I watched quite a bit of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference this week. Mostly the presentations were by startups competing to win a prize. Judges commenting on them. The products were all cut from a small number of molds. Somehow they have fixated on turning the internet into a game. The hamsters, you and me, are rewarded for jumping through certain hoops. We enjoy playing this game so we buy things to indicate our pleasure. The people who sell the things kick back a few bucks to the folk who made the game.
But academic hackathons are imitating these crazy things. We put our programmers in a big room, feed them pizza and burritos and Jolt, and tell them to be brilliant for 24 hours. A lot of them will show up, especially after the Diaspora phenomenon on this campus last semester.
It's understandable that the commercial world gravitates toward deformities caused by the need to make a buck in a technology that wasn't really designed for making money. Recall that the initial Internet linked researchers at academic institutions. Try as hard we can, there are lots more applications in this area than the commercial ones. And the obvious commercial spots have been taken by the retail outlets and Amazon.
Now we're left to pick up the coins left on the ground after the people who pick up the coins left on the ground have come through. Funny thing is, if you got there first there were enough coins to get a $10 million cashout. But that's already happened. Now it's questionable whether there's actually any money left on the ground or on a table somewhere for the grabbing.
Instead I'd like to see, at a university hackathon, young computer science students get up and present to their teachers some new computer science. Some new use of graph theory. Or an old one re-applied to a modern world. We used to do that, when I was a comp sci grad student in the 1970s. I think we got way too caught up in the commercialism.
Example: Here's a group of researchers at ten universities scattered around the world. They're collaborating on a presentation they will do at a conference in eight months. Most of the research is done, they just have to assemble it in a convincing way, while giving each contributor proper credit for their work. Here's a list of the current tools they are using. At this hackathon each group will create a tool that in some new way helps them collaborate. The projects will be judged strictly on utility, not eye-candy appeal.
Let's take the focus off what this stuff looks like to a judge, and start making computers work better in an academic environment. This may not immediately yield an angel-funding-event, but that shouldn't be our goal, should it? We're here teaching computer science, not how to convince a judge at TechCrunch that you have the next get-rich gizmo.
Don't worry though, eventually there will be money here. But we're all better at using the Internet than pitching venture capitalists, we all get a chance to have some fun, learn from each other, and actually accomplish something useful in the time we have together. And why should venture capitalists be the sole arbiters of what gets built? Isn't that at least part of the job of academia?
Where this is headed -- teaching people with computer science skills how to be creative. You can engineer creativity to a certain extent. And create environments where it's more likely. There is such a thing as a checklist for creativity.