I recently attended my first ever hackathon — and the effects have lingered in surprising ways.
CODEX, hosted this winter at the MIT Media Lab, has a unique literary bent: it’s billed as a community of folks who want to imagine the future of books and reading.” As someone excited about technology and storytelling, libraries and information, design and education, I found the premise to be right up my alley — a perfect first hackathon if there ever was one.
On my bus ride from NYC to Boston that cold January morning, I thought a bit about what to work on, how to spend my time wisely and make the most of the experience. I didn’t entirely know what to expect.
Looking back on the experience, it wasn’t an unmitigated success according to how I thought hackathons were supposed to work — I didn’t leave with a mind-blowing product built, or an instantly-formed new network. But reflecting further, I did get a lot out of it, in ways I didn’t necessarily expect.
Not Your Typical Hackathon; Not Your Typical Hacker
Here’s the standard hackathon model: people (mostly technical people) break up into teams, each of which hacks together a rough project over the course of a weekend and demos it at the end. Then everyone disperses; a few projects live on but by and large entropy takes hold. In some respects it all looks a bit aimless, with an uncomfortable lack of permanence.
Me? I’m now several years out of Yale, working at the intersection of media production, education, and niche web business, and doing a lot of writing and side projects. I know how to put together videos and websites, but I don’t exactly self-identify as a “hacker”. And CODEX billed itself as something very different from your average hackathon.
At the event, after a whirlwind design thinking exercise, I did join a team. We volleyed interesting ideas about personalized on-demand annotations for contextual reading. I spent a lot of time working with some great people.
For me, however, that wasn’t actually the most valuable part of the hackathon. As Saturday morn turned to Saturday eve, and the sun soon rose on Sunday, I found myself exploring a kind of alternative shadow hackathon in my own mind, alongside and intermingled with the group work that divided my attention. I spent much of the time thinking through some of my own ideas, and I came out of the weekend with a renewed focus and energy.
Leaving With Artifacts of Process, Not Product
I may not have used my time at CODEX as effectively as possible, partly due to my hackathon inexperience, partly due to chance, and (if I’m being honest with myself) partly due to fear of committing to my own ideas.
However — however! — on the bus ride back home, Sunday night, as memory of the immediate artifacts receded, I felt the hackathon’s lingering effects. I felt its momentum, the way it nudged me onto unforeseen vectors, and accelerated ones I’d previously let lie dormant. As I reflected, I realized that CODEX ultimately helped me crystallize and build on some projects I’ve been toying with, and I’m excited to continue pursuing them.
I’d like to share some of the ways that seemingly-small fragments of this experience shaped my thinking, and offer some thoughts for how I might direct this personal momentum going forward.
Only at CODEX!
- At CODEX, I met a few whip-smart librarians, working on the cutting edge of the field. I was also exposed to a bevy of digital library brilliance I’d never encountered before — one great example: the Digital Public Library of America — and this inspired me to start researching awesome and obscure digital collections, with the goal of curating and highlighting some of the best.
- Witnessing all the incredible technical expertise unevenly distributed throughout the crowd of CODEX participants was at once inspiring and humbling. This showed me just how sparse my knowledge is in many areas, and how much potential lies beyond what I’m even aware of (case in point: natural language processing!) But at the same time, it hammered home just how much is possible in a very short period of time when the right mix of skills align with focus and creativity.
- I was exposed to a heap of amazing projects old and new — from awesome APIs to world-class working groups to incredible ongoing research to audacious hacks. CODEX was great about assembling a great, and diverse array of people and interests. From the Airtable spreadsheet-as-database API, to the remarkable digital archives of the DPLA (linked above), to Kickstarter’s publishing project outreach, to the “Gitenberg” project bringing Project Gutenberg to Github, potential saturated the air.
- During the hackathon, I participated on the “subTEXT” team, exploring ways to create an enhanced reading experience by crawling for contextually relevant information and bringing that information to the reader in an unobtrusive and personalized manner. While we didn’t end up with a working product (unbalanced team; technically overambitious; oh well!) it was nonetheless a very interesting area to think about and design. And it was great to be exposed to some of the sorts of things that such a project, brought to fruition, would necessarily entail.
