Hacker Ethic

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Hacker Ethic = the new work ethic based on the values and practices of the original hackers and open source programmers, but extending itself with the emergence of generalized peer production.

In my opinion, it should be seen as a counter-reaction to alienated Network Sociality.

It is also the title of a specific book.


From the Wikipedia:


"The hacker ethic comprises 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 1960s. 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. The guidelines of the hacker ethic make it easy to see how computers have evolved into the personal devices we know and rely upon today. The key points within this ethic are that of access, free information, and improvement to quality of life." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hacker_ethic)


"In 1984 Levy established the 7 commandments of the Personal Computer revolution. It was the base for the Personal Computer and Internet social ethos:

1. Access to Computers - and anything that might teach you something about the way the world works - should be unlimited and total.

2. Always yield to the Hands-on Imperative.

3. All information should be free.

4. Mistrust authority - promote decentralization.

5. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race,or position.

6. You can create art and beauty on a computer.

7. Computers can change your life for the better." (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steven_Levy)

Book: The Hacker Ethic

Source of the concept is the book: Himanen, Pekka. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age. Random House, 2002

Quote from the back cover of The Hacker Ethic, by Pekka Himanen:

“Nearly a century ago, Max Weber articulated the animating spirit of the industrial age, the Protestant ethic. Now, Pekka Himanen - together with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells - articulates how hackers* represent a new, opposing ethos for the information age. Underlying hackers' technical creations - such as the Internet and the personal computer, which have become symbols of our time - are the hacker values that produced them and that challenge us all. These values promoted passionate and freely rhythmed work; the belief that individuals can create great things by joining forces in imaginative ways; and the need to maintain our existing ethical ideals, such as privacy and equality, in our new, increasingly technologized society."

Reading Notes from Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens, 2004:

"This is a very important work that describes the new work ethic as experienced in the 'community of passionate programmers', but is influencing many other sectors as well. This book can be seen as an update of, and contrast with, the seminal work by Max Weber, i.e. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which describes the bourgeois ethic of the Reformation and how it would fashion the industrial and capitalist age. The Hacker Ethic could be similarly seen as fashing the Information Age.

The foreword by Linus Thorvald, the founder of the Linux free software project, points to a 'hierarchy of needs' centered around survival, social life, and entertainment, the latter expanded to the immaterial need for passion and meaning. The concluding epilogue by Manuel Castells is an updated summary of his trilogy on the Information Society. He sees society as evolving around basic technological and social-structural paradigms, from example from industrialism to informationalism. As every society is in fact centered around information and knowledge, this cannot be the salient characteristic of informationalism.

Pekka Himanen says that the current phase of the information economy has not abolished the Protestant Ethic but has in fact exacerbated it, through a process that he calls, The Friday-isation of Sunday. He describes the use of the mobile phone as a permanent emergency tool, and how home life has been 'optimized' by business methods. All our life has now become work-centered. But the next section deals with the attempts by hackers to reverse that process, through what he calls the 'Sunday-isation of Friday'. In medieval times, workers managed their own time and they had in fact no means of fixing time. The only exceptions were the monasteries, organized around the prayers that fixed times, and where lateness was punished. It is in fact this system that the Protestant Ethic generalized to the whole of society.

Himanen then turns his attention to the hacker learning model. He notes that the university, despite the scientific revolution, still often functions in the scholastic tradition of top down learning. Hackers on the other hand, are 'learning researchers', who constantly learn from each other, through the sharing of questions on open forums and by continuously updating the common documentation. He notes that hackers most often learn from fresh learners, who have not yet lost their touch with novices. And he proposes to expand this vision and practice through a permanent Net Academy.

In a review of this book in Multitude #8 , it is said that if open source can be considered to be a marginal and parasitic emergence out of capitalism, the contrary is also true, relying ever more on innovation, needs the free exchange of ideas more and more, yet the IP laws threaten this, as Richard Stallman discovered.

