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Hackers, work and play

In starting to flesh out the Hacker Ethic as a subject of philosophical enquiry, I want to begin by working through the concepts of work and play. These two concepts are difficult to define; in some senses we think of work as being productive and play as being wasteful; or work as being something we begrudgingly do as a mean to an end, and play as something we happily do as an end in itself. A useful simplification of the Hacker Ethic might be to say that work and play can be considered the same activity, but with slightly different characteristics. Both are productive activity, but work is one that produces exchange value as well as the value to the individual and his/her productive community, whilst play is done simply for the immediate personal and community benefits.

According to Andre Gorz (note to self: look up references) a pre-industrial, pre-commodity capitalism notion of "work" is tied to painful, tiring activity, outside of the scope of normal labour necessary to the community, i.e. "activities of subsistence, reproduction, maintenance and care". Gorz attributes three characteristics of work, the third only applying to commodity production:

  1. Performed in public
  2. Intended for user by the community
  3. Valued in terms of its exchange or commodity value

Marxists usually describe productive activities that aren't considered "work" by this understanding as "work for oneself" or "autonomous productive activity". In a sense "work for oneself" precludes work for exchange value insofar as we understand it to mean that one works for the sake of the work, for the immediate benefits it gives the worker as a productive being. But a capitalist who doesn't recognise the Marxist problems of alienation and commodity fetishism could equally argue that "work for oneself" could include working for exchange value. For reasons that I will make more clear in a later section of my dissertation, I want to make a clear distinction between work that is part of the commodity exhange system, and work that is done for its own sake. "Work for oneself" could be contrasted to "work for the market", perhaps. But before I commit to any terminology, I want to look at play a little, since work and play are the more usual and intuitive contraries.

First, some anecdotes from the Hacker community. In his preface for The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Linus Torvalds writes: "to the Hacker a computer is also entertainment. Not the games, not the pretty pictures on the Net. The computer itself is entertainment... Suddenly you get ... entertainment from the fact that you are doing something interesting". To Torvalds, "there is no higher stage of motivation" - higher, that is, than survival, social life and entertainment.

In another revealing statement, an employee of Microsoft described working with Hackers on a Free Software project, saying that "the feeling was exhilarating and addictive". This admission, part of an internal memo leaked in 1998, is all the more revealing for the fact that it was written by an employee of a company that at times seems ideologically opposed to the Free Software movement, in other words an individual who was not driven to heap praise upon the community he was studying, in contrast perhaps to Torvalds.

Finally, in a survey of n? Hackers, approximately 45% of respondents gave intellectual stimulation (identified by Torvalds as a form of entertainment) as one of their three motivations to work on Free Software projects, with roughly equivalent responses from paid and volunteer Hackers. The next most significant motivational factor was improving programming skills, with approximately 40% of respondents, with the enjoyment of working with a particular team applying to 20% of respondents. These lend some statistical significance to Torvald's claim that to Hackers the work is entertaining.

So perhaps it makes more sense to contrast work, understood according to Gorz's criteria, with play, understood according to the Hacker's conception of a self-motivated, or autonomous, productive activity. The Hacker Ethic is not promoting leisure - an unproductive activity - but play.