Hackers: the techno-culture

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Enter the Hacker

Contrary to the mainstream media use of 'hacker', a lot of technical people keep using the original, authentic meaning as described by many authoritative sources. The Jargon File, a major source of historical terminology of the field, perhaps has got the most exhaustive definition.

In short, a hacker is (mostly but not necessarily) a computer professional with innovative mindset and a passion for exploration. The Jargon File as well as other references can assist in finding out more details. The File also gives a good all-round definition of the hacker ethic:

"The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible."[1]

According to Levy[2], the Tech Model Railroad Club had been founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946, and by the end of fifties, there was already a strong technology oriented subculture formed around it. Out of its Signals & Power Subcommittee (people who dealt with electricity and wires rather than modelling tasks) came the first hackers. It is interesting to see that there was a sort of hacker culture even before there was a computer to hack on - only in 1959 there were the first courses on computer science and the TX-0 computer was obtained which is considered to be the first hacker machine. In 1961 the MIT obtained PDP-1 (later going on to PDP-6 and PDP-10) which became the central device for the forming hacker culture, later formalised into the Project MAC and the famous MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (see Levy's book for a more detailed history).

For a long time, it was almost completely free of business thought - due to its specific field which was too small to create a market, and also the ties of many projects to the military. Thanks to skillful management (mostly by two leading professor of the time, John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky), the bureaucracy was kept separate and the creative minds were given ample space to work. All this created an atmosphere of creative and original intelligence that Richard Stallman has called 'playful cleverness'. Similar units were also created at Stanford (where McCarthy soon moved to) and a number of other universities in the US. The ethical principles of these hacker communities are in more detail described in the next chapter.

The 'hacker paradise' at MIT came to an end in early 80s when its staff was split between two commercial enterprises, LMI and Symbolics. The resulting conflict almost emptied the Lab, one of the last ones to leave was Richard Stallman. He was deeply unhappy with the outcome and in some years, decided to start the GNU project - a complete rewrite of the Unix operating system which would be distributed freely, remaining true to the MIT hacker tradition. While the project did not reach its main goal (has only recently showed some signs of imminent completion), it produced a number of important utilities and system software as well as the legal backbone of today's free and open-source software, the GNU General Public License (GPL) which had the user rights as starting point, being totally different from corporate End User License Agreements exemplified by Microsoft and others. Yet he was been viewed by the mainstream IT as a curiosity or a hopelessly hippie-minded idealist.

In 1991, inspired by a small Unix variant called Minix, Linus Torvalds (then a student at the University of Helsinki) started a new operating system project which was soon labelled Linux. Some months after the start of his project, Torvalds changed his system's license to GPL, making it a suitable pickup for all disgruntled hackers who were discontent with the proprietary, closed systems of the day (especially Microsoft's DOS and Windows, but also Apple's MacOS and various commercial variants of Unix; Torvalds still considers the move as the most important step in Linux development). The system started to develop as a collaborative effort empowered by the widely spreading Internet. The hacker spirit came out of the academic enclaves where it had been forced by the proprietary model.

In 1994, Red Hat - the first large-scale commercial venture using open-source model - was formed. 1995 added a set of server technologies which made setting up an Internet server several times less expensive - collectively known as [1] (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP/Perl/Python). In 1996-97, the new system got a pair of advanced graphical user interfaces in GNOME and KDE. The new millennium brought along many interesting developments - not only in software (OpenOffice.org and later LibreOffice, Ubuntu Linux) but even more the extension of the hacker model into other fields. A good example is Wikipedia, a community-built, freely editable encyclopedia. There are music companies based on open models (e.g. Magnatune) as well as publishers (e.g. Lulu). In 2001 MIT, the original home of the hackers, launched the OpenCourseWare initiative to provide free access to learning materials. The hacker ethic keeps going strong into the XXI century.


The hacker ethic of early days

Steven Levy has worded the hacker ethic as it was understood by those early pioneers:

1. Access to computers - and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works - should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!

The unquenchable thirst for knowledge is probably a key feature of the hacker ethic. Drawing parallels with a much later hacker codex by Eric S. Raymond, other crucial aspects here are positive attitude ("The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved.") as well as pragmatic altruism ("No problem should ever have to be solved twice."), while keeping the original, slightly anarchist-sounding yearn for freedom ("Freedom is good" and "Boredom and drudgery are evil."). Finally, the statement requires one to "walk the walk, not only talk the talk" - both the original Hands-On Imperative and Raymond's well-worded maxim "Attitude is no substitute for competence" point to the same direction. The latter is stressed to the point where (as seen from Levy's account) people unable to comply were dismissed so promptly that it sounded unfair for even some of their own kind. Yet this is the root of Linus' Law and the hacker ethic reformulated by Himanen, as we see later on.

