Professor François Bar
Professor François Bar
© USC Annenberg, Photo Credit: Brett Van Ort, Illustrations: Mariko Ishihara Metze, Concept: Jeremy Rosenberg

Hacking and Making with Annenberg Scholars

The word “hacker” might conjure up images of a keyboard criminal shutting down websites, raiding bank accounts, exposing diplomatic secrets, and stealing identities. But current writing from several Annenberg scholars reveals hacking and making to largely be creative, communal acts in which technology is used productively, rather than destructively.

The April 2016 issue of the journal New Media & Society is centered on the theme “The Democratization of Hacking and Making.” The issue is guest edited by Andrew Schrock (Ph.D. 2015), who also has an article in the issue.

Joining Schrock in the journal are two more Annenberg scholars.

Professor François Bar and Matthew Weber (Ph.D. 2010) co-authored with Francis Pisani the article “Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: Baroquization, creolization, and cannibalism.”  

Bar works with ARNIC and the Annenberg Innovation Lab and is co-editor in chief of the journal Information Technologies and International Development. Annenberg grad Weber is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Communication and Information at Rutgers University.

All of the articles and book reviews in the April issue consider how hacking, making, and DIY culture and communities affect the technology that nearly all of us use on a daily basis.

What are Hacking and Making?

So if hackers aren’t just criminal tricksters, what are they?

“‘Hacker’ has a rich and complex lineage in programming dating back to the 1950s,” guest editor Schrock said. “An old definition of hacker from this era focuses on their creativity, problem-solving abilities, and transgressive humor.”

As technology has grown, ethical questions about how to use those skills have arisen. Should a hacker break the law? When and for what reasons? How is technology best used to affect change that radiates outward from community issues to national and worldwide questions?

In a world where there is an increasingly overwhelming amount of data available, how are hackers using it?

On the other side of the coin is “making,” which might be described as “DIY culture,” where instead of consuming, people create. In this context, Schrock mentioned current Annenberg Ph.D. student Sam Close’s dissertation, which focuses on Etsy as an online community of makers.

Schrock and co-guest editor Jeremy Hunsinger conceived of the special issue as a way to “put these two histories”—hacking and making—“into productive conversation.”

New Media & Society journal, April 2016

Hacking as Activism

Schrock’s article in the issue, “Civic hacking as data activism and advocacy: A history from publicity to open government data,” focuses on a form of hacking that, in a broad sense, works toward some sort of civic or community-oriented change.

According to Schrock, “‘Civic hacker’ and ‘civic technology’ are nebulous concepts because ‘civic’ can mean so many different things to different people.”

The actions of a “civic hacker” can range from the creation of a tool that’s available to anyone in a community, like a free app, to encouraging government transparency, to steps motivated by a specific political cause.

A civic hacker might use a FOIA request to gain access to open datasets and make them accessible to the general public. Or a community member might see a problem and decide to use crowdsourcing to solve it.

On the website and app SeeClickFix, you can report a problem in your community—say, unfilled potholes or chronically burned out streetlights. The app aims to connect citizens with the appropriate local government departments.

The Detroit Water Project “connects individuals unable to pay their water bill with those willing to pay it,” all done online.

And the app Five-O was conceived as a response to Ferguson, allowing users to rate their interactions with local police, producing crowdsourced data that did not yet exist.

Schrock himself is involved in community-based open data projects. This spring, he started work as a co-director of the Long Beach Community Database, which is an “open data portal” for the city of half a million that lies just south of Los Angeles.

In a recent post on Medium, Schrock wrote about his new role and why it’s important for a community to retain control over its own data.

“A community database sits at the intersection of humanist and scientific. A database is a matter of history, in the sense that it is a record of what we value and who is represented…Numbers matter. So does who is involved in collecting and interpreting them.”

Tech Appropriation

The new technological democracy is not just about hacking and making, it’s also about changes to and uses of the technology itself that are being implemented by everyday users.

In their article, “Mobile technology appropriation in a distant mirror: Baroquization, creolization, and cannibalism,” Professor François Bar, Matthew Weber (Ph.D. 2010), and Francis Pisani discuss how users of cell phones aren’t content to simply use the devices exactly as they come.

Bar and his coauthors see this as more than just personalization.

“When users appropriate technology and make it their own, new uses and innovations emerge,” they write in the article. “The appropriation process in a contest for control over a technological system’s configuration, as users, designers, and manufacturers battle over who can use that technology, at what cost, under what conditions, for what purpose, and with what consequences.”

User creativity ultimately leads to responses from tech providers, and then the cycle begins again.

But what does the story of a 16th century bishop, said to have been cannibalized when he was shipwrecked on the coast of Brazil, have to do with how cell phones are used in 2016?

Bar and his coauthors drew on Pisani’s time living and working in Latin America as a journalist as inspiration for the parallels between technology appropriation and traditional cultural appropriation in Latin America.

Referencing three modes of cultural appropriation – Baroquization, Cannibalism, and Creolization – they detail how these have been used for centuries in Latin American countries in response to foreign invaders, and how modern use of cell phone technology echoes these traditions.

Baroquization follows the tradition of Latin American people “infiltrating spaces intentionally left vacant by conquerors.” In tech, it’s the kind of personalization that you might be most familiar with: choosing a ringtone, changing the phone’s wallpaper, recording a personal voice mail greeting, downloading apps, using a protective or decorative phone cover.

Starting with the ill-fated bishop, cannibalism has been a powerful symbol in Brazil. Brazilian poet Oswald de Andrade called cannibalism a “symbolic strategy to confront influences from abroad,” and Bar and his coauthors see this as evidence of tech appropriation’s “deep roots” in Brazil and elsewhere.

When users cannibalize tech, they act in direct opposition to the provider’s intent. A recent example of this, said Bar, was the introduction of Skype. “Users who had unlimited data plans [on their smart phones] could make free calls via Skype, cannibalizing the carriers’ phone call revenues,” said Bar. Carriers responded first by blocking Skype and later, changed data plan prices in order to recoup the Skype-driven losses.

An extreme example of tech cannibalism would be turning a mobile phone into a detonator to trigger a bomb.

Creolization, both as cultural and tech appropriation, involves mixing and remixing. Bar gave an example of this from his own travels in Kenya, when a man asked to borrow his cell phone.

“I gave it to him,” said Bar, “thinking he just wanted to make a quick call. But instead, he opened up my phone, swapped his SIM card for mine, and spent the next five minutes answering his text messages. His ‘phone’ was simply the SIM card he carried in his wallet.”

Bar takes inspiration for his work in travel like this, finding that it allows him to drop preconceived notions about how technology is and “should be” used.

“When traveling, I am always fascinated by how people use technology,” said Bar. “I enjoy going to phone repair shops and talking to the owners about what they do, buying cheap phones at flea markets, and watching people use their phones in the streets.”

The Future of Data

This issue of New Media & Society was first conceived after co-guest editors Schrock and Hunsinger met at the Oxford Internet Institute Summer Doctoral Program, which Schrock attended with funding from an Annenberg Summer Fellowship.

The pair received so many submissions for the issue that they were able to put together a book on the topic, which comes out next year through Peter Lang’s “Digital Formations” series.

Schrock, for his part, is optimistic about the future of data.

“Everyday people care about and become involved with the politics of data," he said. "And that’s the way it should be.”