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The Hacker Imagination: From Ancient Greece to Cupertino

Hacking is more than just about computers and coding. It’s a mentality, a way of thinking as old as invention itself. From Aristotle to Steve Jobs or even N.W.A., hacking can take many shapes and forms, but the mindset of those trailblazers is what drives evolution. Even as technology changes -- from the wheel, to the telescope, to the computer -- hackers push the envelope and test the limits of what’s possible. This is the kind of thinking that has fascinated Professor Douglas Thomas, and led him to develop the course Hacker Imagination at the USC Iovine and Young Academy.

“Creativity and innovation can be found in nearly every human enterprise,” says Douglas Thomas, professor of communication and co-author of the book A New Culture of Learning. “What this class attempts to do is look at a very particular kind of transformation at the intersection of hands-on, material engagement with the world and the human imagination.”

Hacker Imagination takes a zoomed-out view of hacking throughout history, focusing on four domains of creation: philosophical thought, music and sound, literature and news, invention and coding, as well as hacking as we might traditionally understand it. The course reading list contains icons of the humanities canon: Friedrich Nietzsche, Judith Butler, Shakespeare, and H.G. Wells. But if these "hackers" aren't the ones that typically come to mind, neither are the ones students identify after diving into the material, some of which include rap group NWA and Gordon Moore, engineer and co-founder of Intel.

“Once students learn the hacker mindset, they see it everywhere,” says Thomas. Hackers aren’t just inventing code in Silicon Valley, they are launching companies and movements like Momofuku Ando, founder of Cup Noodles, or Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution. As students explore these thinkers they discover what unites them: visions of new possibilities in the context of old ideas.

“One of my passions is finding ways to make things that students might consider dry or outdated relevant to their lives and their work,” says Thomas.

As the internet democratizes access to knowledge, tools and resources, innovation can potentially transform society overnight. But, with great power comes great responsibility.

“When we are dealing with disruption, we have to remember that it often comes with a cost,” says Thomas. By embedding these questions into the course material, Thomas actively encourages students to examine the moral and ethical questions embedded in transformation, change, and innovation.

“The thing I hope most of all is that students take away a new and broader way of seeing the world and the process of innovation and creation and that they can use what they have learned to think about the effects of their work beyond profit or even issues like sustainability,” says Thomas. “We really do delve into some pretty big ideas, which I hope create opportunities for reflection, growth and creativity.”