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Hacker Ethics and Higher Learning:
The Moral Clash Determining
the Future of American Higher Education
Gerardo Marti

It is easy to be distracted by the immense technological changes affecting higher education today. Change is here. We are all faced with it in our classrooms and our offices, and we see it in the lives of students, donors, administrators, and alumni. The changes are happening so fast; the quality of what is considered “normal” is transforming quickly. How can we assess the key issues of place and face in higher education when the ground beneath our collective feet keeps shifting? Many may quibble over the nuances of the history and development of higher education and modern communications technology, but in the hope of stimulating a conversation about our collective future, in this short space I will accentuate two moral codes, two idealized orientations, which do not end in lines of convergence but accentuate forceful tensions in higher education.


The Rise of Computing and
Digital Connectivity

I became infatuated with computers in college. When I entered as a freshman, “computers” meant large, refrigerator-sized mainframe machines housed in super-clean, dust-free rooms and run by specialized computer operators. While these were impressive, it was the “micro-computers” produced by IBM, Apple, Hewlett Packard, and Kaypro (if you remember them) that captured my attention. Educational institutions—including the one I attended—became sites for exclusive contracts for new “computer labs.” By my third year of college, I was at the heart of the micro-computer revolution. My roommate Kirby had a “portable” computer—a Compaq 286, dual-disk drive model. Kirby saw how excited I was about it, and I remember he looked at me one day and told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “It’s not the computer, Gerardo. It’s the modem.”

Nearly thirty years later, Kirby’s perceptive comment rings even more true today. Listen closely to his message: the most transformative technological change of the computing age is NOT the computer, but the connectivity between computers. At the time Kirby was talking to me, I mostly was using computers to write papers and create spreadsheets. I also played Zork and Pinball. Dial-up on a 9600-baud modem didn’t seem all that exciting until I discovered electronic bulletin boards, then threaded forums, and eventually America Online, a comprehensive online service that provided me an email address, chat rooms, and an introduction to the World Wide Web with its vast community of web pages. I was there to press the button the day AOL created portal access to the World Wide Web. The point of it all was that I was now connected to everyone else with an online connection. Between Yahoo, online forums, and occasional chat rooms, I could find information and communities of interest. Strangers became acquaintances. The digital world became a chain of relationships.

In the late 1980s, our banks, our phone companies, our local and federal governments, and our colleges and universities were creating computer “networks” to manage people and processes, to ease the coordination of projects, and to accelerate the pace of communication and decision making. Moving from pagers to smartphones, we became increasingly connected to a flow of relationships until the rise of social media sites like Facebook, which grew between October 2009 to October 2010 from 350 million users to over 530 million. Six degrees of separation has been reduced to four or even three.

When I was introduced to the digital world, it was a fairly limited arena. I was comfortable using the Internet as supplemental to my life, but the Internet has come to mean much more than that. By the mid-1990s, we were all invested in digital connectivity, from the national government to our local neighborhoods. It is no longer limited, and networks are no longer isolated islands of data and relationships. Online connections have become a necessity. The possibility of connectivity is now assumed, through work, cell phones, and ubiquitous wi-fi connections. The ease of wireless connectivity equaled the rise of social media. Chat rooms and online forums were replaced by instant messages and texting alongside services like MySpace, Facebook, and Twitter. The spread of Starbucks equaled the spread of wireless Internet access, and airports, and other public venues raced to catch up to the new medium. Paper has been transformed to screen images. At the end of September, the federal government announced that, while we can still physically mail our returns, more people are e-filing and, as a cost cutting measure, the federal government will no longer mail tax forms. From now on, we must access them online. On Twitter, Barry Wellman said, “[A] Student finds it impossible to go cold turkey off the grid because official announcements and research materials are only online.” The Internet is not just a tool of knowledge and business; it has become something much more.

