Tuesday, 28 Feb 2012


Hackers and Makers; Kirschenbaum

We can learn certain things about media culture by reading about them; but we learn much more about these issues directly by doing. (In our case, that means making an eBook version of the graduation magazine.)

The interactive thrust of Web 2.0 technology, which values peer-to-peer interaction, peer content creation, cloud storage, synching and remixing, is part of a cultural cycle that keeps lowering the barriers to creating and sharing content. What would have, just a few years ago, required a powerful desktop machine can now be created on a cheap netbook; what a few years ago required a netbook can be done on a handheld. YouTube offers a suite of simple but effective editing tools, so that it doesn’t require a tricked-out MacBook Pro to create the next viral video. As we’ve seen from shaky-cam Hollywood movies, the professionals are emulating the authentic look of amateur camcorder and phonecam videos, and advertisers are paying bloggers to write “genuine” posts that just happen to include a link to a product.

We are all busy people; yet somehow, many people who say they are too busy to take on another task spend hours reading, interpreting, and debating Harry Potter; some post stop-motion Lego spoofs; some do crossword puzzles; some study statistics for their fantasy football leagues; some perfect dance moves that they see in their favorite videos; some knit.

In order to be complete people, in order to exercise the creative portions of our brains that we may feel aren’t stimulated by our day-to-day life, many of us make things, with our hands, our bodies, our voices, our imaginations.

In order to understand today’s culture, we must participate in it. For digital culture in the 21st century, that means hacking and making.


In common parlance, a “hacker” is the dangerous guy who will steal your identity online and reprogram your home security system to kill you. To hackers themselves, to “hack” simply means to tweak, adjust, pull apart in order to learn, and reassemble in order to improve.

Lifehack.org offers a steady stream of tips for organizing your life. The Getting Things Done system is another example. I’m a big fan of ProfHacker, which recently started a series of posts on the benefits of learning the command line (the “type a command to the computer and wait for its response” style of computing that was the standard way to interact with a computer in the era before you could point a mouse at a virtual button and click it).

We can hack places too. Rather than commit to a single room setup that will be a compromise, hackers would insist on spending a little more money for an easily configurable space.

The reconfigurable tables in one classroom where I taught a lot last term (Maura 331) represent an eminently hackable teaching space; it’s much easier to move those tables than the tables in our own classroom.

The screen of the university-provided iPad is another hackable space. Students configure it however they wish, and instructors who know its capabilities can encourage students to use apps that will help their learning styles.

For instance, in my freshman writing class, I’ve introduced students to a handful of different brainstorming apps, and given them an assignment to come up with a detailed representation of the structure of their next paper. Whether they like lists, webs, grids, numbers, words, images, sounds, or some combination, they can select a tool that assists their brainstorming.


When Apple announced it wanted a 30% cut of every sale Amazon made through its Kindle app, Amazon redesigned the Kindle app to remove the buy button; further, Amazon ramped up its schedule for producing the Kidle Fire. A few years ago, Amazon deleted and refunded the purchase price for everyone who had purchased a certain book. While Amazon has pledged that it will not do that again, in the news we see that Amazon instantly removed from its stores 5000 books from a single publisher, after the two parties couldn’t agree to terms to renew their relationship.

Not long ago, Apple introduced iBooks 2, and the free iBooks Author suite, which lowers the ebooks publication barrier even further.  Among the features of the suite is the ability to publish your work through the App Store.

The First Amendment right to the freedom of speech does not apply to the App Store — by agreeing to use Apple products, we are agreeing to give Apple control over what we can do with the machines we’ve paid for; so the “jailbreaking” culture involves programming hacks aimed at sidestepping restrictions that Apple has placed on its products.

(According to the iBooks Author terms of service, users can sell books in the iBooks format only through the App Store; we can give away an iBook, and we can export our iBooks to a different format such as PDF and sell or give it away if we want to.)
We can’t all become coding experts, but we can nevertheless educate ourselves to be more informed stakeholders, to ask more intelligent questions about the decisions  the technological powerhouses will continue to make (with or without our input).
Crafting sites like etsy.com, meme-generators like diylol.com, are designed to cater to the maker subculture, but they don’t require you to be a coding expert or viral video maven to participate.
Clay Shirky, author of Cognitive Surplus, notes that the amount of effort it takes to fill out a “LOLCATS” template is trivial, but that the trivial effort brings you across a nontrivial barrier. You go from being a consumer who creates nothing, to a creative participant in a cultural exchange.

