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Ruha Benjamin, Ph.D.

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Playing the Game or Hacking the System?

Posted: 06/05/2013 1:42 pm

Calling all "civic hackers"!

June 1, 2013 marked the first National Day of Civic Hacking. The organizers describe it as a time for 'creating, building, and inventing open source solutions to solve challenges relevant to our neighborhoods, our cities, our states and our country.' And what I like most of all is that it extends beyond technology: it welcomes anyone who has 'a minimum of resources and a maximum of brainpower and ingenuity to create, enhance or fix something.'

Among those things that need our attention, is civil society itself: citizen-led associations and organizations are among the most segregated and stratified aspects of public life. They tend to deepen, rather than dismantle, social boundaries -- as much a part of the problem, as they are a place to generate solutions.

Cultural codes, for example, restrict the kinds of people who develop the skills or interest in computer coding. So ground zero for a civic hacking movement is grappling with the way that "hackers" have been coded: white, male and educated, because the very idea of who is or is not hacker material, may inadvertently limit participation. That said, as long as there have been cultural codes, there have been rule breakers and benders among us.

Code-switching

Code-switching is a concept in the social sciences that explains how people navigate different social and cultural spaces by changing the way they talk. But it can be applied to other aspects of our self-presentation, such as clothes, body language, etc. Code-switching is one of many ways in which homosapiens "play the game" of life -- a phenomenon NPR recently mainstreamed with its new blog on race-ethnicity called, you guessed it, "Code Switch".

And while most of the focus on code-switching tends to be about racial-ethnic codes and (economic) class codes, we can apply it to gender as well. Sheryl Sandberg's idea of "leaning in" is, in many ways, a code-switching manifesto, encouraging women to signal their power and importance in male-dominated professions more effectively. The point is, cultural codes are not neutral, nor are all codes created equal. They reflect power relations. To be successful in mainstream institutions, we are often told to master the dominant codes... in self-help books, workplace guidelines, freshman orientations, you name it.

But what if we don't like the rules of the game?

Gaming versus Hacking

As two widespread ways in which people engage with technology, gaming and hacking are potent metaphors for life. Gaming, is typically characterized by recreation, competition, and consumption -- that is, we use and play with technological platforms, but rarely do we have a say in creating them.

Hacking, by contrast, is typically characterized by mastery, collaboration, and creativity--to hack a system one needs an in-depth understanding of how it works, its strengths and weakness, and a vision for how to make it better. These insights and skills allow us to subvert the system and make it do something it wasn't meant to do.

When we re-write code, rather than simply code-switch, it becomes possible to embed new values and new social relations in the world.

Call Me Racist But...

One example, among many, of why it matters that we do more than play the game of life can be found in the literal context of gaming. Researchers studying the relationship between violence, gender and race found that:

(1) The majority of African American female characters, a full 86 percent, are either props, bystanders, or participants, but never competitors;

(2) Nearly 9 out of 10 African American females are victims of violence in these games, making them far more likely than any other group to be victimized; and

(3) More than half of the African American characters are "unaffected" by the violence exacted upon them, with only a fraction exhibiting both pain and physical harm.

Virtual worlds represent and shape our imagination -- what we value and desire, what we fear and hate. So the fact that the lives of black women continue to be valued less and their deaths considered less tragic on the screen, reflects and shapes devaluation in everyday life.

You might recall that on the opening weekend of The Hunger Games, some fans tweeted their disappointment that one of the characters they had come to adore from the book didn't match their imagination -- their beloved Rue was not a "blond haired white girl" with whom they could relate innocence. One wrote, "call me racist but when I found out Rue was black, her death wasn't as sad".

When we see African American video game characters unaffected by the violence exacted upon them, and fans of The Hunger Games unaffected by the death of a once beloved character, the words of writer Audre Lorde come to mind:

"If I didn't
define myself
for myself,
I would be
crunched
into other
people's
fantasies
for me
and eaten
alive."

Debugging persistent forms of violence and inequality, and creating alternative platforms for self-actualization and civic engagement, can be a matter of life or death.

Ventriloquists versus Aliens

Anthropologist Chris Kelty contends that in the 21st century, hacking and programming should be understood as forms of speech. Which is why I suggest that if this form of expression is monopolized by a small elite, intentionally or not, then fragmented representations of the world will continue to take shape.

Hacking systems of power means we implicitly question the ventriloquism of The Few who speak on behalf of The Many. We insist, instead, on composing new programs that recognize the rights and dignity of those who are systematically coded as: aliens. Whether due to disability, race-ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or because they straight up don't have papers -- cultural outsiders are often innovators who we can't do without.

So while I'm looking forward to participating in the next National Day of Civic Hacking and the ongoing Random Hacks of Kindness, I hope that as the idea goes viral, we apply our ingenuity to challenges in here as much as those out there. For example, Black Girls Code is an organization dedicated to those who are not typically fancied "tech savvy," but who are successfully creating their own virtual realities and who have much to contribute to civic life.

Ultimately, who we imagine as "civic hackers" is important, because it determines what problems we see around us and what solutions we create to address them.

2013-06-01-BlackGirlsCode_Huff.jpg
(Courtesy of Black Girls Code)

 

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