Higher education is caught in this larger transition. Our schools and our professions are dominated by digital connectivity. We submit grades online; our students register for courses online and use electronic course reserves. Seventy-two percent of professors use course management systems (“Professors’ Use of Technology in Teaching,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 25 July 2010). We answer questions, set calendar appointments, distribute departmental information and committee reports, and even submit journal articles and whole book manuscripts online. Increasingly, we post syllabi and study content, we Skype into meetings, and we blog and tweet our results (about one-third of professors use Twitter, according to Faculty Focus Special Report 2010).

It took me a while, but I soon recognized that a new set of ideals was being promoted. The development of these new digital realms is fueled not just by clever innovation, but by a new morality, what’s been called the “Hacker Ethic” (Levy 1984). Hackers represent those who are taking advantage of the new spaces and new possibilities opened up by the creation of new structures. It is a complete moral orientation. Moreover, I believe the Hacker Ethic embedded within emergent digital processes is fundamentally reshaping the form of higher education that has been assumed for the past century. Before describing the Hacker Ethic, I will review the moral orientation familiar to most of us as educators. It is the moral orientation that has guided the development of higher education for well over a century, and it is an orientation that is all about the shaping of personal morality.


The Moral Imperative of Formative Retreat in American Higher Education

In the emergence of the American university, intense moral conversations about the purpose of higher education dominated much of the 1800s. Once I learned about the ubiquitous nature of these themes, I decided to explore the archives of my own institution, Davidson College in North Carolina. Davidson is a small liberal arts college formed through the cooperative efforts of local Presbyterian church leaders in 1837. Sure enough, the earliest records of the college exemplify core concerns found among educators throughout the United States at the time. Davidson College leaders had a clear notion of what they wanted to achieve through this institution.

An excellent source for finding an expression of their ideals is the Inaugural Address of Davidson’s first president, Reverend Robert Hall Morrison. On 2 August 1838, with rousing oratory and what was surely a powerful speaking voice, President Morrison stated, “The cultivation of an enlightened conscience and a holy heart is the chief end of education.” For Morrison, the role of education is to produce a godly disposition. His aim was to achieve a “standard of character” and to provide an education that would liberate students’ virtue and keep them from being “enslaved by their vices.” Morrison stated, “While ‘knowledge is power,’ it is education which determines whether this power will be exerted in the promotion of virtue or vice.” History provided evidence for his perspective:

Had Mahomet, Saladin, Voltaire, Hume, Byron, Napoleon, and other such scourges to our race been constrained by the truth and Spirit of God to have surrendered their pride and ambition, and to have lived for the glory of their Maker and the welfare of their fellow men, what woes would have been spared from the catalogue of human wretchedness.

Morrison was unequivocal: “Knowledge which does not lead to the extermination of evil passions and the cultivation of virtuous habits… will prove a curse to its possessor, and an infamy to society.”

What was required to achieve such noble aims in the lives of students? The answer is quite simple. The important work of formative education demands the right location. By design, Davidson College was deliberately built away from both Charlotte and Salisbury (at the time, the larger and more significant of the two cities) because cities were seen as corrupting places full of temptation, vice, and immorality. A proper location, like the rural site chosen for Davidson College, allowed for the establishment of a formative retreat center far from centers of vice. The very first line of the first college catalog indicates, “This College [provides] thorough education, at a moderate expense and free from temptations to immorality.” The first page of the college catalog for 1842–1843 states, “The Patrons of the Institution... desired a College in which the youthful mind might be trained under the restraints of Christianity…” It continues, “The Patrons of the Institution [are] fully persuaded that any education is too dear when obtained at the expense of sound moral principle...” Moreover, “The location of the College… is highly advantageous in promoting good order and undivided application to study… free from the allurements and noise of a town…” An advertisement for the college printed in 1867 continued to reinforce the importance of character formation, godly living, and the excellence of its location for accomplishing both. Distributed to potential students, their families, and their pastors, the flyer states:

Founded in the liberality and prayers of pious Presbyterians, the College has already done much to realize the design of its benefactors, in sending out men of piety and learning, many of whom are now in the work of the ministry.

