Hacking a Construction Site

billsI had a meeting in Manhattan yesterday. It was a great autumn day to stroll along West 122nd St. Naturally, there’s ongoing construction; I passed the pit where an apartment building once stood. Workers were busily erecting the large board fences to keep gawkers and other nefarious people out.

The dark green boards were pristine except for the stenciled white command to “Post No Bills.” The thought hit me: what if people just starting posting pictures of Bills? I giggled all the way down the block. By the time I arrived at my destination, I knew I had to bring that giggle to life.

So this is an example of making, mashup, and the version of the word “hack” used in literacy circles to signify a nontraditional creative process that involves lots of materials. One version of a hack is to use physical materials; you can also hack an idea or a problem to come up with a creative solution.

Of course, there’s the infamous hacking of people’s computer systems for criminal, political, or other purposes. I think of WikiLeaks, for example, releasing thousands of articles about the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, Guantanamo Bay, and, recently, Hillary Clinton’s political dealings. Then th
ere’s Anonymous, hacking for the “lulz” (LOLs), but also for (self-described) principles of seeking truth & justice. Examples would include their huge effort to discredit Scientology, their work against conglomerates seeking to limit free access to music, and even their work to expose rapists. Anonymous members have been sought & caught by the FBI, and have received prison sentences for their hacking. (See Anonymous expert Gabriella Coleman’s overview.)


The Trojan Room Coffee Pot, by Quentin Stafford-Fraser

There’s a use of the term hacking that resonates more with me, however. It has roots in early cultures of the internet & Web, and typically involves geeky humor and gags. For example, the Trojan Room Coffee Pot webcam ran for more than seven years. (One detailed history is subtitled, “When convenience was the mother of invention.”) The story, in short, is that multiple labs on several different floors shared one coffee pot. They ran through coffee quickly, so a computer scientist on a different floor would miss the aroma that cued a freshly brewed pot. “This disruption to the progress of Computer Science research obviously caused us some distress,” writes coffee-pot historian Quentin Stafford- Fraser. The solution? A primitive webcam that would monitor the status of said coffee pot. Writes Stafford-Fraser,

Those too far away to smell the coffee now have an alternative means of knowing when a new pot is brewed. The Net, once again, helps break down the barriers of distance (even if that distance was only measured in yards), and so streamlines the distribution of a resource so vital to computer science research.

This is clearly dorkiness to the extreme, and not very significant. But it is one teeny example of a “hacker culture” that has been studied by sociologist Manuel Castells, writer Steven Levy, Finnish philosopher Pekka Hikamen, among others. This is the culture that Castells calls the spirit of the information age.

Why do I care about this? Because some very basic elements have gotten lost (trampled?) in all the hoopla about computers and technologies and their great potential for transforming education. With a nod to the Bill Clinton slogan, it’s not the technology, stupid. It’s not even the pedagogy. It’s the philosophical framework that matters first and foremost and nobody is talking about this. 

I will, though. Stay tuned….

Mashup-"Post no bills" sign overlaid with photos-celebrities named Bill

A Mashup of Bills


A few readings to take a look at:

  • Castells, M. (2001). The Internet galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, business, and society. Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
  • Himanen, P. (2001). Hacker ethic: The open-source movement and the spirit of the new economy. Westminster, MD: Random House.
    • Read an excerpt from Chapter One here
  • Levy, S. (1994). Hackers : Heroes of the computer revolution. New York, N.Y.: Dell Pub. (Link to chapters one and two.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.