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Hacking Like We Give A Damn

Folks convinced that the emerging generation will usher in the end of Western Civilization have enjoyed a reverberant echo chamber recently: Millennials allegedly don’t value recorded musiccheat on tests, are akin to untrained puppies in the workplace, and lack faith in government.

Judging from the pronouncements reblogged across the controversy-nourished social web, the emerging generation is more devoted to the pixels flickering across LCD screens than a sense of civic obligation. A recent Harvard Survey of Attitudes toward Politics and Public Service among 18–29 year olds could be misinterpreted to confirm such presumptions.

According to the survey, only 21 percent of the respondents considered themselves politically engaged or active, with 43 percent stating they believed the country is “off on the wrong track.” The cynics may read into those numbers confirmation of their worst fears, but I suspect it has more to do with a job market that has hit Millennials harder than any other age group and a governmental process that runs at the speed of Pony Express, rather than a (projected) notion of entitlement or the hypnotic allure of LCD screens.

A recent LA Times article by Neal Gabler, “Welcome to the DIY generation,” serves as a potent rebuttal to the doomsayers. Gabler argues that today’s twenty-somethings are rejecting electoral scorekeeping in favor of the hands-on civic engagement:

The DIY impulse seems to start with the most basic politics of all: individual agency. If it takes hold it will be from the bottom up, translating a way of thinking into a way of doing. Already you can see DIY politics in action, not just in young people camping outside City Hall but in their joining service organizations and NGOs where they can do good and seemingly apolitical—or at least extra-governmental—work. They don’t abide endless debate and tit-for-tat strategies that result in gridlock.

I doubt this phenomenon is confined to people who were born post-Star Wars. Even as a relatively-engaged citizen at the ripe age of 35, I’m finding @horse_ebooks a lot more compelling than the ongoing Presidential horse race.

To betray my age and quote Richard Linklater-by-way-of-R.E.M., “withdrawal in disgust is not the same as apathy.” I’m inclined to agree with Code for America’s Abhi Nemani statement that the attention lavished upon national matters distracts from the issues and solutions in our own front yards.

Does the attention paid to our national blood sport merely conjure an illusion of civic engagement? I increasingly suspect so.

The driven and optimistic young developers, designers, lawyers, and community organizers that comprise the Code for America Fellowship belie the grim prognostications of the generational doomsayers and point to a more effective way of getting engaged. As does the emerging civic network of coders, technologists, academics, community organizations, journalists, and other citizens attending hackathons, joining the Code for America Brigade, and using these tools of a distributed civil society to redefine community, governance, and storytelling.

Outside the civic tech sphere, trends such as tactical urbanism and urban acupuncture suggest a larger civic renaissance, as do neighborhood-revitalization projects such as Better Block or the sustainability-minded drone builders involved in citizen science organization The Public Laboratory.

While the cable news pundits pontificate, we’re busy hacking the processes and institutions that impact our peer groups and communities, operating as civic nodes in an emerging civil society that’s mobile, location-aware, and distributed. The open source ethos of collaboration, cooperation, and collegial competition offer a framework with which we can hack not only code, but governance and civic action. In the process, they provide new opportunities to connect with our IRL communities.

It’s a rebirth of the most time-tested forms of civic action: tactical, local, and immediate. Let wonks and pageview-desperate media outlets bloviate over the political scandals of the day. In the meantime, small civic hacks may prove to be far more transformative in the aggregate.