The Students, with very few exceptions, are members of the Church.

There exists among them, a prevalent manly character, as well as a healthy tone of morals…

Situated, as the College is, in so healthy a region, removed from the temptation of towns…

The archives of Davidson College—and in all likelihood, the archives of most other private liberal arts institutions founded in the past century—affirm the finding by historian Laurence R. Veysey in The Emergence of the American University that “mental and moral discipline was the purpose which lay behind a fixed, four-year course of study in college” (1965, 23). Veysey, a leading historian of higher education, finds that “College disciplinarians essentially desired a controlled environment for the production of the morally and religiously upright” (25; see also Reuben 1996). Even when the separation of “knowledge” from “morality” occurred in higher education at the beginning of the twentieth century, the moral development of students remained a priority. An alliance of disciplines (including the emerging “humanistic” discipline of sociology) were involved in the development of good citizens and the addressing of social concerns.

Much of our work as college educators stems from a moral imperative to shape the discipline, virtues, and (sometimes) piety of our students. Our institutions are structured on this principle. Ideally, students focus 100 percent of their attention on their courses and social activities on campus, and, in our own courses, we expect students to depend on our direction, our guidance, and our expertise in shaping their mastery of knowledge and perspective. The ability to accomplish these tasks are based on the fundamental notion embedded in our institutions as formative retreat centers. In sum, our institutions of higher education have an underlying moral orientation to operate as a formative retreat for the cultivation of virtuous adults. In general, I suggest that the greater the religious orientation of a college, the greater the formative moral imperative embedded within the institution.


The Hacker Ethic
(and Its Concern for Education)

 “Hacker ethics,” “hacker code,” and “hacker culture” are phrases I use heuristically to describe an overarching ethos that fuels the development of our increasingly “connected” (digitally connected, online, and networked) lives (see Mizrach, “Is There a Hacker’s Ethic…”; Löwgren 2000). Much of the Internet as we know it is a result of the passionate and largely voluntary work of “hackers” guided by moral values centered on access and freedom. Hackers aren’t just the people who illegally break into financial and government networks; hackers include creative pioneers who threaten institutions by mobilizing a broad approach to social life into a movement to transform the human condition. Hackers are engaged technological players who boldly experiment with their techie skills to test the limits of our new digital medium and thereby further the development of human civilization.

ComputerLib     DreamMachines

A key document representing the Hacker Ethic was distributed in 1974. Theodore H. Nelson wrote what has been called “the most important book in the history of new media” (Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort 2005, 301), a legendary booklet among tech and media people, a two-part tract, titled Computer Lib/Dream Machines. It is a prescient piece of work that both exemplifies and predicts the significance and scope of online connectivity. In it, Nelson writes, “You can and must understand computers now.... The most exciting things here [in proposed dreams for an American future] are those that involve computers: notably, because computers will be embraced in every presentational medium and thoughtful medium very soon.” He also writes, “We live in media, as fish live in water… today, at this moment, we can and must design the media, design the molecules of our new water.” Nelson believes the importance of computers lay not in their capacity for calculation, but in the fact that they enable new generations of media. “We must create our brave new worlds with art, zest, intelligence, and the highest possible ideals.”

Nelson immediately related the potential of computerization and connectivity to education. Under the heading “Some premises relevant to teaching,” he asserts:

1.       The human mind is born free, yet everywhere it is in chains. The educational system serves mainly to destroy for most people, in varying degrees, intelligence, curiosity, enthusiasm, and intellectual initiative and self-confidence. We are born with these. They are gone or severely diminished when we leave school.

2.       Everything is interesting, until ruined for us. Nothing in the universe is intrinsically uninteresting. Schooling systematically ruins things for us…

3.       There are no “subjects.” The division of the universe into “subjects” for teaching is a matter of tradition and administrative convenience.

