Home | About Me | Photos | Writing | Research | Scratchpad | Projects

Towards Eudaimonia: the Fulfilled Hacker

N.B. this essay was never really finished. It's not a very good essay as it stands, though I'll leave it here since it contains bits that still interest me.


The work of Pekka Himanen and others in examining the Hacker Ethic as being something more than a work method is breifly analysed, and some shortcomings in their analysis are highlighted; the main shortcoming is identified as a purely materialist conception of the Hacker, which fails to explain both observable phenomena in the Hacker world, and their own thesis. Social, political and spiritual aspects of the Hacker Ethic are then explored, with particular emphasis on participation, and with a view to providing a picture of the Hacker as potentially more fulfilled than the average.


Introduction: the Materialist Hacker
-- Work and leisure
-- Social relations and participation
Beyond the Materialist Conception
-- Social participation and fulfillment
-- Political participation and fulfillment
-- Spiritual participation and fulfillment

Introduction: the Materialist Hacker

In his seminal work: The Hacker Ethic, Pekka Himanen described the broad philosophical and sociological foundations of hacker culture, and the implications of this new culture for modern society. The Hacker, Himanen suggested, is a revolutionary figure who takes our attitudes towards work back to Plato's academy, where work was truth sought through open, critical dialogue and the sharing of ideas, and where philosophy was both work and leisure. Himanen shows how Hackers question our assumptions about how we work, and why we work, drawing upon Eric Raymond's model of the Cathedral and the Bazaar. But he fell short in his analysis of the Hacker, describing only the Hacker's modes of production, providing a largely materialist (in the Marxist sense) conception of a Hacker, ignoring or barely touching upon the social, political and spiritual aspects of the Hacker, the sum of which constitute the Hacker Ethic.

This omission narrows the scope of Himanen's work, providing a normative basis for the positive conception of the Hacker work model best described by Eric Raymond in The Cathedral and the Bazaar. In doing so, Himanen confines the community to thinking of itself largely in Raymond's terms, so losing the opportunity to properly explore Himanen's ideas, and the broader considerations they raise.

That is not to downplay the significance of Himanen's and Raymond's work .The materialist conception of the Hacker as someone who can be distinguished by his modes of production closely echoes Marx, who thought that "what individuals are ... depends on the material conditions of their production" (Marx, 1932, p.11). If we accept this, then we can say that our characteristic function is to produce, and so one individual who produces in a fundamentally different mode from another can be said to be a fundamentally different kind of person.

To Aristotle, the extent to which we fulfill our characteristic function defines how good a life we have; that is to say that to have a good life is to perform our characteristic function well [1]. So if Hackers can be shown to perform a human's characteristic functions well, then Hackers can be said to have better lives than other people, or rather the life of the Hacker can be said to be instructive towards a good life. The Greeks thought that the ultimate goal of a good life was a state called eudaimonia, for which there is no direct translation in English - a rough approximation is fulfilment, or happiness. So if it is our characteristic function to produce, then Himanen has demonstrated how Hackers, in their approach to work, are closer to eudaimonia than the average western person. In this essay, I intend to extend Himanen's work and explore both the material function of the Hacker and the other three aspects of a person's mode of being - the social, political and spiritual - and how both Hackers and non-Hackers can learn to reach eudaimonia.

I should note that the portrait of a Hacker I build up is idealistic, and certainly doesn't apply in full to even a majority of Hackers out there; in fact many Hackers would probably take affront if they were associated with the ideas I present. But in portraying of my ideal Hacker, I can analyse the best values of Hacker culture, and highlight its shortcomings, a task of value both to Hackers and others alike.

Work and leisure

One of the first things Himanen touches on, courtesy in part to an introduction by the legendary Hacker Linus Torvalds, is the Hacker's attitude towards work and leisure. "To a Hacker" Torvalds says, "the computer itself is entertainment" (Himanen, 2001, p. xvii); the technical challenges posed, and the work required to overcome them, is fun for Hackers. Himanen concludes that "passion describes the general tenor of their activity" (Himanen, 2001, p. 18).

But despite touching on the indifference among Hackers towards a distinction between work and leisure, Himanen failed to recognise the significance of this attitude; that really what defines us as individuals depends not simply on our mode of production, but on our modes of work and leisure, which, as they are one and the same, constitute our mode of being. Hence the Hacker Ethic is more than simply a work model, but something that pervades all aspects of a Hacker's waking life, since at all times we are either at work, leisure or sleep.

