Writing code and decoding the world | MIT news

Several years ago, MIT anthropologist Héctor Beltrán ’07 participated in an event in Mexico billed as the first all-women hackathon in Latin America. But the programmers weren’t the only women there. When the time came to the hackathon venues, a large number of family members arrived to watch.

“Grandmothers and mothers showed up to cheer the hackathon participants on,” says Beltrán. “It’s something I’d never seen in the US. It was inspiring. It felt good to see people who are normally excluded from these spaces being welcomed as part of this innovation infrastructure.”

In a way, the grandmothers hacked the hackathon. After all, hackathons started out as male-dominated coding marathons, often inaccessible to women—who, even when they join tech or other professions, also handle much of the “second shift,” the unpaid family work women have done for generations. As one of the hackers told Beltrán, her grandmother helps with everything in everyday life. She is in charge of everything.”

But having so many women in the hackathon audience, Beltrán notes, highlighted an often-ignored point: All the unpaid work of women is part of the “infrastructure” that has let men code and innovate and build their own careers.

“Things that people don’t usually think about, even like the structure of a hackathon, being there all weekend with your friends is something that hasn’t been possible for a lot of women,” says Beltrán.

Now, in a new book, “Code Work: Hacking Across the US/México Techno-Borderlands,” published today by Princeton University Press, Beltrán closely examines the relationship between computer culture and society in Mexico. In it, he finds that coding is more than writing code: it is an activity that generates fruitful reflection on the part of the coders – about themselves, their political and economic conditions, and what roles they can play in society.

“A core concept of the book is precisely that as you code and participate in these events, you also construct a sense of yourself and how you fit into these larger societal structures and differences,” says Beltrán, who is the Class of 1957 career development assistant in MIT’s Anthropology Program.

To break into the field

“Code Work” builds on field research Beltrán conducted in Mexico, participating in hackathons, conducting interviews and scrutinizing the country’s politics and economy. However, the project’s roots go back to Beltrán’s undergraduate days at MIT, where he studied computer science and engineering. After graduation, Beltrán worked in consulting; a trip to Mexico City helped spur his interest in the differences between the technology sectors in Mexico and in the United States

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“I saw that there was really a disconnect between different cultures,” says Beltrán.

As such, “Code Work” is an exploration of coding, both as practiced in Mexico and in its relationship to American computer culture. The book focuses heavily on hackathons, as events where the joy and promise of technical innovation is evident, along with the tensions in the field.

Unlike the US, where hackers have often achieved cachet as “disruptors” who shake up the civil order, coders in Mexico often try to enter the established economic order – while also trying to use technology for social innovations.

“Usually we think of hacking in the Global North as a way to break out of certain constraints,” says Beltrán. “But in the global south there are people who have been excluded from these global cultures of innovation and computing. Their hacking [is a means of] trying to break into these larger data cultures.”

To be sure, Beltrán notes, tech culture in the US hasn’t always been hugely inclusive either. Referring to a Latino MIT student he observed who went to Mexico to participate in hackathons, Beltrán says, “I see this kind of movement to go the global south as a way to present yourself as someone from an innovative culture and be respected as an expert. – to break out of the Global North’s own hierarchies.”

By studying issues of gender and technological culture, Beltrán also examines issues involving masculinity and coding. The sheer hard work of coding can drive people to great achievements, but at times coders can “work other people to the point of exploitation,” he notes. And while “the information technology economy wants you to think,” the work of coding complicates “the division of mind and hand.”

In the book, Beltrán also locates hackers who question the value of the hackathons they participate in, noting that the winning entries rarely seem to become widespread applications; some hackathons act more as advertisements for innovation than engines for it. The tension between hackers’ independence and the larger corporate structures they perceive is a central motif of the book.

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Such observations underscore Beltrán’s point that, while producing code, hackers are also highly reflective, actively thinking about their place in society, their political economy, and more. These hackers, Beltrán finds, often apply the intellectual concepts of coding to the world in enlightening ways. One hacker Beltrán meets sees his own career as a series of “loosely coupled” jobs—he borrows a computer term for marginally connected components. In the hacker’s view, this has a positive aspect, as opposed to a career dedicated to working for only one company of subjectively questionable value.

Thought piece

“Code Work” has received praise from other researchers in the field. Gabriella Coleman, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University who also studies hackers, has called the book “clear, well-written, and lively,” adding that by “dexterously linking ethnographic material to literature in anthropology, Latinx studies, science, and technology studies and Mexican studies and history, Beltrán has expanded and revitalized the scope and direction of hacker studies.”

For his part, Beltrán says he hopes readers will understand his book as a work not just about Mexico, but a distinctly international scope that explores how cultures evolve in relation to each other while intervening in a global economy. The questions raised in “Code Work” can apply to many countries, he believes.

These are topics that Beltrán also examines in an undergraduate class, “Hacking from the South,” that he currently teaches.

“These are complex problems with many moving parts,” says Beltrán. “It’s also very empowering for students to make these connections themselves.” Many students, he believes, thrive when they have the opportunity to think across subjects and take those tools and perspectives into the world.

“As an undergraduate, I thought I was learning something at MIT to go out and get a job,” says Beltrán. “I wanted to come back to academia because it is a place where we get to think deeply about the structures we are entangled in and question who we are becoming and how we can intervene in the world. Especially MIT students, who can potentially intervene by changing systems in a powerful way.”