4.       There is no natural or necessary order of learning. Teaching sequences are arbitrary, explanatory hierarchies philosophically spurious. “Prerequisites” are a fiction spawned by the division of the world into “subjects”; and maintained by not providing summaries, introductions, or orientational materials except to those arriving through a certain door.

5.       Anyone retaining his natural mental facilities can learn anything practically on his own, given encouragement and resources.

6.       Most teachers mean well, but they are so concerned with promoting their images, attitudes, and style of order that very little else can be communicated in the time remaining, and almost none of it attractively.

Nelson’s booklet provides an excellent example of how hackers consistently express a vital concern for knowledge and learning; however, they believe the educational systems we have are broken, working against the very ideals they espouse. Nelson writes passionately about how computers can allow the rejuvenation of the educational process, saying, “Those who are opposed to the use of computers to teach generally believe the computer to be ‘cold’ and ‘inhuman’” (310). Nelson counters, saying, “Living teachers can be as inhuman as members of any people-prodding profession, sometimes more so.” Nelson speaks of “freeing teachers for the creative part of their work,” at the very least, “to rescue the student from the inhuman teacher, and allow him to relate directly and personally to the intrinsically interesting subject matter, then we need to use computers in education.” Instead of an education that produces “a nation of sheep or clerks,” Nelson argues,

Education ought to be clear, inviting and enjoyable, without booby-traps, humiliations, condescension or boredom. It ought to teach and reward initiative, curiosity, the habit of self-motivation, intellectual involvement. Students should develop, through practice, abilities to think, argue and disagree intelligently. Educators and computer enthusiasts tend to agree on these goals.

While some educators see technology as reducing humanity, the Hacker Ethic sees it as a true release of the human spirit. Computers are a source of truth, beauty, and ultimately transformation. Computerized experiences consisted of designed media, and this design should involve a creative process undertaken with the audience (users) in mind.  Core to the emerging Hacker Ethic is that media should be collaboratively designed. Moreover, Nelson proposed that designed media experiences should not be hoarded or commodified but placed in a radical, open publishing network. Openness, access, freedom: these became core to the emerging Hacker Ethic.

For Nelson and other hackers the primary enemy is Central Processing in all its commercial, philosophical, political, and socio-economic manifestations. Another publication that boldly condemns the “central processing” of education is A Hacker Manifesto [version 4.0] by McKenzie Wark (2004). In a section entitled “Education,” Wark writes that the Hacker Ethic desires “knowledge, not education.” Professions in higher education have “sold out” to the interests of business and government. “Education is not the same as knowledge”; rather, “Education is slavery.” For Wark, “education” is an institutionalized instructional system with allotted roles that perpetuate the status quo. In contrast, hacker knowledge invokes in its practice a politics of free information, free learning, and the gift of sharing results to a network of peers. Hacker knowledge also involves an ethic of knowledge subject to the claims of public interest and free from subordination to commodity production.

The Hacker Ethic embraces flexible hours, creativity, and a passion for one’s work. The Hacker Ethic therefore includes a number of principles, such as:

Efficiency of information which involves:
Space—how much room information takes
Speed—how fast information is processed
Seat of pants problem solving
Mistrust of authority
Decentralized decision making
Working out of your passion
Joy of discovery
Access, sharing, openness
Free exchange of ideas
Creating a better world

Mark Zuckerberg exemplified the Hacker Ethic in a 2009 interview describing Facebook, saying, “We didn’t start with some grand theory but with a project hacked together in a couple of weeks” (quoted in Levy 2010). Every six to eight weeks, the Facebook staff conducts “hackathons” where people have one night to dream up and complete a project. “We have a big belief in moving fast, pushing boundaries, saying it’s OK to break things.” This orientation is similar to the experiences of computer programming pioneers like Richard Stallman who described the atmosphere at MIT in the 1970s as “Rules did not matter—results mattered” (quoted in Gehring 2004, 46; also see Cyberpunk Project). At Facebook, Zuckerberg said, “We’ve got this whole ethos that we want to build a hacker culture.” 

