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Research: Meaningful work

Some historical perspectives here.

Any human activity involves the search for meaning. For too many people, meaning is reduced to the necessity for basic income, or the pursuit of shallow consumerist desires. These people might, as Henry David Thoreau put it, be described as "living lives of quiet desperation". If we accept various Marxist assumptions about the objectivity of meaningful work (and reject the Existentialist notion that we make an activity meaningful), and recognise that work is the main or dominant activity in our lives, then we must pay considerable attention to the search for meaning in the workplace.

If we assume that a Hacker's work is meaningful, then the Hacker Ethic offers several sufficient conditions for meaningful work; some may even be thought of as necessary:

  1. A particular interface between the individual and the contact communities
  2. A passion for the subject
  3. Scope for creativity and curiosity
  4. Scope for one's objectification of the subject
  5. Scope for autonomy

Put crudely, each of these can be thought of as scales, where at one end we find factors that make work meaningless, and at the other factors that make work meaningful. Work in which we are able to exercise our creativity with some degree of control, on a subject about which we are passionate, and in a community that inspires us will obviously bring us meaning. And through creating meaning in our work, we are able to develop an individual identity, as well as various social identities. Meaninglessness is a basis for alienation, not identity; when our work provides no or little meaning, we are alienated from our work, and thereby from our sense of self and our membership of communities.

Perhaps a second key aspect of the Hacker Ethic is the confusion of work and play. The Hacker Ethic goes beyond the paid workplace, beyond volunteer work of a similar nature, and into the Hacker's approach to life. A dull disinterest is replaced with a keen curiosity, various passions and the other aspects found in meaningful work. Or, to look at it a different way, the Hacker takes all we enjoy about play into their work, so they approach a programming problem in the same way as they might approach a difficult chess move, or a walk in the woods: with a sense of curiosity, creativity, and so on.

The "scope for objectification" can be further explored in this light. In the tradition of materialist Marxism, this is taken to mean that the person must physically alter their world, imprinting their identity on material. But these kinds of activities cannot form the whole of the human experience; much of our life is spent pursuing leisure activities with no discernable instrumental role, with no lasting affect on the external world, and even with more of an affect on yourself by the external world than vice versa. Taking part in a sport, listening to music and just walking with friends are some examples that come to mind. Each of these gives us space to explore our passions and curiosities, to shape our interactions with other people and the material world, and crucially to take control of the space. Seen simply as a process by which we externalise ourselves in nature and in society, objectification is as much to do with play as it is to do with work.