The Hacker Ethic is a brilliant book.Written by young Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen, with contributions in the same volume by Linus Torvalds and Sociology Professor Manuel Castells, this little book blows away the myth that getting important things done requires stodgy and outmoded forms of organization, or a slavish devotion to work. Just the opposite -- Himanen demonstrates with modern and historical examples that there's a sea change underway in the way that work happens. (Read More.)
I admit it -- the first time I started to read this book, I made a mistake. I began not with Linus Torvalds' clever and funny introduction, or with Pekka Himanen's text (the central part of the book) but with the final section -- Manuell Castells' Epilogue, "Informationalism and the Network Society." Castells' piece, considerably longer than Torvalds' contribution, defines Informationalism ("a technological paradigm based on the augmentation of the human capacity in information processing around the twin revolutions in microelectronics and genetic engineering"), and both traces its rise and makes some predictions about its continued dominance for the near future.
Though Castells is careful to point out the distinction between information-dominated societies (which are nothing new, as he freely points out) and ones characterized by the more profound Informationalism, it took a second read of this section (after starting again from the beginning) to grasp his meaning more fully. It also took that second read to grudgingly accept Castells' inclusion of genetic engineering as an appropriate part of the shift to Informationalism.
The importance of complex, interactive and iterative information processing systems, though, is great enough that Castells seems justified in defining as a breaking point in history the emergence of such systems. Taken in context with the central part of the book, this final chapter is both less off-putting and more insightful than it seemed upon first visit.
The heart of the book, though, is Himanen's treatise on the broad implication of the work, play and life-in-general ideals which hackers have made famous both within and outside the computer world, and it's the most enjoyable part of the book.
First, be assured: Himanen uses "hacker" in the sense that nature intended -- curious, passionate inventors, many of whom happen to use computers as their primary tool of discovery -- rather than a word to mean malicious techno-vandals. Perhaps this book, already talked about in trade and general publications, will help erase the stigma of that word and replace it with the far more positive ideal of an outlook defined by creativity, fun and a desire for meaningful life experiences.
Readers will quickly discover that while The Hacker Ethic obviously has one eye on the tight triangle of recent history, present reality, and immediate future, the other scans a wide range of historical settings and ideas. The title is an allusion to Max Weber's famous work (and more famous idea) The Protestant Work Ethic, tracing back the idea of life centered around diligence and toil to the Protestant preacher Richard Baxter, and before that to the ordered and labor-centered life of the monastary. Bells (and now electronic clocks, timecards and even automatic sensors) decided when things should be done -- and more imporantly, things should be done! Idleness is against the Protest ethic, which holds steady work and its results as the ideals to strive for.
Himanen believes that the Protestant work ethic's replacement has arrived. Computer hackers happen to be the standard bearers, he says, for a whole new way of work, play and life, based around social networks, personal preferences for work environment and content, and a intermingling of work and play.
He points to a number of sources -- some of them may bring a smile, like Richard M. Stallman's Free Software Song, and the sometimes outrageous definitions in Eric S. Raymond's Jargon File -- to demonstrate the way that these non-traditional or even anti-traditional ways of thinking and doing manifest themselves among computer hackers. Hackers, especially the idealized hackers as mythologized in documents like the Jargon File but certainly not only these, tend to ignore social conventions of behavior, when those conventions get in the way of doing what they want. Because of the realities of cheap long-distance communications, electric lights allowing all-night hacking sessions, and other particulars of the electronic-dominated world which has been available to an increasing number of people for more than a generation, they've built their own rules about proper behavior on a computer, on a network, and in the real world. By so doing, they haven't created a world inhabited solely by selfish slobs -- instead, the world of the hacker has simply become one with a far more elastic (and less predictable) matrix of social and professional roles.
Computer hackers may have led the way to this, but Himanen believes that the widespread growth of Net culture is having and will have a permanent effect on the way work is looked at, and the way people approach leisure and work time. The more types of work that can be done by people collaborating and associating with each other (and the networking of the world means that more and more can), the less dependent people will be on rigid schedules, traditional workplaces and alarm bells to announce the end of lunch. In short, the hacker ethic has the potential to improve people's lives by removing the driving impulse to work unbound to real individual preferences.
