Critical Hacktivism

by Dan McQuillan


In this post I want to lay out an approach to social technology that I'm calling critical hacktivism. It tries to connect the affordances of social technology to social innovation in a way that evades capture by existing institutional and knowledge structures. If the current crisis is a legacy of these structures then critical hacktivism asserts that we can create alternatives through the practice of social prototyping.

We begin with the vexed question of technology's impact on society. Are the social effects determined by the technology, or is the meaning and impact of a technology contructed by social narratives? While this question has been debated back-and-forth by researchers in Science & Technology Studies (STS) among others, it has taken on a more urgent edge through the irruptions of the Arab Spring and the way social technologies were embedded[1] in activist movements. 

Critical hacktivism adopts the notion of 'affordances' proposed by Hutchby[2], a non-determinist approach that still values the particular materiality of technologies. This idea has it's origins in Gibson's work on the psychology of perception, where affordances describe the way a natural environment offers animals particular opportunities and constraints in terms of actions that can be taken. The idea is that technology has intrinsic material properties that shape the ways it can be used, but the actual uses are not limited or defined by the technology itself and are open to unexpected interpretation.

I will use the idea of affordances to look at learning and hacking, two of the precursors of critical hacktivism. While both highlight the disruptive potential of social technologies I will also indicate ways in which they are open to capture by incumbent structures - what Deleuze & Guattari would call reterritorialisation. 

The idea that internet technologies can help redefine forms of learning was recognised in Hase & Kenyon's 2001 paper ‘From Andragogy to Heutagogy’. They pushed for “the concept of truly self-determined learning, called heutagogy” and saw that “If handled well, the current enthusiasm for providing courses using the internet...may provide superb opportunities for the use of a heutagogical approach. It will not be enough to simply place print based materials onto a server. Rather electronic delivery offers the hope of increased learner-learner and learner-teacher interaction through chat rooms and email lists”[3]
This statement implies the idea of affordances – a positive pedagogy is possible but not inevitable via the new technologies. With the rise of social media, the potential has become more fully explored through concepts like peeragogy[4] which “ focuses on the way in which co-learners shape their learning context together” and explicity incorporates constructionism (focusing on learning via designing and making artefacts) and connectivism (where the connections that make it possible for us to learn in the future are more relevant than the sets of knowledge we know individually, in the present).

However, whereas some of the free-flowing potential for peer-to-peer learning has been seen in early connectivist MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) the potential for capture[5] is also clear in the attempts of elite institutions to impose their own model in this space[6]

The other precursor of critical hacktivism is hacking itself. But what is a hacker? The nine definitions of hacker in the original 'jargon file'[7], the glossary of geek slang from the era of the PDP-10, includes two apparently contrasting entries;
(1) A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.
(7) One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.
Hacking, it seems, is a hybrid techo-social activity. By exploring technical details the hacker can surface new affordances from the matrix of the technology, and  creatively apply them to circumventing blockages.

While the mainstream narrative has relegated this to mischief-making, and activists have seen hacktivism only as a form of online direct action, the paper on 'Abstract Hacktivism' by Von Busch and Palmas interprets hacking as a new conceptual model through which we can understand and approach the world[8]. I will adopt the idea of hacktivism in this broad sense but without divorcing it from the material technology.

However, hacking is also vulnerable to assimilation. There is a trend for striated institutions to adopt hackdays and app challenges[9] as way to deliver both new projects and the associated credibility of moving with the times. With the inevitable foreclosure of affrodances, it's unlikely that intiatives like The World Bank's 'Apps for Development'[10] can result in real social innovation.

One way to move both pedagogy and hacking in the direction suggested by critical hacktivism is through the critical pedagogy of Paulo Freire[11], which positions peer education at the service of the oppressed. For Friere, learning does not involve one person acting on another, but rather people working with each other. He was focused on praxis – action that is informed. Critical pedagogy is not just about learning but is the co-operative activity of making a difference in the world. The starting point is the lived experience of participants, who come together to understand the ways this experience is constructed and to prepare actions to overcome the challenges they identify. According to Freire:
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate the integration of generations into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes the ‘practice of freedom’, the means by which men and women deal critically with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”[12]

A project that explicitly links this to app development is Apps for Good[13] where “course style and structure follows a peer-to-peer, problem-centred learning model inspired by the work of the influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire”. The 'making a difference' can be seen in the nature of the apps produced[14] and the confidence generated in young people from London's East End[15]. Both AppsforGood and it's parent project CDI (which works in the Brazilian favelas) have engaged in critical hacktivism by reading the affordances of technology through Freire. For CDI, this was by developing a 5-step framework that links ICT to problem-driven learning supported by local action and critical reflection[16]. This was cleverly adapted by AppsforGood to match the steps in an app development cycle.

