Participation & the hacker ethic

Much was said and written about engaging with young people during this General Election, most of it predictably patronising. The reality for most is a lack of participation that stretches far beyond the polling booth. With secure, well paid jobs in scarce supply, many young adults feel a sense of isolation and powerlessness that another Tory government can only multiply. Now more than ever, we need to explore new models of engagement between our young people and the organisations, social structures and networks that can connect them to opportunity and influence – we hope the Hack Aye project will play a part in that process.

Participation is a central theme for us. Not having enough work, secure work or well enough paid work prevents you from fully participating in your community and the wider society, from family life to your career and education pathways, if you’re fortunate enough to have any. Hack Aye started from the belief that everyone has a right to this participation.

Our response is an experimental approach we’re developing with various partners, beginning with Scottish trade union organisations. We’re taking much inspiration from global movements in politics and technology, from the US Fast Food Campaign, Occupy and Hacktivism, to the community-organising principles of open source projects such as those piloted by the Mozilla Foundation.

A program of creative events and activities will bring young participants together with artists, technologists, activists and others. They’ll collaborate to learn, “make” and drive the change they want to see. Key principles will include openly documenting and sharing what we discover. We’ll support decentralised interaction, with participants connecting as much or as little as they like, even anonymously. Achievements and contributions will be recognised using emerging standards such as Open Badges. We’ll engage participants on their interests, putting them in control over direction and outcomes.

Existing initiatives using these practices include Hive Learning Networks – communities around the world collaborating to change the way learning works in their city. These networks are hacking social change locally by making meaningful, productive learning experiences available to those kids who have the fewest opportunities in life.

As inequality continues its relentless increase, poverty and underemployment have started to seem like an inescapable norm. Remember last year’s outbreak of hope? Young people threw themselves into the independence debate in unprecedented numbers, with groups such as Radical Independence Campaign, Common Weal and others making the Yes movement a model of grassroots power in action. In spite of everything, the tide of activism is continuing to rise.

In 2014 the V&A’s Disobedient Objects exhibition showcased innovations generated by activist movements throughout history. Something similarly creative happened last year in Scotland that was more fundamental than an increase in the voting turnout. Young people imagined the kind of country they wanted to live in. Scoff if you like at what they and others imagined, but it was a significant moment. Every social movement starts with a creative act – visualising a different reality from the one you find yourself in.

We asked a group of young people if they were interested in politics. The response was a resounding “no”. They went on to express a range of articulate, well-informed views about a variety of issues. After the referendum surely no-one can deny the desire of many young adults to have a stake in the future of their country – the “politics” that they reject is a system whose failure and irrelevance has been highlighted by this General Election in the results both north and south of the border. It’s not just the language that they don’t relate to.

Young Scots feel little to no affiliation with traditional democratic movements, as Scottish Labour must at last understand. “Ah, but they know nothing about the history of the trade union movement, they just need educated.” Not quite. The problem for trade unions runs deeper, and it isn’t a problem, it’s part of the solution. Young people have less tolerance for tribal, hierarchical organising channels – together with the chronic failure of representation in Westminster politics, the Internet has changed all that. Developing social movements are inherently more decentralised and ultimately speak to a more democratic future.
Hack Aye will of course seek to tick a range of CV-friendly boxes: helping school-leavers to learn skills valued in the workplace, gain confidence and experience the benefit of working within a team.

However, we also hope to stimulate a more meaningful shift – learning to see the world as changeable. This is the hacker ethic: break things open, see how they work, change them. Exploring and supporting a variety of ways to express dissent will be vital as new anti-union laws kick in.

In one of our first substantial projects, we organised an event as part of the Better than Zero (>ZERO) campaign against low pay and insecure work. On 14th May 2015 we brought contributors from music, visual art, comedy, technology and activism together with young people to hack zero culture. In a bold departure from the old-school approach, the STUC aims to provide the support for young people to drive this campaign, forging new connections outside the trade union movement. We used various creative techniques to capture experiences of work, draw inspiration from global movements and challenge a load of young people, new to activism, to design a movement that will truly represent them. As the election results testify, for meaningful change we must look beyond mainstream politics.

The team behind Hack Aye is Jen Hunter and Sue Smith, who have worked variously in the arts, the union movement and technology. Go to