Podcast Episode: Hack to the Future | #computerhacking | #hacking


Like many young people, Zach Latta went to a school that didn’t teach any computer classes. But that didn’t stop him from learning everything he could about them and becoming a programmer at a young age. After moving to San Francisco, Zach founded Hack Club, a nonprofit network of high school coding clubs around the world, to help other students find the education and community that he wished he had as a teenager. 

This week on our podcast, we talk to Zach about the importance of student access to an open internet, why learning to code can increase equity, and how school’s online security and the law often stand in the way. We’ll also discuss how computer education can help create the next generation of makers and builders that we need to solve some of society’s biggest problems. 

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You can also find the MP3 of this episode on the Internet Archive. 

In this episode, you’ll learn about:

  • Why schools block some harmless educational content and coding resources, from common sites like Github to “view source” functions on school-issued devices
  • How locked down digital systems in schools stop young people from learning about coding and computers, and create equity issues for students who are already marginalized
  • How coding and “hack” clubs can empower young people, help them learn self-expression, and find community 
  • How pervasive school surveillance undermines trust and limits people’s ability to exercise their rights when they are older
  • How young people’s curiosity for how things work online has helped bring us some of the technology we love most 

Zach Latta is the executive director of Hack Club, a national nonprofit connecting over 14,000 young people to help them create and participate in coding clubs, hackathons, and workshops around the world. He is a Forbes 30 Under 30 recipient and a Thiel Fellow.

Music

Music for How to Fix the Internet was created for us by Reed Mathis and Nat Keefe of BeatMower. 

This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes the following music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators: 

  • Warm Vacuum Tube  by Admiral Bob (c) copyright 2019 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/admiralbob77/59533 Ft: starfrosch
  • Drops of H2O ( The Filtered Water Treatment ) by J.Lang (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/djlang59/37792 Ft: Airtone
  • reCreation by airtone (c) copyright 2019 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/airtone/59721

Transcript:

Zach: I grew up near Los Angeles, both my parents were social workers and growing up, I went to public schools that most schools in America didn’t teach any computer classes. And for me, as a young person, I just felt like, oh my God, if only I could figure out how these magical devices work, this is where the secrets of the universe lie. But it was always a solitary activity for me. 

As a teenager I was very lonely and that culminated for me, I ended up dropping out of high school after my freshman year when I was sixteen and I moved to San Francisco to become a programmer. And after working at a couple startups to get some money and put together some savings, I started Hack Club to try and create the sort of place and community that I so desperately wished I had when I was a teenager.

Cindy:  That’s Zach Latta. He’s the founder of Hack Club and he’s our guest today. Zach is going to tell us about how groups like Hack Club are teaching kids how to hack and otherwise be creators online and how that’s one of the ways we can help shift them from being just passive consumers of the digital world to actually charting their own futures.

Danny: We’re going to talk to Zach about student rights to an open internet, why learning to code can increase equity and what happens when a school’s online security and the law get in the way of all that. 

Cindy: I’m Cindy Cohn, EFF’s executive director.

Danny: And I’m Danny O’Brien, special advisor to the EFF. Welcome to How to Fix the Internet, a podcast of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where we bring you big ideas, solutions, and hope that we can fix the biggest problems we face online.

Cindy: Zach, thanks so much for joining us.

Zach: Well, thank you so much for having me. I’m so honored. Growing up as a teenager, I just loved the EFF and everything the organization stood for. It’s a real honor to be with all of you here today.

Cindy: Oh, terrific.

You reached out to EFF for help and that’s how we ended up really meeting you. Can you talk to us about what led you to do that?

Zach: We are a network of teenagers all across the world who love building things with computers and run communities to try and bring teenagers together, to make things with technology. And almost every month, we have a major problem where a school district just blocks Hack Club. And there is no worse call to get from a Hack Club, they’re saying, “All right, I got 20 people in the room, we’re trying to get started, hackclub.com is blocked, github.com is blocked, Stack Overflow is blocked, how can we possibly run our meeting from here?”

