Neil Kandalgaonkar

hacker, maker of things

Geek under glass

Through mutual friends I was invited to speak at Jennifer Wolowic’s Anthropology of Digital Media class last Tuesday. I’m not exactly sure where I fit into the class – perhaps as a living example of the North American hacker.

Ultimately I kind of skipped around between talking about the SOPA strike and my insider view of Wikipedia’s protest, what it’s like to be a hacker, and open source collaboration.

I went into it thinking it was just a fun opportunity to practice speaking, and test how well I can convey certain ideas I’ve been thinking about. Jennifer turned out to be smart and fun to talk to, and confessed that despite academia’s downsides, gathering ideas from her students was the big plus for her too. And extending that theme even further, I was presenting ideas about participatory ways of communicating and working together, which were pioneered in open source software, and may be a template for the future as well (viz Fork The Law).

But of course, these are university kids, and for the most part they are disturbed at the idea of bottom-up innovation, even if it might mean they could have more of a role. Most still want there to be Someone Who Knows. As well they have a right to, but we’ve let them down on that score.

I think I did okay. Jennifer, sitting at the back of the class, said there was very little checking of Facebook. I’m not sure I would get that level of undivided attention at any geek conference.

I probably failed to convey the means by which ‘wiki’ style production attains quality - even though these kids are going to be discussing Good Faith Collaboration soon, not all of them are focusing on it. I think the thing to emphasize is that equality of access does not mean all participants have the same influence, nor does it result in a product of the lowest common denominator. It’s one of the counterintuitive things about peer production.

I spent the last 40 minutes or so on questions, but the last one I got, I didn’t have a good answer for. This student granted my premise that society was going to be organized along more participatory lines, but asked how one could prepare for this kind of future. I stumbled through an answer that maybe one had to get used to throwing things out there, to trusting in the ‘pay it forward’ system. That’s definitely how geeks operate - although it is hard to disentangle the selfish from selfless motives there.

What would you have told this kid?