The absurdity of distinguishing between work and leisure is found in the Buddhist conception of economics, put forward by the economist E. F. Schumacher:

"There is universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour. Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider "labour" or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a "disutility"; to work is to make a sacrifice of one's leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice" (Schumacher, 1973, p. 51)

Hackers, so the theory goes, are motivated not by financial compensation, but by the work itself. Some commentators have struggled to demonstrate that ego, reputation and altruism are, among others, the compensation required[2], but what they miss completely is that no compensation is required at all, since to a Hacker work is leisure and leisure is work. This may seem a rather brash statement, but it is an unattended truth of human nature upon which Hackers have stumbled.

Consider when you play a game, something you will think of as a leisure activity. You will need to employ your memory, reaction, space perception and other skills, as well as time and (sometimes) physical effort to achieve results. Does this not sound like work? You are working your mind and body, and yet you think of it as leisure. People who enjoy their jobs are making the same discovery as Hackers - that there really is no sense in making a distinction between work and leisure. When they are thought of as entirely distinct, they become entirely unfulfilling, and so worthless in every sense except financial.

That Hackers still seem to fail to explicitly grasp this fact shows a lack of contemplation in the community, based as it is upon the (well-founded) importance of participation. Both Himanen and Hackers seem aware that the relationship between work and leisure is changed when the Hacker's work model is adopted, but they miss just how radical a departure from the modern conception of work and leisure the Hacker's conception is.

Buddhists, on the other hand, have always understand it, as for them, "to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of a basic truth of human being, namely that work and leisure and complementary parts of the same living process" (Schumacher, 1973, p. 52). The Buddhist conception of work, echoed in Himanen's Hacker Ethic, is threefold: "to give a man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to enable him to overcome his ego-centredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence" (Schumacher, 1973, p. 51).

In other words, when work is viewed as opposite to leisure, you arrive at an unresolvable contradiction between the need for material compensation, and the need for developing your faculties, overcoming your ego-centredness, and above all finding fulfilment in what you do.

Social relations and participation

The separation of work and leisure also leads to an unresolvable contradiction in the workplace: the employer wants as much work as possible with as little labour as possible, whilst the employee wants as little labour as possible with as large a compensation as possible. Such an arrangement will automatically lead to an antagonistic relationship between people and their work, employees and employers. This antagonism is widely believed to be beneficial, since the resulting tension is supposed to maintain a healthy balance. But industrial relations aren't that simple, since the sides aren't equal, and the tension tends to promote sour relationships, unfulfilling jobs, and in some cases industrial action. Balance between two or more competing parties is always almost impossible to achieve, and is a poor substitute for balance through cooperation and a blend of self- and mutual-dependence.

In a report issued by the EC in 1989 entitled Information Technology and Participation in Europe - The Potential for Social Dialogue, changes in the workplace driven by technology are analysed for their potential to promote "a cooperative and motivated, largely self-dependent and self-assured workforce" (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1989, p. 1). The report, focusing on social arrangements in the workplace, and in particular relations between managers and their subordinates, looks for ways in which information technology can repair the damage wrought by the industrial revolution, in which machines replaced many of our functions in the workplace, making most workers subordinate to the machines in one way or another, and providing no vehicle for cooperative industrial relations.

The difference the report's authors see between machine technology and information technology is that whereas with machines the human is an operator, with computers the human is a controller. Particularly in the case of Hackers, the user is still obviously subordinate to the logic of the computer (so the hope of the report is perhaps a shade Utopian), but there is far more potential to shape the computer's logic, from the aesthetic qualities of the desktop, to the software you use, to the social relations that arise from the logic of the system set up.

Information technology allows for more humanised social relations in the workplace, since with machines, there is little need for interaction when working. But "given the way that [information] technology is normally introduced and the likelihood that work processes need to be flexible, the opportunities, even the need, for participation becomes clear" (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1989, p. 1). Of course it is absurd to suggest that information technology itself liberates us from drudgery, and frees us up to enjoy a more sociable workplace, but the mode of production which Hackers employ certainly facilitates improved social relations, and so correctly handled, technology can provide the vehicle for a cooperative work ethic.

The approach sought by the EC and Hackers alike harks back to days before Scientific Management, a management method created by the engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor (Hannemyr, 1999). According to Taylor, whose ideas have been enormously influential in management circles since he wrote them at the beginning of the 20th Century, it is best to take "away from workers the control of the actual mode of execution of every work activity, from the simplest to the most complicated", thus allowing managers to rationalise the modes of production. But such an approach stymies the workers' productive, social, spiritual and political growth, since it reduces the worker to an operator, in which there is no scope for human invention. Hackers, on the other hand, work in communities of participation, thus making modes of production less obviously rational, but altogether better for the workers.

