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Hacking Creativity



This abstract introduces my academic and personal background and briefly describes my sociological PhD project on technical creativity and inventiveness, featuring ethnographical field studies of hackathons. Although primarily an empirical research project, I try to conceptualize my findings with abstract theoretical framework concerning the (social production of) technical creativity and inventiveness. I present my preliminary findings on how hackathons, conceived as particular social situations, constitute a fruitful environment for creative, inventive (social) practices. Namely by the openness of communication, the diversity of participants, and their specific, short-period temporality.
SIGCHI Extended Abstract
File: Hacking Creativity
This abstract introduces my academic and personal
background and briefly describes my sociological PhD
project on technical creativity and inventiveness,
featuring ethnographical field studies of hackathons.
Although primarily an empirical research project, I try
to conceptualize my findings with abstract theoretical
framework concerning the (social production of)
technical creativity and inventiveness. I present my
preliminary findings on how hackathons, conceived as
particular social situations, constitute a fruitful
environment for creative, inventive (social) practices.
Namely by the openness of communication, the
diversity of participants, and their specific, short-period
Author Keywords
Hackathons; Sociology; Creativity; Collaboration
ACM Classification Keywords
Human-centered computing~Collaborative
and social computing theory, concepts and
paradigms Human-centered
computing~Social engineering (social
sciences) Human-centered
computing~Collaborative and social
computing • Human-centered computing
ACM copyright: ACM holds the copyright on the work.
Peter Müller
Technical University Munich
Munich, 80333, Germany
Introduction Personal and Project
After finishing my M.A. in sociology, I have joined the
Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS), the
first German “Science & Technology Studies” (STS)
institute, as a graduate student. As a technology
enthusiast, I am intrigued by phenomena of technical
invention. Hence, I combined this personal interest with
my academic profession and am investigating how
invention happens and is done, from a sociological
perspective. This is a complex question, taking into
account the phenomena of inventing and thinking ‘new’
ideas in the absence of a concrete, plainly given
problem. For the contrary scenario is rather a
commonplace: people who think of solutions when
facing a particular problem, defined by a present
problem situation. My empirical access to the social
dimension of technical creativity lies in the observation
and participation at hackathons and similar events. For
they claim to foster creative and inventive ideas.
Hacking Creativity
As indicated, my research project is empirically focused
on hackathons concerning the investigation and
understanding of meaning and setup of social situations
around technical creativity and inventiveness. Thereby,
I follow two different research tracks: one that tries to
sociologically understand practices and structures
within and around events like hackathons, and how
creativity is articulated and used as an end, mean or
(symbolic) resource. And one that tries to rethink
sociology as an ‘applied science’ that can contribute to
a technical understanding of creativity by providing
insights in the mechanics and requirements of ‘social
creativity’. Creativity is, in general, a very fuzzy term.
This can be very confusing for one who tries to use
creativity as an empirical, scientific concept. For
creativity, even defined as technical inventiveness, still
cannot be properly operationalized. Nevertheless,
technical creativity is, epistemologically, more
disposable for it features the differentiation of
works/works not’. Furthermore, ‘creativity’ here is
identified with all outcomes that, somehow, surprise,
i.e. results that had not been expected. This is also a
qualitative operationalization that takes into account
not only coded results but also new ways of
reinterpreting outcomes. Although a tautology, it is a
viable sociological approach for, functionally, it does not
matter in how far something might ‘actually’ be
creative but how and whether creativity can be
successfully attributed as a (socio-economic) quality.
This common conceptualization thus also integrates my
two research tracks.
However, this abstract highlights the latter, applied
track of my research. I ethnographically studied seven
hackathons, applying methods of hidden, participating
observation (i.e. taking part without revealing my
actual research intentions). During those hackathons, I
have learned a lot about the explicit and implicit
diversities of hackathons, how they integrate different
types of participants, e.g. designers, coders, citizens,
different experts, professionals, enthusiasts and
stakeholders) and topics (open data, AI, IoT, public
issues, media and even music); but also how they differ
regarding the setup of issues: giving defined tasks and
problems to the participants, offering mere thematic
frameworks or assigning the invention/discovery of new
(possibly) problems and issues. Although hackathons
cover all kinds of open/define d problems/solutions and
tinkering, my research is focused on the ‘creative’
aspect of open, non-defined (not ill-defined!) problems.
The more ‘present’ and (however)-defined problems
are, the more they are accessible to systematic, logical
structuring. Hence I suggest that the specific, peculiar,
and ‘abductive’ perspective of sociology can shed some
light on processes that do not happen on an explicit
level and therefore are incommensurable to classical,
deductive(-nomological) research approaches.
