On the Origin of “Hack” and “Yack”

One of the least helpful constructs of our “digital humanities” moment has been a supposed active opposition, drawn out over the course of years in publications, presentations, and social media conversation, between two inane-sounding concepts: “hack” and “yack.” The heralding of digital humanities as the academy’s “next big thing” has been (depending on whom you ask) over-due or overblown, unexpected or contrived, refreshing or retrograde—but one thing is clear: everyone has a rhetorical use for it. The uses of “hack vs. yack,” on the other hand, rapidly became so one-sided that I find it odd the phrase retains any currency for critique.

After waffling through the winter, I’m finally publishing a brief note on the history of “more hack; less yack.” I do this not to reignite debates nor to comment on recent uses, but to provide a concise, easy-to-find, easy-to-cite account of its origin. I suspect the absence of such a thing a tricks us into repeating the phrase un-critically. This is ironic, because it now most often appears as short-hand for a supposedly un-critical, anti-theoretical, presentist, cheerleading, neoliberal digital humanities culture, standing in active opposition to… whatever the speaker or writer understands as salutary humanities yack. However, to contextualize “more hack; less yack” is not to defend it. It went viral at a moment when the last thing the digital humanities needed was an anti-intellectual-sounding slogan. It was perhaps objectionably pat, a little tone-deaf, and too easy to align with the “brogrammer” stereotype shortly to emerge from hacker culture. You might also rightly fire on it for its meme-like occlusion of implications beyond its immediate context, and for being chirped at you a few times too many, ca. 2009-2011.

It strikes me as more useful to offer an account of the early days of “more hack; less yack,” than to catalogue its later appearances in articles and blog posts. I can do this, because I attended the first several THATCamp meetings, and remember well how “more hack; less yack” evolved. It began as a goofball joke.

In 2008, a small group of graduate students, technology staff, and contingent and junior faculty at George Mason University founded THATCamp as a humanities-and-technology un-conference, meant to transplant into academic conference culture some aspects of the user-generated, self-assembling bar-camp format often encountered at tech gatherings. THATCamps do not feature peer-reviewed papers or invited talks. With only a few recent exceptions (keynotes? really?), no formal or pre-determined presentations are made at them, at all. Instead, “un-conference” participants are invited to propose ideas for informal sessions. These can range from open discussion and hands-on collaboration to demos and workshops—and a mashed-up schedule is built on the fly, by rough consensus and with opportunity for input from all attendees, in an open meeting on the morning of the event. THATCamps have rapidly become a relaxed and often exceptionally fruitful complement to formal, peer-reviewed digital humanities conferences like the one sponsored annually by the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations. And many see them as a refreshing, affordable, interdisciplinary supplement to disciplinary or thematic symposia and large humanities conferences of long standing. THATCamp, not DH-writ-large, was the context in which “more hack; less yack” first appeared; THATCamp is the context in which it spread—until it seemed to be taken, largely by colleagues newer to digital scholarship, as something of a capsule summary of an interdisciplinary and inter-professional community of practice with roots in fact stretching back some sixty years.

Two of our hosts at George Mason’s Center for History and New Media grew up listening to working-class radio stations in 1980s New England—the kind where a hyper-masculine disk jockey promised you, “Less talk, more rock!” We laughed when Dan Cohen, a pre-tenure History prof in shorts and sandals, combined this memory of his mis-spent youth with a science fiction classic to promise us a rockingly Martian good time: if it could foster learning and deeply-felt, immediate exchange in the absence of performative conference papers, THATCamp might offer everyone “less talk, more grok.” But the Stranger in a Strange Land metaphor didn’t hold up, and we all knew it—because in fact the un-conference model was meant to promote more talking, not less, and among a broader group of people. In Cohen’s words:

the core of THATCamp is its antagonism toward the deadening lectures and panels of normal academic conferences and its attempt to maximize knowledge transfer with nonhierarchical, highly participatory, hands-on work. THATCamp is exhausting and exhilarating because everyone is engaged and has something to bring to the table.  Thoughts on One Week, One Tool

If anything was meant to be curtailed by THATCamp’s challenge to 20-minute papers, 3-paper panels, and a few beats reserved for “this-is-more-a-comment-than-a-question”—it was not the talking. It was the overwhelming amount of time spent in passive listening. THATCamp offered an alternative to some established conference practices that seemed out of line with new opportunities for scholarly communication and in-person exchange. However, “fewer instances of paper-reading, grand-standing, and reinforcement of disciplinary divisions and the academic caste system; more grok” is not exactly catchy.