Because of this problem, kind of in a bit of frustration. With some Hack Clubbers I wrote a letter to EFF support line, just saying, “Hey, is there any way that EFF might be able to help us with this? Because this is starting to be a thing where it’s not like one school has this problem, it’s like we have dozens of schools around America where just everything’s blocked.” 

Danny: Just to be clear here, this isn’t just you being blocked, this is major informational resources, right?

Zach: Oh yeah. It’s crazy. If you’re a young person who wants to learn about computers and wants to learn how to code, you kind of need the internet to do that. And you rely on sites like Google, like GitHub, like Stack Overflow, like GitLab. There’s a whole ecosystem that every single professional developer relies on every single day and at a significant percentage of schools around America, all of these resources are just blocked, including hackclub.com.     

We run a club locally here in Vermont, where we test out all of our stuff before we put it online and open source it. And I was talking with a Hack Clubber there where literally every single website besides school classroom is blocked on their school computer. And this Hack Clubber isn’t from a family with means so the only computer that they have access to at home is their school issued Chromebook. And as a result, he’s six weeks behind everybody else in this club and still hasn’t gotten past the initial hurdle of building early websites.

Danny: Obviously what you are doing in Hack Club must be extremely subversive to be blocked in this way. What are you doing? What are these kids learning or failing to learn because they can’t actually access to the internet?

Zach: What Hack Club’s all about is bringing teenagers together who love computers and want to learn how to make things with computers. Whether it’s building a website or making a video game or maybe even starting a local business and most schools don’t offer any curriculum or support around that. What Hack Clubbers are doing is in their meetings, they’re usually trying to learn HTML, CSS, JavaScript or later on, more advanced languages like Rust or recently there’s a big movement around Zig, which is a new popular language. And when you’re trying to run the meeting and bring people to github.com, where we have a lot of our resources, when it’s blocked, it’s the meeting’s dead on arrival. I don’t think school administrators are bad people. I come from a long line of teachers and I think that people in schools are doing their best but are probably afraid around things like liability.

Cindy: Their incentive is just to make sure that kids don’t ever get to anything that might possibly be problematic. They don’t have an incentive to make sure kids can actually learn some of these skills. And so, when you outsource this to people whose business it is to block, they’re going to block as opposed to having a thoughtful process by which you figure out what do students really need to learn? And I think you’re totally right, when it comes to computer programming and understanding how computers work, everybody learned this by going out onto the internet and finding the places where other people are sharing this and something like GitHub, a huge percentage of what actually runs the internet is there. It is a little crazy

Danny:  When we teach people to read and write, we’re not expecting them to be English literature students or novelists. We’re giving them the tools to work in society. When we have reading, writing and algorithms or whatever, it’s so that they can do what they want to do in society and they can build society with an understanding of the things around them.

Zach: When you realize that the world around us is built by other human beings, you realize you could be one of those human beings. I think that starting 10 years ago, there was this massive shift in education that happened. And for some reason still isn’t really part of the dialogue around what good classrooms or good learning environments looks like, which is that every single young person on the planet started having these magical devices in their pockets, which had all of human history and knowledge on them. These things are better than the Library of Alexandria. This is it. It doesn’t get better. And I think that so much of public education systems around the world are designed to solve access problems. How do we just simply get access to knowledge in front of everybody and to them?: And we’ve built this incredible distribution mechanism. It’s really remarkable but I think the new challenge of learning in the 21st century is one of motivation. How do we get people to care? How do we get people to use this? And I think that when we lock down digital systems around young people, we kind of tell them, “Don’t poke and prod, don’t try things, don’t go out of your way to go down a path that we haven’t pre-approved for you.” And I think that that kind of kills curiosity. It’s really counterproductive. 

Danny: How much do you think of this is because you’re called Hack Club? How much do you think is because people associate that with malicious hacking?

Zach: I think it’s maybe a small element. Even though I think Hack Club as an organization is a little subversive in nature. We work directly with teenagers. We operate kind of outside of the system, in some regards. The schools that Hack Clubs are in, usually the school loves Hack Club because it’s teenagers at their school who are getting together in a way that means that they’re really engaged in their learning.  And we are one of hundreds of groups that run into these problems every single day. And I think this concept of students’ rights, particularly on the internet, because it’s so new, it’s so technical, just for some reason isn’t talked about at all, even though it affects young people more than almost any other decision made at their school. 