I have also been able to analyze some of the social
mechanics of hackathonian collaboration that render
those events ‘creative’ and to identify first
requirements of creative hackathons that produce
something ‘new’. I have conceptualized three of those
hackathonian creativity features (or requirements) that
go beyond the ergonomically informed organization of
hackathons like starting with knowledge assessment
units (e.g. keynotes): Ideational and communicative
openness, instant diversity of participants, and short-
period temporality.
Ideational and communicative openness refers to the
particular capacity of hackathons to set up a realm of
low-threshold compatibility of ideas and
communication. The presented, communicated and
offered ideas by each participant are likely to be
accepted as a (proto-)productive contribution. It is yet
hard to explain this particular hackathonian feature but
the hackathon-typical emphasis on amusement and fun
(I call this: ‘funnification’) is probably one main reason
of this open, casual atmosphere. Although it is no
imperative, ‘funnification seems to work like an
informal hackathon code of conduct. I have, with all
studied cases, observed that even virtually rejected
ideas were discussed in a friendly and appreciating
way. This results, however, in more than mere social
convenience; it is often a vital requirement for
unexpected resumptions of ideas, either by trying to
somehow integrate such ideas into one’s own thinking
or by looking for productive aspects of the idea which
often differ from the interp retation of the original
contributor. Furthermore, original contributors tend to
accept and follow those reinterpretations. Those highly
irritating and perturbative interaction-structure then
leads to project developments and drafts that were not
expected by the participating individuals and thus lead
them on tracks which each of them alone would not
have followed.
However, the utility or integration of such results is
another issue. Often (external) hackathonian projects
fail to transfer their results into established
organization contexts of e.g. greater companies. Vice
versa, hackathonian projects work well and even long-
term in private or start-up contexts. Hence, this is less
a genuine difficulty of scaling ti me from the event to a
continual elaboration but an issue of discrepancies
between instant conceptions and established
organizations which operate under certain standards..
E.g. one hackathon was won by my team and it was
part of our prize that we were given the opportunity to
present our project idea to the sponsoring company.
However, there was no proper format to integrate our
project and work into the static structures of that
organization. Although there was interest in our ideas
and suggestions, they were almost complete
incompatible to this company’s technical and
organizational infrastructures. In another case, a
winning team was invited to cooperate with the
hackathon’s hosting company. But that cooperation
failed as well; this time because the participants could
not be motivated to engage themselves in a long-term
project that suddenly appeared to be plain work. The
company’s mostly monetary i ncentive s just did not
apply to the interests and expectations of the
hackathon team which was rather looking for technical
challenges. However, those problems might rather
concern ‘external’ hackathons; unfortunately, I have
almost no experience with internal ones.
On an abstract conceptual level, this disadvantage
derives systematically from the very creative features
of such hackathons: to think off t he beaten track. In
order to explain this feature of social creativity at
hackathons, neuro- or cognition science theories can be
used. Those disciplines identify technical creativity with
the ability to solve inherently difficult problems (e.g.
nine dots problem) which, from their point of view,
actually requires to omit certain heuristics or pattern
recognition[1]. Heuristics can force individuals to
interpret situations in a specific manner that renders a
needed solution inconceivable (like drawings lines
beyond the assumed bounds of a dot square). While
individuals often struggle to omit their common,
internalized heuristics, the perturbations produced by
the communicative irritations described above resemble
the absence of heuristics on a social, inter-individual
level, breaching with common plausibilities not within
but between the participants by means of openness.
However, cognition science conceptualizes creativity
contrary to disciplines like management studies or
ergonomics which identify creativity with holistic
capabilities of overviewing the whole situation, having
in mind both the little, subtle details and the larger
frameworks[2]. Contrary to the concept of technical
creativity I have introduced, ergonomic creativity is
focused on large-scale innovation projects instead of
micro-events of invention. While innovation projects
rather require tact and foresight for enterprise and thus
have to understand the social meaning of situations in
order to respond appropriately, invention seems to
need quite the opposite. With hackathons fostering and
focusing on this latter type of creativity, the former,
project-management orientated perspective rather falls
aside and can thus be missing in greater innovation
scenarios. Thus, hackathons underlie an inherent trade-
off between inventive, technical and innovative
entrepreneurial creativity. However, this effect might
be regulated, to some extent, by providing participants
with concrete, given assignments so that given
frameworks can be defined and taken int o account.
There is a continuum between open hackathons without
defined problems and those that feature specific
technical challenges. However, finding the right
equilibrium of inventiveness and integratability can be
tough. The instant diversity of participants also
amplifies the perturbative quality of interactions.