In this way, the Hacker's mode of production not only avoids the distinction between work and leisure, but also avoids ego-centredness (to some extent, as there will always be egos). These open, cooperative and mutally-dependent social relations arise as a result of threefold participation, as put forward by Stephen Lukes in Power: A Radical View, 1974: one can have power to directly influence things that affect us, the power to influence the agenda of issues to be addresses which might affect us, and the power to influence the frameworks by which these issues are addressed and understood. Given the opportunity to participate in choosing the work that you do, and the frameworks by which your work (and therefore your co-worker's work) is managed and assesed, cooperative relations arise, with scope for self-dependence and mutal-dependence where appropriate.

When approached in this way, "technological innovation ... can tip our established power balances, and can threaten the vested interests of the parties involved" (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1989, p. 13), making the established positions of all concerned vulnerable without disenfranchising workers, and without making change a cause of stress and anxiety, since smooth change becomes "dependent on the cooperation, the good-will and the motivation of the workforce" (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1989, p. 14). Such change exemplifies the positive aspects of Schumpeter's "creative destruction" [3], and is at the heart of the radically altered social relations found amongst Hackers. Without the chance for constant, spontaneous upheavel of established power relationships, Hackers would be forced to resort to a form of governance, or to traditional power relationships, neither of which would be conducive to the Hacker work ethic.

The material differences between modern workers and Hackers, then, are striking, and provide a radical conception of what it means to live. The modern worker will be delegated specific work, and be given little or no choice in the matter; he/she will then typically approach the labour as an unpleasant chore, a means to an end, under the heel of management. The Hacker, on the other hand, will decide upon what work needs to be done within a cooperative collective of Hackers, and will then approach the work as a stimulating and fulfilling experience. To exercise three-dimensional power over your labour and your social relations is to experience human potential, and approach this potential with passion is to be a Hacker.

Beyond the Materialist Conception

The material differences between Hackers and the modern western person are profound, but they are only one quarter of the story. For, contrary to Marx, we cannot be summed up purely by our material modes, for if we can, then all people who engage in the same mode of production must essentially be the same - a conclusion that is self-evidently false. Nor is our material aspect necessarily the dominant or most important aspect, since, for example, we choose our friends not primarily on their job, but for the blend of material, social, political and spiritual characteristics that they exhibit. Marxist and Capitalist societies [4] tend towards materialism because they assume human nature to be essentially materialist, creating the drudgery of Communism and the decadence of Capitalism. Hacker culture, on the other hand, refuses to hold materialism in such high regard.

Indeed it is immediately apparent that the Hacker's dismissal of the work/leisure paradigm is motivated by more than materialist considerations; the material benefits are significant, but it is equally motivated by social and spiritual considerations, something I have already touched on above. Working on something that you enjoy is spiritually fulfilling, and can, as I have demonstrated, be a step towards more a social workplace. Less obviously, the Hacker's new work and leisure paradigm also opens the door to a more informed and engaged political consciousness, driven in part by the sense of fulfillment Hackers can enjoy, and the enhanced awareness of the importance of good social relations.

In trying to analyse the many aspects of the Hacker Ethic, it is useful to divide the Ethic into four distinct aspects, already introduced above: the material aspect, which I have covered in some detail; the social aspect, which defines how Hackers relate to one another; the political aspect, which defines how Hackers resolve conflicts and maintain concord conducive to social and personal fulfilment; and the spiritual aspect, which defines how Hackers enrich their personal sense of balance and wellbeing. Too often, a distrust of the social sciences leads Hackers to think of these latter three aspects as less important than the material aspect at the very least, and worthy of derision at worst, but to attempt to explain the Hacker without reference to them is futile, since they are part and parcel of human nature.

Central to each of these aspects of Hacker nature is the theme of participation, most obvious in the social relationships built up around software projects.

Social participation and fulfillment

One might wonder why I should return to social participation, since I have already noted the depth in which Himanen, amongst others, have covered it. I have also extended their analysis to understand the role of the Hacker's mode of production, and in particular the unwitting correspondance with Buddhist ideas. Thus far, however, I have only covered social relations insofar as they are of material value (i.e. where they are conducive towards better modes of production), whilst social relations that are of value to themselves have been lightly touched upon.

That human beings are social animals is self-evident. We may not be solely social animals, as Marx suggested, but nor are we completeley autonomous, isolated individuals. Social interaction is as much a part of our lives as production, and so proper modes of social interaction are as important as proper modes of production; proper modes of social interaction reaffirm our place within communities, whilst poor modes alienate us from communities.

