Hackeando the Academy

I’m excited to start digging into Dan Cohen’s and Tom Scheinfeldt’s online collection – - Hacking the Academy.  It’s full of really good, rich, stimulating stuff – - perhaps a result of their crowdsourcing editorial approach.  In particular, Tad Suiter‘s “Why Hacking” piece really got me thinking.

Suiter offers a clear, helpful explanation of hacking and of how the “hacker ethos” 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.”  Hackers encounter glitches or problems within systems and, using local knowledge and tools at-hand, find ways around or through these problems.  Suiter also makes the connection between hacking and “bricolage,” a connection I’ve tried to develop and apply in a couple of pieces on hacking the academic institution.

But, Suiter’s piece also got me thinking about some of the possible limits to “hacking” as a metaphor.

First, to what extent is hacking anti-systemic and to what extent is hacking systemic-affirmative?  In other words, is hacking just ingenious repair work?  Or, is hacking about exposing the insufficiency of any system?  In Suiter’s piece, it’s the former that seems to be emphasized.  As he writes: when you’ve hacked the system, “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.”  In this version, the ultimate goal of hacking is to make us all into Maytag repairmen.  (You might remember those old ads for Maytag featuring the bored repair guys who, because of the superiority of Maytag products, have nothing to do.)

Even if he’s orphaned the term, I’m still a big fan of Jim Groom’s “edupunk.”  And, so, I’m not quite content with Suiter’s reformist or technocratic version of hacking.  I just don’t believe in the perfectibility of our current institutions.  Or, in a less philosophical vein (perhaps), hacking as system-maintenance assumes that the system itself is okay, it just needs to work better, more efficiently, happily, etc.  But, what if the system itself is wrong, or bad, or dangerous, or irrational?  Take Ikea.  I’ve got nothing against Swedes and even enjoy an occasional ABBA karaoke – - usually depending on who’s buying the drinks and how many people in the bar might know me.  But, there are lots of arguments to be made against IKEA – - it puts mom and pop shops out of business, it standardizes and regulates taste, it sells some pretty cheap stuff, it’s “big box” approach to distribution and sales is rough on the environment, labor,  etc.  Hacking IKEA in the technocratic sense doesn’t challenge IKEA; it might just conceal the more fundamental issues and problems that constitute IKEA as a “system,” thus actually abetting the bigger problems.

In fact, by its very existence, hacking reveals the insufficiency of any system.  If hacking is a ubiquitous practice today, having escaped the esoteric realm of computer coding into the more generalized domain of culture, then the most important thing to learn from hacking might be that every system is leaky, glitchy, and equally consistent in its dysfunction as in its function.  In other words, one of hacking’s most profound lessons might be that, despite advertising and legitimizing themselves otherwise, systems are the problem, not the solution.

Second, Suiter’s piece reminded me of a recent conversation in which the Chief Academic Officer of my institution pointed to the need to “crowdsource” solutions to our current fiscal woes.  I’m all for crowdsourcing.  However, as I pointed out at the time, crowdsourcing requires platforms (with affordances, practices, and relations) that enable crowdsourcing.  The same is true of hacking.  Think of all the bulletin boards, discussion forums, web sites, and wikis where hackers congregate to trade information, tips, tools, opinions, and splendid varieties of tacit knowledge.  Hackers are not autonomous, creative, geniuses – - despite our very fine American tradition of honoring the tinkerer, the garage band, and the autodidact.  Hackers exist within communities, and these communities create ecologies which in turn depend on platforms for knowledge-making and sharing.

In other words, hacking the academy doesn’t just require hackers and the hacker ethos, it also requires a physical, social, and ideological infrastructure – - or platform – -  that supports and nurtures hacking.  What might this mean in the academy?  If we take hacking seriously, it probably means rethinking the institutional structures, relations, and resources that support our current ways of knowledge-making.  This probably entails rethinking and remaking a whole bunch of different things, from “IT” departments, to faculty roles, to the means by which knowledge circulates, to bureaucratic hierarchies dedicated more to control and management than to creativity and disruption.  And, at what point might this platform actually become more productive and valuable than the “system” that is being hacked? To hop onto my own hobby horse, taking hacking seriously certainly demands that we engage with academic labor and its many contemporary morbid features.

All that being said, maybe I should stop writing and start reading the whole of Hacking the Academy.

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