The Hacker Ethic
Author: Pekka Himanen with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells
Publisher: Random House
Price: $24.95 US
Reviewer: Michael Stafford
The Hacker Ethic is a far more significant work than its size lets on. It attempts to do no less than explain to the general reader what it's like to think, work, create and play like a hacker. With so much confusion and bad press around hackers, this is no small challenge. Pekka Himanen situates the hacker worldview historically, contrasts it with the modern, work-centered worldview and speculates on the contribution to humanity the hacker ethic can make. Even if you consider yourself a well-versed hacker, you'll enjoy reading about your spiritual roots as well as the positive social implications of the hacker ethic. I might just give copies to my family and friends so they better understand why I live, work, sleep and believe the way I do.
This book stems out of a collaborative friendship between Pekka Himanen, Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells (philosopher, hacker and sociologist, respectively). It's only fitting that a book on the collaborative hacker ethic should in fact be jointly written. Torvalds contributes the prologue, presenting in a nutshell what makes hackers tick. Himanen writes the largest, middle section. And finally, Castells' epilogue rounds out the book with a discussion on the information age's social implications. Well researched endnotes and bibliography are included.
To explain why hackers would work together without pay to make something like Linux, Torvalds pens “Linus's Law”. With tongue somewhat in cheek, Linus's Law posits progress and evolution as upward motion along a hierarchy of motivations: from survival, to social life, to entertainment. What makes hackers tick, according to Torvalds, is this last and most sublime motivation. By entertainment, he's not thinking of games so much as “the mental gymnastics involved in trying to explain the universe”, whether you're Einstein, an artist or a hacker. Coding an operating system is, after all, a great deal like explaining the universe because one codifies the parameters and elemental models of everything that can happen. Torvalds means entertainment to encompass the passion and playfulness of activities intrinsically interesting and challenging—stuff we stay up late working on because we love doing it, not because of a deadline.
Wasting no time, Himanen makes the distinction in his first paragraph between hackers and crackers. Readers are to understand that it is only the latter who use computers to commit crimes, bring down e-commerce, produce viruses and generally sow mayhem. By “hacker”, Himanen means those who “program enthusiastically” and who believe, as Eric Raymond describes in The Jargon File (http://www.catb.org/jargon/), that “information sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources whenever possible.” Maybe the lines can't be so easily drawn. I'm prone to think that cracking a system's security can sometimes be an ethical, populist act. Himanen does concede that “most computer hackers support only some parts” of the general ethic he's describing. Still, it is fair to assume with Himanen that a general, cohesive hacker ethic and its effects can be clearly discussed. It is to Himanen's credit that he can meaningfully characterize a group largely defined by the primacy it grants to independent thought.
How does Himanen bring readers into the hacker's world? He starts by looking at hackers' relationship to a cultural universal: work. To describe the hacker work ethic, Himanen uses as a counterpoint a landmark treatise on modern work and culture. What Max Weber described in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is so much a part of our way of experiencing work now that it seems as if things must have always been so. Calling attention to our modern work ethic feels almost like pointing at the air around us, until you realize that this pervasive work ethic has all but suffocated us. In contrast, the hacker ethic is a deep breath of fresh air. As Himanen refers to Weber, he shows us that before the Reformation, attitudes about work and its cultural importance were quite different and came to change with the spread of the Protestant business model. The hacker work ethic has potentially the same possibility to culturally affect the experience of work. At the very least, the hacker work ethic insists on there being an alternative mode of experiencing work. Himanen makes the case that in this information economy, the hacker's mode of work is also pragmatically superior to the protestant work ethic: “The information economy's most important source of productivity is creativity, and it is not possible to create interesting things in a constant hurry or in a regulated manner from nine to five.” Workers can't freely and creatively pursue the projects of their passions if they are busy jumping through hoops and punching a clock several times a day.
As the hacker ethic extends into the social and political arenas, Himanen isolates expression and privacy as the core hacker ideals in the public sphere, particularly on the Net. They hold importance because they are vital in the resistance to exterior regimentation and over-management. In the public sphere those forces come from government and business. Government regulation and control of expression, however well-intentioned at the outset, will always contribute to the message that individuals are not mature enough to use communication without guidance and supervision. The worker who cannot work without supervision also cannot participate unsupervised in the public sphere. With privacy unguarded, private businesses can and do construct intimate and complete consumer profiles of individuals that are then for sale to the highest bidder. In this way it's possible to scrutinize the lifestyles of workers and job applicants. The message here is either you're not smart enough to be a good consumer on your own without our guidance, or employers not only can regiment your work time, but also have a say in how you spend your time away from work. Himanen recounts stories of renowned hackers fighting for expression and privacy in both small, peaceful ways and very dramatic ways, such as in Kosovo where they played a decisive role in keeping free expression alive.
The Epilogue by Manuel Castells ends the book with a densely theoretical discussion of the societal forms he sees emerging from the new economic infrastructure brought about by recent technology—a novel application of the Marxist idea of infrastructure determining cultural forms. Castells' portion of the book was for me the most demanding and intellectually rewarding. He convincingly shows how companies, industries and even nations are functioning and structuring themselves like dynamic networks, where workers and managers are constantly reprogramming themselves to perform new tasks and new goals. In these networks, the real employers of workers aren't companies so much as projects within a network. As these networks become increasingly efficient and object-oriented, a worker's relevance and permanency are guaranteed only by his or her ability to self-reprogram. For most workers, technology has mainly served to optimize the amount of useful work that can be squeezed out of a day. Whereas Ben Franklin said “Time is money”, now with the compression of time, Himanen writes that “even shorter units of time are money”.
The Hacker Ethic offers not only an able description of the hacker worldview, but also points to various directions in which hackers can work to help counteract some of the inhumane consequences of our network society. These directions include integrating outsiders (back) into society's network through widespread net access and education, initiating circles of hacker creation where useful tools result from a mutual learning process, aerating the experience of time for oneself and others to allow more space for creativity and championing the causes of expression and privacy.