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The Hacker Ethic 70

The Hacker Ethic is a brilliant book.Written by young Finnish philosopher Pekka Himanen, with contributions in the same volume by Linus Torvalds and Sociology Professor Manuel Castells, this little book blows away the myth that getting important things done requires stodgy and outmoded forms of organization, or a slavish devotion to work. Just the opposite -- Himanen demonstrates with modern and historical examples that there's a sea change underway in the way that work happens. (Read More.)

The Hacker Ethic
author Pekka Himanen, with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells
pages 232
publisher Random House
rating 8.5
reviewer timothy
ISBN 0375505660
summary How The Hacker Way has and will influence ways of thinking about life, the Universe, and Everything.


I admit it -- the first time I started to read this book, I made a mistake. I began not with Linus Torvalds' clever and funny introduction, or with Pekka Himanen's text (the central part of the book) but with the final section -- Manuell Castells' Epilogue, "Informationalism and the Network Society." Castells' piece, considerably longer than Torvalds' contribution, defines Informationalism ("a technological paradigm based on the augmentation of the human capacity in information processing around the twin revolutions in microelectronics and genetic engineering"), and both traces its rise and makes some predictions about its continued dominance for the near future.

Though Castells is careful to point out the distinction between information-dominated societies (which are nothing new, as he freely points out) and ones characterized by the more profound Informationalism, it took a second read of this section (after starting again from the beginning) to grasp his meaning more fully. It also took that second read to grudgingly accept Castells' inclusion of genetic engineering as an appropriate part of the shift to Informationalism.

The importance of complex, interactive and iterative information processing systems, though, is great enough that Castells seems justified in defining as a breaking point in history the emergence of such systems. Taken in context with the central part of the book, this final chapter is both less off-putting and more insightful than it seemed upon first visit.

The heart of the book, though, is Himanen's treatise on the broad implication of the work, play and life-in-general ideals which hackers have made famous both within and outside the computer world, and it's the most enjoyable part of the book.

First, be assured: Himanen uses "hacker" in the sense that nature intended -- curious, passionate inventors, many of whom happen to use computers as their primary tool of discovery -- rather than a word to mean malicious techno-vandals. Perhaps this book, already talked about in trade and general publications, will help erase the stigma of that word and replace it with the far more positive ideal of an outlook defined by creativity, fun and a desire for meaningful life experiences.

Readers will quickly discover that while The Hacker Ethic obviously has one eye on the tight triangle of recent history, present reality, and immediate future, the other scans a wide range of historical settings and ideas. The title is an allusion to Max Weber's famous work (and more famous idea) The Protestant Work Ethic, tracing back the idea of life centered around diligence and toil to the Protestant preacher Richard Baxter, and before that to the ordered and labor-centered life of the monastary. Bells (and now electronic clocks, timecards and even automatic sensors) decided when things should be done -- and more imporantly, things should be done! Idleness is against the Protest ethic, which holds steady work and its results as the ideals to strive for.

Himanen believes that the Protestant work ethic's replacement has arrived. Computer hackers happen to be the standard bearers, he says, for a whole new way of work, play and life, based around social networks, personal preferences for work environment and content, and a intermingling of work and play.

He points to a number of sources -- some of them may bring a smile, like Richard M. Stallman's Free Software Song, and the sometimes outrageous definitions in Eric S. Raymond's Jargon File -- to demonstrate the way that these non-traditional or even anti-traditional ways of thinking and doing manifest themselves among computer hackers. Hackers, especially the idealized hackers as mythologized in documents like the Jargon File but certainly not only these, tend to ignore social conventions of behavior, when those conventions get in the way of doing what they want. Because of the realities of cheap long-distance communications, electric lights allowing all-night hacking sessions, and other particulars of the electronic-dominated world which has been available to an increasing number of people for more than a generation, they've built their own rules about proper behavior on a computer, on a network, and in the real world. By so doing, they haven't created a world inhabited solely by selfish slobs -- instead, the world of the hacker has simply become one with a far more elastic (and less predictable) matrix of social and professional roles.

Computer hackers may have led the way to this, but Himanen believes that the widespread growth of Net culture is having and will have a permanent effect on the way work is looked at, and the way people approach leisure and work time. The more types of work that can be done by people collaborating and associating with each other (and the networking of the world means that more and more can), the less dependent people will be on rigid schedules, traditional workplaces and alarm bells to announce the end of lunch. In short, the hacker ethic has the potential to improve people's lives by removing the driving impulse to work unbound to real individual preferences.

That doesn't mean that life for hackers results only in advantages to them as individuals -- far from it. Throughout the book, Himanen refers the development of distributed projects, notably the Linux kernel. Despite its utterly voluntary nature, the freeform development of the kernel and of the GPLd software which made it useful resulted in a project involving millions of people. The idea that voluntary distributed actions can have such far-flung, elaborately evolved and evolving results puts the lie to the idea that only noses well rubbed by grindstones can create projects of meaning and substance. The hacker ethic is neither theoretical nor self-absorbed: it's more of a grand restatement of enlightened self-interest.

I did have one major point of contention with Himanen's central thesis, but one which did not really detract from reading the book. Throughout the text, the implication is both hinted at and stated outright that creativity is anathama to the Protestant work ethic. In chapter 7 ("Rest"), Himanen states outright:

"Creativity does not feature prominently in the Protestant ethic, the typical creations of which are the government agency and the monasterylike business enterprise. Neither one of them encourages the individual to engage in creative activity."
While a lack of creativity may be widely associated with the Protestant work ethic, its absence hardly seems implicit to it. In social behavior, unlike mathematics, a single counterexample does not necessarily disprove a theory, but there are many individuals and even entire fields of endeavor predating the emergence of hackers (or an ethic for them to claim) which show the vast potential for creative human living even within societies living undeniably within that ethic. Benjamin Franklin, for instance, I think of as a great hacker of his time: he jumped smoothly from endeavor to endeavor, and in fact exhibited many of the same characteristics that Himanen points out as shared by modern day hackers. But Franklin undeniably ascribed to the Protestant ethic. Perhaps this is mostly a semantic issue, but it never stopped nagging me.

