Hacking the Academy

By Joss Winn and Mike Neary

Did you notice anything strange about the ongoing ‘phone hacking’ scandal involving the News of the World? There are no hackers involved. This is the latest example of hacking’s troubled history with the mainstream media, which confuses the “playful cleverness” of expert computer programmers with the malicious meddling of computer crackers and criminal journalists. With the repeated confusion of Hackers with Crackers and old Hacks, the rich and fruitful history of the true Hackers is diminished and a thriving intellectual culture focused on problem solving, self-directed learning and the free exchange of knowledge is undermined.

Much has been written about hackers and hacking, but rarely is it contextualised as part of the scholarly tradition. Yet careful reading of the history of hacking reveals that it is very much a part of the work and values of universities and that the ‘hacker ethic’ is shared, in part at least, by most academics working today.

We can trace the history of hacking back to MIT University in the early 1960s and greater access to shared computers. At the core of hacking is the academic practice of ‘peer review’: the opportunity for academics to closely examine, modify and use other people’s work. Hackers extended this through the creation of legal licenses that allow the copyright holder of software to grant anyone the ability to use, modify and re-distribute their work providing the modified version is licensed under the same terms. The great MIT hacker, Richard Stallman called this hack ‘Copyleft’ and his General Public License (GPL) has become the most popular open source software license in use today. In 2001, Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons, an organisation that borrowed much from these ‘free software’ licenses to create a set of similar licenses for other types of creative works. The activity of hackers have provided academics and their institutions with the legal basis upon which to overcome the traditional restrictions of copyright and permit the public use, modification and redistribution of research articles, research data and teaching materials.

Out of this novel reconfiguration of property rights, hackers have collaboratively developed the basic infrastructure of the Internet; not only a technological achievement but, for some, a progressive political project based on the common values of autonomy in choosing one’s work, an enthusiasm for problem-solving that borders on play, a reverence of peer-review, expertise as the basis of meritocracy, and the defence of access to information.

This ‘hacker ethic’ can similarly be seen among academics today who fight for Open Access to peer-reviewed articles and those teachers who form the growing Open Educational Resources movement, dedicated to providing teaching and learning materials for free, worldwide public use. Not surprisingly, both the Open Access and Open Education movements owe much to Stallman and other pioneering hackers who developed the GPL and similar ‘open source’ licenses. Unquestionably, the history of Open Access and Open Education is deeply indebted to the culture of hacking, yet we should not forget that the history of hacking is deeply rooted in the culture of the university.

At the University of Lincoln, the values of hacking are embedded within Student as Producer, an institution-wide project for curriculum development where students are regarded as part of the academic project of the university. We are keen to reclaim and reconnect the values of openness and collaboration that hackers are well regarded for with the values of the academy and are doing so by bringing students into the research project of the university itself. At Lincoln, undergraduate student hackers have been working on real research and development projects with university staff and contributing to the development of a culture of openness and innovation.

To further recognise this and encourage collaboration with student developers in the design of university life, we have been working with the DevCSI project at the University of Bath to organise DevXS, a free national student developer conference to be held at the University of Lincoln in November 2011.

We are expecting 150 undergraduates from across the country will attend DevXS to develop prototype open source web applications using open data provided by the University of Lincoln and other universities working on an anticipated data.ac.uk initiative. DevXS is intended to be a disruptive learning experience, a pedagogical intervention for students who want to hack and build useful things that enrich academic life. Students from across the UK and beyond are invited to compete against each other and the clock to create new web applications in a unique student developer ‘hackathon’. Working in teams, they will be provided with high-speed Internet, refreshments and tools to play with. They will break only to eat, sleep and take in encouragement from more experienced hackers. Prizes will be awarded for the most imaginative and useful new applications. Promising prototypes could ultimately be refined into fully-fledged services.

It is the latest example of how the University of Lincoln has embraced the different themes of openness, such as open source, open data, open education and open access, and we are mindful that this contributes towards a greater strategic priority of re-configuring the nature of teaching and learning in higher education and encouraging students to become part of the academic project of the University and collaborators with academics in the production of knowledge and meaning.

Further reading:

  • Graham, Paul. 2004. Hackers and Painters. O’Reilly.
  • Himanen, Pekka. 2001. The Hacker Ethic. Vintage.
  • Jordan, Tim. 2008. Hacking. Polity Press.
  • Levy, Steven. 1984. Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Penguin Books.
  • Raymond, Eric. 1996. The New Hacker’s Dictionary. MIT Press.
  • Soderberg, Johan. 2008. Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement. Routledge.
  • Thomas, Douglas. 2002. Hacker Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Wark, McKenzie. 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press.

A version of this post with minor edits was first published in the Guardian