Another project which manifests critical hacktivism is Social Innovation Camp (Sicamp)[17]; I co-founded this project with others because we wanted to show the untapped potential of social technologies to create social start-ups if the process was allowed to happen outside of institutional constraints. Examples of projects created through Sicamp so far include Enabled by Design[18], MyPolice[19], and The Good Gym[20]Sicamp is fundamentally peer-to-peer, and has been characterised as “organising the moment of self-organisation”[21]. It sets up the affordances of social technology for social innovation. Sicamp projects use the ability to aggregate distributed resources as a way to enact forms of Asset-Based Community Development[22]. The ready-to-hand availability of internet infrastructure and software tools enables rapid prototyping: projects go from back-of-the-envelope ideas to working prototypes in less then 48 hours. Through the affordances of open source software and net neutrality, Sicamp participants are able to tackle social issues without permission i.e. without seeking the approval of whichever insitution considers itself to currently 'own' that particular issue.

John Dewey is another thinker associated with critical pedagogy, and Sicamp connects to his ideas around publics[23]: “In The Public and Its Problems, Dewey presents a public as a confederation of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by a shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a 'problem'.” Sicamp starts with an open call for ideas, through which the things that bother people come up in a very different form to the way problems are framed by institutional stakeholders. In this sense, whether it's about living aids for people with a disability or about the intersection of physical exercise and social isolation, Sicamp is also productive of publics.

This post has attempted to draw the experience of Sicamp and AppsforGood together with an account of learning and hacking based on affordances. Constructing the idea of critical hacktivism is done to evade capture and to further the craft of social prototyping. With the right approach, the possibilities and constraints evoked by social technology can reveal further 'lines of flight' and the possibility of 'prototyping a new society in the shell of the old'[24]


This is #1 in a series of posts based on my talk at The Co-Production of Knowledge: Social Media and Science &Technology Studies at the University of York, .  In future posts I will

  • explore assemblages as ways that social prototypes can collaborate
  • look at the way critical hacktivism can extend citizen science beyond 'representation'
  • debate social technology as an instrument to reveal crisis in legitimacy of modern science


[1] New Social Networks With Old Technology - What The Egyptian Shutdown Tells Us About Social Media. Dan McQuillan 2011

[2] I. Hutchby, 2001. Conversation and technology: From the telephone to the Internet. Cambridge:  Polity – quoted in Hacking and power: Social and technological determinism in the digital age Tim Jordan  ]

[3] Hase, Stewart, and Chris Kenyon. ‘From Andragogy to Heutagogy’, 2001. l.

[4] Peeragogy - a peer-learning handbook

[5] Learning for free? The world of MOOCs by Mira Vogel, Goldsmiths Learning Enhancement Unit

[6] Inside the Coursera Contract: How an Upstart Company Might Profit From Free Courses

[7] The Jargon File (version 4.4.7)

[8] Busch, Otto Von, and Karl Palmas. Abstract Hacktivism: The Making of a Hacker Culture. Mute Publishing Ltd, 2006

[9] NYC BigApps

[10] The Apps for Development Competition 

[11] Paulo Freire, on the informal education homepage

[12] Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000

[13] Apps for Good

[14] Guardian - Apps for Good: How can mobile apps help communities?

[15] Mahima Ahmed, Student and App Developer, at STEM skills event, 15th September 2011

[16] CDI Europe

[17] Social Innovation Camp

[18] Enabled by Design

[19] MyPolice

[20] The Good Gym

[21] Social Innovation Camp: Organising the moment of self-organisation (PDF)

[22] The Asset-Based Community Development Institute

[23] Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Duke University Press, 2010

[24] McQuillan, Dan. Could Prototyping Be the New Policy? The Guardian, May 28, 2012.