The most obvious characterisation of the Hacker's social consciousness is one of liberal ideals of personal freedom and the absense of heirachy tempered by the socialist ideals of mutual dependence and cooperation. Hackers are fiercefully independent, inheriting from thinkers like Jefferson and Wolff a distrust of authority, and especially of Government. John Perry Barlow, the co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, sums this up when he says "We [hackers] have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks." (Barlow, 1996) Hackers resent being given orders, except where those orders seem unobjectionable. Yet despite this Hackers engage in various forms of social interaction, both directly related to projects, and purely recreational, which are lively, friendly and (almost) always intelligent. Most significant of all is the fact that in any social situation, all Hackers can participate, and in fact are encouraged to participate, so long as their partitipation doesn't inhibit others in participating (e.g. by flooding the communication space with nonsense so that nobody can "speak over the noise").

On the Internet, Hackers discuss work, games, news, politics, culture - all subjects imaginable - both in spaces dedicated to such discussion, and in work spaces. Web sites like Slashdot.org and Kuro5hin.org blend news reporting and discussion of that news, and provide opportunities for surprisingly interesting conversations and debates that can carry on for days in a single news story, and weeks, months and even years as themes running through different discussions. Anyone can post a comment, and participate in the ensuing discussions, and so can develop both their epistemological (knowledge) skills and their social skills. By encouraging social participation, Hackers not only develop interesting (if unreal) relationships with other people, but they are all also able to contribute to uncodified ideas that define their community. Normally, codes of conduct within particular communities can only be changed or overturned by appealing to an elite that sets and protects them, but when the social space has no heirachy and consists of an isotropic field of participants it is difficult to stop anybody from suggesting changes to the uncodified structures which govern the space. This is another example of the Hacker being able to exercise threefold power: here the Hacker has the power to directly change how issues are discussed in the space, what issues are to be discussed, and the frameworks by which the social space is set-up and understood.

Similar discussions can also be found in the forums and mailing lists of projects, a space intended for discussion of work. In companies, your time is stricly compartmentalised into periods of work and periods of social interaction, and any crossover is deemed to be counterproductive and even damaging. To the Hacker, however, just as there is no distinction between work and leisure, so there is no distinction between work time and social time. An obvious interpretation of this is to say that to Hackers, so long as the work is done, what does it matter if work is frequently interrupted by social interaction? But this interpretation misses the point, since social interaction does not interrupt the Hacker's work process; it supplements and enriches it, and enriches the Hacker's sense of being. Whereas technology in modern society has increased the scope for and the scale of alienation, with Hackers it provides opportunities to overcome it, since Hackers remove the distinction between work time and social time, meaning that they are no longer alienated from social relations during times of production. Since Hackers are generally working in one sense or another (be it writing code or playing football outdoors), they are also generally in situations with potential for social interaction. Of course that is not to say that they are permanently interacting with other people - on the contrary, work can often be a very isolating action, focussing a person's consciousness on unconscious objects such as computers or books - but still in these actions which are normally conducted in stricly isolated conditions, the Hacker will seek to work cooperatively where possible.

Linux User Groups (LUGs), in which groups of Hackers living in the same area come together, are a good example of Hackers trying to overcome the alienation of network relations. Here Hackers meet face to face, usually over some drinks in a pub, for a talk or for some practical fun with computers, and manifest their cooperative, friendly spirit in ways more familiar to those who find the Internet a bore. There is an almost tactile feeling of community at LUG meetings which cannot be reproduced in virtual correspondance, but it is one which is sorely underplayed in the Hacker community because of geographical sparsity and the tendency for many Hackers to be uncomfortable in face-to-face situations. It is an unfortunate legacy of the childhood of a technology geek that many Hackers remain alienated from other people, and yet it is one which can be overcome in forums like LUGs.

It is important to note also that features of online community such as aversion to heirachy, mutual respect, and cooperation are carried over to face-to-face meetings. So whilst Hackers certainly have shortcomings as regards their social relations, the strengths developed online tend to stick, and become a part of a Hacker's social consciousness, just as the modes of production exercised by Hackers in their own projects tend to affect the Hacker's modes of production in their jobs and at home.

The problem of social alienation is of particular importance to Hackers since, due to the relative sparsity of fellow Hackers, Hackers are forced to rely on the Internet as their primary mode of communication. In a study on the social impact of mobile telephony, social alienation is identified as "potentially one of the most destructive results of a world over-reliant on wireless communications"; it suggests that people often use the Internet "to avoid personal contact", something that is undoubtedly true of many Hackers [5]. However Hackers cannot live entirely within the Hacker community, and if they do, they need to step out of it once in a while. When Hackers find they can apply the social ethic of the community to all situations, the value of meaningful social participation can bring the Hacker one step closer to fulfillment.