That doesn't mean that life for hackers results only in advantages to them as individuals -- far from it. Throughout the book, Himanen refers the development of distributed projects, notably the Linux kernel. Despite its utterly voluntary nature, the freeform development of the kernel and of the GPLd software which made it useful resulted in a project involving millions of people. The idea that voluntary distributed actions can have such far-flung, elaborately evolved and evolving results puts the lie to the idea that only noses well rubbed by grindstones can create projects of meaning and substance. The hacker ethic is neither theoretical nor self-absorbed: it's more of a grand restatement of enlightened self-interest.
I did have one major point of contention with Himanen's central thesis, but one which did not really detract from reading the book. Throughout the text, the implication is both hinted at and stated outright that creativity is anathama to the Protestant work ethic. In chapter 7 ("Rest"), Himanen states outright:
While a lack of creativity may be widely associated with the Protestant work ethic, its absence hardly seems implicit to it. In social behavior, unlike mathematics, a single counterexample does not necessarily disprove a theory, but there are many individuals and even entire fields of endeavor predating the emergence of hackers (or an ethic for them to claim) which show the vast potential for creative human living even within societies living undeniably within that ethic. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, I think of as a great hacker of his time: he jumped smoothly from endeavor to endeavor, and in fact exhibited many of the same characteristics that Himanen points out as shared by modern day hackers. But Franklin undeniably ascribed to the Protestant ethic. Perhaps this is mostly a semantic issue, but it never stopped nagging me."Creativity does not feature prominently in the Protestant ethic, the typical creations of which are the government agency and the monasterylike business enterprise. Neither one of them encourages the individual to engage in creative activity."
How realistic is Himanen's assesment of changing work values? As someone who went from a relatively straight office job with timesheets, a regular desk, repetitive tasks and forehead-tightening deadlines to one with no timesheets, a desk wherever I have internet access and work that changes and flows with the day, the analysis struck me as personally insightful -- but nowhere near universally applicable, not yet. The Hacker Ethic has arrived, in fact, and to a startling degree, in certain specialized fields and among a few individuals. But offices, factories and retail stores aren't going away. Some enlightened employers have practiced (or attempted) for years to create just the kind of creative environment which would draw people to be simultaneously productive -- in whatever terms that business requires -- and passionate enough to continue for the sake of more than a paycheck.
Linus' introduction is icing on the cake -- Linus writes in the same way he does in emails to the kernel mailing list: wry, biting, self-effacing, quick. He even manages to abbreviate most complex theories of social behavior (remember Maslow's heirarchy of needs?) into just three basic human desires: Survival, social life, and entertainment. Sounds right to me.
After establishing that "survival" is usually taken care of by time one has a computer, electricity and the lower-order goods that make having a computer possible, he says (and you can remove "Linux" for a more universal statement), "The reason that Linux hackers do something is that they find it to be very interesting, and they like to share this interesting thing with others."
Linus' few pages will be just as fun to read, I think, even if his essay boils down mostly to just that single line.
A section of notes at the close of the book is a valuable addition: some of the pithiest explanations are found here, such as examples of hacker humor and a short but insightful historical overview of the development of hypertext.
And for a relatively short book, the bibliography is extensive and eclectic -- reading the list of cited works, of everything from Aristotle to Bill Joy, Plato to Max Weber -- will probably spark some reading lists to expand as well.
This book will be read, re-read and passed on -- if you're employed by someone else, I suggest reading it and (as applicable) giving your copy to your boss, former boss or future boss.
The Hacker Ethic
Prologue: What Makes Hackers Tick? aka Linus' Law, by Linus Torvalds
Part One: The Work Ethic
Chapter 1: The Hacker Work Ethic
Chapter 2: Time is Money?
Part Two: The Money Ethic
Chapter 3: Money As Motive
Chapter 4: The Academy and the Monastery
Part Three: The Nethic
Chapter 5: From Nettiquette to a Nethic
Chapter 6: The Spirit of Informationalism
Chapter 7: Rest
Epilogue: Informationalism and the Network Society, by Manuell Castells
Appendix: A Brief History of Computer Hackerism Notes