Can Hackers be kind?

During the summer our group has Friday afternoon Hackathons. It started as an excuse to get together for a couple hours, put on music, and get some work done before the weekend. Students have casual conversations and sometimes ask each other for help. In the past we’ve even experimented with pairing people up so that each can help the other. For some reason we called this group work gathering a “hackathon”.

For our first hackathon of the year two of us jokingly decided to show up in hacker attire. I joined wearing a black hoodie and saw her in a striped one. We laughed and hugged. Another one of the students pointed out: you do not look like hackers; and she was right.

Hackathons are a place for projects to rapidly form and compete for a prize and hackers are stereotypically competitive antisocial males. The word hackathon is a portmanteau of the words hack and marathon. Hackers aren’t supposed to be nice to one another and compliment and hug each other. Nor are they expected to be kind. They are supposed to hack, compete, and disrupt. Even without the features of a real hackathon, the name of our social gathering had determined the terms of use.

What does it mean when we use hackathons as a model for entrepreneurial gatherings to fuel progress? What futures do we imagine and invent in a setting that by virtue of its very name is not a place for kindness and cooperation? Our model of the hackathon signals to those participating (or not) that to join means to leave parts of their complex being behind.

If we were to seek other ways of gathering to work together what would it look like? If instead of hacking and competing, we carefully reconfigured and cooperated, what would we call it?

If you’re interested in learning more about hackathons, read this article by Lilly Irani about what hackathons mean for citizenship and this one by Jeremy Warner and Philip Guo about who does and does not participate.