How realistic is Himanen's assesment of changing work values? As someone who went from a relatively straight office job with timesheets, a regular desk, repetitive tasks and forehead-tightening deadlines to one with no timesheets, a desk wherever I have internet access and work that changes and flows with the day, the analysis struck me as personally insightful -- but nowhere near universally applicable, not yet. The Hacker Ethic has arrived, in fact, and to a startling degree, in certain specialized fields and among a few individuals. But offices, factories and retail stores aren't going away. Some enlightened employers have practiced (or attempted) for years to create just the kind of creative environment which would draw people to be simultaneously productive -- in whatever terms that business requires -- and passionate enough to continue for the sake of more than a paycheck.

Linus' introduction is icing on the cake -- Linus writes in the same way he does in emails to the kernel mailing list: wry, biting, self-effacing, quick. He even manages to abbreviate most complex theories of social behavior (remember Maslow's heirarchy of needs?) into just three basic human desires: Survival, social life, and entertainment. Sounds right to me.

After establishing that "survival" is usually taken care of by time one has a computer, electricity and the lower-order goods that make having a computer possible, he says (and you can remove "Linux" for a more universal statement), "The reason that Linux hackers do something is that they find it to be very interesting, and they like to share this interesting thing with others."

Linus' few pages will be just as fun to read, I think, even if his essay boils down mostly to just that single line.

A section of notes at the close of the book is a valuable addition: some of the pithiest explanations are found here, such as examples of hacker humor and a short but insightful historical overview of the development of hypertext.

And for a relatively short book, the bibliography is extensive and eclectic -- reading the list of cited works, of everything from Aristotle to Bill Joy, Plato to Max Weber -- will probably spark some reading lists to expand as well.

This book will be read, re-read and passed on -- if you're employed by someone else, I suggest reading it and (as applicable) giving your copy to your boss, former boss or future boss.

The Hacker Ethic
Prologue: What Makes Hackers Tick? aka Linus' Law, by Linus Torvalds
Part One: The Work Ethic
Chapter 1: The Hacker Work Ethic
Chapter 2: Time is Money?
Part Two: The Money Ethic
Chapter 3: Money As Motive
Chapter 4: The Academy and the Monastery
Part Three: The Nethic
Chapter 5: From Nettiquette to a Nethic
Chapter 6: The Spirit of Informationalism
Chapter 7: Rest
Epilogue: Informationalism and the Network Society, by Manuell Castells
Appendix: A Brief History of Computer Hackerism Notes

You can purchase The Hacker Ethic at ThinkGeek.

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The Hacker Ethic

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  • Reminds me of a line from 'State and Main':

    Guy: So, I guess you have to make your own fun around here?

    Gal: Everyone makes their own fun. If you don't make it yourself, it's entertainment.
  • by Fugly ( 118668 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:50AM (#381361) Homepage
    Is there really a social revolution being started by hackers? I seriously doubt it. People have been collaborating on projects without a paycheck motivator since long before the PC. It was just a lot harder in the past to do so. Yet people did it anyhow. Scientists and inventors even collaborated by mail and through journals. Does anybody really think that every prior invention was created to turn a buck and created by one person?

    What we're really seeing now is a revolution in the ease with which people are able to communicate. Yes, hackers have had a huge hand in this but so have normal shirt-and-tie professionals working in cubicles and offices.

    How have hackers changed the lives and perceptions of normal everyday Joes outside of their contributions to the net? Not a bit as far as I can tell from looking out my window.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    http://acomp.stanford.edu/siliconhistory/Levy/Hack ers.1984.book/Chapter1.html

    Just change the Chapter1.html to the proper chapter.
  • Your quote of Himanen didn't say creativity was absent... he said it was not prominent; not forbidden but discouraged. The relative scarcity of the Franklin-type would seem to bear that out. So would our fascination with how creatives "beat the system" in their way, evinced by the success of things like Biography [aande.com]. If he's guilty of anything, it's confounding cause with correlation...
  • by Anonymous Coward
    It takes 30 seconds to "program" an alarm clock... wind, set, switch on, done. How long would it take to program the computer in your example? Half an hour, the first time, plus more hours each time you do something to the system that breaks the program? You are not only still waking up to an alarm clock, but not you have to invest quality time into making it work! That doesn't sound liberating to me. Automatic washing machines are liberating, you just try doing without. An electric or gas stove is too, since you don't have to haul coal or wood and clean the resulting mess. Most of the appliances on the kitchen counter are not, with the possible exception of blenders.
  • "But offices, factories and retail stores aren't going away."

    Just wait for Nanotechnology.

  • Robert Anton Wilson? Isn't he that nutcase conspiracy theorist?

  • That's really funny. Actually, he repeatedly points out that the "theories" he presents in his fiction [dictionary.com] do not represent his true beliefs. They are pedantic, serving only to convince the reader that all conspiracies are equally likely and therefore equally unlikely.

    Some of his characters, however, are nutcase conspiracy theorists. Some others are nutcase conspirators. Got it?

    If you love God, burn a church!
  • Of course, you do realise that the vast majority of the population are going to think this is a book about breaking into computers, don't you. After all, that is pretty much what the word actually means now to the man in the street (who used to think it was someone not terribly good at something).

    The whole thing sounds deeply nauseating and glad I threw my copy of "The Hacker's Dictionary" in the bin some time ago.

    Hacker: A criminal who breaks into computer systems
  • d0000d. Do you really think that artists see the internet as a threat? Maybe the ones that are already settled, but i can assure you that most of the young composers (hip hop, drum&base, garage, ...) already live the Hacker Way.
    They share their music, just as well as we share our code. Most of them even write code too (like me).
    And don't ever say the Hacker World was first with all these ideas, because thousands of Jazz-musicians will kill you for that. They shared their music loooong before code was even written.
  • I don't really understand what the point or relevance of this post is in a discussion which is ostensibly about the Hacker Ethic, perhaps if you learnt to write coherent sentences I could have gleaned something from it.

