Hacker ethic

Hacker ethic

Hacker ethic refers to the values and philosophy that are standard in the hacker community. The early hacker culture and resulting philosophy originated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s and 1960's. The term 'hacker ethic' is attributed to journalist Steven Levy as described in his book titled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, written in 1984.

While some tenets of hacker ethic were described in other texts like Computer Lib/Dream Machines (1974) by Theodor Nelson, Levy appears to have been the first to document and historicize both the philosophy and the founders of the philosophy.

The Hacker Ethics

As Levy stated in the preface of Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, the general tenets or principles of hacker ethic include:

  • Sharing
  • Openness
  • Decentralization
  • Free access to computers
  • World Improvement

In addition to those principles listed above, Levy also described more specific hacker ethics and beliefs in chapter 2, The Hacker Ethic. The ethics he described in chapter 2 are quoted here.

  • Access to computers—and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works—should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust Authority—Promote Decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.

Sharing

According to Levy's account, sharing was the norm and expected within the non-corporate hacker culture. The principle of sharing stemmed from the atmosphere and resources at MIT. During the early days of computers and programming (when computers were the size of whole rooms), the hackers at MIT would develop a program and share it.

If the hack was particularly good, then the program might be posted on a board somewhere near one of the computers. Other programs that could be built upon and improved were saved to tapes and added to a drawer of programs - readily accessible to all the other hackers. At any time, a fellow hacker might reach into the drawer, pick out the program, and begin adding to it or "bumming" it to make it better (bumming refers to the process of making the code more concise so that more can be done in fewer instructions).

In the second generation of hackers, sharing was about sharing with the general public in addition to sharing with other hackers. A particular organization of hackers that was concerned with sharing computers with the general public was a group called Community Memory. This group of hackers and idealists put computers in public places for anyone to use. The first community computer was placed outside of Leopold's Records in Berkeley, California.

Another sharing of resources occurred when Bob Albrecht provided considerable resources for a non-profit organization called People's Computer Company (PCC). PCC opened a computer center where anyone could use the computers there for fifty cents an hour.

It was also the sharing of this second generation that resulted in some of the battles over free and open software. In fact, when Bill Gates' version of BASIC for the Altair was 'shared' among the hacker community, Gates lost a considerable sum of money because no one was paying for the software. As a result, Gates wrote an Open Letter to Hobbyists. This letter was published by several computer magazines and newsletters - most notably that of the Homebrew Computer Club where much of the sharing occurred.

Hands-On Imperative

Many of the principles and tenets of Hacker Ethic contribute to a common goal - the Hands-On Imperative. As Levy described in chapter 2, "Hackers believe that essential lessons can be learned about the systems—about the world—from taking things apart, seeing how they work, and using this knowledge to create new and more interesting things.

Employing the Hands-On Imperative requires free access, open information, and the sharing of knowledge. To a true hacker, if the Hands-On Imperative is restricted, then the ends justify the means to make it unrestricted so that improvements can be made. When these principles are not present, hackers tend to work around them. For example, when the computers at MIT were protected either by physical locks or login programs, the hackers there systematically worked around them in order to have access to the machines.

It is important to note that this behavior was not malicious in nature - the MIT hackers did not seek to harm the systems or their users (although, every now and then, some practical jokes were played using the computer systems). This deeply contrasts with the modern, media-encouraged image of hackers who crack secure systems in order to steal information or complete an act of cybervandalism.

Community and Collaboration

Throughout writings about hackers and their work processes, a common value of community and collaboration is present. For example, in Levy's Hackers, each generation of hackers had geographically-based communities where collaboration and sharing occurred. For the hackers at MIT, it was the labs where the computers were running. For the hardware hackers (second generation) and the game hackers (third generation) the geographic area was centered in Silicon Valley where the Homebrew Computer Club and the People's Computer Company helped hackers network, collaborate, and share their work.

The concept of community and collaboration is still relevant today, although hackers are no longer limited to collaboration in geographic regions. Now collaboration takes place via the Internet. Eric S. Raymond identifies and explains this concept shift in The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Before cheap Internet, there were some geographically compact communities where the culture encouraged Weinberg's egoless programming, and a developer could easily attract a lot of skilled kibitzers and co-developers. Bell Labs, the MIT AI and LCS labs, UC Berkeley—these became the home of innovations that are legendary and still potent.

Raymond also points-out that the success of Linux coincided with the wide-availability of the world wide web. No doubt the collaboration and development community fostered by the web was key to the successful development of Linux. The value of community is still in high practice and use today.

Levy's "True Hackers"

Levy identifies several "true hackers" who significantly influenced the hacker ethic. Some well-known "true hackers" include:

Levy also identified the "hardware hackers" (the "second generation", mostly centered in Silicon Valley) and the "game hackers" (or the "third generation"). All three generations of hackers, according to Levy, embodied the principles of the hacker ethic.

Some Levy's "second generation" hackers include:

  • Steve Wozniak - One of two Steves that founded Apple, Inc.
  • Bob Marsh - A designer of the Sol computer.
  • Steve Dompier - Homebrew member and hacker who did impressive work with the early Altair.
  • Fred Moore - Activist and founder of the Homebrew Computer Club.
  • Lee Felsenstein - Intense hardware hacker who was one of the founders of Community Memory and Homebrew.

Levy's "third generation" practitioners of hacker ethic include:

New Hacker Ethic

Some have postulated that a "New Hacker Ethic" has evolved out of the older hacker ethic that originated at MIT. Steven Mirzach, who identifies himself with CyberAnthropolist studies, explored this idea of "New Hacker Ethic" in his essay titled Is there Hacker Ethic for 90s Hackers?

While it might be convenient to label the current shared values of hackers as the "New Hacker Ethic", this type of identification implies a radical shift in hacker ethic. While the nature of hacker activity has evolved due to the availability of new technologies (for example, the mainstreaming of the personal computer or the social connectivity of the internet), the hacker ethics - particularly those of access, sharing, and community - remain the same.

Other Descriptions of Hacker Ethic

Later in 2001, Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen promoted the hacker ethic in opposition to the Protestant work ethic. In Himanen's opinion the hacker ethic is more closely related to the virtue ethics found in the writings of Plato and of Aristotle.

For Himanen (who wrote "The Hacker Ethic"), Torvalds (prologue), and Castells (epilogue), the hacker ethic centers around passion, hard work, creativity and joy in creating software. Both Himanen and Torvalds were inspired by the Sampo Finnish mythology. The Sampo, described in the Kalevala, was a magical artifact constructed by Ilmarinen, the blacksmith god, that brought good fortune to its holder; nobody knows exactly what it was supposed to be. The Sampo has been interpreted in many ways: a world pillar or world tree, a compass or astrolabe, a chest containing a treasure, a Byzantine coin die, a decorated Vendel period shield, a Christian relic, etc. In the Kalevala, compiler Lönnrot interpreted it to be a quern or mill of some sort that made flour, salt, and gold out of thin air.

Free Software, Open Source Software, and Hacker Ethic

Free open source software is the modern day descendant of the hacker ethics that Levy described. The hackers who hold true to the hacker ethics listed above - especially the Hands-On Imperative - are usually supporters of free software and/or open source software. This is because free and open source software allows hackers to access the code used to create the software to improve or reuse it. In effect the free and open source software movements embody all of the hacker ethics.

See also

References

  • Himanen, Pekka. 2001. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Random House. ISBN 0-375-50566-0
  • Levy, Steven. 2001. (1984). "Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution." Updated edition. Penguin. ISBN 0141000511

External links

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