On hackathons, digital colonialism, and the commodification of altruism
…the corporate image factory needs images of the Other in order to depict its product: a technological utopia of difference. It is not, however, a utopia for the Other or one that includes it in any meaningful or progressive way. Rather, it proposes an ideal world of virtual social and cultural reality based on specific methods of ‘Othering,’ a project that I would term ‘the globalizing Coca-Colonization of cyberspace and the media complex within which it is embedded. – Race in Cyberspace
In November of 2014, the Internet discovered a controversial illustrated book published by Mattel called Hacker Barbie: I Can be a Computer Engineer. Despite what the title suggests, Barbie is portrayed as technologically impotent: she infects her sister’s computer with a virus and, unable to restart it on her own, relies on masculine intervention to save her class project. “I’m only creating the design ideas,” Barbie says, laughing. “I’ll need Steven and Brian’s help to turn it into a real game!”The computing community erupted overnight: with the creation of the hashtag #feministhackerbarbie and over a hundred scathing Amazon reviews on the book, Mattel withdrew its product with a timid apology. But although this particular product was harshly criticized and ultimately retracted, its underlying message depicts a structural violence that still remains intricately embedded in the computer science industry: underrepresented populations need the expertise of male saviors to build their technologies for them.
2014 saw a sharp spike in what the software community refers to as the “hackathon” – an overnight competition where coders, data scientists, and designers meet to collaborate intensively and build projects, centered in a major city or university with many young, technologically-innovative students. The participants pride themselves on a casual working environment that is reminiscent of a slumber party; fueled with pizza, candy, soda, and coffee, the hackers often bring sleeping bags and alternate taking brief naps as they work in teams to build the best prototype. At the end, each group of 3-4 members presents their project to the panel of judges who chooses the winners, often awarding them with cash prizes.These hackathons are sometimes theme-oriented, with the popular theme of inspiring social responsibility and civil altruism. While the hackathon is an effective learning tool that unites the engineering population, inspires them to apply their skills towards fields they are passionate about, and raises awareness about social injustices, the solutions developed during these brief sprints can rarely have long-term impact on looming world issues such as reducing poverty, reforming politics, and improving education.The 2012 New York City Green Initiative aimed to address the environmental sustainability problems within the city and was funded by powerful corporations such as Google and Facebook as well as federal organizations like the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Department of Energy. The winners of the competition included a farmer’s market inventory app, a bikepooling app, and self-challenge app that encouraged you to save water throughout the day. While these technologies may help the lives of those who developed the apps (affluent young poster-child environmentalists with smartphones), they do little to address the deep-rooted power structures at the core of pollution and climate change such as the fossil fuel industry and its influence on government regulation.In 2012, Uber’s data science team conducted a study based on data collected by the Oakland City Police department, and they discovered a heavy spike on prostitution arrests on Wednesday evenings. The team hypothesized that since welfare checks are distributed on Wednesdays, recipients may have had more money to spend on leisure activities such as sex. But after they released their findings, a former Oakland city police officer commented that prostitution arrests tend to increase on quieter nights – so there may not have been more prostitution but instead just more arrests. A data scientist who does not pursue discourse with those who have specialized knowledge in the field – such as the police department, welfare recipients, and the sex workers themselves – risks misinterpreting the intricate data and causing dangerous consequences for those lives they had intended to help.
“[These technologies] are made with the intention of helping them, but this them becomes an evacuated, tokenized minority that we’ve labelled as needing help. When one culture misunderstands another, a sense of blindness is created that leads to the other culture’s resistance.” – senior Rafael Fonseca
While the goal of the hackathon is not to generate complete solutions to these complex global issues, the culture of the global aid hackathon remains misaligned with the intricate analysis and attention that these problems deserve. An environment that encourages prototypes to be designed overnight, is disconnected from the communities these technologies are constructed for, and awards the winners with prizes for their accomplishments cultivates a dangerous culture of saviorism within the tech world.
Deconstructing the culture of the social change-oriented hackathon unveils many power structures that are also visible in America’s dark history of imperialism and colonialism. The key players include large tech corporations that have the financial resources to support these large-scale events, non-profit organizations that have collected powerhouses of data but are not necessarily trained in the technical skills to analyze it, and bright-eyed, affluent techies who are eager to learn new skills and teach their peers – all under a humanitarian emblem of social justice.The harsh stereotype of the computer science brogrammer – a hyper-masculine, competitive, often white cis male at the forefront of innovative technology – has been overwhelmingly meme-ified in television shows like Silicon Valley but stands as a relevant symbol in the software industry today. It is a stark divergence from the geeky hacker stereotype that existed only a few years ago: socially awkward, introverted, video-game addicted, with only virtual girlfriends. Recent hackathon slogans such as “Want to bro down and crush some code?” and “Need another beer? Let one of our friendly (female) event staff get that for you” show whom start-up culture aims to market themselves to.According to a 2015 study conducted by the United States Department of Labor, only 19.8 percent of the computer engineering workforce identifies as female, 5.3 percent as Black, and 5.2 percent as Hispanic. These gender and racial disparities contribute to a homogenous, self-affirming audience that laughed and applauded when two young hackers pitched an app called “Titstare” at the 2013 Techcrunch Disrupt Conference in Silicon Valley. Although the app itself was a joke, these microaggressions contiue to cultivate an instutitionalized misogyny and covert racism towards already marginalized populations within the industry.These power dynamics subconsciously contribute to a hackathon culture that perpetuates colonialism by disconnecting computer scientists from the communities they wish to aid. By not actively creating a safe space for their voices to be heard, we strip away their agency, capitalize on their problems, alienate and exoticize their struggles, and build empty technologies that fail to address the complexity or deep-rooted structural violence inherent in these issues.At the 2015 International Development Hackathon at Tufts the American semiconductor company Qualcomm pitched a project proposal that would utilize Raspberry Pi, a credit-card sized single-board computer intended to be used for educational purposes, in order to cache content from the Internet for children without reliable wireless access in Kenya. While this seems like a virtuous feat from a Western standpoint, their proposal ignores the influence of a hundred years of British colonization, the monopolization of its land and wealth by foreign investors, and the postcolonial ghosts that still haunt the Kenyan education system 50 years after the country’s independence. Some textbooks in use still gloss over the period in a positive light, characterizing the British as saviors that were “out to eradicate the slave trade and spread a civilizing mission designed to make [Africans] all full human beings, on earth and heaven.”A mass exportation of Qualcomm’s Raspberry Pi computer symbolizes a Western technology that perpetuates a century-old savior complex, does not self-examine the power structures that stunted the nation’s growth, and alienates the Kenyan student from a discourse that is meant to be in their aid. If we do not invite these marginalized communities to be a part of the solution, then we internalize a mentality that we know what’s best for them, the exocitized and far-removed Other eternally in need of our angelic service.