2. All information should be free.

This statement undoubtedly has some roots in the time and space of original hackers. Back in those days, every computing cycle was a valuable resource, wasting it was an outright crime; therefore sharing the results to avoid duplicate work was vital. Also, in the isolated MIT and Stanford enclaves of the techno-elite of early hackers, there was no place for business - many projects had military undertones, the rest were just too specific to have any business thought attached.

Based on that, many critics of open approaches have dismissed the hacker model as something hippie and unpractical, able to survive only in the most protected environments. Yet Eric Raymond wrote the initial version of his "How To Become A Hacker" in 2001, after two decades of prevalence of proprietary models and Microsoft's supremacy in software markets. Pekka Himanen published his "Hacker Ethic" even later in 2002. However, both of them conclude that the way of the hackers has strongly returned after two decades of lethargy - the maxim "All information should be free" had found a new life in the Internet. The Net became the global version of the historical hacker labs, allowing people from all over the world to collaborate in scales unseen before.

3. Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.

Levy writes: "The last thing you need is a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies, whether corporate, government, or university, are flawed systems, dangerous in that they cannot accommodate the exploratory pulse of true hackers. Bureaucrats hide behind arbitrary use (as opposed to the logical algorithms by which machines and computer programs operate): they invoke those rules to consolidate power, and perceive the constructive impulse of hackers as a threat."

Here it is important to point out that while the "mistrust authority" may sound a bit anarchistic, it might not be the case. Eric Raymond, in commenting another of his hacker maxims "Freedom is good", writes: "This isn't the same as fighting all authority. Children need to be guided and criminals restrained. A hacker may agree to accept some kinds of authority in order to get something he wants more than the time he spends following orders. But that's a limited, conscious bargain; the kind of personal surrender authoritarians want is not on offer." We see that if anything, the hacker ethic stresses democracy here rather than anarchy - it fights the misuse of authority, not authority as such.

The other half of the maxim, "promote decentralization", complements the first half, adding a specific technological dimension. The original hackers viewed the large IBM computers to represent an alien to them attitude of corporate mindset - not only by their user base but also their internal structure which stressed strict following of predetermined routines, leaving no space to exploration. Interestingly, the subsequent history has proved the hackers right - decentralization has been a central feature of the Internet (and all network-based development) since its early days.

4. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.

An almost classical statement of equality, this has actually been visible throughout the history of the hacker culture. Although the Jargon File (the printed form of which is known as The New Hacker's Dictionary) in its Appendix B ("A Portrait of J. Random Hacker") mentions hackers to be "still predominantly male" and "in the U.S., hackerdom is predominantly Caucasian with strong minorities of Jews (East Coast) and Orientals (West Coast)", it also states that "female hackers are generally respected and dealt with as equals" and "racial and ethnic prejudice is notably uncommon and tends to be met with freezing contempt". Levy recalls Peter Deutsch who was accepted by MIT hackers as equal when only 12, while those with impressive formal credentials were not taken seriously until proving themselves worthy. Levy ínsists that the evaluation criteria of hackers were based on potential rather than 'superficial' personal traits. The Jargon File adds an interesting suggestion that the notable gender- and color-blindness of hackers comes from a positive effect of text-only network channels, where all participants are judged by the quality of their input, not their personal features.

5. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

While this statement seems to be obvious today, it was not so during the early days of computing. These 'counting machines' were often viewed as an antithesis of art and creativity - capable of dull number-crunching but not something beautiful. Only later, when computers learned to paint, talk and make music, did it change. But the actual aesthetics in computing is probably much older than that.

Early hackers developed the aesthetic appreciation of the very program code, and while the aesthetics of programming has somewhat changed over time (e.g. in early days it was considered beautiful to keep a program as short as possible to minimise the number of needed instructions - nowadays it is considered more desirable to leave some 'air' into the program as well as comment it adequately), the phenomenon as such is well alive. The issue can also be linked to the overall appreciation of creativity. Besides more specific technical skills vital for a hacker, Raymond lists also the 'points of style' which have much to do with different aspects of aesthetics (master your mother tongue, learn to sing or play a musical instrument, enjoy science fiction and fantasy literature, study philosophies or martial arts, develop a good sense of wordplay) which again strongly relate to the original statement. Thus, contrary to the popular 'nerd' stereotype with no life outside the computers, real hackers can find beauty in outside world as well.