Very interesting is the discussion of Personal Development techniques, whose seven basic principles can be traced back to the monastic ethos and its export to society by the Protestant ethic, but which has been purified to the extreme. This in order to create a simpler self, totally focused on concrete goals in a complex world. Hence Pekka Himanen compares it to the development of a fundamentalism!

The Seven Habits are:

- Determinacy = setting goals

- Optimality - use of time

- Flexibility = use of means

- Stability = of the end goals, linked to positive thinking, i.e. the transformation of negative emotions through new interpretations

- Industry = hard work

- Economy = sound managemet of money

- Result accountability = keeping detailed score of progress

Himanen then goes on to argue that these seven values, all subordinated to money in their internal hierarchy, are actually the dominant values of the networked entreprises and hence form the 'spirit of informationalism'. While it is true that they are the product of the seventies and eighties, in my opinion, he fails to make a distinction between the capitalist ethos, and the cooperative ethos of informationalism, and how the first in many ways contradict the latter. Nevertheless, in this interesting section, he cleary shows how the corporate values are in fact the same ones that are applied to the individual. But the new values are purely instrumental, geared towards competition and survival. Any resource or 'relationship' that does not assist in the optimal functioning of the network can be disconnected. Stability is only important if it helps the network, for example the financial network, survive. Thus Africa, or even Argentina, can be 'discarded'. The new values profoundly lack any ethics.

Himanen then makes an interesting distinction between exclusionary networks and inclusionary networks, the latter having an ethics (he cites the Internet Society as an example, as it wants to include the whole world). Next to the philosophy of survival comes another barrier: the logic of speed. Ethicality requires 'unhurried' thinking and longer temporal sequences so that we can take responsability for the future.

The 'concluding' chapter then finally attempts to describe the seven alternative values that would typify the hacker ethic:

   - 1) passion
   - 2) freedom, (with passion+freedom = the hacker work ethic)
   - 3) social worth and 4) openness (this replaces the 'money ethic' as motivational force)
   - the nethic, defined by the values of 5) activity and 6) caring
   - 7) creativity: the continuous surpassing of oneself


Pekka Himanen

URL = [1]

Pekka Himanen is a Finnish philosopher and researcher on the information society, most well-known for his landmark book The Hacker Ethic, which updates Max Weber's classic on the Calvinist work ethic. In his book he shows how network society is both exacerbating the Calvinist work ethic to the point where it becomes immoral and unsustainable, while also creating as a counter-reaction the new hacker ethic, which is based on a peer to peer ethic. The hacker ethic in this broad sense of cooperative working should not be confused with the more specific sense of the ethic of computer hackers.

Website at [2] ; Email him at [[email protected]]

The Wikipedia entry on The Hacker Ethic at [3] A random review at [4]


A view on the hacker ethic by Richard Barbrook

From the "Manifesto for ‘Digital Artisans:

4. We will shape the new information technologies in our own interests. Although they were originally developed to reinforce hierarchical power, the full potential of the Net and computing can only be realised through our autonomous and creative labour. We will transform the machines of domination into the technologies of liberation.

9. For those of us who want to be truly creative in hypermedia and computing, the only practical solution is to become digital artisans. The rapid spread of personal computing and now the Net are the technological expressions of this desire for autonomous work. Escaping from the petty controls of the shopfloor and the office, we can rediscover the individual independence enjoyed by craftspeople during proto-industrialism. We rejoice in the privilege of becoming digital artisans.

10. We create virtual artefacts for money and for fun. We work both in the money-commodity economy and in the gift economy of the Net. When we take a contract, we are happy to earn enough to pay for our necessities and luxuries through our labours as digital artisans. At the same time, we also enjoy exercising our abilities for our own amusement and for the wider community. Whether working for money or for fun, we always take pride in our craft skills. We take pleasure in pushing the cultural and technical limits as far forward as possible. We are the pioneers of the modern." (http://www.hrc.wmin.ac.uk/hrc/theory/digitalArtisans/t.1.1.1 )