Cindy: We’ve been talking a lot about blocking access to information, blocking websites and things like that but I think that you’ve seen problems with the devices themselves, haven’t you?

Zach: Yeah. Increasingly Hack Clubbers, the only device they have access to either in meetings or at home is a school issued Chromebook. And one of the options on school issued Chromebooks is to disable right clicking and clicking inspect element. And you can’t learn how to program websites without being able to do that. And this is such a real problem that we’ve had to build our own debugger to help with that.

Danny: Just to be clear here, when you say right click, this is the thing where you have the second mouse button and then people always stumble on this by accident and wonder what the heck have I done? Because you click and then there’s a little menu. It’s for coders or for someone who wants to kind of go a bit deeper or of course save an image. It’s the sort of metaphor for, okay, let’s go a little bit deeper into what we’re looking at here. And that doesn’t… kids can’t do that on these lockdown computers?

Zach: Yeah. It’s a device security setting. You can turn off inspecting element, which means that young people in Hack Club meetings who don’t have a school issued computer can view the source code of any website that they go to. And if you don’t have the resources at home to have one and you only the school issued computer, you just can’t.

Danny: Everybody in the early web learned how to build the rest of the early web by view source. There was a little pull down menu.

Cindy: Absolutely.

Danny: And if you saw a web page that you liked, you could look at the original HTML and then cut and paste it and mess around with it. And you’re saying that kids just have to take what they’ve given now?

Zach: You just right click and it’s not an option.

Danny: Holy cow.

Cindy: And this is a setting. Chromebooks don’t come like this necessarily but they give the administrators the ability to lock kids out of this knowledge. It’s just, it’s hard to imagine the thinking that leads you to decide that we’re going to deny kids knowledge in school.

Danny: And just me and Zach and Cindy and now are vibrating in the studio. You can’t really see this. One of the things so upsetting about this is that the environment, the mouse, the windowing environment that you’re using was specifically built to be an educational environment that you could explore and learn. It’s an absolute perversion of the very fundamental way these things were developed and intended to use. It’s like if you gave someone a painting set but no paints. 

Cindy: The equity issues here are just tremendous. Because we know that one of the great things is that we’re now giving kids devices that they can use to help themselves learn. But if they’re locked down devices and that’s the rich kids have another device that they can use but the poor kids end up with just a lockdown device, a poor device for poor people really it sounds like.

Zach: When you look at the marketing for some of these school filter companies, the marketing is like, we prevent student suicide. And it’s, we prevent school shootings. What a strange connection to draw. And then the things they do to be able to draw that connection is not only do they filter what websites you’re able to go to but they actually scan every single email you send from your school account, every single IM that you send from your school account, they scan the things you do on websites. For this one district that we’re in, in Georgia, when you go to a website that’s blocked, not only does it say, “This website’s blocked, you’re not allowed to come here,” but it actually says that there’s a security issue with your computer and that the way fix it is to download this intermediate SSL certificate, install it on your computer, set as a trusted source and what that means is it allows the school to man in the middle all of your encrypted traffic.

Danny: Right. That’s like your undermining the security of that computer. And I think this is really important to emphasize. One of the things that we always talk about at EFF is you can’t do censorship without surveillance. You have to be able to see what people are looking at to block it. And what that means for these sort of systems is, as you say, just to be clear, what that person is being asked to download there is the master key to all of their communications on that computer, from their financial details to everything. 

Cindy: Yes. And it’s a problem that predates COVID but it really got supercharged during COVID, this idea that constant surveillance is what you have to tolerate if you’re a student. And that’s dangerous first because that’s dangerous for kids but it’s also dangerous because we’re creating a generation of kids who think that being watched all the time is okay. This is a fundamental human right. It’s central to human dignity. And one of the things that we’ve learned is you can’t deny children completely human dignity and then expect them to suddenly at age 18, be able to exercise their full rights in a way that will work. It doesn’t work that way.   

Danny: “How to Fix the Internet” is supported by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Program in Public Understanding of Science. Enriching people’s lives through a keener appreciation of our increasingly technological world and portraying the complex humanity of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians.

