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Hackathons, time-bounded competitive events where participants write computer code and build apps, have become a popular means of socializing tech students and workers to produce “innovation” despite little promise of material reward. Although they offer participants opportunities for learning new skills and face-to-face networking, and set up interaction rituals that create an emotional “high,” potential advantage is even greater for the events’ corporate sponsors, who use them to outsource work, crowdsource innovation, and enhance their reputation. Ethnographic observations and informal interviews carried out at seven public hackathons held in New York City during the course of a single school year show how the format of the event and sponsors’ discursive tropes, within a dominant cultural frame reflecting the appeal of Silicon Valley, reshape unpaid and precarious work. Writing code and building apps for free becomes an extraordinary opportunity, a ritual of ecstatic labor, and a collective imaginary for fictional expectations of innovation that benefits all. Despite participants’ dual emphasis on the pleasures of participating and the benefits they hope to derive, hackathons are a powerful strategy for manufacturing workers’ consent in the “new” economy.


This is the author's accepted manuscript of a work originally published in Precarious Work (Research in the Sociology of Work, Volume 31), edited by Arne L. Kalleberg and Steven P. Vallas.

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