    It's a shame that you can't justify or support your beliefs in any way and act like violence is something for the casual ammusement of yourself and your equally dead brained freinds.

    If you had any conviction in your totally objectionable beliefs you'd post under a registered name. Never has the anonymous *COWARD* tag been so apt.


  • The author was on the radio program Public Interest [wamu.org] March 5th.

    Kojo Nnamdi, an excellent interviewer, hosted an hour with Dr. Himanen, who is in his 20's and is a professor at Berkley and Helsinki, and with a former senior presidential speach writer who also has a new book out. Here is the RA stream [wamu.org].

  • I read the review a couple of times and I'm still not exactly sure what the point of it is. Maybe I need to read the book to really get it but it sounds like a rehash of Cathedral / Bazaar-driven hype circa 1998. (Hackers! Internet! Linux! Sleepless nights! Conventional organizations - you are doomed. Listen to Eric Raymond or suffer the consequences.)

    Years later, the cathedral builders may have given up a little market share to the bazaar (or, as in the case of IE vs. Mozilla, gained some at its expense). But the idea that free-floating collaborations are going to drive organizations out of existence should be laughable on its face.

    At least this is better than the Salon piece about this book (ripped to shreds on Slashdot [slashdot.org]) where Andrew Leonard rhapsodizes for pages over an admin in his office who hoses his system while trying to install 2.4 and then wastes the next few days "hacking" to recompile KDE.

    Unsettling MOTD at my ISP.

  • Just last night I was goofing off, looking through the list of eTexts available at Project Gutenberg. I was very pleased to see a partial copy of Hacker's: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Stephen Levy [gutenberg.org] listed there. I looked at the eText and it seems to be only the first two chapters. Hopefully, that's just the beginning of what will one day be a full electronic version of this great book.
  • by mav[LAG] ( 31387 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:58AM (#381374)
    If you're still boycotting Amazon and/or don't feel like buying it, Hackers is available from this link here [unc.edu] courtesy of Project Gutenberg.
  • The New York Times did a piece on this a couple of days ago, called "Robin Hoods of Cyberspace: A Philosopher Examines the Difference Between Good and Bad Hackers". The article [nytimes.com] (free regn reqd yadda yadda) also includes a link to the entire first chapter [nytimes.com], in case you want to get a feel for it.

    Ita a bit tooo wordy for me, personally.

  • Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.
    Famously quoted in the film 'Hackers'... well out of context. I had not realized that the earlier part of this rant was so good.

    Chris Naden
    "Sometimes, home is just where you pour your coffee"
  • Not flaming...just pointing out that this work is well over 10 years old.


  • I haven't read the book, but the review was very well written. Good writing, Timothy. Don't fret over anything you hear on here calling /. second rate journalism, because that there is first rate writing.
  • by hyacinthus ( 225989 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @10:18AM (#381379)
    Sigh. Why is it that people who like recompiling Linux kernels in their spare time love to posture themselves as flame-bearers of some sort of dynamic, inventive new spirit?

    When I was young, I discovered that in my school library's archive of old SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN magazines was an amazing treasure trove of investigative work done by amateurs in almost every field of natural and physical science. (I'm speaking of the "Amateur Scientist" column.) These investigations spanned the range from inquiries into the habits of hummingbirds to the construction of elaborate scientific apparata. I admire the people who did such things, if only because they gave the lie to the notion that science was exclusively the domain of professional men with degrees. It was not always so. But, well, SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN is more advertising than content now, and the "Amateur Scientist" is a shadow of its former self.

    Were those amateur scientists "hackers"? At least they were interested in the real, observable universe--that's what science is all about. Computer hackers, though, work in their little artificial domain. I find it ironic that this topic should have appeared on Slashdot at almost the same time that the Napster story broke. Napster (and all its brethren in the music-piracy business)--now there's a tremendous misapplication of intellect. The energy which might have gone into the creation of something truly beautiful--or something truly useful--instead went into the institution of an intricate mechanism, useless to anyone not engrossed with that artificial domain--anyone who doesn't live and breathe computers, and would rather spend hours downloading and storing low-fidelity MP3 files than get up and visit the neighborhood music, or take in a concert. Why? because he'd have to stop "hacking" and spend a little less time away from his precious technology, that's why.

    With computer mania sweeping the US, and the growing perception that it's more important to get schoolchildren in front of computers than to teach them about their language, their history, and their universe, it's no wonder that our children suck at math and science.

  • I'm sick of "The Mentor's" trite little "Hacker Manifesto". If you'd have posted a Zero Wing joke, it would have been far more meaningful than this tired piece of crap from someone who wouldn't know a real hacker if he were suckerpunched by one. This little piece uses "hacker" in the l33t h4x0r sense, not the "curious computer guy" sense. It has no relevance to the article, or to the book being discussed.

    Well, let's see, what are the credentials of this "mentor" guy -

    THE MENTOR- Handle of Loyd Blankenship. Also known as the Neuromancer. Elite hacker and former member of the Legion of Doom, the PhoneLine Phantoms, the Racketeers and Extasyy Elite. Writer of the legendary "Conscience of a Hacker." He also used to work for Steve Jackson Games, where he wrote _GURPS Cyberpunk_. He is currently a freelance game designer/electronic musician. [Handle is from the Grey Lensman series by E.E. "Doc" Smith.] (from the Hacker's Encyclopedia by Logik Bomb)

    Hey! there is an interview with him here [renasm.de]. Let's see what they have to say:

    Elf Qrin:How did you become a hacker?
    Mentor: If you mean 'hacker' in the true sense, I think it happened when I started porting _Star Trek_.
    (NB - from PDP4 source code to Basic for a Compucolor) If you mean it in the 'breaking into computers', it started during that first summer when I found out the university had a PDP-4. I wrangled a guest password from a friend of the family, but it expired at the end of the summer. By then I had a pretty good list of user account pairs, and I hacked an account (something like [1,5], pw: games I think).