- The rigid constraints and accelerated pace of the hackathon helped me think more pragmatically about some of my own projects. For a handful of project seedlings that have until now existed mainly in my head, I came away from CODEX with concrete ideas for how I could start to actually build something tangible. I’ll discuss these in more detail below!
Here are some of the things I’ve come away from CODEX inspired to work on further:
I want to curate a digital library…of libraries. Or parts of them, at least. This would be not just a listing of different libraries around the world, but a focused collection highlighting specific collections that are particularly unique, interesting, and accessible — a portal to a rich variety of free information that someone browsing otherwise might never discover.
At CODEX, I started researching what sorts of things I could highlight. There are (surprise, surprise) about a bajillion great candidates. Things like: biological libraries of seeds or species; the digital bookshelves of Project Gutenberg; NYPL’s online collections (included exciting new public domain material); and the most intriguing bits drawn from the Internet Archive, World Digital Library, DPLA, Smithsonian, Library of Congress, and various great university libraries. Plus…all kinds of Internet esoterica like Thermopedia (“resources on heat and mass transfer, fluid flow and thermodynamics”) or the Textual Iconography of Don Quixote, or the Geologic Atlas of the United States.
Personal Canon a.k.a. “Canonize.me”
I’m very interested in personal digital libraries, and in particular, the idea of one’s “personal canon” of important, influential, formative texts and media.
I’ve been thinking about what tools and methods — from self-hosted wikis to tagged Pinboard bookmarks — can be used to build and navigate them. Something I’d particularly like to build is a simple framework for someone to showcase their own “canon” (inspiration: http://davidcole.me/canon/). This would be a simple yet powerful way to display your résumé of influences and offer a peek at the threads leading to your worldview.
I’d like to make this an open-sourced template (side benefit: learn how to use Github) and perhaps further explore ways to use Pinboard, which I love. Along with this, or as the next stage, I’d like to host a list collecting various examples of personal canon pages, along the lines of Derek Sivers’ “/now page” movement, or Diana Kimball’s “/mentoring movement”. This could include instructions for assembling a “personal canon” — and could even be one smaller part of a simple (but opinionated) personal website template.
I’ve worked more on creating V1 of my own Personal Canon over the past few weeks — here’s what I’ve got so far!
I’ve been working on a project called “Antilibraries”, about the vast landscape and potential of unread books — curating the best, with the goal of exploring new ideas and areas of the map. These are recommendations of books not necessarily to read, but to be aware of, so we can better explore the adjacent possible of the ideas they contain.
So far I’ve made a website for the project (blog with short writings about 50+ books in my personal antilibrary) and started a newsletter to highlight these (around 25 subscribers). But I’d love to take it further. A couple ideas:
- Some kind of podcast (to discuss others’ antilibraries)
- Guest-curated book lists w/ interesting people
- A digital book club (whatever that means) for people to tackle their antilibraries together
This project has evolved over a couple stages already, and I’m not fully sure where it will go next, but I have some directions I’m excited to explore.
It’s Not About What You Make, It’s About How It Changes YOU
Hackathons are great birthing grounds for emergent phenomena.
I’m beginning to realize that as a category of event, they seem to be more about process than outcome. Despite culminating in prototypes and presentations — artifacts of hard work and concerted thinking — much of their value actually lies in what you’re exposed to along the way, and how the experience can nudge and reshape your thinking.
Much of the power of an event like CODEX comes from what it inspires — in how its influence extends into the future and permeates work to come.
This means that one useful way to approach a hackathon is to focus on collecting and banking as many relationships, ideas, and conceptual frameworks as possible over the course of the event. And a valuable alternative to focusing on final output can be found in letting your mind wander, picking up fragments to save for later, and generally treating the whole thing as a learning experience to the greatest degree possible.
If I were to go back in time and do CODEX all over again, I’d no doubt do it differently. And that’s part of the beauty of this kind of chaos directed toward creative ends — ultimately it doesn’t matter what you end up with, it matters how it changes you.
Before CODEX, I had many side project ideas, but little direction for how I might actually change experiences of reading, browsing, curating, or otherwise interacting with the written word. Now, I’m a bit more confident I can make things that matter.
The shift in perspective is subtle, but it’s the accretion of just such small shifts that shapes us.
I’m glad I went, and can only hope I’m able to work this ethos of experimentation into my daily life. And if I start to feel the hackathon spirit diminish, well…I’ll be back next time!