“Not only is [the hackathon for social justice] in danger of producing solutions that are irrelevant, but its effects are similar to those of going on a voluntourism trip abroad. It perpetuates the idea that change happens when white people from over here go and help people of color over there, thus intercepting opportunities for these communities to create solutions for themselves.” – junior Hannah Freedman
The make-up of a hackathon team often includes a graphic designer or visualizations-based engineer, a software developer, and a business-oriented person who is responsible for pitching their hack to the board of judges. The judges of the hackathon are also not the oppressed communities for whom these solutions are designed for; instead, they are leaders from sponsoring corporations and professors that specialize in technical disciplines. Oftentimes the prototypes developed at these brief sprints are not implemented into fully-functional programs, so the marginalized population never sees or hears of the hundreds of apps that were developed for their relief. Like the #KONY2012 movement, the true beneficiaries of the hackathon for international good thus become the corporations that use the event to recruit young engineers and spread awareness for their company, and the hackers that receive a commodified sense of virtue for all of their selfless generosity.
Technology & its Future in Social Change
If we want to ensure long-lasting change for global communities affected by structural violence, then we should look to technology as a tool – not as a form of divine intervention. Instead of criticizing companies for profiteering off our empathy, we can instead examine the structures within ourselves to protect our kindness from being capitalized. One of the projects for JP Morgan’s Technology for Social Good program was to rebuild the website for The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change. While this is a worthwhile and meaningful task in itself, it is hypocritical for JP Morgan to do this and also invest millions of dollars each year in the private prison industry which perpetuates a military-industrial complex that primarily incarcerates Black men. It is therefore our responsibility to hold these corporations to the standards they’ve set for themselves and test their images for truth and consistency.We must also desegregate the current software industry and institutions that teach computer science education. A Harvard study conducted in 2008 showed that 50 percent of women who leave work in their STEM fields leave due to hostile work environments. Simply recruiting more token minorities does not solve the issue; if the frat-boy culture of the tech world is not eradicated then it will not become a safe space for underrepresented populations. Computer science departments at universities can cultivate this by offering more interdisciplinary electives that cater to a diverse set of interests – such as digital journalism, visualizing social change, or ethics of technology.
“I think the most important component of our future’s agenda is democratizing education. We should provide tools for others to do for themselves, in a more sustainable and autonomous way. Open source and open data are great ways to move forward, to cross borders and bring about transparency and accountability.” – senior Jaime Sanchez
Companies that have access to vast amounts of data can collaborate with field specialists and members of these marginalized communities to build long-term projects, and they can also give these groups tools and resources to continue fostering their own growth. Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer in San Francisco, founded the non-profit organization Black Girls Code after her gamer daughter attended a computer science summer camp and was disappointed to see that she was the only Black girl present. Today, the organization aims to provide one million Black girls with an education in technology by 2050. With 75 percent of its current students on scholarship, the organization received a $50 thousand grant from Microsoft AzureDev in 2014.
“It has become profitable [for tech companies] to be seen as a force for humanitarian good, and on one hand that’s very uncomfortable, but on the other we should bring technology into the conversation about social development as long as we remain critical about the limitations of the tools we have.” – sophomore Nitesh Gupta
While the environment of the social aid hackathon is an effective way to unite engineers under a common cause, we should remain humble about the solutions we are able to produce. If the Internet Users’ Glossary defines the hacker as “a person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a computer system,” then we can extend the definition for a hacker for social change as someone who also looks for an intimate understanding of the other systems at play.
“By recognizing our talents as well as limitations, we’re able to take a serious look at tough problems with just enough idealism to make an effort, but not too much to blind us into thinking that it’s the final answer.” – senior James Downer
If we avoid being myopic and have a sense of humility for what our solutions can accomplish, then we can also honor forms of resistance against our methodologies. As said by the rapper K-Rino, “No disrespect to y’all’s worldly universities, but they ain’t qualified to service these ghetto emergencies.”
The opinion expressed in this article is the author’s own. It does not represent the opinion of the Enigma publication, nor does it fully represent the opinion of the interviewees. It stands only as a single narrative in a broader discourse.