In a literature class, we study great poems. I always find lit classes enriched by the presence of talented, dedicated, hard-working creative writers — those who understand and appreciate the effort that goes into reading a good poem, because they’ve seen from the other side what it takes to make such a poem.

Our freshman writing sequence — leading from short personal paragraphs in “Basic Comp” to a full-length research paper in “Seminar in Thinking and Writing” — is organized on the principle that learning in college has to be about making something. We are not here simply to memorize and spit back; we are here to create something new. In order to join the public discourse of intelligent and rational citizens, we must not only be experienced receivers and interpreters of texts, we must also be accomplished makers and doers.

And by “text” I mean much more than the five-paragraph essay. As college instruction increasingly involves online text, ebooks, videos, and apps, a college education will be incomplete if graduates cannot make their own online texts, ebooks, videos, and apps.

If we in our liberal arts classrooms do acquire the skills we’ll need to make these texts, and the tools we’ll need in order to find, distribute, preserve, and study those texts, then the technological titans will continue to make a lot of important decisions without us.

Coding as a Cultural Practice

The main text I’d like you to reflect on is Kirschenbaum’s Hello Worlds.

Those of you who have already taken EL405 will already know all about MIT’s Scratch; there is no need for you to revisit it all, but if you are new to Scratch, watch this brief video:

Reflection Assignment

As part of a reflection on hacker/maker culture, view any of the websites mentioned in this post. Feel free to recommend your own. Craft a well-written, richly-linked, media-rich blog entry, designed to involve your peers in a thoughtful examination of what you learned from Kirschenbaum’s essay, and you can apply it to what we are learning in EL336.

For a “timely” submission, please post your reflection by 11:59pm Monday. By 2pm Tuesday, read and respond meaningfully to 2-4 peer blogs.


  1. […] Hackers and Makers; Kirschenbaum – Media and Culture (EL336). Related posts (automatic, by […]

  2. […] Hackers and Makers This entry was posted in Uncategorized by ajahannah. Bookmark the permalink. […]

  3. ajahannah says:


    “Virtual worlds are interactive, manipulable, extensible; they are not necessarily games, though they may support and contain games alongside other systems. Virtual worlds are sites of exploration, simulation, play.”

    From this inspiration, I’ve begun planning my future novels with this virtual world in mind so that I may be successful. I probably don’t know all the codes to do it. I may have to learn some new things, I may know the basics.

  4. […] Hackers and Makers; Kirschenbaum. Uncategorized    Blame the teacher […]

  5. Beth Anne Swartzwelder says:


    “Virtual worlds will be to the new century what cinema was to the last one and the novel to the century before that.”

    I looked at how virtual worlds and games are going to be the next “films” and will work their way into the literary world just as movies have.

  6. […] My understanding of knitting makes me appreciate the sweaters I wear (no really, it does). My understanding of photoshop makes me see the wealth of opportunities and limits to programs like Picnik. In the same way, my knowledge of programming and coding can change the way I view a website or even just my thought processes. It is becoming increasingly easy to skip over learning new “languages” whether it is a knitting pattern, program or kind of code. There are people who will do the hard work for us leaving us with programming tools like Scratch or programs like iWeb. There is an inherent value to learning the traditional basics to any “language” to make or hack. via Hackers and Makers; Kirschenbaum. […]

  7. Katelyn Snyder says:


    ”more significantly, many of us in the humanities miss the extent to which programming is a creative and generative activity.”

    The internet has added considerably to the maker/hacker culture but it’s existed for years. Though technology offers us ways to avoid learning traditional languages to create, there is still value in doing so.

  8. jalengumbs says:


    “The literary avant-garde has discovered computer languages, with so-called code work emerging as a new poetic genre.”

    Technology and language have experienced several shifts bringing the two close together over the years, however is there a limit before they become one.

  9. Ashley says:


    “…the short lengths and the prominent indentation. These are both common elements of poetry and code (though not absolutely necessary to either).”

    Surprisingly coding and poetry have some things in common, for example structure.

  10. […] Hackers and Makers: Kirschenbaum February 28th, 2012 | Category: EL […]

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