Civic hacking at #DL14

Posted on | October 13, 2014 | No Comments

Next month I’ll be at the Digital Labor: Sweatshops, Picket lines, and Barricades conference at The New School in New York. This is a description of the panel I’m organizing with Carl DiSalvo, continuing some of our previous thinking on civic hacking. Please join us if you are coming to the conference – and check out the work of our fellow panelists. Very inspiring!

Civic Hacking

If digital labor is often conceived within the framework of industry – occupying the shadows of financial compensation – this assumes that monetary reward is the necessary end point for all labor transactions. This panel argues that a key site for digital labor and its hopeful possibilities is the work of civic hacking. This is digital labor premised on the idea of public good and the necessary provision of shared infrastructure and services.

A growing number of research and activist projects pivot on design expertise, code literacy and data analytics to mobilize resources and improve the quality of life for citizens and consumers. These affective, ameliorative, and civic registers offer a necessary complement to dominant visions of digital labor, and a means of foregrounding other kinds of profits to be gained from donated work.

Our discussion explores new forms of political participation that are enabled by the digital in ways that are situated, tactical and contextually relevant. Through analysis of civic and issue-oriented hackathons, the subjective intensity of informal code work, and the logistical activism of developing grassroots infrastructure, we illustrate data collection as activism. This new horizon for social computing uses technology to advance collective action.

Civic hackers trade on the language of entrepreneurialism and voluntarism to exploit avenues and applications for data. Brokering partnerships between local government, non-profit, activist and scholarly communities, this work builds connections as much as tools in a speculative but no less meaningful enactment of localized belonging. Civic hacking is a characteristic experience of immaterial labor, at once imaginative, pragmatic and symbolic. As we will contest, it is a labor identity that has the potential to challenge the stranglehold of enterprise in defining the character and composition of labor, by rivaling previous visions of work and its rewards.

Format: We propose a panel / workshop hybrid — an appropriate form for the amalgam of labor and performance, debut and resistance that characterizes civic hacking. A short panel format will feature presentations on the empirical and theoretical conditions of civic hacking, drawing from the varied research practices of the panelists which span cultural studies, communication, sociology and design. These presentations will describe the common forms of civic hacking and express concerns with some of its key formats as a displacement of politics and work-based relations. Through this, the presentations set the groundwork for what a practice of civic hacking that embraces the political and labor might be — the articulation of concerns is refigured as a set of desires to achieve. From this point distinctions between panelists and audience will give way to a collective description of those desires and tactics to achieve them.


Carl DiSalvo is author of Adversarial Design (MIT, 2012) and Associate Professor in the Digital Media program in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His work draws together science and technology studies, humanities and design research to analyze the social and political qualities of design and prototype experimental systems and services.

Melissa Gregg is Principal Engineer in User Experience at Intel, where she investigate new forms of labor and enterprise beyond the organization. Her publications include Work’s Intimacy (Polity 2011), The Affect Theory Reader (Duke UP, 2010) and Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices (Palgrave 2006).

Lilly Irani (Chair & Discussant) is Assistant Professor in Communication, Science Studies at UC San Diego. Her work examines design practices in situ to understand their relationships with broader cultural, political, and social processes. She explores this through ethnographic fieldwork and activism in design workspaces and crowdsourcing platforms such as Amazon Mechanical Turk.

Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor of sociology and technology at the Memorial University of Newfoundland and a co-founding member of the Superstorm Research Lab, a mutual aid research collective. Liboiron studies “techniques of definition,” the tools and practices used by scientists and activists to make emerging, contested, amorphous forms of harm and crisis legible enough for action.

Thomas James Lodato is a third-year PhD student at Georgia Institute of Technology in the Digital Media program. Interested in theories and methods of empathic design, Thomas often focuses on food and agricultural systems to ground his research. Currently Thomas is researching hackathons and their potential as forms of sociopolitical engagement through design and computing.

Andrew Schrock is a PhD candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. His dissertation, chaired by François Bar, looks at how interactions on mobile social network platforms (MSNPs) enhance social capital. At USC, he is a member of the Innovation lab and Henry Jenkins’ Civic Paths.


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