In order to study practices of creative software engineering, I have decided to do ethnographies on hackathons. I was at several of such events and have just returned from my last expedition into that peculiar realm of self realization, participation, technical playfulness, and, often claimed by the organizers to be most important, fun. However, there are three experiences from those expeditions, which I want to highlight and share.First of all, after a few rounds of non-participating ethnography, which had been almost inconclusive, I am now trying to get into ‘an authentic hackathon experience’. Ethnographically, this turned out to be quite tough. Not only because of my tendency to lose my sociological role over invitations to exciting technological adventures, but also because observation becomes almost
impossible when it is four o’clock in the morning and there are still people working on their projects, especially when I am as well still tinkering. Furthermore, short sleep, rolled up on an arm chair, does not really support staying focused for ethnography. However, at least I was able to literally experience the physical and psychical hackathoner condition. And, secondly, I could try a productive ethnographic approach by taking part in the production of concepts and prototypes. This is not only a nice thing to have and to do, it is really telling to experience those ‘hacking’ problems and successes yourself; I have, by now, experienced myself the productivity of tinkering with basically loose conceptions, or of being forced to reinterpret your whole project after failure. It is also great to take materials like prototypes and emic group reports back home. They are souvenirs of your own involvement with observed practices, reminding you of your own entanglements with your research objects; eventually, those souvenirs have turned out to thrive my own scientific motivation, inspiration, and reflection.
However, my third note rather concerns analytical contents. Hackathons, interpreted from a system theorist’s perspective, appear to be spaces (and times) of specific communication arrangements. As realms with distinct communicative capacities and probabilities for idea acceptation. At hackathons, ‘crazy fancies’ are more likely to be recognized as veritable and valuable resources for project designs, than they do in conservative situations of technology development. In those traditional settings, e.g. designated innovation departments within companies, there are usually higher risks of competition and conformity involved, which are overruled by the hackathonian event character. Nevertheless, by installing highly casual environments, hackathons are not only expanding ranges of inventive communications and considerations; they also seem to suspend other concerns, like moral, critical thresholds. I could not notice that at those hackathons, which particularly addressed moral issues (e.g. on open data and civic participation) and were less introduced as fun but as activism. Yet, some hackathons appear to also grant spaces for peculiar ideas(e.g. economical gratification systems for visually measured happiness). It is not that such ideas would not occur and even be implemented in other situations, too, but their cynic portion just disappeared within the noise of funnification of the hackathon.
P.S.: We did actually win the last hackathon – my contribution to the team was this tentatively tinkered Lego-Raspberry-Pi-Ultrasonic-Sensor-Hybrid pictured at the top.