the repressive government so concerned about that they tried to block it? Check the takedown request, find the offending tweet, then go interview the sender.

4. Takedown requests are woefully inadequate to keep up with Twitter traffic. Twitter is about what is happening right now. Fifteen minutes ago is old news. Hundreds of millions of tweets are broadcast every day. Twitter knows this when they state that “we are going to be reactive only.” A delay of even an hour basically ensures that someone else will pick up an important tweet and relay it. While this is not a guarantee that a voice will not be silenced, Twitter thrives on echos of its own users tweets, so it seems likely the important messages will get out.

In my last post I detailed how takedown requests (all 4411 of them) have been limited in scope (DMCA only), mainly UK/US, and clustered. In other words they have been made by western interests and involve US law (the digital millennium copyright act). China and Saudi Arabia racked up one request each. So far it has been a western conversation fueled by the same piracy concerns that have been around for years. It’s really nothing new. It remains to be seen when and how Twitter complies with other types of requests.

5. What are the politics of platforms? Do companies have different sets of obligations than other entities towards local space? This is the most important open question, and goes back again to the challenges of making money on marketing features while also providing a way for people to politically mobilize. Twitter was built as a platform rather than a program, meaning it has all the back-end functionality for programmers to easily build apps around the service. Tarlton Gillespie describes platforms as boundary objects, where companies and individuals can have competing visions of what a platform should do. For participants in the Arab Spring, Twitter is a symbol of freedom. For Twitter executives, it’s a difficult to monetize technology that has slowed in growth, and dammit, we need to keep expanding! (always and forever… sigh)

Right now users and Twitter are tenuously aligned. Executives want more people to use the service, while individuals want to be able to use the service in an unrestricted way. Yet, local governments have entirely different demands, as do protesters. So you see this delicate dance of wording and features play out over the last few days between Twitter and the rest of the world.

Platforms have also become part of physical space, which complicates frictions between the global and the local. As Eric Gordon and Adriana De Souza e Sila state in Net Locality, “The concept of the web as a metaphorical city has given way to the reality of the web as part of the city” (p. 9). We participate online in an endless series of short encounters that reference physical space as a kind of contextual linkage that may fade into the background, or revealed. A previous post of mine on the PIRT blog about Google Streetview is one example of problematic revealing. People are mostly objecting to Twitter’s decision because this could block online conversation from those who most need to participate in it. This is a very real and valid concern. But in the blocking, the conversation will be amplified through public takedown notices, and the tweets still visible from other countries.

So in summary… this is not SOPA. SOPA would make entire domains invisible at the packet layer. Twitter has offered governments an olive branch in the form of blocking functionality that works merely at the data layer, leaving open a variety of easy workarounds. Takedown requests are also insufficient to keep up with the speed of tweets. If we could take a few collective deep breaths and see if and when Twitter opts to use this functionality we will have a much better idea of the long-term effects. Making the statement to not protest Twitter requires serious trust, but I would much rather offer a mostly usable technology to people trying to organize than have it entirely blocked.

[ crossposted to ]


Andrew Schrock is a Ph.D student at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His research focuses on mediated creativity and collaboration in online and blended (online/offline) communities, as well as cultural histories of cloud computing. He is currently a research assistant to Anne Balsamo (Director of Emergent Technologies and Culture at the Annenberg Innovation lab), an Innovation lab fellow, and a member of Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths research group.

Creativity, collaboration, and pro-social activities in Hackerspaces

For pro-social efforts to be successful, we need creative environments to develop innovative solutions to pressing problems. Steven Johnson’s statement that “a good idea is a network” is supported by a wealth of research on the social nature of creativity, particularly that of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The ideal of the solo genius, toiling away in obscurity only to emerge with a brilliant invention that is immediately received and popularized, is mostly a myth. Ideas are more likely to grow when they are encouraged to collide with other ideas. The question of how to “think better” becomes about the culture and practices of certain spaces and communities.

Hackerspaces are local hotspots of creativity and technical expertise connected through the Internet to over a thousand similar collectives worldwide. Members and strangers alike share tools and ideas on technical and artistic projects as diverse as sewing, metalwork, software engineering, and biochemistry. They “mess around” via tinkering, which Richard Sennett in The Craftsman defines as “a mode of knowledge production that involves the hand, the use of tools, and mentoring relationships among people in close physical proximity” (p. 177). These spaces are generally open for anybody with a genuine curiosity for working on projects they are passionate about. The community of hackerspaces can be described as a loose collective of supportive, similarly-minded individuals that eschew top-down structure, employ peer learning, and love a challenge. As Resistor founder Nick Bilton put it in a Wired article “It’s almost a fight club for nerds.”