How do the kids themselves feel about this? What do you get from them?

Zach: Well, there’s two things I’d love to touch on there. I think an idea that I would love for us all to start talking about is this idea of digital civic duty. And I think it’s the same thing where you not only receive being a consumer but you give too. You make your own websites, you modify the internet, you modify technology. You’re not just a consumer, you’re a creator too. 

In terms of what Hack Clubbers feel about school surveillance. Hack Clubbers feel like they live in an Orwellian surveillance state because you spend your time on networks that are surveilled, where if you try to poke prod, bad things could happen. And I think definitely Hack Clubbers feel like they can’t interact with their school on issues like these because I think a lot of school administrators are not technical enough to understand what’s going on. If you flag the wrong thing, you could very easily find yourself  facing disciplinary action or something like that. I had this happen when I was a teenager, I installed a VPN on my laptop, what I brought to my school, I was the only person at my school that I knew on a laptop and I was pulled aside by the vice principal because they were like, “Why are you hacking our school?”

Danny: And I think it undermines trust. First of all, you set the stakes. That the administration is kind of saying, “We don’t really trust you so we’re going to put this software.” But then when kids who are curious and interested in this look into it, they realize that they’re also being lied to.

Zach: And I think it really undermines these values that we talk a lot about, like curiosity, like tinkering, like trying things out, figuring out who you want to be through trying to make things. When there’s a consequence to these actions, which is the case when you have your web activity filtered and then automatically reported in some cases, it means that suddenly trying to learn there could be a consequence if you Google the wrong thing. And I think that in a place where we care a lot about independence and where we care a lot about helping people become their own individual agents of change, I think that our digital environments that we create for young people inside of schools, I think kind of does the opposite. It tells you, “No, you’re a consumer, keep watching Netflix, don’t mess with your computer.”

Cindy: I think this really hearkens back to the beginning of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where we had law enforcement coming in and doing raids on a lot of kids who were poking around on the early internet, trying to figure out how things work. This is really one of the founding stories of EFF. And the flip side of it is some of those same kids or kids who were friends with them, by the name of maybe Wozniak or other things, they went on to develop some of the tools and the things that we love the most. We’re not just doing something unfair to these kids, we may be short circuiting the next generation of people who are going to bring us a better world.

Cindy: Let’s talk about some of Hack Club’s successes. And by the way, I just want to give you extra love for reclaiming the term hack for doing something good. This is being a hacker, again, I’m an old school internet person, being a hacker was being somebody who dug in deeply, tried to figure things out. And it might have been not the prettiest thing but actually made things work. And I think that somehow we’ve lost that sense of the word and it’s become synonymous with evil. And so I really appreciate you reclaiming it and lifting it up but that’s just my little soapbox moment. But let’s hear some success stories. What is Hack Club doing for kids? What are you seeing?

Zach: Oh, it’s incredible. I don’t know. There’s a Hack Clubbers who wrote an entire game engine in Rust. I was talking with Hack Clubbers who built a whole clone of Minecraft in Rust where they made the OpenGL calls themselves. But the thing that I think is really important about Hack Club for people who are in it beyond just the coding and beyond the socialization is I think that for Hack Clubbers, coding isn’t just a way to make video games or make a personal website or I don’t know, get a job in the future. It’s a form of self expression. It’s this is a place where I can be myself, where I can get what is in my head out on paper. It’s a thing that gives you power and an agency as a young person that you don’t really find in school and don’t really find in other activities or around your life. And it’s a place where it doesn’t really matter where you’re from or what you look like or who your parents are, how much money you make. It’s this is a place where people will treat you like a real person with real respect. And I know for me, when I was a young person, I was really desperate for that.

Danny: As you talked about this, I was thinking about the early days of the web and the internet. And I suddenly thought to myself, it’s not just Hack Club, it’s not just these places where kids gather, I think a huge chunk of the positive sides of the internet were built by kids or built by teenagers. I think of Aaron Swartz, who very close to EFF. Me and Cindy knew him well.