On the necessity of open collaboration

" The free sharing of information - in this case code as opposed to software development - has nothing to do with altruism or a specific anti-authoritarian social vision. It is motivated by the fact that in a complex collaborative process, it is effectively impossible to differentiate between the "raw material" that goes into a creative process and the "product" that comes out. Even the greatest innovators stand on the shoulders of giants. All new creations are built on previous creations and themselves provide inspiration for future ones. The ability to freely use and refine those previous creations increases the possibilities for future creativity." (http://news.openflows.org/article.pl?sid=02/04/23/1518208 )

Tony Prug: the hacker ethic and the protestant ethic

From http://rabelais.socialtools.net/FreeSoftware.ToniPrug.Aug2007.txt:

"Hackers and the Protestant ethics

For Himanen_(2001), it is the hacker ethics that drives the development of Free Software. Hacker not meaning just a computer specialist of certain type, but any person who practices some of the hacker ethics. It was Levy_(1984) who first formulated main point of hackers ethics as: a) access to computers (and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works) should be unlimited and a total, hands-on approach is imperative; b) all information should be free; c) mistrust authority and promote decentralization; d) hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race or position; e) you can create art and beauty on a computer; f) computers can change your life for the better.

Hackers are inclined to become obsessed with their work. They pursue it relentlessly, often at the expense of other aspects of life. Because of this, they have been portrayed as anti-social, weird in ways which ``normal human beings cannot understand. Yet, their work differs significantly from what we consider today to be a dominant paradigm of capitalist society, the Protestant work ethic. According to Himanen, it is social motivations that separate those two ethics: in the Protestant ethic work has invaded leisure and aspects of private life, like finding a spouse and having friends, are frequently carried out work. Those social activities at work serve in the Protestant ethic to distract attention from the idea that pursuing one's passion should happen at work too (Himanen, 2001: 51). Although for hackers what they do (but not necessary the employment) is passion, why would people in such large numbers work in their leisure time too just to give the result of their work away in the public domain, for free? The linking of a contribution to society with passion is what for Himanen characterises the hacker ethic a powerful model. Recent empirical research in which 680 Free Software programmers were interviewed concluded that enjoyment is the biggest reason why hackers do what they do (Lakhani_and_Wolf, 2003). A paradox that remains theoretically unresolved is how can people with such socialization elements (high priority to work, frequent aspects of strange communication with other people) and values of individual freedoms have at the same time such a firm link to the society and what they consider good for it. The company Google understands this well and implements aspects of it in practice by allowing its engineers to spend twenty percent of their time at work working on their own technical projects, not necessarily linked with what company does. For a hacker, ``making a living is a depressive, unbearable option that he replaces with ``it's my life, as Himanen_(2001,_40) correctly observes. The curse of the Protestant ethic of work as necessary suffering that one is obliged to withstand, the iron cage built by our rationality, as Max Weber concluded on the character of this modern lockdown of humanity (Weber, 1965: 182), thus, even more paradoxically, gets hacked, reused in unexpected, unintended ways, by the people engaged in one of most rational tasks, computer programming. Is that not what hackers are doing to the computing tools and global communications networks built to a large extent for military and profit making purposes, reusing them in their own way, redefining some of the core postulates of our time: why do we work how we work, what is our relationship with the product of our work and what do we do with the results? The answer to the question "why" is for hackers clear: because it is pleasure, not suffering. How? In collaboration, sharing the results and internals of what is produced, with open access for anyone whose material conditions allow them to observe and engage in what is done. Can hackers have the last laugh, as simultaneous co-creators of the iron-turns-silicon cage and its hackers?