Political participation and fulfillment

"Participation is a political imperative: it affirms the fundamental human right of persons to contribute to decisions which affect them" (Reason, 1998). Man is by nature a political animal, and when groups of people develop relationships in community, political arrangements develop in tandem to cope with and manage these relationships. In traditional work environments the status quo is top-down management, splitting relationships into what management experts call vertical communication (between managers and managed) and horizontal communication (between managers, or between managed). The managed can participate where the managers let them. This heirachical arrangement, devoid of threefold participation, is the antithesis of the Hacker's political arrangements, and can be seen not only in workplaces, but in the way our politicians talk about their jobs (managing hospitals, etc.) Despite huge historical shakeups, we still approach politics from a heirachical basis.

Hackers distrust authority except where they have good reason to trust it, which usually means where accepting the authority provides better opportunities for them and for the community. Hackers are often stereotyped as being anarchists, not least due to the anarchic nature of the Internet; but the word "anarchy" has come to be understood as a pejorative term meaning chaos of lack of order in the mainstream, whereas Hackers rightly distrust chaos as much as overwhelming order, since neither are conducive to the development of a free individual in a cooperative community. Anarchy as a political ideal is better understood in its philosophical sense, forming part of a long liberal tradition advocating order by rules not order by power. The Internet is an excellent example of this, since its very structure is, and was deliberately set-up, to be a manifestation of these ideals, or at least it was before governments and corporations sought to exercise their power and authority over it.

The Internet can be considered as three layers: the physical layer, the logic layer and the content layer. The physical layer consists of the cables, computers and people maintaining the network itself; the logic layer is the code that governs how the Internet functions; the content is all that which resides on the network. (Lessig, 2001) If we forget for a moment the influence of governments and corporations, and we consider that users of the Internet need never concern themselves with the physical layer so long as it exists, then the only limits on the freedom of the users are imposed by the logic layer. Whilst many call our times the "information age", I would prefer to call them the "logic age", since that which dictates what information can be dissipated is not the gamut of powers and authorities that govern the physical layer, but the code that governs the logic layer, and therefore the content layer. So in the Internet we find Hackers seeking to control each other not by power or authority, but by rules. Should any Hacker come to disagree with these rules, he/she is free to write some new ones, create a new autonomous space, and see how many Hackers come across; in other words, Hackers are free citizens of the Internet, and they "can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it" [6].

Basing a community upon a minimal set of rules allows for all to be considered equal upon entry into the community, except for unavoidable natural abilities and disabilities such as coding skill; inequality will then depend upon the degree to which people wish to participate in the community. This egalitarianism is strengthened by the Internet, since two users on the Internet are aware only of that which the other tells them, so race, gender, age, political persuasion, hobbies etc. are rarely factors in the way Hackers treat each other. In fact, it makes no sense to discriminate between graphics artists based on their gender, because to Hackers what is important is how the work is done, and what the result is like. Thus the Internet provides what the political philosopher John Rawls called a "veil of ignorance", the basis for a concept of social justice in the Hacker community not unlike Rawls'.

This in turn provides the basis for a kind of transitory democracy, though not in the sense that we usually understand it (elected representatives in an authority heirachy). All Hackers enter the community equal, and all have an equal ability to express themselves (if not to be heard). All Hackers also have the ability to exercise threefold power, if not equally. And so all Hackers can directly affect matters that concern them without unfair prejudice, fulfilling perhaps the only universally accepted condition of democracy. Some projects, most notably the GNU/Linux and GNU/Hurd distributor Debian, even have elected officials and try hard to make their democratic structures permanently pervade all areas of their project.

Not all projects are like this, of course. XFree86, a project important to almost all UNIX hackers who cannot afford a commercial graphical desktop environment, is famously elitist and difficult to contribute to, even if the contribution is as minor as a bug report [7]. However even in such a large and unwieldy project as this, one key developer has been able to take the source code and create a new project from it (known as a fork), with the aim of being more open, democratic and community based. More significantly, no Hacker will fail to find any project of interest in the Free Software community that he/she cannot participate in, or fail to start his/her own project to work on. The network and political infrastructure is there to make it seamless.

The economic barriers to participating created by the Hacker community are also fairly low. An initial investment in a computer and an Internet connection are the only necessary costs, and although these discriminate against the very poor, and so create a bias towards the more developed world and the richer parts of society, they are entirely unavoidable. That is to say that any community based upon the Internet and computing would require a computer and an Internet connection; entry to the Hacker community distinguishes itself by asking for no more. There are, in fact, organisations who try to help the disadvantaged to get hold of equipment, entirely beyond their normal duty as citizens of their respective nations.