Zach:  Wow. He’s a personal hero of mine

Danny:  Right. And when we first met Aaron, he was hacking on the fundamental code that was building the internet with Tim Berners-Lee at, I think he must have been 14. Lots of people start out at that age. And the other thing is and I think this goes to the heart of what we try and talk about on this show is you’re modeling the positive future of the internet. And it’s driven by people wanting to build that, wanting to build that for themselves. Do the kids you talk to, do they think about this more widely?

Zach: I think coding is the glue. It’s the thing that brings everyone together but the magic is in all the why questions. Because Hack Club’s a space where people ask questions like, who am I? Who do I want to be? What is this world I live in? What is my relationship with it? And I think that we have this concept of hacker friends where if I think if Hack Club does one thing, we want to try and help young people find other hacker friends because when you have someone else like you, that shares your interest at a very deep level, it means that when you explore those questions, you can go much deeper and you feel heard in a way that you might not if you don’t have friends that are as into some of these things as you.

Cindy: Hack Club’s not the only one. There are programs like this all around the world that are really specifically aimed at reaching communities who basically weren’t the focus of kind of the first generation of hacker kids. If you’d talk about that too, I’d love it.

Zach: For me growing up and I think this is built into Hack Club’s DNA, I definitely felt like a child of the world or a child of the internet because the people I was having so many of these formative conversations with online were from all over the world from all backgrounds. And I think that that is just so incredibly important.

One of my favorite things about Hack Club is since we don’t this design a playbook that then everybody runs, every Hack Club at every school is different. And as a result, when you go to a Hack Club in Kerala India, it’s dramatically different than a Hack Club in America. It’s different. It makes more sense for local context.

And as a result, when you walk into some of these clubs from around the world, the local leaders have really asked, “What makes the most sense for me? What makes the most sense for other people like me?” And I think that, particularly in areas where people feel marginalized or they don’t see a home for themselves or they don’t have role models in the same way that some more traditional folks might have, my hope is that with Hack Club, that they can build the home that they’ve always been looking for. And I think that the internet allows young people to do that in a way that just wasn’t possible before.

Danny: This is such a cliche, but this is actually the next generation. This is the future. Do you have any predictions about the future of the internet? What are the things that they’re building that are missing in the existing system?

Zach: We face some of the biggest challenges over the next 50 years that humanity’s ever had to reckon with. And I think that we need a generation of young people who not only have real hard skills, they can actually do something from a builder perspective around these huge challenges but they also have the right mindset and network to think a little bit differently.

The mindset is that if there’s a problem, what does it take to fix it? It’s very actionable rather than feel, we are born with problems and we will have to deal with these problems. There’s nothing that we can do about it. It’s a very empowered mindset.

They kind of see technology not as an end in itself but as a tool for every single thing needed to build amazing communities in this new world that we live in.

Cindy: Such a good vision. Let’s jump to that future. What does it look like if we get this right? If we unleash all the Hack Clubbers and the other kids who are using technology and envisioning technologies to build a better world than the one we have now. Take us to that world. What does it look like?

Zach: I don’t know if this is too big of an idea but I want to live in a world where there’s a hacker president. But in more concrete terms, I want all the innovative, exciting stuff to be open source because it means that suddenly the people  who can engage with it, isn’t everyone who can afford to buy a license to their company but it’s every single person that has technical knowledge in the entire world and internet access. I want to live in a world where the constraints of location, of locale are smaller than ever before. 

Cindy: And what I really love about this vision is that it really is about a movement. I think one of the things that distresses me about the stories coming out of the early internet is they all seem to one guy who did one thing. And honestly, they’re almost all guys and guys of a certain color. And I think that this way of storytelling, I’m not sure it was actually all that true for those of us who lived through it but what I hear you is really, really doubling down on this idea that it takes a movement, that people move together and that this kind of single person narrative is not actually the narrative of good change and that you’re working to try to build communities and networks so that we get past that.

Zach: And I think that one thing that really helps with that is the open source movement and the open source community because it means that if you are coding on real projects, the connection between you and the person that wrote that line of code is closer than ever. And you see, wow, projects like Ruby on Rails, they weren’t built by one person. They were built by 2,000 people. And you see that similar things with big projects, like Firefox, big projects like Rust, these are things that take tribes.