    - - -

    Elf Qrin: Why you quit the scene in 1990?
    Mentor: When I put up _The Phoenix Project_, I knew I had to stop. I was running the highest-profile (and best) hacking BBS in the world. I knew I'd be watched. I was also at the point where a lot of the original challenge was gone -- LOD had control over pretty much anything we wanted to at that time, and I personally had finished taking over huge chunks of Autonet. Prime Suspect owned Telenet. Erik Bloodaxe owned pretty much anything he wanted (plug here -- Erik Bloodaxe was the best hacker I ever met). Our phone gurus owned every phone network in the country. There was nowhere to go but down.

    Yep, looks like he knows nothing about being a hacker. He has been out of the business for over ten years, and never had a clue.


  • On Sunday, the New York Times had a far less complimentary review here. [nytimes.com]
  • Creativity does not feature prominently in the Protestant ethic, the typical creations of which are the government agency and the monasterylike business enterprise.

    Reformation and Renaissance went hand in hand. Understand the Protest, and you understand much about Protestant ethics.

    If you're looking for the source of monasterylike business, wouldn't it be obvious to start looking in a monastic culture, rejection of which was a significant part of the Protest?

    If you're looking for dependence on a central authority ("government"), what better place to start than one of the biggest and most ruthlessly centralised governments ever: the papacy - rejection of which was a significant part of the Protest? Is Mr Gates half-jokingly called ``Pope Bill'' for his creativity?

    You could also make a good case for the ``monasterylike'' business having arisen from the centrally-focussed Empire-style cultures of Britain and such as Napoleon.

    Go back through the history of the time (1600s) and pick out successful inventors, artists and other technically creative people. Now consider the proportion who were Protestant (and so presumably subject to the Protestant Work Ethic) against the proportion of Protestants in the general populace. Amazing, isn't it?

    It wasn't that the Medievel Church suppressed research or anything (as long as it didn't threaten to step on their theological toes) but that the PWE was absent from that culture. Another interesting comparison is the religious affiliation of countries in which inventive people lived vs the head-count of inventors.

    The hacker work ethic has an advantage of sorts over both systems. The core operative process of the Medievel Church was unthinking submission to ritual obligations. Two key words there, ``unthinking'' and ``submission.'' Where thinking did happen, all too often it was along the lines of how to rort the system, and of course since the motivation was centralised and externally applied rather than distributed and internalised, opportunities were legion.

    Another natural consequence of external motivation is that it quickly became drudge. You can easily make a person hate some activity that they previously loved, by forcing them to do it (conceptually at gunpoint). This completely undermines the motivation.

    The equivalent core of the Protestant Work Ethic was the satisfaction of having diligently and intelligently represented your Creator in your life and work, and as long as it stayed that way it worked splendidly. However, as it became increasingly replace by lip-service, it increasingly mimicked the system it was supposedly fighting.

    These days it is generally (yes, there are exceptions) quite difficult to separate Protestant and Catholic at a glance, because as the Protestant motivation becames more Medievel, so does the consequent behaviour.

    Enter the Hacker Work Ethic. In some ways there are distinct advantages over the Protestant Work Ethic, in that the range of thinking is broader; in some ways there is lossage such as in the accountability department.

    This is - in the short-term view at least - not always a disadvantage, since a lot of hardworking ethical Protestants were/are ruthlessly taken advantage of by government agencies and monasterylike businesses. The less-bound hacker and the not-at-all-bound cracker (who is a hacker only in the same sense - as Eric Raymond so neatly put it - as a car thief is an automotive engineer) do not so readily fall victim to such manipulation. In the longer term, hackers closer to the PWE are more reliable, more dependable from the POV of those considering using their work.

    I'll enthusiastically take either in preference to the me-first me-too grab-everything-you-can world-owes-me-a-living attitude which so pervades society today.
  • About the only thing impressive about that was him porting the game. People think the 01d sk001 h4x0rs were so skilled because they cracked boxes "back in the day". Does it never occur to you how frigging easy it was to break into *anything* at that time (PDP4!!)? Security was rarely an issue for anyone and when it was, it was done poorly. The social engineering was impressive, but compromising a system was relatively simple for anyone who had any experience with the systems (that doesn't connatate a guru to me...).
  • >The Mentor, IIRC, was unfortnately nailed by the
    >Secret Service for crimes I've long since

    If nothing else, Loyd was working for Steve Jackson Games when Operation Sun Devil went down.

    I seem to recall something else involving stolen Apples in the mid 80's, but I can't remember any sort of details and I really wouldn't want to spread misinformation about it...

    I don't know that he ever actually did any real time.

    Haven't seen him in years, but I remember him being an interesting guy to hang out with.

  • by vlax ( 1809 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @03:32PM (#381385)
    I could cite Kuhn here and just blow this idea away, but since I'm usually the one on the baracades railing away against Kuhn abuse in the social sciences, it'd look bad for me.

    So, let me take an example. Since the early 19th century, it was known that the planet Merucry did not orbit the sun in the manner Newtonian mechanics prescribes for it. So, here's my question. Did this 'disprove' Newtonian mechanics? If so, were the scientists of the time right or wrong in sticking with Newtonian mechanics until the 1920's? If they were wrong, what programme do you suggest the physicists of the 19th century should have followed that would have produced the same massive advancement in human knowledge and power?

    Let me add another example from the social sciences: Child development theory takes as a given that children under the age of 5 are not able to judge whether two quantities are of different magnitude by counting them. This is the most consistent result found in child development acccording to authorities like Gallistel and Gelman and a wide variety of child development theories rest on this result among others. They include Piaget's theory of general development and more nativist theories like Pinker's, which seek to show that counting (as opposed to other behaviours like language) are not the product of biologically driven forces.

