The Hacker Ethic

by Pekka Himanen

Although he writes impecable American English (far too few oddities to count as a foreign accent), Pekka Himanen does not have an English-language name, which suggests that he is foreign-born, which reading the author bio subsequently confirmed. Finland is so far post-Christian that nobody there even understands Christian values (see my "Post-Christian Fiction" blog post last year), let alone how they impacted history. With the exception of a few centuries of Greek and Roman records ending two millennia ago (preserved in Christian monasteries) and some tiny fragments of local tribal myths elsewhere (likewise), all western history is Christian history. Growing up in a post-Christian culture where nobody knows what it is all about, the guy has no resources for avoiding Clue Deficit Disorder when it comes to the meaning of history.

It turns out Himanen has a Wikipedia entry, which (indirectly) confirms this perspective. At 20 he was the youngest to get a PhD in Finland, his thesis being in philosophy of religion. That tells you something. In a country that has totally lost its knowledge of true religion, they can mostly only think of the topic as "it's all fiction," and therefore not worthy of deep study -- sort of like modern art or fantasy fiction. It would not be hard for a clever but not overly knowledgeable young fellow to bamboozle the professors on his thesis committee into thinking he had some new insights. It's not like physics or chemistry where it takes a lot of effort to make sure your new ideas match the real world, or computer science where your program must at least run and produce results, or even literature where some or all of the faculty actually believe what they are reading. It's more like sci-fi for TV, where, as one such writer put it, "there are no guidelines, or like structures that you get stuck into, it's sci-fi, it's make-believe, you can do whatever you want, because who's to say it can't work?"

Himanen is only one of several people eager to distinguish from the rest of the population the cyber-technologists who started the personal computer revolution. He does not succeed as well as he imagines, not only because he has a flawed understanding of history. He never actually uses the word, but his book is clearly written from a Darwinistic perspective of progress, from cave-man to peasant-farmer to industrialist to cyber-technologist, ever upward, ever more refined, ever better. It's a subtle we-them distinction, as in "we are more highly evolved than them, the (slightly) subhuman pre-hackers," the attitude which is common among persons of Darwinistic persuasion. He is at pains to claim the hackers themselves are egalitarian; it's just his analysis in this book that betrays an elitist attitude.

Consistent with his Darwinist perspective, Himanen divides history into three eras, which he aligns with three reasons to work: survival/toil, social/calling, and finally, entertainment/passion. He quotes Steve Wozniak as labelling them (in a slightly different order, because they are not ranked in Woz's view), "food, fun, and friends." Being unaware of Christian values, Himanen does not understand how Christian values interact with and (often) supercede these mundane priorities, nor how the priorities are not so much historically driven in a positive progress, but merely are expressed as a result of other (enabling) factors like wealth and virtue.

Himanen's first era sees work as toil, something one must do Monday through Friday to survive, then you relax on Sunday. In the second era, characterized by what he calls The Protestant Work Ethic, work becomes an end in itself, something that defines who you are, and the economy is an eternal Friday. In his final "Hacker" era, work is what you do because it is fun, and the economy is an eternal Sunday. He doesn't say it exactly that way, and there are inconsistencies, some of which he recognizes.

In classical Greece, the elite academics could do whatever they wanted, and in Himanen's thinking, they were the precursors of modern hackers. I suppose he imagines that academics continued to carry that tradition, even during the The Protestant Work Ethic era, but now it seems that everybody (beginning with the hackers) gets to enjoy the freedom.

Well, not really. Millions of people still do jobs they hate ("toil") -- probably including some hackers -- because they need the money to live. It may be that in the last century, the decline of Protestant religiosity left behind a culture of vocation, doing a job because work is deemed to be good, but that was never the Protestant value. Christians are called to do what they do "for the glory of God," both now and through all history. That gives value to sweeping streets and other possibly unpleasant tasks, not as an end in themselves, but because they are a means to carry out God's Second Great Commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself.

Furthermore, as I noted elsewhere, the opportunity to do something that is personally fun comes not from the culture so much as from the fact that we -- particularly in the USA, but also Western Europe and maybe Japan and Korea -- have mechanized the means of survival so that we have time to do other things. There may be some synergy here, so that with more time comes the opportunity to seek fun ways to serve other people while making our necessary living, and these fun and creative things sometimes create more wealth, which feeds the cycle for more fun ways to do it. But more than anything else, wealth -- and the freedom from toil it brings -- is a product of a culture that internalized what Jesus called "the Second Great Commandment" and the rest of us know as the Golden rule: do for other people what you wish them to do for you. When enough people live this ethic (not Max Weber's godless "Protestant Ethic") the rising tide of created wealth lifts all boats, including those of the atheists and the hedonists who contribute nothing to the improvement.

