On May 21, 2010, we posted these intentionally provocative questions online:
Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?
We asked for contributions to a collectively produced volume that would explore how the academy might be beneficially reformed using digital media and technology. The process of creating the edited volume itself would be a commentary on the way things are normally done in scholarly communication, with submissions coming in through multiple channels, including blogs, Twitter, and email, and in multiple formats—everything from a paragraph to a long essay to multimedia. We also encouraged interactivity—the possibility that contributors could speak directly to each other, rather than creating the inert, isolated chapters that normally populate edited volumes. We then sent out notices via our social networks, which quickly and extensively disseminated the call for submissions. Finally, we gave contributors a mere seven days, the better to focus their attention and energy.
Between May 21 and May 28, 2010 we received a remarkable 329 submissions from 177 authors, with nearly a hundred submissions written during the week-long event and the other two-thirds submitted by authors from their prior writing on the subject matter. This struck us as a major success for an untested model, one that we feel could be replicated to provide state-of-the-field volumes in many disciplines, to open debate in ways that journals and books are unable to do, or to aggregate existing works from around the web on a common theme.
From this large pool of contributions we have assembled here what we consider to be the best works of any size and shape (with the unfortunate exception of audio and video, which we could not put into print). Only one-sixth of the contributions made the cut; in general, we sought writing that moved beyond mere complaints about the state of the academy into shrewd diagnoses and potential solutions. There are some rants, to be sure, but also many calm analyses of how academia could work differently.
Some biases undoubtedly exist in this volume. Because of whom we were able to reach during the event week, and how we reached them (mostly through blogs and Twitter), this book is largely written from the perspectives and concerns of our fellow travelers in digital humanities—although this is a rather varied bunch, including scholars, educational technologists, librarians, and cultural heritage professionals. It is obviously the product of people deeply involved in the digital realm, and who look to that realm for addressing problems, rather than, say, labor unions.
We believe that the small window for submissions and the excitement about trying to reconceive how an edited volume might be put together lends this book a vibrancy and intensity that might have been missed if we had had a standard year-long call for contributions, followed by arm-twisting for another year or two. This volume thus represents a good snapshot of how scores of engaged academics who care deeply about higher education are trying to further its original goals of learning, scholarship, and service, albeit in novel ways that may be uncomfortable for those with a more conservative bent.
But we hope more generous readers will notice that many of this book’s themes, although perhaps dressed in new technology, actually attempt to revive age-old values and methods in the academy. For instance, our authors agree on the need for open access to scholarship, not only or primarily because the web has enabled us to post that scholarship online, but because it has long been an ethical imperative of teachers to share their knowledge as widely as possible. New modes of engaging students in the classroom with digital media are, at heart, less about the flashiness of technology and more about the need to move past the stagnation of the lecture into deeper, more collaborative—and ultimately, more effective—pedagogy.
Finally, the reader may legitimately ask: Doesn’t the existence of Hacking the Academy as a book undermine its argument? Why put this supposedly firebrand work into a traditional form? The answer is that we wanted this project to have maximal impact and especially to reach those for whom RSS and Twitter are alien creatures. Moreover, one of the main themes of this volume—and of digital technology—is that scholarly and educational content can exist in multiple forms for multiple audiences. What you have in front of you is but one form of a project called Hacking the Academy. The website, hackingtheacademy.org, will continue host a much larger and more diverse version of the work, including themes and genres missing from the print edition. If this book is static, the overall project is anything but. You are encouraged to add your contributions to the ongoing conversation about how we can hack the academy together.
As a fan of Oulipo and Oubapo, the notion of trying to crowdsource the meat of an edited volume in a single week is particularly exciting to me. I think that imposing constraints, even arbitrary ones, can be a very effective technique that can foster creative thought, new ideas, and force one to re-assess convention. Which, of course, is all in keeping with the very spirit of the book.
However, as I began to explain the project to friends outside the digital humanities, even my academic friends who just aren’t plugged into the world of computer-based methodologies in humanistic research and pedagogy, I got a lot of confused looks and cocked heads when I mentioned the title.
“What does that mean, exactly?” was a common reply.
The metaphor of hacking is central to this project. And I think it’s extremely apt. But the term is a subtle one, and frequently misused in public discourse. To avoid preaching to the choir—to make this project more comprehensible and useful to readers who may be coming from a less technical background—I think it’s important to talk, briefly, about what “hacking” means, and what it might mean to “hack the academy.”
Popular Images of Hackers
From news accounts, film, and television, most people have a certain concept of what the term “hacker” means. And it’s not a term with many positive associations. News accounts over the last twenty-six years or so have constructed a notion of hackers as a dangerous element—young men in basements, ruthlessly attempting to subvert any notion of security in the age of networked computers. Hackers endanger national security by cracking into national security networks. (Which, after all, is how the net was born—out of DARPA‘s ARPANET.) Hackers are trying to steal your personal data. They want to steal your passwords, and empty your bank account. They are malevolent, egotistical, and avaricious.
Movies like WarGames and Hackers bring a more human face to hackers, portraying them as young men (they are almost always portrayed as men) who are driven by youthful exuberance, curiosity, and misled idealism who nevertheless get involved in a very dangerous game of violating security. And from sources like these we get the imagery that dominates the public imagination about hackers: dark rooms, incessant typing into Unix terminals, sometimes strange three dimensional graphical user interfaces with which the hacker virtually flies through towers of pure information.
However, all of this focuses simply on crackers, a specific subgroup of hackers who “crack” security systems. The term itself has a far more expansive, impressionistic meaning.