    Now, I can assure you (although you need not take my word for it in order to use this example, just assume I'm telling the truth) that my little brother could make set comparisons by counting at the age of three years and two months and was able to do so for sets of up 70 items. My brother is a particularly gifted mathematician (a strange form of mental illness that explains why he's still unemployed.) Does this fact render null all of the child development research done in the last 50 years? Are we now compelled to say that no one knows anything about child development because a single child exists who defies the empirical results on which those theories are based?

    Alternatively, can we view existing child development theories as incomplete but still viable bodies of thought?

    Now, let me propose an alternative version of what a theory is. Theories are tools which mediate human interaction with the world. They are semiotic tools, rather than physical tools, but they work in much the same way.

    Humans behave in goal-directed ways. For example, when you want to build a house, you have a goal: to have a house. To do this, you must interact with other bits of the universe: land, wood, nails, etc. To do this, you use tools. Furthermore, the kind of house you make - the structure, the composition, the design, even the uses - are in part determined by the tools you have on hand. With a cheap nails and a strong hammer, you build a very different kind of house than the way pre-industrialised people build their homes. (Go look at old homes in Europe or colonial era dwellings on the East Coast.) In fact, you see the problem of building a house very differently with modern tools than you do with other tools.

    Furthermore, you judge one tool to be better than another tool by using it. If you buy a nail gun, it is because it makes it easier to build houses. If the nail gun was too heavy or bulky or was constatantly breaking and you couldn't depend on it, you would go back to using the old manual hammer and nails. In fact, the very existence of nail guns is predicated on people having certain tools, like automated, precision nail-making machines so that nails are uniform. Even tools are the products of tools.

    And if you find something you can't build because you don't have the right tools for it, you don't abandon your tools and go back to making things with your bare hands.
  • by vlax ( 1809 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @03:46PM (#381386)
    Here's a few related books I'd like to see reviewed here:

    Manuel Castells' The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture

    Geoffrey Hodgson's Economics and Utopia: Why the Learning Economy is Not the End of History

    Paul Ormerod's Butterfly Economics

    Bruce Sterling's Zeitgeist

    Bonnie Nardi and Vicki O'Day's Information Ecologies: Using Technology with Heart or Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction edited by Nardi.

    These kinds of books are a lot more relevant to higher geek culture than the latest Python book, and I'm really glad to see some of this kind of thing on /. these days. Since I've only read two of those and have a long reading list of other stuff before I get to the others, I'd really like to see someone else here take a few of them on.
  • It's unfortunate that you would assume this book would have to do with technical minutia, like that of a Linux internals book. The title should impart obvious reference to this being more a work of sociology than technology.

    In short, it's wholly unfair to dismiss it due to lack of technical detail. That isn't the point of the work at all.
  • Wow...tantalizing, but not quite there. Missing Chapter 11 and then everything after 13...which eventually went on the cover RMS in the final chapter. Still, it's more than the 2 chapters available at Project Gutenberg, and what is there is presented in HTML...much nicer than the pure text version at PG.
  • What is much more problematic than the 'criminal' interpretation of hacker, is the stigma of the word "hack".


  • *grin* it appears that I was a little unclear here. the point I was trying to make is that the 'Protestant Work Ethic' wasn't, and what significances this had. I wasn't trying to comprehensively catalogue teh origins of the industrial revolution.


    Chris Naden
    "Sometimes, home is just where you pour your coffee"
  • Richard Feynman, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, was fond of safe-cracking for his own amusement. A brilliant, creative, nonconformist, it's not hard to imagine that he would be hacking his way into the best protected computer systems, just for fun, were he alive today.
  • Well, actually, the *correct* response would be ALL YOUR BASE not ALL YOUR BASES...

    Chris Naden
    "Sometimes, home is just where you pour your coffee"
  • What possible commonality can social behavior have with logic?
  • We do? I thought we also discover how things work and at least have knowledge, if not spread knowledge, on how to change things in either creative ways and/or improve on them... sometimes for the better.. sometimes not.

  • by Anonymous Coward
    Well, doctors have been doing this for a long time - work like hell into the wee hours of the night/morning to get the job done..
  • by java_sucks ( 197921 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:07AM (#381396)
    I have read this book and found it to be quite lacking. The lack of technical details makes it aimed more for the wannabe hop on the bandwagon crowd than the "in the know" crowd. I also feel that the word hacker has been raped too many times and is now associated with crackers, thus tainting it's usage.

    To summarize, this book is not for those in the high tech mindset. I found it to be a waste of time
  • ... on linux.com [wwwlinux.com], I *think*, and very interesting it was too. I know that this sort of book has been done many times before, but I enjoyed the excerpt anyway - I could read it again and again.

    The input by the sociology expert should be very interesting, and hopefully give it an unusual angle.

    It is good to see the hacker community analysed like this. I do really think that there is something fundamental happening here, among this community. Hacking is the first occupation that is closely connected with the online world, as it has been since the 1960's, and so it has built up its own ethos based on this, as it grew up around it.

    Other interests and professions, like writing, music and so on, see the interenet as something of a threat, but I am hopeful that in the future we will see a similar ethos among musicians and writers, or at least a group of them, as we see now in the hacker community. The havker community was the first, so it is important not just for hackers, but for other groups, to have it analysed.

  • There are some other books on the subject, such as Robert Anton Wilson's Prometheus Rising [newfalcon.com]. There is no direct mapping to the work you are reviewing, and it was written before the internet revolution, but it does say the same thing. In fact, so does any other work by Wilson or Dr. Leary.

    If you love God, burn a church!
  • by schussat ( 33312 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @10:23AM (#381399) Journal
    The input by the sociology expert should be very interesting, and hopefully give it an unusual angle.

    Holy crap! Someone just invoked sociology in a positive light on slashdot! I think I might weep. Long have I and my finely trained army of sociologist colleagues awaited this day.

