(Reprinted with permission from the Sunday Star Ledger in Newark, New Jersey, written by Edward Tenner.)

Most people would expect a book about hackers by a distinguished professor of philosophy (Pekka Himanen teaches at the University of Helsinki) to examine the ethics of activities from downloading music to breaking passwords and encryption schemes.

But the title of Himanen’s book, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, deliberately uses the singular. It’s about what sociologists call an ideal type: not necessarily all programming enthusiasts, but those who participate in creating and using “open source” software legally available for all to modify, unlike most commercial programs. And it’s about an ethic, an approach to life, rather than about the morality of specific behaviors.

The spirit of today’s open-source programmers is a culturally revolutionary force comparable to the Protestant ethic sociologist Max Weber described more than a hundred years ago, Himanen argues. And he believes it’s about to transform society as Calvinism helped create modern capitalism hundreds of years ago.

One hallmark of hacking is a refusal to separate labor from leisure. The monastic ethic saw work as a discipline to humble the believer, and medieval Catholicism regarded hell as a place of punishment through unremitting toil and salvation as the portal to eternal leisure. The Protestant ethic inverted the medieval ideal; labor became the mark of a worthy life and heaven itself turned into a workshop.

Himanen’s hacker ethic rejects both work and leisure for their own sake. It finds satisfaction in playful work. Himanen acknowledges this way of life is not confined to computing—everybody, from poets to Civil War reenactors, seems to be sharing ideas noncommercially these days—but he unfortunately says little about other emerging communities on and off the Web. This leaves open the question of whether computer hackers (good and bad) are just one manifestation of a broader trend.

The Protestant ethic equates time with money and brings management techniques into the home; the mobile devices of the networked economy have replaced the old leisure class with a new, nomadic elite always on call. Hackers have brought back the self-directed time of the medieval artisan. They value money not for the consumer goods it can buy, but for the opportunity to pursue their passion; their real external reward is more likely to be their reputation among their peers. While this is as true of the work of, say, serious bird-watchers and amateur astronomers as of master programmers, Himanen largely limits his attention to master programmers.

These hackers belie the stereotype of the isolated nerd, enjoying contributing to their colleagues’ work in a free flow of information. While most probably have had conventional academic backgrounds, they have replaced the top-down methods of traditional schools with a mix of self-education, experiment, networked discussion and open refereeing of innovations that ultimately become part of the computer industry. (Linux operating system creator Linus Torvalds, though a student at the time, learned programming on his own.)

The capitalist information economy thus paradoxically depends on people who are not in it for the money. In Himanen’s view, hackers offer an inclusive, communitarian alternative—a “nethic”—to a global information economy based on the same dominant values as the old Protestant ethic, and hacking is emerging as a quasi-divine form of human creativity.

Within the limits the author has chosen, this is a wonderful little book, engaging, impassioned and lucid. While others have defended the hacker way and have encouraged the development of hacker-inspired volunteer online networks to meet social needs, Himanen is the first to put hacking in the long-term context of Western thought and practice.

But The Hacker Ethic is incomplete. It’s understandable that Himanen should choose to embrace the prophetic side of hacking while avoiding the nuts and bolts of computer ethics, but hacking is not all good and evil. Like commercial software production and marketing, it has many shades of gray. Are our intellectual property laws just or unjust? How many of us carefully read, and resolve to follow, the “contract” we “sign” by opening a shrink-wrapped package or downloading a program? And is the open-source hierarchy of prestige—
prizing technical elegance above mundane applications—really a model for society?

Even in its present scope, The Hacker Ethic devotes too little space to the greatest challenge facing the hacker spirit: maintaining its symbiosis with the closed, proprietary world in which most of us live. In their day jobs, most hackers are part of that world, too. Universities, once staunch defenders of free publication, now are deeply enmeshed in proprietary information schemes ranging from patent licensing to distance learning. Corporations are now patenting the kinds of ideas that members of their scientific and technical staffs once published freely. (Larry Ellison founded Oracle partly on the basis of a theoretical article in an IBM journal.) New federal and state legislation also threatens the time-honored hacker custom of reverse-engineering conventional software not for piracy or competition but for curiosity’s sake. Why is a computer enthusiast who wants to inspect the source code of a legally purchased program probably breaking the law when someone who takes apart and modifies a car engine is not?

Will the rest of society follow the open source movement? It seems more likely that the hacker community will remain an international nature preserve, like a rainforest rescued for commercial pharmaceutical and genetic prospecting. The indigenous people (net-ives?) will be treated kindly as long as they are peaceful. We are left with the open question of whether hackers’ “nethic” will be a rallying cry or a last hurrah.

Appetizer
A “hacker” is someone who has gone past using his computer for survival (“I bring home the bread by programming.”) to the next two stages. He (or, in theory but all too seldom in practice, she) uses the computer for his social ties—e-mail and the net are great ways to have a community. But to the hacker a computer is also entertainment. Not the games, not the pretty picture on the net. The computer itself is entertainment.

–Linux creator Linus Torvalds in The Hacker Ethic


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