What does the rise in popularity of “hack-a-thons” say about our culture? How do hack-a-thons actually perpetuate inequality, a disregard for health, and a belief that everything can be “fixed” in a matter of 48 hours--all while operating under the guise of technical smarts, living in a meritocracy, and fighting for societal good?
Hack-a-Thons have become increasingly popular over the past decade, especially in Silicon Valley, given their common association with coding and high tech. A typical hack-a-thon will last around 48 hours (over a weekend), and during that time, groups compete to come up with the best solution to a problem (normally proposed by the sponsoring organization). Sometimes the purpose is a solution to the problem, but it can also be a recruiting tactic or to raise the awareness around the organization itself. Usually, these hack-a-thons tend to attract young, white, male computer scientists--sometimes known as “brogrammers.”
While I never participated in a hack-a-thon myself, I was often invited. The one time I did attend a hack-a-thon was as a volunteer member of the sponsoring organization. Based on the stories I had been told and my one experience at a hack-a-thon, I felt wise to have never competed--because I would have been surrounded by tech-obsessed guys for 48 hours, during which time I would get very little sleep and eat mostly junk food. However, good the solution (usually not that good), just didn’t seem worth it.
Recently, I’ve also been hearing a lot from my former employer about a “Hack the Pay Gap” solution that they proposed. While I am all for reducing the pay gap, I am also pretty positive that it cannot be “hacked,” at least, not in the common understanding of the word “hack.” I believe that most meaningful problems, in fact, cannot and should not be hacked. That being said, I do think there is value in the notion of “hacking” something, in that things are typically not as mysterious or as fragile as they seem.
While hack-a-thons seem like brilliant schemes to tackle difficult problems and create solutions, I believe the terminology and the stereotypical hack-a-thon event are incredibly detrimental in our society. While they appear to be about intelligence, meritocracy, and doing good, I actually think they do more to perpetuate inequality, bad health, and a believe that things can be “fixed” in 48 hours.