    Seriously, though, without having read The Hacker Ethic (BTW, Weber's book is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism) maybe I can comment a little on the historical protestant ethic. Weber sought to explain why capitalism seemed to flourish uniquely in Europe and early America, far more so than in the rest of the world at that time. The factor he identified was the worldview that surrounded Protestantism: Hard work and strict accounting of one's deeds. The configuration of work and spirituality, argued Weber, was unique to the Western world, and fundamentally shaped the success of capitalism.

    That said, I have to admit I'm a little skeptical of Himanen's claims that the hacker ethic will revolutionize work and play. If we believe Weber's construction of capitalism, we have to accept that it's based on a much "smaller" world, one inhabited for instance largely by Protestants--after all, that's why early America was so uniquely poised to propel capitalism.

    I find it more likely that the products of the hacker ethic -- good hardware and software, for instance -- are what will continue to permeate daily life, rather than the ethic of those products' creators. (Just as capitalism now thrives where Protestantism does not dominate)

    Unfortunately, the effect of that pervasive technology may be the opposite of Himanen's new work and play ethics. Modern home appliances aren't really all that liberating: Many scholars argue that home cooking and cleaning appliances really just bind more people to doing more work -- far from being liberated by the machines, we have the propensity to become too attached to them. (How many of you have programmed your linux box to wake you up by playing your favorite mp3s? You may like to tinker with that perl script, but the end result is that you're still waking up to an alarm clock!).

    Anyway, that said, it sounds like an interesting argument. The cultural transformation that really could hook the hacker ethics of a product's production to its eventual use might be pretty neat. But I don't think I'll hold my breath.


  • by Bearpaw ( 13080 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @10:25AM (#381400)
    A central tenet of all systems of logic is that if one, and only one if necessary, contradictory counterexample is found then the theory is disproved. No ifs, ands, or buts.

    A contradictory counter-example disproves a specific formulation of a theory. But often (usually?) a change can be made to the theory that takes the contradiction into account without significantly changing the basics of the theory.

  • I'm sick of "The Mentor's" trite little "Hacker Manifesto". If you'd have posted a Zero Wing joke, it would have been far more meaningful than this tired piece of crap from someone who wouldn't know a real hacker if he were suckerpunched by one. This little piece uses "hacker" in the l33t h4x0r sense, not the "curious computer guy" sense. It has no relevance to the article, or to the book being discussed.
  • Not a bit as far as I can tell from looking out my window.

    There's a lot more to the world than what is visible from your window.

  • > It was once thought that there were only 9 planets

    Bummer! I thought there were nine including Pluto. Now where's me lardybird book of astronomy?

    cat /dev/null > /dev/brain
  • I read The Conscience of a Hacker a while back on portwolf.com. [portwolf.com] I kinda agree with what the author is saying because most hackers are really bright kids who need an outlet to unleash thier talents.

  • I also found it completely lacked an adequate explanation of clowns and circus peanuts.
  • Not flaming...just pointing out that this work is well over 10 years old.

    You are correct.

    quick research reveals that it was "Written on January 8, 1986" attributed to Loyd Blankenship (mentor@blankenship.com)and is also known as the "Hackers Manifesto". It was probably quoted in the movie.

    Fascinating that it is so timely, and seems like it could have been written over that past year or so. It has stood up to the Test of Time (tm) very well.

    NB - There is no blankenship.com website right now, but it does cross check with the above name nicely via whois, etc. This would probably be a good person to send a note of appreciation to.

  • Artificial domain!?? What exactly do you find artificial about a computer? Software, by itself, my not be tangible, but it instructs hardware ... which seems pretty real to me. Perhaps I'm working on a project, and I make a few changes to the TCP implementation on linux or BSD, and play with that. Hey, I might find something.

    And as for MP3's, the whole reason why they are so popular is that the 'friendly neighbourhood music' is way overpriced in the first place.

    We're all amateur scientists (most of us :), and, like any other scientist, we're bounded by physical constraints. Sure, we build and work over abstractions, but that's how things evolve.
  • It takes 30 seconds to "program" an alarm clock... wind, set, switch on, done. How long would it take to program the computer in your example?

    7 seconds! ( I type slowly )
    crontab -e
    0 6 * * * /usr/local/bin/mpg123 song.mp3

    Editing it to change times should take even less time
  • Social behavior is not necessarily a system of logic.
  • Hopefully not straying too far from the subject, but I wonder if there's something to the Finnish social/political structure that we're either adopting or trying to emulate here in the US and elsewhere.

    I can't help but wonder if there would be more hackers (using the good sense of the word) in the world if there were free health coverage and low cost or free higher education.

    - ordinarious

  • Sociology, eh? [theonion.com]

    (sorry, couldn't resist)


  • Id like to take the opportunity to recommend to everyone this other book: Hackers: Heroes of the computer revolution, by Stephen Levy.

    I know it is not a new book, but having been out of print, it is now available again in paperback [amazon.com]. Im reading it right now, and it is really GREAT!


  • by donglekey ( 124433 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:14AM (#381413) Homepage
    I think that ethics as used here is more of a social term. There is so little contact between people except for maybe a select few people that someone's meets day to day. All of the other rules are reinforced by different social techniques, even they aren't decided on as a group, they are definitly acted on as a group. Its all about credit. What people really want is not so much money but positive reinforcement. There are lots of projects that I could do, but I don't have the drive to accomplish them because when I tell people my ideas they shrug them off and don't seem very exceited. Money == reiforcement too. If you have money, you must be doing something right, right? I don't think there is some 'code of honor' so much as getting and receiving reiforcement, and having everything else derived from that. I think that if someone was a security expert and they were around a new group of people that thought 'hacking' ie. cracking was cool, and badgered that person to break into something that wouldn't do any damage, that security expert would be pretty tempted to show off instead of saying, "breaking into computers is easy take a look at some of my security tools I have written." I don't think they would be quite as excited.

