Hackathons: Innovation or Exploitation?

illustration of people around a screen that says "hackathon"
In her research, her writing, and her curiosity about the everyday life of cities, Professor Sharon Zukin (GC/Brooklyn College, Sociology) explores urban cultural and economic change. Her books include Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places and Global Cities, Local Streets: Everyday Diversity from New York to Shanghai (co-authored with Professor Philip Kasinitz (Sociology) and Xianming Chen). She’s now working on a book about the impact of the tech sector on New York’s economy, culture, and neighborhoods.
This new phase in New York’s post-industrial economy has been accompanied by the near-disappearance of businesses from neighborhoods once named for them, like the Garment District and the Flower District. At the same time, new neighborhoods have emerged as tech districts, including Silicon Alley, centered along Broadway in Lower Manhattan, and a triangle in Brooklyn that includes DUMBO.
“What really attracted me when I started” the book project, Zukin said in an interview with The Midnight Charette podcast, “was the shift in New York’s economy from the last vestiges of something to the awakening of something else.”

Professor Sharon Zukin 

Zukin’s research included an attention-getting study of hackathons, conducted with Graduate Center Ph.D. student Max Papadantonakis (Sociology). Hackathons are round-the-clock events sponsored by companies, universities, and sometimes nonprofits, where computer programmers collaborate on building new apps and compete for prizes. Zukin and Papadantonakis studied seven hackathons in New York City and published their findings in the peer-reviewed journal Research in the Sociology of Work. Their article was titled Hackathons as Co-optation Ritual: Socializing Workers and Institutionalizing Innovation in the ‘New’ Economy. The study made a splash in tech circles after a write-up appeared in Wired with a different headline: Sociologists Examine Hackathons and See Exploitation.
Zukin was thrilled to see the research reach a wide audience, but says the term “exploitation” doesn’t tell the full story of what they found. “We are really writing about self-exploitation,” she said in an interview with The Graduate Center. Participants “truly enjoy going sleepless for 36 hours to write computer code. They enjoy seeing their friends, some of whom they don’t get to see in their ordinary work lives. They enjoy the excitement of what Emile Durkheim called ‘collective effervescence.’ They get this high from participating in a very high-pressure, overnight event.” Interviews with participants also showed that they are “very conscious of building their résumés. … investing in their careers while having fun.”
Ironically, Zukin says most apps and ideas produced at hackathons “are not usable, not even as prototypes.” But there are other payoffs for the companies and universities behind the events. Hackathons help sponsors promote their brands, products, and reputations as “cool, hip, and successful.”
Noting that sociologists love to “look at the dark side of things,” Zukin said hackathons also have broader implications for society and the economy. As the article put it, hackathons normalize “quasi-Orwellian precepts that have practically become axioms of the new economy,” like “work is play.”
“This is not just about tech,” Zukin explained. “This is about jobs in the new economy. It’s partly about jobs in tech, where employers require participation in extracurricular events like hackathons, because there is still a belief that this is way to keep training people, to make them more productive in this high-pressure teamwork situation.” But “it’s also about work in general. People in many occupations are being forced or persuaded to work outside of normal work space and work time.” In non-tech fields, though, it doesn’t always lead to steady employment.

As Zukin and Papadantonakis wrote, the willingness of individuals to engage in unpaid labor is a hallmark of the “formation” of a skilled, creative workforce “motivated to be entrepreneurs while lacking a full-time job.” Some of these workers may eventually “‘disrupt’ established ways of doing business,” but others will simply help market “products like razors and mattresses in newer, cheaper, and more efficient ways.”  

Submitted on: OCT 25, 2018

Category: Faculty | General GC News | Sociology | Student News