The Trouble With White Hats

Harry Bertoia Sculpture Group Symbolizing World's Communication in the Atomic Age (1959) via Smithsonian

While seeming to address problems of political disengagement, civic hacking champions provisional citizenship and precarious work conditions

This is an edited version of a keynote presentation at Apps and Affect, a conference organized at the University of Western Ontario, October 2013

As the northern summer reached its climax in 2013, the game development studio Binji released a modest video game with the title Eddy’s Run. The hero was Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor turned whistle-blower who, in the course of just a few months, replaced Julian Assange as the world’s iconic purveyor of classified information. Depicted as a nerd with oversize glasses, Eddy’s mission was to run from spies and surveillance drones. For protection, he could throw laptops at his pursuers, although weight restrictions meant that he could carry only four at a time. The instructions explained that Eddy’s laptop supply could be replenished by talking to journalists. In the logic of the game, information is currency and laptops are weapons in the fight for freedom.

The game comes as a complement to the populist outrage arising in the wake of Snowden’s leaks. On the accompanying website, the game’s developers claimed that the work was an attempt to show support and gratitude for Snowden’s “fight against total surveillance and the undermining of democracy.” Players were urged to “Take Action” by getting involved in petitions organized by,, and, all of which agitated for governments to end the privacy violation perceived in the PRISM program Snowden revealed.

To these activists Snowden is a man of credibility and bravery. Others vilify his actions. The Obama administration regards Snowden as a threat to American democracy, not least because the information his leaks revealed has ruptured international diplomacy. On June 27 in Senegal, with Snowden on the run, President Obama assured journalists: "I'm not going to be scrambling jets to get a 29-year-old hacker."

Obama’s implicitly pejorative use of the term hacker was curious, given the timing of other events. The NSA revelations roughly coincided with the White House's sponsoring the National Day of Civic Hacking, which played out at 95 sites across the U.S. Civic hackers were given access to newly released federal, state, and municipal government data sets for development into usable apps and interfaces. The event brought together an extensive list of corporate allies with venture capitalists and civic nonprofits to provide money and support for the thousands of participants who converged on high schools, campuses, and co-ops. Designers of the winning apps, which ranged from fruit-swapping facilitators to job-matching services, enjoyed a share of prize money — and a select few won a trip to Washington to meet with the President.

As "hacking" is etched in to the parking lots and meeting spaces of multimillion-dollar tech firms, as California street signs direct workers to campuses built along Hacker Way, as venture capitalists plan hackathons for immigration reform, and as NGOs and businesses invest in their own hackathons worldwide, it would be easy to conclude that hacking is today’s preferred economic identity. Hackers self-actualize through improvisation and making-do with limited resources. They provide willing and free labor. That the White House can embrace the positive potential of hacking while still condemning “hackers” as rogues illustrates the term’s contested status and the competing claims over expertise, authority, and protocol it mobilizes. But how can these claims be distinguished? And with whose goals in mind?

The current infatuation with the idea of the hacker has roots in Silicon Valley and the DIY ethic that underwrites both startup mythology and the maker movement. The flexibility of hacker as a label allows it to incorporate everything from a genuine curiosity with tinkering to more troubling techno-supremacist notions that legitimate the credo “move fast and break things.” As recent publications like The Boy Kings, Katherine Losse's memoir of working at Facebook, show, such statements are central to the work cultures normalized by successful tech businesses.

Both hope and threat, hacking has an ambiguity that points to a bind in contemporary governance. Political leaders are aware of the power of data, that the future of the economy is intricately bound to high-tech. A skilled population requires digital literacy of the sort that Snowden put to such disruptive use. Snowden, as a digitally literate whistle-blower, epitomizes the contradictions at the heart of Obama’s tech presidency. The administration's fumbling rhetoric surrounding the Snowden affair invoked a retrograde caricature of hacking that disowned the state’s own investments in tech literacy, not to mention the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures enshrined in the Fourth Amendment.