In fact, the cost of entry can be non-existant, since the whole operating system and all the necessary applications can be downloaded for free. In other technology communities, aquiring the tools and access to development communities can all cost money, providing a further barrier to entry. Once downloaded, the budding Hacker can also view the source code for all of the software and so learn from it, copy it, modify it and redistribute a changed version, and even participate in the project that developed it. This open approach provides not only a low cost of entry, but a wealth of knowledge and opportunity once in the community.

One other important aspect of the Hacker community, related directly to Free Software, is that the software used by Hackers is open to customisation for different scripts, languages and visual styles by anyone without restriction, and so more and more communities that were prohibited from this customisation are forming to bring Free Software to previously excluded communities. This ability to spontaneously rework an entire computing platform to suit one's own culture is an important step towards protecting cultural diversity and avoiding the kind of Westernisation that has thus far been associated with most information technologies.

Put simply, to participate in the Hacker community, one need only download a small piece of software and make some minor changes to the code, graphics, documentation, promotion, management, or any other area of the project. Moving around and leaving the community is just as easy. All of this is unsurprising given that the Hacker community has its roots in liberal academic institutions; the community's motto could almost be France's liberty, equality, fraternity.

The only major inequality fundamental to the Hacker community is a kind of epistemological elitism (a bias towards knowledge); unless you know how to program, use a graphics program, or write documentation, etc, you cannot contribute, and it is difficult to participate in a community without contributing anything tangible. If you don't know enough, your contributions may be ignored, and you might find it difficult to be heard in discussions, especially given the nature of most online discussion forums [8]. The Hacker community definitely discriminates in favour of intelligent veterans, however this kind of inequality is unavoidable in any community based upon creative production. Excepting its elitist excesses the Hacker community must be forgiven.

There is one major failing in the Hacker's political consciousness, and that is that Hackers rarely engage in issues that affect the community from the outside, and even less so those that are outside the community entirely. Hackers who are politically active tend to be so regardless of the influence of the Hacker Ethic, although the Ethic certainly affects their political ideas and consciousness.

Take the issue of digital rights, for example. In Europe, a combination of the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) and so-called 'digital rights management' technologies could prevent Hackers from legally installing a Free Software operating system on a new computer; they may not be able to use some hardware, such as printers, at all; they will find inter-operability with other platforms like Microsoft Windows, already a problem, even harder. In the USA, the DMCA is already creating similar problems. And yet despite the devastating effects that these laws and technologies will have on law abiding Hackers, few seem to get particularly agitated. Every farmer in the United Kingdom has heard of the Countryside Alliance, yet a significant number of Hackers in the UK have never heard of the UK Campaign for Digital Rights (UKCDR), despite their prominence in lobbying in the UK over the EUCD, copy-protected CDs and more. In the USA, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) estimates that approximately 34,000 people subscribe to its weekly mailing list, approximately 9,000 people are paid up members, and approximately 150,000 letters have been sent to Congress on their behalf. Interest and action are certainly present, but the Hacker Ethic obviously doesn't involve this for all Hackers.

The reasons for the uncharacteristic apathy are many; it is undoubtedly due to the depoliticising of public life by politicians, the media, etc, and the disenfranchising and disempowering of the individual in a consumer society, but those reasons are outside the scope of this article. There is one reason specific to Hackers: as has been shown throughout this essay, many of the characteristics of the Hacker and the Hacker community have developers in relation to the nature of technology in a liberal/anarchic environment. Hackers are often very much caught up in the myth of technology - the inevitability and desirability of perpetual progress achieved through technology - and so have, in a sense, come to see the correct application of technology as the solution to all problems within the community (which perhaps explains the community's blindness as a collective to outside problems, since technology cannot be applied in those situations). So whilst the correct application of digital rights technologies will be progressive, opposing their incorrect application through non-technological means would constitute a paradigm shift for many Hackers.

Evidence for this can be found not only in discussions between Hackers on the subject [9], but also in the case of DeCSS. Most DVDs are encrypted with a weak algorithmn called CSS, intended to protect the copyright holders by preventing uncertified hardware and software from accessing them. Unfortunately for Hackers, only Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS have certified players, so Hackers using alternative operating systems have no certified software with which to play DVDs. To watch DVDs, Hackers use DeCSS, code written by a fifteen year old Norwegian Hacker that cracks the encryption and allows the DVDs to be read unencrypted. The legality of DeCSS is questionable [10], but Hackers do so without a second thought. This civil disobedience is not a collective rising of the political spirit, however, since not all Hackers using DeCSS actively support organisations like the UKCDR and EFF, and initiatives like OpenDVD [11]. Rather it is largely driven by the desire to watch DVDs!