Diversity not in terms of social inclusion; actually,
especially for civic hackathons, like open data day
events, inclusion and (self-)selectivity is a notable
issue. Here diversity means a micro-level heterogeneity
in terms of experiences, backgrounds, skills, mindsets
and things taken for granted. Intriguingly, this feature
corresponds also with ergonomic concepts of technical
creativity [3]. The plain diversity of participants
increases the likelihood of irritations, of facing
unexpected and (personally) unstandardized styles,
contents and logics. In sociological terms, stressing
Luhmannian system theory [4], they lack of ‘moral’, i.e.
binding precedencies and established interaction
orders. The thus constituted heterogeneity within
interactions, again, resembles the demanded heuristic
breach. It furthermore contributes to the aforesaid
qualities of openness: Participants often do not know
each other. Hence, they are also unable to assess each
other’s capacities. As a result, hackathons provide a
practical application of the philosophical ‘principle of
charity’ [5]: Every statement is interpreted in the most
useful and reasonable way. However, since there is no
common interaction routine, discrepancies of
communication are often reproduced by attempts of
benevolent interpretation. This continual bridging of
communicative differences results in unexpected, thus
creative, interactions. The diversity and initial
anonymity of participants also amplifies the
funnification since the success of hackathon events, not
in terms of productivity but in terms of an awesome
happening’, cannot be realized by mere means of
organization but highly depends on the participants
themselves, who thus tend to comply in the
performance of casual unconventionality. Also, the said
‘lack of moral’ renders explicit declarations in terms of
‘funnifi cation’ more influential concerning the actual
conduct of hackathons.
The short-period temporality of hackathons means
more than general time-boundedness, but their very
own rhythm. All observed hackathons that feat ured
schedules with multiple intermissions like keynotes,
presentations, lunch, joint events, etc., produced many
‘creative’ outcomes, and vice versa. Those event
schedules function as ‘tacit project schedules’:
hackathon teams tend to use these schedules to
temporally structure their own project work. They apply
them as binding deadlines for work steps, e.g. having a
concrete idea at lunchtime, finding a technical solution
until the afternoon presentation, etc. This is not only
crucial for a proper proje ct execution but often forces
hackathon teams to deliver premature results which
impels them to deal with unforeseen situations .
Eventually, this can result in serendipity, when the
actual significant project outcome is the solution of
such a sudden problem i nstead of the initially appointed
objectivee.g. my team wanted to create a passenger
counting system for streetcars but suddenly had to find
a way of determining directions of movements using
only one ultra sound sensor (because more would have
interfered with each other) which happened to be our
main achievement. To understand this social creativity
feature, imagine a person who is assigned to do a
radical new art work within infinite time. This person
will most certainly end up with a product that is exactly
like ones imagination of radical new art(and probably
never finish). Give that person temporal bounds and
the result might inevitably appear asradically new
because there was no time to adapt it to given concepts
of novelty. [6] This virtual reproduction of creative
cognition is a particular important feature because it
even works for rather homogenous and routinized
1. R.P., Chi/A.W., Snyder. 2012: B rain stimulation enables the
solution of an inherently difficult problem. Neuroscience
Letters 515: 121-124.
2. P.M., Senge. 1990: The Fifth Discipline. T he Art & Practice of
The Learning Organization. Doubleday/Currency, New Yor k.
3. E. Lumsdaine/M. Lumsdaine (1994): Cre ative problem
Solving. IEEE Xplore.
4. N., Luhmann. 1993: The Code of the Moral. Cardozo Law
Review 14: 995-1009.
5. S. Blackburn (2016): The Principle of Charity. In: The Oxford
Dictionar y of Philosophy. Oxford Universi ty Press, Oxfo rd.
6. R. Garud/P. Karnoe (2001): Path creation as a Process of
Mindful Deviation. In: ibid. ( ed): Path Depende nce and
Creation. Lawrence Erlbaum Aassociates, New Jersey: 1-40.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Certain problems are inherently difficult for the normal human mind. Yet paradoxically they can be effortless for those with an unusual mind. We discovered that an atypical protocol for non-invasive brain stimulation enabled the solution of a problem that was previously unsolvable. The majority of studies over the last century find that no participants can solve the nine-dot problem - a fact we confirmed. But with 10 min of right lateralising transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), more than 40% of participants did so. Specifically, whereas no participant solved this extremely difficult problem before stimulation or with sham stimulation, 14 out of 33 participants did so with cathodal stimulation of the left anterior temporal lobe together with anodal stimulation of the right anterior temporal lobe. This finding suggests that our stimulation paradigm might be helpful for mitigating cognitive biases or dealing with a broader class of tasks that, although deceptively simple, are nonetheless extremely difficult due to our cognitive makeup.
The Principle of Charity
  • S Blackburn
S. Blackburn (2016): The Principle of Charity. In: The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press, Oxford.