    I don't think that such a loosly bound and large group can have a well defined set of ethics, but I do think that many share the same broad goals which kind of gives the illusion of that. I don't mean that anyone would want to go fork projects or take stuff and try to pass it off as theirs, but I think that if there is something else - that doesn't effect the open source community at all then it won't fall into any catagory of ethics of that group.
  • In social behavior, unlike mathematics, a single counterexample does not necessarily disprove a theory, How wrong you are. A central tenet of all systems of logic is that if one, and only one if necessary, contradictory counterexample is found then the theory is disproved. No ifs, ands, or buts.
  • #!/usr/bin/perl -w
    use strict;

    my $insaneramblings = 1;

    print "\nWhy did you post this here?\n\n"

    unless $insaneramblings eq "0";
  • Anything by Steven Levy is a good read. I read Hackers my first year in college. Before that, I read his column in Popular Computing every month. Now he's a big shot writing for WSJ or Time or some such rag.
  • by morpheus_ ( 124308 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:23AM (#381417)
    It's funny how it's worked out for us geeks. A year ago, I was working at a k12 school, doing some web page projects and linux servers and such. They went in a year from not having a decent computer lab to a 30 machine lab, 2 linux servers, internet access for all students and faculty. As the project went on, my boss realized that I was more productive if he allowed me some creative liberty, so I got to rearrange my schedule as I saw fit, didn't have to wear a uniform, etc. I didn't get to work less hours, actually, my work load doubled in less than 3 months, doing it my way made the whole thing painless. It's amazing how small things (not to management, I know) like uniforms and schedules can make such a difference in working IT posts. More power to us, more results for them...
  • A central tenet of all systems of logic is that if one, and only one if necessary, contradictory counterexample is found then the theory is disproved.

    That's precisely the point - a "theory" in this context isn't a formal statement of logic, it's a meaningful generalization.

    Unsettling MOTD at my ISP.

  • "But offices, factories and retail stores aren't going away."

    Gee, ya think?!?

    To take advantage of this allegedly new ethic, you need a job with certain very specific characteristics. Little direct interaction with customers, not tied to a specific physical location, and requiring a particular intellectual aptitude that is uncommon. So it's great that people like this are now being spoiled even more by their employers. But the notion that this is replacing the Protestant work ethic is so absurd that it's not even funny.

    Try telling this to someone working in a sweatshop in a third-world country, or someone working three jobs to get by in America, or anyone who needs a union to protect their job. "It's not society's fault...it's your fault...you need a new work ethic!! That's all!" Yeah right.

    In any case, this whole idea is not new, since for centuries it has been the standard way of working among academic researchers, who were among the few who had jobs that actually matched the criteria.

    - adam
  • actually i wound up reading these within a week of each other. im not new to works of "philosophy" having a degree in the subject, but found The Hacker Ethic rather lacking...however Hackers was an outstanding read. I would suggest getting The Hacker Ethic from the library and go out and buy a copy of Hackers right now...
  • No criticism but from observation, clusters of hackers (is this the right collective noun?) tend to exhibit the prima-donna effect (partly a reflection of scratching their own itch) which means a lot of the grunge work just doesn't get done. The classic case is many are willing to code but few to document. This can be overcome to some extent by the value of the project, if it is something big/important/significant enough then perhaps people are willing to subordinate themselves to the larger task (how do you think cathedrals got built? .. certainly not by the atheists). Perhaps a more mundane explanation is that the hacker ethic is the social reaction to overcoming stupid/boring/dilbertian tasks set by management. Reality of life - you get paid for doing stuff which you don't like ... if it was fun then Gates-2.0 would figure out a way to tax people for the "leisure" of coding.

    Socioloists have noted that we invent (boosterism?) myths to explain or expound our tasks (and thus importance) to the outside world (e.g. Hollywood showbiz "glamour" when they are in the business of selling lies). Other scientific studies [tms.com.au] have tried to work out personal characteristics that explain why we work in particular sectors. For example, psychologists have noted that farmers tend to fall into only a limited subset of personality types (primarily stoic/ plematic) which may be a reflection of the mental toughness or indifference necessary to survive against the forces of Mother Nature (fire/famine/flood). Similarly the hacker ethic may be a self-protective device to glamorise what to others (e.g. marketeers) is a very mind-numbing attention-picking type of work and thus maintain its pool of suck ... errr ... recruits :-) via the call-against-oppression meme (see google on Windows by day, Linux by night). While the popular stereotype (cough*Napster*cough) of rebelling against the forces of evil (aka corporatisation) may appeal to a teenager's sense of drama, it is hard to sustain in the long term as hackerdom becomes mainstream and thus part of the establishment (e.g. witness SourceForge [salon.com]).

    Fundamentally IMHO the hacker lacks professional self-reinforcing core/formal ethics such as the medical Hippocratic Oath or the lawyer's client-attorney priviledge. Short-term thinking is no substitute for building an ethos (system of customs and habits) that encourages creative critical thought. The project mentality harkens to the bunker/war-room type psychological stress and it has been noted (from a economic PoV) that it is very effective (if you ignore social side-effects like lack of a life). In fact the very sense of elitism and techno-jargon is probably driving away the better half of the population. Unless the appeal is to both genders, hackerdom is missing half the talent pool. The hacker work ethic may be a necessary survival mechanism in this type of work (continuous creative combinations of techniques to find the rare killer-app) but the major problem is that it (currently) is difficult to scale beyond a cottage industry or bazaar type collective.

    Fortunately the world is big enough for all types and if someone who has been ostracised by mainstream society finds a fit within the hacker culture, then all to the better.


  • It's great to see a (non-technical) book review on Slashdot that does not either gush about everyting said or tear down a straw man.

    A new world of fulfilling, creative work is an ideal to get excited about (and to work towards), but in need of some healthy skepticism. Nothing comes from nowhere, and there are few true sea changes in history, mostly slow changes that it takes our collective consciousness a while to figure out.

