The Hacker Ethic

Linus Torvalds

With a prologue by the Linux originator Linus Torvalds, and surrounded by a mainstream where "hacker" still means "computer criminal", this book could suffer somewhat from a prejudice that it’s all about computers. True, the "information age" made technologically possible by computers is the indispensible backdrop, but the true focus is our culture’s work ethic, in the deepest sense.

The Protestant work ethic (which, the author rightly argues, can apply to people from any culture, just as people sharing "platonic" love needn’t be followers of Plato) is, as we all intuit when our alarms interrupt our dreams at 8am, one based on the idea of work as a duty, an obligation, and an end in itself. The ethic examined and proposed here is one based on passion and communal engagement. That is, we devote ourselves to that which we enjoy doing, that which we feel immersed by, and we direct our efforts at benefitting our fellow humans.

The libertarian or anarchistic computer programmer who networks with other coders to create open-source, free software for the good of all is the prime example of this ethic here, but this shouldn’t narrow our vision of "hacking". Carpenters, engineers, writers, teachers and nurses may all be hackers—dedicated to their chosen field of endeavour through passion and enjoyment, and focused on an altruistic sense of common good.

Our attitudes to time, money and the sharing of information are all dealt with in relation to the hacker ethic, and the author peppers his text with original, fascinating references. Especially interesting are the religious references. I don’t think it can be underlined too often how our supposedly secular modern world is still entrenched with mentally diseased religious notions, and Himanen does a good job here of deconstructing our supposedly rational world of work. There’s no in-depth psychological analysis, but this isn’t the book’s aim; exposing the wiring under the board is, for now, enough.

Curiously, what I gained most from this book is a new-found respect for the traditions of Science and the Academy. Of course, these institutions are now nearly as corrupt as the political world, but it’s easy to forget that this degeneration masks some truly noble principles. Science is contrasted here with Business, in the sense that scientists traditionally (before corporate sponsorship) always published their findings freely, so that others may benefit from and improve their work, for the common good. Such is precisely the ethic behind open-source software development, and it stands in opposition to the business ethic of information-hoarding for profit, through copyrights and patents.

Further, the Academy—in its original sense—is contrasted with the Monastery (and with much of modern academia). Here, the relationship between people sharing information is exposed. On the one hand, we have the monastic rule that is familiar to all of us from school: "It belongeth to the master to speak and to teach; it becometh the disciple to be silent and to listen." In sharp opposition stands Plato’s Academy, "where students were not regarded as targets for knowledge transmission but were referred to as companions in learning." The benefits of teachers being those who have recently acquired certain knowledge—they still retain a fresh passion for it, and still understand the learner’s point of view—underline this approach, which is undoubtedly flourishing again, outside institutions, on specialist mailing lists and discussion forums on the web.

Despite their corruption, these aspects of Science and the Academy should undoubtedly be preserved in the digital age—for the common good.