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.