The right of Americans to be “secure” in their homes is being recalibrated by the information economy and through the more aggressive collection and use of data at institutional levels. In this moment of deliberation over the politics of data transparency, civic hackathons become attractive because they provide an occasion for provisional citizenship. Hacking becomes a means to experiment with civics rather than sabotage: a kind of speculative material participation within the broader experiment that is democracy.

Hackathons attempt to imagine and enact a future democratic condition, allowing individuals to contribute to what it might be in the process. Too often though, this potentially profound speculation gets tied to a limited, if not naïve, understanding of politics as the mechanics of government. "What might be" is almost always simply a version of the now — just faster, more efficient, and preferably mobile-enabled.

Civic hackathons reflect changes to the nature of work, volunteerism, collectivity, and belonging. The production process is configured to appear friendly, informal, and ad hoc, leading to new kinds of social identities and relationships. At civic hackathons, new ecosystems for innovation, design, micro-manufacturing, and city revitalization are made to cohere in the course of a day or a weekend. For citizens and local governments equally affected by financial austerity, these events produce a range of benefits that include much needed morale. Code for America, for example, calls itself “a new kind of public service” continuing a national tradition of feel-good solidarity that binds communities through donated time and energy.

At the same time, hackathons also generate and normalize a degree of comfort with failure. When it comes to the hundreds of partially made apps, maps, databases, and visualizations that are the detritus of civic hackathons, we come to appreciate another of the mottos underwriting Facebook’s founding mythology: “Done is better than perfect.” Hackathons typically favor entrants who can deliver “the most complete” outcome. In this way, their compressed timeframe mirrors that of other kinds of digital spec work by which labor is cobbled together for unpredictable and unsustainable just-in-time production. The further effort that would be required to fully execute what remain hypothetical ideas is not necessary to acknowledge or pursue.

Even the “the most complete” outcome at civic hackathons is partial. Typically we get features that are suggestive of systems. We get sketches of infrastructure for a new civic imaginary. We get snippets of code that connect data in fragile ways. Databases of problems and their solutions are created, with pointers to code repositories that are often empty, perhaps save a README file full of civic intent.

Civic hackathons are limited to addressing problems that contain technically actionable solutions. For instance, addressing problems of public-transportation access in communities of need is reduced to the challenge of providing real-time bus data. And the problems each hackathon hopes to solve get readjusted in real time to suit actual conditions and who and what skills are at hand. So whether the bus data is displayed on a mobile device or a visualization will depend not on the community's need or desire but on what programming languages the coders at the hackathon know. This ad hoc adjustment, which is an inevitable outcome of hackathons’ opportunistic approach to time and skill, parochializes and minimizes the ambition of governance. It rewards pragmatism at the expense of recruiting more representative or ideal protagonists for politics.

The Silicon Valley model of public good enacted by hackathons provides technical solutions to social problems. This cultivates a mode of entrepreneurial citizenship that is increasingly welcomed by governments in times of austerity. Even so, the consequences of the hackathon’s terms of engagement — which recognize problems only insofar as technology can operationalize and solve them — mean that the work practices of the engineer become the preferred technique for civics. The existing social world is taken as given, requiring only tweaks and tinkering around the edges. By narrowing focus to problems that can be solved, questions of power and equity are avoided. There is no time to consider the structural or political causes that make some problems priorities over others. Instead, hackathons ransack the social for issues that can be fixed under accelerated conditions.

In this way, hackathons’ speculative citizens also reap speculative rewards. They remain firmly in the realm of tactics rather than strategies. In hackathons, we simulate genres of accomplishment but we don’t ever progress to a position of owning infrastructure, influencing the economy, or changing laws that distribute resources.  As the app economy trades off the free labor of aspiring citizens and workers, we might wonder what is “good” about this kind of hacking, which offers struggling institutions a means to harvest work given away for free.

If the white-collar worker’s weapon is the laptop, as in Eddy’s Run, the battle is for a system of governance that will support a middle class that is feeling everywhere under threat. But

The authors would like to thank Thomas Lodato and other collaborators in the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing
hackathons merely normalize failure and the impossibility of hacking for meaningful structural change, just as Snowden’s “hack” exposed a government that seems irreparably corrupt and broken. To hack for good is to attempt to patch an institution that persists, despite its many failures.