When Nerdy Becomes Trendy: A New Tack Needed for 5C Hack

Armed
with laptops in one hand and cans of Red Bull in the other, a small stampede of
5C students congregated upon Pomona College’s Lincoln-Edmunds building exactly
one week ago, just as the sun was setting. They were gearing up for one of
everyone’s most beloved events of the year: The 5C Hackathon.

Every semester, the 5C Hackathon allows
students to experience some of the Silicon Valley spirit right here in
Claremont. Students come from across the colleges, giving up their Friday night
to compete in an overnight contest of app developing, website designing and
product building, with the hopes of earning a new pair of headphones or an iPad
as a prize.

Tech has suddenly become cool,
and geeks along with it. The idea of pulling an all-nighter, hunched over your
computer and surrounded by Chipotle wrappers, has never been so romantic.
Indeed, we worship it. The rise of online tools like Codecademy, the recent
introduction of the Silicon Valley Program at Claremont McKenna College and the
extreme overcrowding of the 5C computer science departments is telling: Just
about everyone wants to learn how to code.

But with the advent of this
newfound popularity comes a serious threat to what hacking has historically
represented. Hacking has become mainstream,
to be sure, but dangerously so. Hackathons these days, like our own 5C one,
have taken on a decidedly bourgeois twist. They have transformed into something
wholly antithetical to the original premise of hacking.

Hacking used to be synonymous
with creativity or playfulness—actions directed toward operating outside of the
system, not reaffirming it. But when you sit hundreds of students down together
in a room with an artificial time limit and corporate sponsorship, these
virtues begin to wane.

My first hint of that came with
the ludicrous swag that was flung upon us when we signed in—think laundry bags
embroidered with Google’s logo or shower caps that double as bike seat covers.
Then, the fact that the 12-hour event took place overnight, for no apparent
reason other than because that is surely what all leet hackers are known to do.
And the most obvious clue was perhaps the judging ceremony itself, with its
forthrightly corporate orientation. The judges were company recruiters scouting
in the flesh, eager to obtain the résumé that we handed in when we registered.

Put it all together, and the
Hackathon emerges as an extended job interview designed to tease out those of
us who might be elite enough to eventually enroll in a hotbed startup in the
north. It is a training ground for future employment, for places where you really
might just be expected to work all night, willing or not.

Hacking
was once the technological vanguard of society, yet now it is symptomatic of
it. Hackathons coopt college students into the workforce track earlier than
ever, training them to spend their time in intense sprints of busyness without
ever interrogating the implications of that lifestyle.

And 5C students, like college
students everywhere, have accepted the gambit. The allure of becoming a hacker
shows no signs of stopping, and it is not because people are suddenly more
interested in lambda calculus than they were 10 years ago. What our new
computer science majors really yearn for is the prospect of a six-figure
paycheck right after graduation.

That motive ought to give us
liberal arts students a bit of pause. When James Blaisdell wrote, “They only
are loyal to this college who, departing, bear their added riches in trust for
mankind,” I somehow find it unlikely that he was referring to monetary
wealth. 

Of course, money is not
preclusive of metaphysical happiness. But many mistakenly treat it as a proxy
for such. That is an answer that economists might be satisfied with, but I
would hope that the rest of the liberal arts know better.

It is true that it would be
impossible to host the 5C Hackathon without the financial backing of Bloomberg,
Intuit and the like. But we need not dance to the tune of their
drum when it starts beating again next November. Cisco and Esri may be steering
the ship, but you can choose which way the sails are pointing when you jump
onboard.

Supporters of the 5C Hackathon
will contend that its true purpose is really to engender learning, mentorship
and community building for beginners. And indeed, hackathons do have
the potential to bring out incredible shows of innovation and imagination. That
is hacking at its best. I have witnessed that joy firsthand at all the
hackathons I have attended in my own life since I began coding in high school
and in the programming positions that I have held, most recently at BuzzFeed
last summer.

But let us just remember that the
prizes, the spectating recruiters and the corporate knick-knacks are not
emblematic of that spirit—they actually stand in contradiction to it.

Matt Dahl PO ’17 is majoring
in politics. His team’s app won best design at the spring 5C Hackathon.

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