Unless the Hacker community as a whole can undergo a paradigm shift, from solving all problems with technology to solving problems pragmatically in the spirit of the Hacker Ethic, it is unlikely that the Hacker community will ever rise to tackle political threats collectively, to the extent perhaps required to overcome threats like the DMCA, EUCD, Palladium, etc and enjoy considerable political success.

The active Hacker then, who I call the Hacktivist (but which is by no means always used in that sense), can claim to be politically fulfilled, as well as productively and socially fulfilled. The potential for political fulfillment, to exercise threefold power over decisions that affect us, is present in the Hacker Ethic, if only more Hackers would grasp it.

Spiritual participation and fulfillment

It seems difficult at first to find spiritual commonalities amongst Hackers. It is equally difficult to find any discussion of spirituality in the Hacker community that brings out any sense of unity. You can quickly find Hackers who are Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or one of any number of other religious or spiritual beliefs, and a significant number (possibly a majority, though that is pure speculation) of atheists and agnostics. But when religion is discussed amongst Hackers (and that isn't very often, since Hackers primarily discuss matters of technology, politics and trivia, debate can be heated, with a diverse range of opinions being openly explained, examined and criticised. It is here that we find the Hacker Ethic's first spiritual commonality and strength.

Because Hackers value individuality and openness so much, it is unlikely that you would get a religious war over any aspect of the Hacker community; there are long-standing feuds between rival technologies, but they are always conducted light-heartedly, and often the developers at the center of the row don't care at all. The eternal benchmark of the Hacker remains: Vi or Emacs? They are both text editors, but with slightly different design and usage philosophies, differences that have established one of the oldest "religious wars" in the Free Software Hacker community. When Slashdot provides its readers with the opportunity to interview mainstream figures, they expectantly ask, with a grin and a wink, "Vi or Emacs?". On the battlefields, the forums, weblogs, mailing lists and newsgroups, Hackers deploy reason and humour to defeat the infidels in a battle of wits to prove that their editor is the better. The characteristic feature of a religious war in Hackerdom is a familiar blend of reason and knowledge, seriousness and humour, that means that discussions are less likely to descend into pure mud slinging and name calling (though that is not to say that such a fall from grace does not happen often! One only needs to read a discussion on a more volatile subject like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the War on Terrorism to find examples of the more traditional politics of shouting the other side down).

This approach to discussion, neither overly rational nor lacking in substance, carries over into discussions of spirituality. Though it can be upsetting to have your most sacred beliefs insulted, you rarely see a Hacker getting upset in his/her writing (perhaps as much a virtue of being able to collect your thoughts before writing as a virtue of the Hacker); what you do tend to see is a surprising openness, and a lot of funny jokes to raise the tone from the dull domain of rational discussion. And the result of any such discussion? No agreement, no confusion of ideas (con-fusion meaning the bringing together under one understanding). To an outsider, it might appear as though there is rarely any unity amongst Hackers; unity is something that humans crave - a degree of certainty that comes from knowing you aren't alone in your ideas - and yet Hackers feel little need to unite the community in an evangelical apocalpyse. And this is a tremendous spiritual strength, a result of millenia of overemphasis of the rational and the insecurity the rational thinker feels in conformity. It allows Hackers to constantly question, constantly reassess ideas as individuals and as spontaneous communities, with reason, knowledge, seriousness and humour.

This is not to say that Hackers are a disparate multitude forever searching for new, unconventional ideas with which they can challenge the community's preconceptions. Hackers are lazy, and they aren't all philosophers looking for an argument as a bully will look for a fight. And Hackers obviously share interests and certain beliefs, otherwise there would be no basis for discussing the Hacker community, the Free Software community, etc. But rather than seeking a confusion into unity, something the Greeks saw as the ultimate terror - the reduction of many things to the one without an other - Hackers seek to create bridges between ideas through understanding the other. In this way, rather than resembling a swarm descending on a set of beliefs, the Hacker community resembles a flock zooming between ideas, alternating between thinking and believing, as ideas cement and are then challenged by renewed analysis and new ideas. This may be described more as an epistemological position, but as the human spirit is nourished and enlivened by this intellectual flux, it becomes a spiritual phenomenon. We have within us a deep attraction towards reason, and so creating a space that allows that aspect of our nature to flourish without dominating us is spiritually fulfilling.

But purely spiritual matters aside, the most striking spiritual aspect of the Hacker Ethic is the desire for fun, for a challenging project, for a good argument or a clever hack. Hackers admire playful intelligence, and by indulging in this they nourish their soul, making themselves and those they interact with feel better and so act in a more human fashion. Dig beneath the geek stereotype and you find many hackers to have a deep sense that life is there to be enjoyed, to be fulfilling. That is something that cannot be overrated nor overstated.