6. Computers can change your life for the better.

While Levy calls this principle only "subtly manifest" at the MIT hacker culture, it likely has always been there. Even if the early hackers had mostly only their own life enriched by computers, they laid the groundwork for the expansion that happened later (MIT hackers built a robot who played ping-pong, programmed the Spacewar which is generally considered the first computer game, were the first to study computer chess etc). And when the Internet and especially the Web appeared (which Raymond calls "the huge, shiny hacker toy"), the hacker way of doing things started to expand out of the academy.

The Linus' Law

The hacker-minded ideas of free and open-source software (as well as free content in general) has been generating questions about their motivation for decades already. While the original MIT hacker community largely fell apart under the onslaught of business, the mindset did not disappear. When Richard Stallman started his GNU project in 1984, it was labelled by many as a fruitless dream of a hippie hacker. However, after the launch of Linux in 1991 the snowball started to roll downhill, gaining both speed and size. What is the motivation of thousands of people behind Linux and other free software projects? Or to pick a non-software project, why do people write Wikipedia (from October 2002 to October 2006, the content of Wikipedia was doubled in every 345 days, i.e. less than a year)?

Linus Torvalds, writes in his prologue to Pekka Himanen's Hacker Ethic: "Linus' Law says that all of our motivations fall into three basic categories. More important, progress is about going through those very same things as 'phases' in a process of evolution, a matter of passing from one category to the next. The categories, in order, are 'survival', 'social life', and 'entertainment'".[3]

While the concept is somewhat similar to Maslow's hierarchy of needs, it is not meant as a scientific theory, rather a general principle with some notable exceptions. For example, Torvalds asks the question: "What are people ready to die for?" - and agrees that both social life and even entertainment can pass survival in some cases (people are willing to die for their country, religion and families, and the modern extreme sports fanatics are willing to risk death just to fight boredom). Yet as a whole, the general assumption has a lot of supporting cases.

It is interesting to note that the technical brain behind the success of Apple, Steve Wozniak, has developed a formula very similar to the Linus' Law - his version is H = F3, meaning happiness equals to food, friends and fun.

Also a good example of the human motivation are many leaders of the world. Perhaps the best to look at would be a gentleman named Akihito - a talented musician and maritime biologist, who also happens to be the Emmperor of Japan. Having absolutely no problem with either survival or reputation (for some people in Japan, the Emperor is still divine!), he apparently does all this for fun.

The social context: Capitalism 3.0 and post-scarcity

In a sense, the mankind's constant struggle for scarce resources throughout the history has planted the meme of resource scarcity so deep into our brains that even if the reality has started to gradually change, it still rules our way of thinking.

A resource may be rare in one context and plentiful in another (e.g. water, which was something usual and unimportant for Nordic people and a top resource for, say, North African Bedouins). The difference of paradigm is perhaps the most clearly visible in a new kind of resource - information - , which has gradually risen to be one of the central resoutces. Information in its pure form differs from earlier resources: it can only be copied, not moved (in the sense that it cannot be exhausted - Benkler in his "The Wealth Of Networks" also refers to it as a "nonrival good"). Therefore, the legal measures which were suitable for physical resources are increasingly obvious to be unsuitable for information.

We might argue that information in itself is not anything new. But only the advent of Internet and digital media made storage and distribution of information so easy and inexpensive that the value of the information itself, not the medium (e.g. the heavy, hand-written and chained books of old) became central.

So the ubiquity of the Internet in combination with the new licensing and business models have brought along a major mindquake (to use Theobald again) concerning the XX-century approaches to intellectual property and content production. Another good metaphor Theobald has is "immigrants to a new time" - just like real-world immigrants need time and skills to adapt (A good mainstream example is the depiction of Irish immigrants' arrival to New York in the movie Gangs of New York), the whole world of us is about to change.

The imminent change is quite well shown by Peter Barnes as Capitalism 3.0, comparing the development of the social formation to the one of a computer operating system with a number of versions. Focusing on the supply-demand balance, he looks at the early capitalism (what he calls shortage capitalism or Capitalism 1.0, demand exceeds supply) which in around 1950 was replaced by Capitalism 2.0 or surplus capitalism (supply exceeds demand), but due to artificial scarcities generated by producers to ensure the continuity of their profits. To achieve version 3.0, these artificial obstacles should be removed.

