Students Explore Hacker Methods

Move over engineers, you’re not the only ones who can build robots.

That’s what students in Professor Andrew Famiglietti’s EMAC special topics class, which focused on hacker culture and practice, learned this semester.

“People often use the word ‘hacker’ to refer to a sort of digital thief, someone who breaks security with malicious intent” Famiglietti explained, “but it can also refer to anyone who plays with technology in creative and unexpected ways.” The goal of the class was to teach students both how to engage with technology in the “hacker” mode, and to show them how this method emerged over the course of recent history. To accomplish this, the class blended readings and hands on exercises to create a unique learning experience.

Students Wiring E.C.H.O. Project

During the first three weeks of class, students read some of the most important academic research and journalism documenting the hacker subculture. These included Steven Levy’s famous and influential “Hackers,” and selections from the more recent work of the anthropologist Gabriella Coleman. Based on these readings, students and instructor worked together to composed collaboratively authored documents that captured what they believed to be key principles of hacking as practice.

“We used a version of the open-source alternative to Google docs hosted by the Swedish Pirate Party, called piratepad,” Famiglietti said, “it’s the same site used by anonymous and other hacker organizations to write some of their collaborative documents. I thought that was a nice touch.”

With the theoretical frame of the course thus established, the activity of the class turned to putting this theory into practice. Students started working with the Arduino prototyping platform, a low-cost open-source computer designed to be connected to a variety of sensors and other devices to interact with the physical world.

“Arduinos were designed to be used by artists,” Famiglietti explained, “you don’t need an engineering degree to learn how to code for one.”

After an initial introduction to the Arduino, students participated in a week-long exercise called “Arduino Chopped!” inspired by the Food Network gameshow “Chopped!” Students were given a random bag of electronic parts and asked to design and build a device using these parts and their Arduinos. The device had to embody some aspect of the hacker principles they had previously enumerated in their collaborative document.

“They really impressed me,” Famiglietti said, “they came up with some really creative devices in a short amount of time. One group managed to build a sort of dead-reckoning self-driving toy car. They managed to solve some tricky problems in creative and unexpected ways.”

Students spent the rest of their semester working on group projects employing the skills they had learned programming for the arduino platform and the hacker principles. One group created an automated “noise music” installation that used the arduino to trigger different sounds based on different hashtags used on the twitter platform. The group hoped to reveal something new about how people used twitter, and re-mediate this experience in a novel way.

“It was a creative project,” Famiglietti said, “it showed me they had thought about how to ‘hack’ media affordances.”

Overall, students found the class to be a unique learning experience.

“It was a humanities approach to a topic commonly seen as tech-only. Very in-depth for such a broad topic,” EMAC senior Will Parsons said.