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The Hacker Ethic

Pekka Himanen's "The Hacker Ethic" is an intriguing, if ultimately disappointing, book. It suffers from being both unsure of its audience and overly broad in its claims.

The introduction by Linus Torvalds is amusing, but says nothing that he hasn't said elsewhere, and hardly constitutes motive for reading the remainder of the book. The remainder is divided into three parts: Part One, consisting of chapters one and two, covers the hacker Work Ethic. Part Two (chapters three and four) covers the hacker Money Ethic. Part Three (chapters five and six) covers the "Nethic". Chapter seven provides a conclusion, which is followed by a rather abstract epilogue by academic Manuel Castells.

Chapter one recapitulates Torvalds's introduction and does little more than identify "passion" as the central tenet of hackerdom. That is, hackers do things that interest them, not things which a higher authority, such as Church or God, obligates them to do. As such, the chapter posits, it is a challenge to the Protestant work ethic described by Max Weber.

Chapter two suggests that hackers have a different relationship to time than other people have had. Himanen notes the supposed acceleration of events in the world caused by ubiquitous electronic communication, and that even personal time is often "optimized" in ways that work-time is often managed. According to Himanen, hackers have revolutionized this by focusing on long-term projects and rejecting deadline-driven mainstream business culture. To anyone familiar with hacker-filled dot com culture, this attitude seems hopelessly naive, reflecting hacker wishes rather than actual hacker behavior.

Chapter three suggests that money is not a primary goal for most hackers, trotting out Richard Stallman and Steve Wozniak as exemplars of this. Himanen admits that wealth as a goal of last resort is not universal among hackers. Chapter four follows up by describing the "open" model of hacker culture, finding its roots in academia and its opposite in the monastic model.

The "Nethic" is probably the most controversial part of Himanen's book. He describes the rise of netiquette in chapter five, leading up to freedom of speech and "open society" issues. His treatment of privacy issues is rather perfunctory, but perhaps this is not surprising, given the deep divisions between Libertarian and non-Libertarian hackers on this topic. Chapter Six discusses "the ethics of the network" in relation to Personal Development literature, and suggests that there is an inherent tension between the speed of modern communications and the necessity of unhurried contemplation for ethical behavior.

The conclusion amounts to summarizing hacker values as discussed in chapters one through six, and suggests that there remains a lot to learn from hackerdom's challenge to the Protestant work ethic. Castells's epilogue is a brief academic essay whose point can be summarized as "substantial technical revolutions lead to cultural revolutions". As with Torvalds's contribution, it is somewhat interesting, but hardly reason to read the whole book.

The intended audience of The Hacker Ethic is a mystery to me. Although the cover of the paperback edition trumpets that the book is "A radical approach to the philosophy of business", business figures very little in the book's analysis. It is certainly not a business book in the sense of Who Moved My Cheese? or even The Cluetrain Manifesto; there are no rules for conducting business overall.

The book also aspires to be an anthropological treatise about hackers, in the Eric S. Raymond mode. The audience for such books is quite limited, however, and Himanen says nothing about hackers that they don't already know, if they agree with what he has written. In truth, the book seems to be a philosophical and historical treatise, relating today's hackers to Plato, medieval monasteries, and the Protestant work ethic. As such, it may be useful to academics defending an arcane point of dogma, but it is of little interest to the average reader, even one with a background in both computing and philosophy.

The history provided is perfunctory at best and misleading at worst. For example, on page 86 of the paperback edition, Lotus 1-2-3 is credited as "the first PC application that made a widespread function significantly easier than it had been before". This discounts all word processing applications, certainly one of the most popular uses of computers even today, and one which substantially predates Lotus. Furthermore, Lotus was not the first spreadsheet; that honor belongs to VisiCalc. Lotus 1-2-3 was a refinement of the ideas and even the interface pioneered by VisiCalc.

The Hacker Ethic is slight, but intriguing. It is not clear who the audience of the book is, and its broader statements do not ring true to this reader. In the end, it seems to be a dot com bandwagon book trying to disguise itself as both a business book and an academic study. While it is somewhat successful at situating hackers and the "network society" in an historical context, this may be an answer in search of a question.

RSS Recent comments

06 Jul 2002 07:32 lucumo

A book worth reading
Coincidence has it that I just finished reading this book. I read it from
cover to cover, only skipping the last ten pages of the Epilogue.

The points made in the book are not untrue, but as Himanen points out an
page 140 of the paperback: "[...] it is important to remember that only few
computer hackers share [all seven values of the hacker ethic], but they must
be seen collectively because of their societal and logical relation to one
another."

Perhaps Himanen lost track of his public along the way, I can't really tell.
I can however give my opinion on how well I could read it. The book was at
some points hard to comprehent, but on the whole it was an easy read and
very interesting too.

Now, some points may not be entirely true (simplified perhaps?), however I
do not find that to be particularly annoying. It were only a few points and
only those that were not very influential to the author's conclusion. It
were mere points of explanation, not proof.

In my opinion it is really a book worth reading.

25 Sep 2002 01:55 Avatar rfabbri

A book NOT worth reading
This text adds nothing to the reader's knowledge.
I found it boring to read. Linus' discourse is a very poor
version of his book "Just for fun" (a nice book, FYI).
In addition, Himanen just keeps writing faint ideas without getting at any clear point.

The Hacker Ethic was a book that didn't make any difference for me. It's content is good -- it's surely not
evil -- but it's way too obvious.

11 Mar 2007 13:10 KinoCineast

Worth reading
Of course, this is not a book about the subject of hacking but about the attitude of doing so. Frankly speaking, this seems to be a book about rather old-fashioned ideas. To me the underlying philosophy looks much like communism. Idealistic workers who share everything with everyone for the purpose of overall progress. I don´t think this is ever going to happen. But it will always be a dream - for now called "hacker ethic", yesterday it was "flower power" and once upon a time it was marxism.

24 Oct 2007 05:10 okraton

Re: Worth reading
Sorry, but i disagree with your thinking that marxism and flower power and the written hacker ethic is simply the same because it is idealistic. The ethic systems of these examples are so far away from each other, even if i doesn't look like this. So the basic of a communism ethics is metaphysical the ethic of the flower power movement is not really to analyse, because they hadn't ONE ethic. To be against war is not enough to call it ethics. And the hacker ethic has more a pragmatic ethic basement.

No everything idealistic is the same and the only really "idealistic" ethic of this is the ethic of marx who followed in some cases the german idealistics like Fichte, Schelling and Hegel.

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