The Seventh Day: the values of hacker ethic in the new century

Pekka Himanen in his Hacker Ethic has proposed that the hacker ways are in fact a new 'step up' from Weber's classical Protestant work ethics, just as the latter was a step up from the older pre-Protestant attitudes. To illustrate this, he quotes the seven values that are evident in today's capitalist (or to borrow from Barnes, Capitalism 2.0) society: money, work, flexibility, goal orientation, result accountability, optimality and stability (these are actually worded a bit differently than Max Weber's original seven, but the summary idea is quite the same). Himanen then goes on to define the new 'seven' which should shape the Information Age:

  • passion - hackers are moved by their intrinsic creative push that motivates them to explore, create and adapt, and rewards them with joy. Hackers view their work as an elaborate hobby - as testified by Linus Torvalds saying: "Linux has very much been a hobby (but a serious one: the best type)". An even better quote is from Tom Pittman from the Homebrew Computer Club of early days: "In that instant, I as a Christian thought I could feel something of the satisfaction that God must have felt when He created the world".
  • freedom - Richard Stallman has defined the spirit of the MIT hacker community as 'playful cleverness': it means that instead of rigid 'optimisation' of time and outcomes, the best results are born out of necessity and creative exploration.
  • (hacker) work ethic - one of the interesting metaphors used by Himanen is the one of monastery vs academy. According to him, typical Protestant work ethic derives from monastery with a set of fixed rules, written or not. On the contrary, the hacker ethic is a descendant (in a way) of Plato's Academy, where the truth was born in debates. Just like some MIT hackers famous of their irregular lifestyles were able to display supreme results, the hacker work ethic is not so much concerned with the form than with the essence.
  • (hacker) money ethic - hackers tend to view money as a means to something more valuable, not as a value per se. Therefore, it is acceptable for them to dedicate some time for accumulation of enough resources, after which it is possible to turn to something more interesting (a good example is Steve Wozniak discussed above). In other cases, hackers have chosen smaller immediate profits while ensuring the broadest possible audience. While sounding idealistic, many central things of today's infrastructure would have been impossible without this kind of ethic - a good example is Timothy Berners-Lee who refused to patent his invention of Web technology in 1991. Likewise, Linus Torvalds chose a free license for his Linux. In both cases, a rapid spread of technology followed, which among other things granted both inventors good financial standing as well.
  • (hacker) network ethic (also called nethic) - hackers promote freedom of word and thought and resist censorship in all its forms. Nethic also materialises as online social norms (netiquette or network etiquette). This point is the direct descendant of the original "promote decentralization".
  • caring - this is similar to Barnes' points, yet with a distinct hackery flavour. Himanen uses a metaphor of sports car driver who cannot afford looking around or enjoying the nice weather - all his energy and concentration goes into keeping the car onto the road. Himanen boldly states that starting from a certain "speed", there can be no more ethic. He presents the readers an awkward question asked by hackers: "What do you need that much money for?" and proceeds with examples of hacker projects, which (using Barnes' term) are directed towards 'upgrading the capitalism'.
  • creativity - this is returning to the hacker roots. From the very first students getting their hands on MIT's TX-0 computer, this has been a major tenet of hackers. And in today's networked society, its importance will ever increase.

Finally, Himanen uses Friday and Sunday metaphors to convey a major point. Friday as the day of crucifixion of Jesus Christ has had somewhat a tainted image in Christian tradition. On the contrary, Sunday is the holy day (by the way - in Estonian language, the literal meaning of pühapäev is really sacred day!), a day for rest, worship and reflection. But even the most ordinary people probably know it too - more than often, working on Friday means a day of yearning for weekend. And Himanen asks the reader: is your life a Friday or a Sunday?

Final words

The hacker culture and hacker ethic do have respectable roots in history. Starting out as the mindset of a dedicated techno-elite, surviving the end-of-century onslaught of proprietary models and reappearing again in the new millennium with a wide array of new ideas and possibilities, the hacker ethos has recently caught the attention of many who are searching for ways towards better future (from sociologists and political scientists to economists and technologists) - as it may be the thinking model that our networked society really needs.

References

  1. http://www.catb.org/~esr/jargon/html/H/hacker.html
  2. LEVY, Steven. Hackers
  3. HIMANEN, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age.

Additional reading

  • BARNES, Peter. Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2006
  • HIMANEN, Pekka. Hacker Ethic. New York: Penguin Books, 2002
  • LEVY, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Updated edition. New York: Penguin Press, 2001
  • LESSIG, Lawrence. [Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control Creativity]. New York: Penguin Press 2004
  • MARTIN, Brian. Information Liberation: Challenging the Corruptions of Information Power. London: Freedom Press, 1998
  • MOODY, Glyn. Rebel Code: Inside Linux and the Open Source revolution. Cambridge MA: Perseus Publishing, 2001
  • THEOBALD, Robert. Reworking Success: New Communities at the Millennium. Fourth Printing. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers, 1998