So, when Dave Lester, a software developer working at CHNM, quipped “More hack; less yack!” it made a silly kind of sense. Specifically, it made sense as a comment on the dominant structure of academic conferences, not as a condemnation of the character and value of discourse-based humanities scholarship. And it particularly resonated with the largely alt-ac crowd of humanities practitioners in the room that day—some fifty of us, by my estimate. And it seems to have resonated in particular with many of the librarians, programmers, and instructional technology staff who would find subsequent THATCamps such a delightful and too-rare opportunity to participate on near-equal terms with faculty attendees. This leads me to some editorializing on perhaps the least appreciated social aspect of “more hack; less yack.”

If you are a scholar of (say) history or literature, yacking—by some definition of the term—is your work. It’s how you think through your ideas, it’s how you test and put them into circulation among your peers, it’s how you teach: and may the best yacker (that is to say, the most informed theorist, clever and effective writer, erudite presenter, and thoughtful, decisive, fluent interlocutor) win. It’s easy to see why so many humanities scholars who encountered Lester’s phrase, often out of context, were inclined to understand “yack” as “deeply theorized, verbal and written exchange,” and were therefore surprised and insulted to see it apparently denigrated. If, on the other hand, you are a staff member in a digital center, or an academic service professional like a librarian, instructional technologist, or digital archivist, a significant portion of your work progresses and is rewarded differently. You just might read something else in the juxtaposition of “hack” with “yack.” Yacking is a part of everything people in these employment categories do, of course (because that’s one way we all learn, think, and share)—but we are also asked to produce work, in service to humanities scholarship, of a different kind. The endemic, hour-by-hour “meeting culture” of an increasingly bureaucratic, often ill-managed, and top-heavy university means that, for many, time spent yacking is the number-one thing preventing us from doing our jobs.

In other words, “less yack; more hack” has a different valence for people whose productivity and performance is rarely judged on les mots justes. For humanities faculty, the academic workplace is predominately a site of expert verbal interchange. For staff asked to produce or maintain technical systems, run intellectual and social programs, or develop spaces and collections for scholarship, “yacking” may connote “wasting time.” For better or worse, too much yack and not enough hack in the working day makes us come in early and stay late, just to keep our heads above water. (And I think we can acknowledge this common difference in expectations and accountability for time, while giving our staff and alt-ac colleagues credit for understanding what can be gained and lost in conversation, for striving to strike the right balance, and for their awareness of the deeper, structural problems in the systems within which they labor. Complicity is a complicated thing.)

I have an inkling that—just as its initial spread in the THATCamp community was predicated on a lack of appreciation for how the phrase might read to humanities scholars new to digital collaboration and the unconference format—the long, grumpy afterlife of “more hack; less yack” has depended on some elision of the daily challenges facing digital humanities service personnel.

Besides, isn’t “more hack; less yack” really just a strawman? I only find it being used in earnest rarely and beyond the academic digital humanities community. When pressed, even critics who continue to conflate it with DH practice and offer it up for ridicule are becoming more quick to modulate, clarify, and step away. Maybe it’s satire, now. In my view, to pretend or believe that “more hack; less yack” represents a fundamental opposition in thinking between humanities theorists and deliberately anti-theoretical digital humanities “builders” is to ignore the specific history and different resonances of the phrase, and to fall into precisely the sort of zero-sum logic it seems to imply. Humanities disciplines and methods themselves are not either/or affairs. The humanities is both/and. We require fewer slogans – and more talk and grok, hack and yack.



Originally published by Bethany Nowviskie on January 8, 2014.

About Bethany Nowviskie

Bethany Nowviskie is Director of Digital Research & Scholarship and Associate Director of the Scholarly Communication Institute at the University of Virginia Library, and President of the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH). She holds a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and, in addition to her work on a number of notable digital archives and tools, has taught courses in writing, poetry, bibliography, and new media aesthetics and design. Nowviskie has been a practicing digital humanist since the mid-1990s.