A mantra among hackers is “Less Yack, More Hack.” The hacker is a bricoleur, involved in “making do,” and, in doing so, recovering a non-alienated self. Yet being a “hacker” is more than mere individual inventiveness. It involves a larger set of ideals. A hacker should always practice freedom of expression, respect privacy, catalyze self-initiative, be enthusiastic about involvements, have a passionate attitude toward work, do work that is truly enjoyed, exercise creativity, and promote the desire to realize oneself and one’s ability, often in teams formed spontaneously around “projects.” The Hacker Ethic incorporates a curious relationship between intense isolation and radical sociability. Being a hacker is not truly solitary but rather involves cultivating rich communities of interest instead of forced communities of instruction. Trevor Owens, an information technology specialist with the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIP) in the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, used the phrase “The Interest Driven Curriculum” oriented around “Online Affinity Communities” to describe this approach to education (Owens 2010). The fruits of one’s intellectual labor are donated to everybody for advances and further developments.

The hacker work ethic involves a desire to share one’s skills with a community united by common goals, along with the need to acquire recognition from peers. The value for free distribution and peer recognition is fueling today’s most exciting and transformative online experiences. Hacker ethics disdain monetary rewards for achievements, preferring what the open-sourcers label “Egoboo” (short for “Ego Boost”), which represents the respect of one’s peers for work done freely, voluntarily. Free distribution is an attempt to establish systems based on a “gift economy,” and the best representation of free distribution is the Open Source Movement. The open source operating system Linux, established by Linus Torvalds and collaboratively constructed, exemplifies the principles of the Open Source Movement where transparency, distribution, exploration, and craftsmanship are fundamental.

Also central to the Hacker Ethic is playfulness. At a 2006 O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, Matt Webb and Ben Cerveny wrote, “Hacking is a playful act. In a primal sense, play is the investigation and experimentation with borders and combinations” (O’Reilly Emerging Technology Conference, website). Despite early, highly structured approaches to computing in mainframe laboratories in the mid-twentieth century, a computing culture of iterative experimental hacking has evolved that is essentially playful. Hacking as play emerged in response to the Cold War environment where the first “hacks” were parasitic on established systems and at the same time working against the system. Richard Stallman writes about hacking as “playfulness, cleverness, and exploration.” He writes, “Hacking means exploring the limits of what is possible in a spirit of playful cleverness.” Activities that display playful cleverness have “hack value.” Essentially, “Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking” (Stallman, “On Hacking.”)

The Hacker Ethic has been so successful in producing useful knowledge that we now count on the free flow of information. Today, digitally mediated information has become remarkably convenient with greater accessibility, quick connection times, and wide geographic breadth at declining cost. Access to computers networks—the means by which one could achieve learning and contact with others in communities of interest and concern—is becoming virtually unlimited and total. Digitally mediated communication also is characterized by enormous capacity as online communication allows for significant data and larger numbers of people participating. At the same time that the Hacker Ethic is useful, it also creates instability and anxiety, especially as hackers push programs beyond what they are designed to do. 


Underlying Conflict between
Hacker Ethic and Formative Retreat

Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, famously said, “Information wants to be free…” The Open Source Movement and the aggressive push for “open access” urges educators to accept that all information should be free. The Hacker Ethic applied within institutions of higher education therefore involves much more than “the strategic use of technology for teaching and learning” (Bates 2010). It is more than using Twitter as “a teaching and learning tool” (Barrett 2008), as valuable as that is. It involves more than understanding “ambient intimacy” and other forms of scalable sociability (Reichelt 2007). And it is certainly beyond the attainment of mere technological competency (Young 2010). The Hacker Ethic is not represented in the hiring of companies to build your university’s online courses (Parry, “Outsourced Ed,” 2010) or what some people see as the cash cow of distance learning (Kolowich 2009). Instead, the free distribution of knowledge encompasses a holistic philosophy toward education that is becoming ubiquitous in our society.