Cindy: Yeah. And let’s just double down, we got to get those obstacles out of the way. Kids need to be able to access all the information. They need to be able to right click on their Chromebooks and view source and all of these things. And the role of that, which sounds like funny little geeky things, it’s central to how we get from here to there.

Danny: Well, thank you so much, Zach. I look forward to not only seeing what you have to come up with in the future but seeing the next 20 years of what these kids produce.    

Zach: Thank you so much for having me here. It is such an honor to be able to join you in this conversation. It is such an honor for Hack Clubbers to have their story and their struggles be a part of the conversation and for the work you’re doing. Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you. 

Cindy: It goes both ways, Zach. You are raising the next generation of EFF members, probably EFF staffers and maybe congressional and administrative staffers who have this in their bones. And that’s the world. Just understanding how technology works isn’t enough. And I think that’s really clear from what you’re doing is you’re building networks and you’re building ethical and responsible frameworks for how do you be somebody who understands about tech but is using it for good?

Cindy: Zach, thank you so much. This has been so fun talking to you and so inspiring. I agree, we started off and we were talking about the problems that you’re having and they’re tremendously important. And of course that’s where EFF’s rubber meets the road is trying to get these obstacles out of the way. But we ended in such a happy place in terms of this future. So thank you.

Cindy: I so appreciate hearing about optimistic, young people finding, using and building the tools to make things better and the role that the internet is playing in both helping them connect, and helping them really build this into a movement that is going to build the tools that are going to make a better internet in the future.

Danny: So much of this talk of the surveillance and the censorship of children is wrapped this idea of keeping them safe. And then Zach who’s caught in the middle. He goes to the websites of these makers of filter technology where they’re literally claiming to be preventing school shootings and yet we all want kids to be safe but I do question whether this is really safety when Zack talks to the actual Hack Clubbers and they say that they feel like they’re in an Orwellian surveillance state, that’s not safety.

Cindy: No, no. And I think school administrators, it’s just clear that they’re outgunned here and we need to really support them in recognizing what kids really need to grow. I also really appreciated him talking about coding as a form of self expression. Obviously that’s near and dear to my heart as EFF started with the idea that code is speech but also that this self expression isn’t just in a constitutional sense. It’s about a place where I can be myself, where I can really be the real me and all of that coming out of the idea that people are learning how to code, this as a means of self expression it’s just heartening.

Danny: You teach kids how to express themselves, whether it’s code and speaking up and then they get to be part of that debate. And I think they’re an important part of that debate.

Cindy: One of the things that I really loved about the way Zach talked about the community he’s building is it’s being built by teenagers for teenagers, maybe for the rest of us too. But recognizing that this community needs to be designing the technologies and developing the technologies that this community needs. That where it needs to be centered. It reminds me of the conversation we had with Matt Mitchell, where he talked about communities needing to build the tools that they need, whether they’re in, where he was in Harlem or in a rural area or somewhere around the world. This community empowerment works not only in geography but also in the difference between being a kid and being an adult.

Cindy: Well, thanks to our guest, Zach Latta, for sharing his optimism and the work that he’s doing. If you’d like to start a Hack Club or donate to help support them, they are at hackclub.com. There are similar organizations all across the country and all across the world.  But supporting this work, I think is tremendously important to build a future internet that we all want to live in.

Danny: Thanks again, for joining us. If you have any feedback on this episode, do email us at podcast@eff.org. We read every email and we learn from all of your comments. If you do like what you hear, follow us on your favorite podcast player. We’ve got lots more episodes in store this season. Nat Keefe and Reed Mathis at Beat Mower made the music for this podcast with additional music and sounds used under the creative commons license from CCMixter. You can find the credits for each of the musicians and links to the music in our episode notes. How to Fix the Internet is supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s program in the public understanding of science and technology. I’m Danny O’Brien.

Music for How to Fix the Internet was created for us by Reed Mathis and Nat Keefe of BeatMower. This podcast is licensed Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International, and includes music licensed Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported by their creators. You can find their names and links to their music in our episode notes, or on our website at eff.org/podcast. I’m Danny O’Brien. 

Cindy: And I’m Cindy Cohn.

 



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