In a practical sense, members of Hackerspaces are taking part in collaborative consumption: the sharing of resources and ideas for mutual benefit. This ethic of sharing can be seen more broadly in the increasing reliance on service-based models, whether physically-proximate, like Zipcar, or virtual, like “cloud computing” or open-source software. Members I’ve spoken with often describe their visceral rejection of consumer goods they cannot modify or fix. These feelings harken back to the days of Heathkits, and a feeling that Americans have fallen into a general malaise about taking pride in manufacturing. To them, picking up a soldering iron is itself a kind of political statement. It’s a rejection of what Zittrain’s imagined as one possible future for the Internet: a death of innovation via companies that produce goods that are opaque and disposable.

The idea for a physical space for collaborative learning through hands-on activities is hardly new, and can be traced to ideas as familiar as shop class in high school. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett makes two compelling arguments. First, he uses working with the hands to make the point that skills “begin as bodily practices” (p. 10). Second, that technical understanding first develops through the powers of imagination. Anne Balsamo, in Designing Culture, describes how ideas for possibilities of technology begin in the imagination. To look for the roots of hackerspaces and their potential for learning through doing means considering how people think about the potential of these spaces through historical lenses.

Recent examinations of the constitution of community and the dynamics of group life in online communities have touched on both pragmatic and cultural dimensions. Christian Pentzold examined the mailing lists of Wikipedia to see how they imagine constructing community, finding a strong ethical dimension. Mathieu O’Neil’s under-appreciated Cyber Chiefs details the various way that leaders and practices arise in tribalistic communities such as dailykos and (and in knowledge-sharing communities as egalitarian as Wikipedia, leaders emerge). Wherever people congregate, meaningful practices and group dynamics emerge. It’s these types of studies that inspire me to ask: how are Hackerspaces – as blended online/offline collectives for knowledge-sharing and creativity – models for informal learning, and how are they putting energies towards pro-social causes?

Hackerspaces don’t have a single history, but many possible histories, depending on who you ask. “Old-school” hackers from the MIT model railroad club contributed the idea that you are only as good as your last creative fix, or “hack.” The shadow of 2600 looms large, and there is still heavy overlap with their monthly meetings. Another historical lineage looks away from technical realms and into the fantastic, where people create machines and conduct performances that echoed the anarchist, anti-establishment tendencies of Dadism. Survival research laboratories, Burning Man, and the Cacophony Society are all modern equivalents that offered alternative spaces for playing with futuristic possibilities and creativity.

The strongest recent inspiration for hackerspaces came from Germany. Jens Ohlig and Lars Weiler, co-founders of the Chaos Computer Club, presented “design patterns” for hackerspaces at their 2007 summer camp. It heavily influenced Nick Farr and other founders of American hackerspaces, and was successively circulated as a PDF. Ohlig and Weiler identified infrastructure as of primary importance to fostering creativity: “Facilities come first. Once you have that, people will come up with the most amazing projects [sic] you didn’t think about in the first place.” Populate the space with equipment, add a comfortable lounge space, charge monthly fees (anywhere from $15 – $200), and try to attract people who understand the hacker ethics of tinkering, respect knowledge, and enjoy friendly competition. To this day, most Hackerspaces pick Tuesday nights as a weekly meeting time, because it’s recommended in the PDF: “Since all days are equally bad, just pick Tuesday.”

One case study for how Hackerspaces have engaged with DIY technology around pro-social activities is the activity surrounding measuring radiation levels in Japan. The March 11 Japan earthquake and tsunami resulted in widespread damage, particularly to the Fukushima reactor, whose cooling system failed and began to leak radiation. The government was cagey about releasing information about radiation levels. They were also criticized for not conducting localized enough readings on air and soil samples, and for using instruments that weren’t sensitive enough to alpha and beta radiation. In response, the Tokyo Hackerspace came up with the idea of putting together DIY geiger counters. Initially they employed surplus cold war-era parts, but later refined them to use commonly-available Arduino microcontrollers. They have now held multiple workshops and hosted guides on how to construct your own geiger counter. The Hackerspace partnered with Safecast, which raised over $36,000 through Kickstarter in May. The open data network created by Safenet for measuring radiation was populated with readings taken on DIY geiger counters created by Hackerspaces, resulting in data sets of crowdsourced radiation readings that can be seen in visualizations here.

One final note about the future of Hackerspaces: they need to be places of blended online/offline learning, and should take advantage of current opportunities for engaging with the public through existing venues. A recent blog post posed the question, “are hackerspaces the libraries of the future?” What I took this to mean is that, although the question of access is still a vital one, libraries are becoming less about the need to have a repository of knowledge. They are, however, uniquely situated; they exist outside of the traditional educational system, unite different ages of individuals, and exist throughout the world. Librarians are also natural curators. We should take a lesson from hackerspaces and think of ways to tinker with existing infrastructure and roles that might mesh with the new dynamics and roles in blended online/offline communities.