    The 'hacker ethic' may just turn out to be a continuation of the long line of small groups of individuals who pursue the good life as they see it even when this is not socially respectable. Hopefully, doing this (and living reasonably comfortably) is becoming easier.

    The other work of Manuel Castells (especially his Information Age trilogy) is good reading for natural skeptics who can't help themselves from getting excited about the way information technology might make a better world. Castells is smart enough also to be interested in how IT makes the world a worse place, and evidence that goes against his theories.

    John Luke

  • I agree. When I started working in High School, I had to wear a 'uniform' (stationary store, not food service), I had to work a specific shift that was absolute. When I got my first real job (doing wire monkey stuff) they introduced me to the concept of salary. I found that I was working much longer hours, but if I wanted to come in late once or twice, it was expected. Now, I get to work in a very mellow environment, yet still manage to enjoy putting in 50-some hours a week.

    Go figure...

  • by albanac ( 214852 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @12:04PM (#381424) Homepage Journal
    I greatly dislike using the phrase 'paradigm shift', which is the reason for the title I've provided for this posting. However, it best describes the subject. The process of chaging one way of approaching life, to another way of approaching life. This is the point about the so-called Hacker Ethic, and was the point about the infamous Protestant Work Ethic. Quoting from the review:
    "Creativity does not feature prominently in the Protestant ethic, the typical creations of which are the government agency and the monasterylike business enterprise. Neither one of them encourages the individual to engage in creative activity."
  • It's about 'working outside the box'. It's the last salvation of humanity. After all what is the 'work ethic'- a cultural standard - a specific virtual reality coded into the real world. Mindless application of the protestant work ethic is '1984'. By looking outside the protestant work ethic, we come to appreciate it. We stop to examine our motives and the results of our actions-our feelings. Thank god for hackers-they will save us from ourselves. If only their efforts can be molded into an art that the general public can appreciate.
  • The following was posted in a Story [theregister.co.uk] on the Register a month or so ago, and is archived at Attrition.org [attrition.org]

    While you may not agree with everything in it (I don't) it offers as much insight as anything else into the culture and the mindset. What I see, among other things, is the waste of a young brilliant mind by a system tumbling towards the state of being cripple ware.

    I greatly admire this bit hacker culture. It communicates (more than anything else I've read) what is going on

    "The Conscience of a Hacker" by Mentor
    (reproduced without permission.)

    Another one got caught today, it's all over the papers.
    "Teenager Arrested in Computer Crime Scandal", "Hacker Arrested after Bank Tampering"...
    Damn kids. They're all alike.

    But did you, in your three-piece psychology and 1950's technobrain, ever take a look behind the eyes of the hacker?
    Did you ever wonder what made him tick, what forces shaped him, what may have molded him?
    I am a hacker, enter my world...

    Mine is a world that begins with school... I'm smarter than most of the other kids, this crap they teach us bores me...
    Damn underachiever. They're all alike.

    I'm in junior high or high school. I've listened to teachers explain for the fifteenth time how to reduce a fraction.
    I understand it. "No, Ms. Smith, I didn't show my work. I did it in my head..."
    Damn kid. Probably copied it. They're all alike.

    I made a discovery today. I found a computer. Wait a second, this is cool.
    It does what I want it to. If it makes a mistake, it's because I screwed it up.
    Not because it doesn't like me...
    Or feels threatened by me...
    Or thinks I'm a smart ass...
    Or doesn't like teaching and shouldn't be here...
    Damn kid. All he does is play games. They're all alike.

    And then it happened... a door opened to a world...
    rushing through the phone line like heroin through an addict's veins,
    an electronic pulse is sent out, a refuge from the day-to-day incompetencies is sought... a board is found.
    "This is it... this is where I belong..."
    I know everyone here... even if I've never met them, never talked to them, may never hear from them again... I know you all...
    Damn kid. Tying up the phone line again. They're all alike...

    You bet your ass we're all alike... we've been spoon-fed baby food at school when we hungered for steak...
    the bits of meat that you did let slip through were pre-chewed and tasteless.
    We've been dominated by sadists, or ignored by the apathetic.
    The few that had something to teach found us willing pupils, but those few are like drops of water in the desert.

    This is our world now... the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.
    We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn't run by profiteering gluttons,
    and you call us criminals.
    We explore... and you call us criminals.
    We seek after knowledge... and you call us criminals.
    We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias... and you call us criminals.
    You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us,
    you try to make us believe it's for our own good, yet we're the criminals.

    Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.
    My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like.
    My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.

    I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto.
    You may stop this individual, but you can't stop us all... after all, we're all alike.

  • ... and although I haven't finished it's certainly a very good (and very thought provoking) read. Recommended - especially to pass on to your manager/parent/partner/colleague to help them to understand where you are coming from.

  • Never mind, here is one direct to the excerpt:

    Here [linux.com]

  • by Thalia ( 42305 ) on Tuesday March 06, 2001 @09:46AM (#381429)
    Oddly enough I've found hackers to be closest to the Protestant work ethic that I learned about in school. The biggest component of the Protestant work ethic generally seems to be to "work until the project is done." There is inherent disapproval of folks who start a project and then stop. Cooperation, although generally only local, was expected as well. After all, think of a barn raising, the quintessential activity. It requires a number of people to work in concert to get something done.

    Hackers are the folks who will work 18 hour days until their coding project is done. If that's not nose-to-the-grindstone, I don't know what is. They're also one of the very few groups that require close cooperation to accomplish a complex project. (For example, to bring new elements into an open source project requires cooperation.) Compare this to a standard office worker, who shuffles paper & generally does projects alone, and leaves the job at 5 p.m. sharp. Although current folks like to think that the Protestants had no fun, this isn't true either. Generally, they partied hard as well. I remember reading about the post-barn-raising events... quite impressive. (after their work was done, of course.)

    I do agree with the author that the focus on Information is a major shift. But I think the work ethic of most hackers quite closely parallels those of Protestant farmers of yesteryear.


Promising costs nothing, it's the delivering that kills you.