One small example is the increased availability of digital information. On 12 October 2010, an agreement was announced between the University of Virginia Press and the National Archives to make tens of thousands of the Founders’ papers (annotated and searchable) available online for free (Bromley 2010). Also in the first week of October 2010, Robert Darnton, a historian who heads up the Harvard library system, had a secret meeting with forty-two high-level representatives of other institutions and foundations, to endorse the creation of a “Digital Public Library of America,” described as “an open, distributed network of comprehensive online resources” culled from America’s libraries, archives, museums, and universities (Howard 2010). If this appears futuristic, we should note that the United States is a little behind. In August 2010, the United Nations launched its own World Digital Library (

A more significant example comes from another announcement made in October 2010. In a “Call for Open Textbooks” a student activist group called for textbooks to be made “freely available by their authors” so that they can be “chopped up and manipulated by professors who use them” (Kolowich 2010).  The management of content is being put up for grabs. So is the desire for access to scholarly knowledge. The growth of “Open Access journals” is part of the movement of broad publication and easy accessibility. Even the growing number of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary efforts can be seen as an aspect of the movement which shifts traditional approaches not only to the boundaries of scholarship but to hiring, administration, curriculum design, and pedagogy. The push toward greater “openness” in higher education through digital access is expanding even further. Initiatives exist to bring about a “reunification” of online and offline learning, a goal captured in the new pedagogical phrase “blended contexts.” In 2010, colleges saw a 17 percent increase in online enrollment, and more than one in four students have taken at least one online course since the fall of 2008, according to an annual survey by the Sloan Consortium (Parry, “Colleges See 17 Percent Increase…” 2010). The continued development of virtual learning environments like the online communities Moodle and Sakai also accentuate openness, distribution, and self-pacing. There are now self-paced online courses for which professors are paid not per class but per student. (“One student, desperate to graduate, knocked off 113 quizzes and six writing assignments for a humanities course in forty-six sleepless hours.” Quoted in Parry, “Will Technology Kill the Academic Calendar?” 2010).

The most aggressive mainstream effort to integrate the Hacker Ethic into higher education is represented in the financial commitments made by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to displace traditional forms of education (Parry, “Gates Offers Major Money…” 2010). In late 2010, senior program officer Josh Jarrett stated, “We’ll issue a set of challenges this fall around shared open-core courseware, around learning analytics, around blended learning, and around new, deeper forms of learning and engagement using interactive technologies.” Jarrett said, “If in a traditional world my faculty is my primary relationship—and maybe some of the twenty-nine other students in the classroom—technology is starting to afford different types of relationships…” His comments complement a statement made in August 2010 by Bill Gates himself at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe, California. Gates talked about how college needs to be less “place-based.” The title of an article from the event summarized his comments: “In Five Years The Best Education Will Come from the Web” (Siegler 2010).

Does this sound too sensational? Note that the Gates Foundation committed up to $80 million to this effort over the next four years. A Times Higher Education article states, “Open learning and new technology are about to smash the structure of the modern university.” Peter Smith, senior vice-­president of academic strategies and development for the private US firm Kaplan Higher Education and a former assistant director general for education at UNESCO, told an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development conference in Paris in September 2010, “Faculty and people who run universities are no longer in control” (Morgan 2010). Recall that in the moral orientation of hacker ethics, freedom is a goal to be maximized, even essentialized. Contrast this with historian Laurence R. Veysey’s observation that the development of American higher education was embedded with the assumption that “College disciplinarians essentially desired a controlled environment for the production of the morally and religiously upright.” The contrasts between formative retreat and hacker ethics are especially embedded in church-related institutions.