The Meaning of “Hack”
The Jargon File presents a wide variety of meanings to the term “hack,” as well as a short article on the topic. There are many definitions of “hack,” some of them seemingly deeply contradictory. And yet there is, in the final analysis, a unity to the term.
Originally, the term was used to describe computer code. There were two opposing meanings to calling a piece of code a “hack.” One, it is expertly written, efficient, and does precisely what it is intended to do, with eloquence. The other was that the code was hastily written, sloppy, and essentially only just good enough. It was a workaround, the software equivalent of a hardware kludge.
As mutually exclusive as these two connotations of the term may seem, however, both the polished, impressive hack and the quick-and-dirty hack have a fundamental similarity. They are both born of a certain relationship to a certain type of knowledge.
Hackers are autodidacts. From the earliest hackers working at large research universities on the first networks to anyone who deserves the term today, a hacker is a person who looks at systemic knowledge structures and learns about them from making or doing. They teach themselves and one another because they are at the bleeding edge of knowledge about that system.
Through that type of knowledge-seeking and knowledge-creation, you may approach a fork in the road with a particular problem you are working on, and you have to decide to either go for an ugly hack or an eloquent hack. But either way, the product is functional, it does something, and it is innovative. And it is a product of your relationship to that systemic knowledge structure– to the computer languages, networking protocols, etc.
The culture of the first people to use the term “hack” produced a second-order meaning, as well. A hack is a practical joke, a playful subversion or gaming of a system. The MIT Gallery of Hacks presents a fascinating history of such hacks on the MIT campus, from CalTech’s cannon mysteriously disappearing and re-appearing at MIT to a Campus Police car appearing on the roof of the MIT dome. These “hacks” aren’t really so different, however, from the software hacks discussed above. There is a sense of play in coding, too—it is not apparent to everyone, but it is there. And the fundamental action here is the same: it’s the clever gaming of complex systems to produce an unprecedented result.
The Hacker Ethos
Learning about and improving highly complex systems by playful innovation is at the core of what I would call the “hacker ethos.” The fact that this is about a relationship to knowledge systems means that the term has, over the last thirty years or so, come to be applied to an ever-growing assortment of activities: life hacking, game modding, phone phreaking, iPhone jailbreaking, and Ikea hacking, among others.
In each of these activities, you can see the kernel of the same hacker ethos. Each of these activities is based on the use of playful creation to enrich knowledge of complex systems, whether you’re making furniture from the complex system that is the Ikea catalog, or learning how to game Ma Bell for free calls to Bangalore.
This sort of playful creation should not be unfamiliar to academics. It’s not dissimilar to the Situationist International’s concept of detournement, or Dick Hebdidge’s notion of subcultural style systems. It’s Levi-Strauss’s bricolage re-imagined for a time when computers have replaced magic.
A different approach to this hacker ethos can be found in what Eric Steven Raymond has described as “The Hacker Attitude.” Raymond discusses five elements that he feels are central to the hacker attitude, which is born of what I’d describe as its general ethos:
1. The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.
2. No problem should ever have to be solved twice.
3. Boredom and drudgery are evil.
4. Freedom is good.
5. Attitude is no substitute for competence.
I’d argue that a great number of academics would agree with most if not all of those statements, though they might not want to admit to it.
Why Hack the Academy?
Many of the entries in this project offer answers to this question. The academy is approaching a new integration with revolutionary new technology. We’ve quickly gone from computers in the classroom to classrooms inside computers, and to the integration of new media into the very fabric of classroom interaction. Computer-based research in the age of ubiquitous, fast, and cheap computing is changing very fundamentally our approaches to research, collegiality, and collaboration. Pure information is getting cheaper and more easily accessible, while the mental and coding chops to process the glut of information are becoming more and more valuable in the new knowledge economy.
We can see two highly complex systems—computer technology and the academy, one complex by nature and one deeply complex by force of history—colliding and hybridizing. And as this happens, we are faced with a situation where even the very clever people on the cutting edge who have working knowledge of both systems cannot fully synthesize them and predict outcomes. We don’t know what this hybridization will amount to. So all we can do is steer it by getting out there and learning more by creative experimentation. You have to make the tools that steer the future of academia, or that future will be steered by whomever has the best sales pitch to the administrators. We have to create tools and efficiencies that improve the way we do things, because only by so doing can we fully understand the new world we inhabit.
In other words, we have to embrace the hacker ethos.
There’s a lot to be bleak about when you look to the future of higher education. The academic job market is grim. The publishing system seems on the verge of economic collapse. Universities are quickly becoming prohibitively expensive for the vast majority of students, who are in turn forced into an exploitative system of student loans. The system, to some of us, appears to be broken.
But when a system fails, you hack around it. Some hacks may be eloquent and subtle; they may be almost poetic. Others are nasty hacks that only really serve in a single work case—but in either case, you’ve routed around the problem. You’ve fixed something. You’ve improved functionality. And likely, you’ve learned a little something yourself about the functioning of the system you’re working with, and will be better prepared next time you find a bug.
The hacker ethos, in the end, might save us—or at least prolong the life of the academy as we know it.
And finally, there is that sense of play. It’s something that “serious” academics don’t get to explore as often as they should. Play is good for the soul—it reinvigorates, brings joy, renews commitments. It makes things fun. And it is also good for the intellect. Play leads to types of problem-solving and synthesis that would otherwise be impossible. There’s a reason that “clever” means both funny and smart. And reading through the submissions to this project, I think that’s one theme that comes back again and again.
The academy, ultimately, can only be invigorated and improved by an infusion of the hacker ethos that goes beyond the computer science departments and infects all the disciplines. It has the potential to help fix problems in the system, deepen our understanding, and make our lives a little more fun.