In writing this paper, I didn't want to perform an exhaustive survey of the Hacker to determine exactly what it is that constitutes the Hacker Ethic, but rather to probe four dimensions of the ethic to demonstrate what I see as the most revealing way to study it, and in doing so hint at the tremendous potential for many academic disciplines in the it. Hacker communities are constantly evolving and reinventing themselves, requiring one to constantly revision them when studying them, and so this paper may not remain relevant for long in its entirity, but I hope that its key themes will persist in Hackers and spread elsewhere.

Fundamental to the Hacker Ethic are certain ideals, notably liberty, community, co-operation, participation and personal fulfillment. Hackers don't all share opinions on how nation states should best be goverened, or on whether euthanasia is wrong. To think of the ethic as a kind of political or moral stance is missing the point, and attempting to impose these kinds of opinions on the Hacker Ethic can be disastrous or simply futile. The Hacker movement shouldn't be thought of as being in the same category as Communism or Taylor's management system, nor as Marxism or Laissez-faire liberalism, since these systems of thought impose or forbid certain productive , political, social and spiritual structures and rules. The Hacker Ethic is more like a survival strategy, a set of ideas that inform the Hacker's opinions and modus operandi, and that enable us to become more fulfilled according to our nature rather than according to a particular political agenda.

Understood as neither materialist nor anti-materialist, neither totally participative nor totally reflective, the Hacker Ethic is the sort of abstract system of ideas that no Hacker is particularly aware of, and yet which provides a kind of instinctive approach to life that brings the Hacker closer to eudaimonia.


[1] See: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics [Ethika Nikomacheia, c.325 BC], Book 1, ch 7

[2] See: http://newsforge.com/article.pl?sid=03/04/19/2128256&tid=11 and http://cybernaut.com/modules.php?op=modload&name=News&file=article&sid=8

[3] See Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, Harper Torch Books, 1950

[4] When I say "capitalist", I refer to the many strands of capitalism that have developed from Max Weber's Protestant Ethic, which holds that the modes of production are the main determinent of a man's life, and so is inherently materialist. I am not suggesting that all forms of capitalism seek only the accumulation of material wealth, though obviously many do as a result of capitalism's sociological and philosophical foundations.

[5] See: The Social Impact of Mobile Telephony, a "backgrounder" by a member of the International Telecommunication Union, which touched upon the alienating effects of all technologies that provide modes of communication that don't require direct social interaction. Whilst communication on the Internet is still undoubtedly a social affair, it lacks many qualities that can only be had in face-to-face communication, and allows people to detach and alienate themselves from the people they are talking to. http://www.itu.int/telecom-wt99/press_service/information_for_the_press/press_kit/backgrounders/backgrounders/social_impact_mobile.html

[6] Abraham Lincoln at his inaugural address, March 4th, 1861

[7] For a taster of XFree86 politics, see http://developers.slashdot.org/article.pl?sid=03/03/20/1215243

[8] Most online discussion forums frequented by Hackers offer some kind of moderation system, which allows frequent visitors to (broadly speaking) mark a message as good or bad. Inevitably the more knowledgeable messages will be moderated as good, and those messages from less knowledgeable people may be moderated as bad. Moreover, more attention in replies will be paid to messages with more substance, and so the less intelligent or knowledgeable may simply be ignored or shouted down.

[9] For some random sample comments, see: http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?cid=5974427&sid=64459 and http://slashdot.org/comments.pl?sid=63378&cid=5901126

[10] According to the UKCDR, in the USA it is illegal to distribute the code, in the UK it is currently legal unless you use it to make copies, and under the EUCD it may become illegal altogether; nobody can yet be sure.

[11] http://www.opendvd.org/


Barlow, John Perry, 1996, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, http://www.eff.org/~barlow/Declaration-Final.html

European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, 1989 , New Information Technology and Participation in Europe - The Potential for Social Dialogue, EC

Hannemyr, Gisle, 1999, Technology and Pleasure, First Monday

Himanen, Pekka, 2001, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age, Secker & Warburg

Knowles, Dudley, 2002, Political Philosophy, Routledge

Lessig, Laurence, 2001, The Future of Ideas; The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, Random House Trade

Marx, Karl, 1932, German Ideology, ed. R.Pascal

Raymond, Eric. S, 1999, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, O'Reilly & Associates

Reason, P, 1998, Political, Epistemological, Ecological and Spiritual Dimensions of Participation. Studies in Cultures, Organizations and Societies, pp. 147-167

Scharff and Dusek, 2003, Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition, Blackwells

Schumacher, E. F., 1973, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, Harper & Row

Stallman, Richard, Philosophy of the Free Software Foundation, www.gnu.org/philosophy