Church-related higher education best captures the dilemma between hacker ethics and disciplined formation. As the goals of discipline and piety are accentuated in an institution of higher education, the tendency to see students as “not-yet-adults” increases and forms of paternalism are enacted. The essential tension between the ethics of formative retreat and Hacker Ethic is based in part on the assessment of who qualifies as an “adult.” Understanding the difference in approaching “adulthood” is significant for church-related higher education as institutional assumptions often operate on the principle that freedom should be productively constrained. Moreover, an age-bias is embedded within hacker ethics, as this orientation tends to assume that younger people are faster, more able to focus intensely, more willing to work against obstructive authority, and in many ways are essentially smarter than “adults.”


The Exploit

In describing the Hacker Ethic, I am not interested in romanticizing an of computer technology or digital connectivity. Yet, I suspect that as educators we may be guilty of romanticizing an era of higher education that will no longer exist. As an educator, I acknowledge that different forms of education have occurred throughout history. The history of higher education is rich and varied, including Plato’s gymnasium, the medieval University of Salamanca or Bologna, the religious colleges of New England, research universities like Johns Hopkins which imported conceptions from Germany, and the open curriculum pioneered at Harvard and Chicago. In addition, there are numerous technical and residential colleges with their own distinctive foci and experiments. We now have online degree programs, distance learning, and decentralized faculty. Who knows what comes next? We can be confident that in one hundred years, the character of higher education will be different from what we know today.

There are rich possibilities for education within the Hacker Ethic. Yes, it can be criticized for lacking cohesion. Who are the core representatives? Where are the concrete action points? What are the primary frames? Those who share in the Hacker Ethic say it is intended to be a dispersed set of phenomena. Perhaps it is too “young” an orientation to be routinized and institutionalized. Or perhaps it is perpetually in motion. Consider a book printed by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman titled Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals (2004). The authors define concepts inherent to the Hacker Ethic like “play,” “design,” and “interactivity.” The book looks at games through a series of eighteen “game design schemas,” or conceptual frameworks, including games as systems of emergence and information, as contexts for social play, as storytelling media, and as sites of cultural resistance. Perhaps a structure of openness and the uncertainty invoked in notions of gaming will replace more hierarchical conceptions in educational systems.

Hackers have a term called “The Exploit.” The exploit represents the “hole” that lets you do things the system was not originally designed to do. I suggest that our educational systems are full of ever more students, colleagues, and administrators who are increasingly acclimated to the Hacker Ethic. In novel and fruitful ways they bring conceptions of freedom, distribution, and play into their classrooms, their scholarship, and their leadership. Even though our systems of higher education were not designed with the principles of hacker ethics in mind, the subversive nature of the Hacker Ethic will surely find its way into our structures and our bureaucracies. Already, bending “the rules” for many people is simply a way of getting things accomplished. We should not be surprised if we find people in our educational systems “bending rules” along the lines of the Hacker Ethic, engagingly “exploiting” systems in pursuit of new approaches to pedagogy, research, and management. While those who are less ambitious might consider mimicking physical space online or minimizing digital dynamics, the more transformative route would be to have the courage to open ourselves to the unseen possibilities in the design of human interaction now made possible through the radical expansion of new forms of communication. It is not the distant future of higher education, but our all-too-real present.

In the first Inaugural Address of Davidson College in 1838, President Robert Hall Morrison said, “Education must be defective if it fails to cultivate all the powers of our nature.” I find a surprising resonance between President Morrison’s nineteenth century approach to education and that of the technological visionary Theodore H. Nelson who wrote in his 1974 Computer Lib/Dream Machines, “It is for the Wholiness of the human spirit that we must design.” Rather than retrenching into our formative retreat or naïvely embracing the Hacker Ethic uncritically, perhaps a fusion of insights from these two men suggests a path. In taking up the capacity to cultivate humanity and proactively design for the richness of the human spirit with the tools now available to us, we not only create the future of education, we also empower ourselves to shape the best possible future of our world. And we can do it together.


Gerardo Marti is the L. Richardson King Associate Professor of Sociology at Davidson College.


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