Hacking for good

Posted on | June 7, 2013 | 1 Comment

JW and I debrief after last weekend’s Hack for LA.

Ad hoc

The presumption is that people will “hack for good,” since to do otherwise is to question the implicit gift economy underwriting the event. But since when is hacking necessarily or in any way obviously done “for good”? This is a curious development. Jason said as we were leaving: “The government wants you to hack it. Isn’t that peculiar?” It’s as if Obama’s legacy has been to co-opt change to mean good even if we can’t see change happening. Change as always already good because it’s imminent; change as whatever you want it to be. The event left both of us with the impression that in almost every way conceivable, hacking is now hegemonic. Hacking open data is the path to good citizenship.

Once the introductions were over the first thing the major sponsor (AT&T) talked about were the rules, since “we don’t want anyone suing each other.” As an AT&T employee, he wasn’t able to compete, for instance. No team could win more than 2 prizes. You were allowed to draw on team mates offsite, i.e. phone a friend. That was about it. The default assumption was that all information was sharable. So if you had anything private or personal on your computer that might be exposed, don’t bring it to the hackathon. Too late if you were already there…

Dotcom-start-up evangelism was everywhere. Another one of the LA sponsors (a guy from Scopely) was all “You guys are AWESOME for giving up your weekend!” But concluded his speech with a blatant plug – “We’re hiring.” In case anyone hadn’t already noticed that this was the most convenient CV search in years. There is much more to think about in terms of how hackathons contribute to tech industry norms and the inevitability of free labor in general. This is homework for me – and a big part of what we are studying right now in the ISTC.

I wondered what motivated kids (as opposed to unemployed or enthusiastic programmers) to be there. A lot of kids just seemed to be chilling out and enjoying not being at home or the mall. It matters that the LA venue was Boyle Heights. Young people who might normally use the center may not map on to a demographic that can code. But at least one of the winning apps seemed to be trying to create a pedagogical opportunity to encourage more local kids to learn how to. I’d love to know more about that.

I figure many of the kids would have been perplexed by the speech from Mayor-elect Eric Garcetti, who used the occasion to get some great sound-bites out to the press. I was totally seduced by all this as if I was in a scene from The Wire – I found myself tweeting in the fray and unfortunately now seem to be listed on terrifying Twitter feeds for LA Innovators and such. Eeek.

What was so fascinating about his speech was what it revealed about government. It’s broken. It cannot fix the most basic things for its citizens. Lauding the hackers, he acknowledged that anything they did that day would matter, would be better than what was in place now. “You don’t accept the world as it is,” he said, riffing off the general vibe of youthiness. The bottom line for government and civic participation was captured by the logic: “You didn’t make it worse.” This was Garcetti’s idea of a joke, but it was pivotal. It genuflected to the challenges facing LA as a city. In one breath he was championing the need to appoint a CTO and CIO in his term, admitting that cities are now best run as corporations, while pointing to the simplest services a city should be able to provide (and doesn’t). “We still need to pave that pothole with asphalt,” he said, “but knowing the pothole is there” is something open data can fix. I ruminated on this as I navigated a path to the freeway home.

Garcetti wants LA to be “The best place in the world to hack”; the hackathon the birthplace of “the next tech CEO.” In his term, he wants every kid to have access to coding classes in high school, because education isn’t about preparing people for manufacturing jobs anymore. The winner of the hackathon was promised City Hall itself: “We’re going to open up the doors and the departments… to build a city of Angels for everyone.” I needed a hose down after all that. You can see how the idea of transparency is very easily transported from data to political process and democracy in general.

Two other things stood out. The fact that will.i.am (major sponsor and Intel Creative Director) and Garcetti are both from Boyle Heights made this personal. Representing the absent Will for the “I am Angel” foundation, Enrique Legaspi bridged hip hop and hacking culture by urging participants to “keep it fresh” and “take these data sets to the next level.” He also cut a cute take on gentrification and racial politics when he noted: “Boyle Heights is very creative. In the past, it created 32 gangs!!” Boom boom.

But my favorite line came from the guy who was representing LA County, a more subdued bureaucrat who was involved in making some of the county data available for the event. It was such a brief thing, but it was the most refreshing and humble voice I heard all day: “The data’s not perfect, you’re dealing with the real stuff.”


One Response to “Hacking for good”

  1. Katie
    June 21st, 2013 @ 11:30 am

    This post is fascinating. I am quite new to even thinking intelligibly about hackers/hacking (for me it still recalls images of Angelina Jolie as a sexy teen on the lam). One of the things I found interesting is this: “What was so fascinating about his speech was what it revealed about government. It’s broken. It cannot fix the most basic things for its citizens.” This made me wonder about how hacking is becoming an opportunity to re-configure relationships of responsibility between government and citizens. Are we headed toward a situation where individuals are not just blamed for/responsible for their personal circumstances, but are responsible for “fixing,” through coding/programming, government infrastructure and services? Also, the discussion of teaching programming in schools is interesting. It makes me wonder if programming/hacking/design is an emerging ethos in U.S. education as Lilly describes it is in India, and what impacts this will have. Looking forward to more on the hacking/free labor stuff!

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