Students + Campus

Hacking the humanities

Cyber Days conference on blockchain highlights technology as a vital tool for humanities students

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Cyber Days poster
David MacFadyen

Technologists see blockchain’s potential to revolutionize data-sharing and computing, UCLA’s David MacFadyen sees its potential to revolutionize the study of art and literature.

One of the biggest champions of blockchain technology on the UCLA campus is a humanities professor — specifically David MacFadyen, professor of musicology who is currently serving as chair of the comparative literature department.

As part of UCLA’s Blockchain Lab, MacFadyen has curated “Cyber Days,” a series of talks and workshops Feb. 17–18 in the Humanities Building that brings a group of tech leaders to campus to explore and enlighten the UCLA community around the creative potential of blockchain technology.

Blockchain is a secure, peer-to-peer technology platform made up of a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked, explained Bhagwan Chowdhry, professor of finance who teaches the university’s only blockchain-related course in the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

“Each successive block refers to a cryptographic fingerprint of the previous block,” Chowdhry said. “Even the smallest attempt at modifying any record is detected and rejected by a consensus mechanism that keeps identical copies of the blocks on many computers distributed around the world.”

Tech leaders around the world think of blockchain as revolutionary technology, with the potential to streamline costs and complexity for a variety of marketplaces, data-sharing networks, micro-currencies, and decentralized digital communities, and products and businesses in the real world. It is the technology that supports cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and that could revolutionize the publishing industry.

Other than Chowdhry’s class, which is open only to graduate students, there is no other curriculum on campus currently tackling blockchain, which made hosting a conference so important, MacFadyen said.  

Together with students from the UCLA School of Law, UCLA Anderson and beyond, he gathered as many female tech leaders as possible to serve as inspiration in what is still a very male-dominated industry.

Following Cyber Days there will be a hackfest, hosted by Hyperledger from Feb. 20–22 in Covel Commons. Hyperledger’s​ hackfests ​are regular ​gatherings ​for ​collaboration among software developers.

“The hackfest has a laudable goal — intellectual inclusiveness,” MacFadyen said. “The opening day is designed for anybody, no matter their age or skill level. In fact, our age range will run from sixth-graders at the Geffen Academy to well-established executives, looking to understand more about some of today’s most influential technologies. In order to learn something new, we all need to move beyond comfort or convention — which means the freedom to fail.”

This concept is something utterly compatible within the study of literature, MacFadyen said.

“Only through mistakes and missteps can we see our true potential … as author Samuel Beckett knew very well,” he said.

What exactly will Hackfest participants be hacking? That’s a secret to be revealed on site, MacFadyen said.

One thing MacFadyen is interested in hacking … humanities as a discipline.

During the last two quarters he taught a Fiat Lux seminar at UCLA titled “Humanities WTF?,” which stood for “what’s the future?” It was designed to draw students from non-humanities departments to take a hard look at how the humanities might need to evolve.

“Our humanities students of the future need to bridge the gap between the arts and a career with greater ease,” he said. “Our students make a huge material sacrifice to come here. It’s only fair that we spend an equal amount of time and energy linking our classes to their career plans.”

Students in those Fiat Lux classes produced a pair of “manifestos,” laying out an alternative outline for the humanities as a degree program, one that includes courses in basic business, economics, coding, graphic design, copyright law and general technology.

Recently, MacFadyen visited several tech-based businesses, such as Google, Riot Games and Full Screen Media, asking leaders of those companies what they look for in employees.

“They all voiced their ongoing intention — and desire — to hire UCLA humanities graduates, yet they also want established skillsets to overlap more frequently with technological dexterity,” MacFadyen said. “What’s needed is a combination of traditional talent and interdisciplinary novelty.”

This kind of rumination is especially important for a humanities division that is located in Los Angeles — a city animated by narrative spectacle, MacFadyen said.

“So this entire Cyber Days event is designed with our humanities students in mind, with business leaders coming to teach us about the most radical, if not utopian changes in technology’s near future,” MacFadyen said. “Heaven only knows how many works of literature have been dedicated to that same elusive goal.”

It won’t be all hacking and tech, Cyber Days also coincides with MacFadyen’s third film, art and music festival titled “FFM3” with a series of screenings and concerts on and off campus all weekend.

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