Wealth is an important factor in what the hackers have brought to modern culture, so Himanen gives money its own chapter in his muddled book. But I could not make much sense of it. He lacks the resources to say anything about it, but in a free market, money is an objective measure of our success at fulfilling the Second Great Commandment, because people are willing to pay for what they value. Himanen does say that peer acceptance is an important value among the hackers. He does not say that affirmation is important to almost everyone; the hackers are more honest about giving it only when it's earned, and therefore that recognition is a higher caliber than the gratuitous affirmation offered by everybody who learned to "be nice" in kindergarten.

I have noted elsewhere that the GPL "CopyLeft" license favored by the purest of hackers is Marxist in intent, and Himanen agrees. He calls it "communism" and insists it is different from Soviet "Communism" which is statist, but from his explanation it is clear he understands its intent as community ownership of intellectual property, that is, forbidding the private ownership of it. The US Constitution, in giving Congress the right to grant copyrights and patents for a limited time, recognized the value of making information public, but balances that against the economic necessity of paying for its creation. Considering that academics generally prefer Marxist politics -- especially outside the USA -- it is not surprising to see self-styled "professor" Himanen of that persuasion. The cautions nevertheless still apply. The USA dominates the world economy because (not in spite) of our protection for intellectual property. Himanen's hacker ethic simply got it wrong.

Another chapter is a muddled attempt to leverage "PD" (for personal development) insights like Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People into a corresponding network ethic, or "Nethic." Self-discipline is certainly necessary if ungoverned people are not to devolve into anarchy, but we are all sinners, and we are all selfish, each in our own selfish way. That's why communism/Marxism does not work except in tiny homogenous subcultures of people who find their living expenses paid outside the system. Although spread all over the globe, the hacker subculture is also tiny, and shrinks as fast as it grows, as sometime participants continue to wander off to pursue their selfish self-interests.

One of the seven values mentioned in his PD chapter is "stability" which he carefully defines, "A network is stable when it does not crash and bring the activities pursued within it to a halt." This is essentially the definition used by my unixy colleagues when bragging about the "stability" of unix systems. Of course "the activities pursued within it" for them means making constant changes to the functionality, which if you are trying to do useful work unrelated to constant system upgrades amounts to a "crash" because it brings to a halt any activities otherwise directed -- like trying to get useful work done. Since "entertainment" is the highest hacker value, they cannot understand wanting to have a "stable" system (meaning one that is not always changing and requiring constant effort to keep things on it running) for the purpose of producing products and services of value to somebody other than the hacker himself, which is the essence of Christian virtue. As I said, Himanen grew up in a post-Christian culture and does not understand Christian virtue.

Consistent with Himanen's claimed value of community, he invited two other people to "share" in the writing of his book. It is here that the fallacy of his hacker ethic is most visible, because the book is not a collaborative effort at all, but a top-down delegation in the old school he claims is obsolete. Linus Torvalds wrote the prologue, and Himanen cited it once or twice, and that was the end of that collaboration. Manuel Castells did an isolated epilogue with no obvious connection to the rest of the book -- except maybe it is at least as muddled as Himanen's chapters. That's "maybe" because Castells's writing is opaque, hiding whatever he has to say behind poorly defined or completely undefined polysyllabic neologisms. One sentence that broke through the smog was patently false: networks do not inherently self-organize. Although the concept of self-organization is an important part of the foundation sand of Darwinism, the act of organization requires intelligence (persons), and if any particular network succeeds at it, it is because very smart people made it so. In view of this ignorant blunder, I was unmotivated to put much effort into figuring out what "informationalism" and his other invented words might mean, and whether he uses them consistently or in conformance to the real world. His epilogue is, as I said, opaque, at least to me.

I am ordinarily disinclined to pick up and read through books by people with Clue Deficit Disorder, and normally this one would qualify as a pass-me-by, except somebody sent me an email asking about an essay I presented at the Second West-Coast Computer Faire. Not having a readily readable copy, I tried Googling the proceedings and found it on (where I also from time to time have downloaded old movies). In the process, I also noticed a couple citations to my essay (this book being one of them) and I wondered what they had to say about me. The other book was self-published in Italy and not available on Inter-Library Loan, but this was, and here I am reading it.

It wasn't until the last Himanen chapter that I finally found myself -- this guy is not a very good scholar: he mostly cites quotes of quotes instead of seeking out original citations, so I am not listed in his index or bibliography, nor even is the WCCF -- but if a pagan is going to quote me, I could do worse: that instant I as a Christian thought I could feel something of the satisfaction that God must have felt when He created the world -- from Deus Ex Machina 1978 WCCF
Of course the rest of the chapter is rubbish, but at least he connected me to God. That's a good thing.

Tom Pittman
2014 February 4