When Max Weber concluded that the Protestant ethic is a driver for he development of capitalism, his main argument focused on an ethic of dedication to work, and, most importantly, of saving the profits, which in turn leads to the investment of accumulated capital. This was one of the key elements how, according to Weber, the capitalist machine got moving. Castells (1996: 200) agrees with Weber and adds that to explain society today, we need to have ``some kind of cultural glue that makes social actors behave in similar fashion on a large scale, and that purely rationalist explanations, for something as large as emergence of capitalism, aren't enough. There are also recent works (Mikkonen_et_al.,_2007) in which very similar conclusions are drawn, this time from empirical data collected, through interviews and questionnaires, from communities of programmers. The findings reaffirm some findings of Himanen's Hacker Ethics, most known of all writings in this direction, stating that motives for participation in open source and free software production today are mainly for the material benefit of participants. Yet, Himanen's research left many questions open and posed hacker ethics as a threat to protestant ethics, while Mikhonnen's research concludes that some sort of special ethics of hackers is a myth. Overall, these researches agree with Weber's use of concept of the Protestant ethic as the spirit of capitalism and analyze hackers in relation to it, starting from the hacker ethic as being in opposition to the Protestant ethic, and concluding that reality is lot simpler, since hackers end up joining the forces of capitalism and the Protestant ethic in the end.

None of this was convincing enough for me, starting from Weber's use of only a few elements of Protestantism, followed by a superficial use of his work in the sociology of hackers during last ten years[6]. They agree with Weber all too quickly, and offer no close reading of Weber's work, nor of the key concepts (religion, Protestantism, rationality) that made that work possible. Himanen's work touches upon the kind of reading that I believe is necessary, but it is still playing it far too safe in far too many areas. I'm tempted to start from the opposite position. For the benefit of his conclusions on Protestantism as the spirit of capitalism, Weber presented Protestantism as a single, unified whole, although he was fully aware that that was not the case. Using Weber's conclusion presents us with an all too easy to use, yet deceiving, formula. To use it as label, as a quote that one can just attach to one's work, as Castells and others do in explaining social phenomena of hackers and our computing age, betrays both the complexity and the richness of Weber's work and of the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Hackers are not a challenge to the Protestant ethic, quite the contrary. I'm tempted to claim they are far more protestant than what capitalism can bare, hence their uneasy fit. Open Source is a movement that, with quite some success, attempted to ``pacify Free Software, to bridge the gap between Free Software and capitalism. Project Oekonux is a good example of an opposite theoretical approach. The move of the Open Source initiative to bring Free Software closer to capitalism shows that: a) there is a gap between the Free Software movement and capitalism; b) without a significant institutional intervention and re-interpretation that gap can not be overcome; c) more than practice (since practice of Open Source doesn't differ that much), it is the founding documents, principles that Richard Stallman stands by so fiercely that are the bite that capitalism can not subsume, swallow in its original form. Re- interpretation work that Open Source, and to a large extent publisher O'Reilly, did, was necessary for inclusion of Free Software into capitalist economy. The task that I set for myself is similar to that of the Oekinux project, with a different path of investigation: to conceptualize, give a theoretical form to that which resists capitalism in Free Software. An expression of the hacker ethics needs to be hacked to enable future, social, hacks." (http://rabelais.socialtools.net/FreeSoftware.ToniPrug.Aug2007.txt)

Luther's Five Solas and Free Software Principles

Tony Prug:

"The basic theological points of the Reformation are called the Five Solas. The first one, Solus Christus (Christ alone) refuses Pope and church as Christ's representatives and preaches that Christ, and no one else, mediates between God and man. The second one, Sola scriptura, refuses the need for a Church to interpret the Scripture and the Church's monopoly on such interpretation. Protestants believe that people should read the Scripture on their own and make up their own minds about it, without external interpretation. The third one, Sola fide, asserts that it is on the basis of faith alone that believers are forgiven. The fourth one, Sola gratia, claims that believers are accepted without any regard for the merit of their work; God decides on his own. The fifth and last one, Soli Deo gloria, preaches glory to God alone, and denies that saints of the Roman Catholic Church, including popes, are worthy of the glory assigned to them.

Not all of this maps to hackers and Free Software. Yet, if we are to speak in terms of spirit like Weber did, in terms of the general mood of the Five Solas, there are striking similarities. Throughout, like hackers and Free Software, the spirit of Protestantism is in favour of direct engagement of individuals, and the proliferation of interpretations and organizations to support these if needed. It arose against the centralization of the Roman Catholic Church, privilege in interpretation of people chosen by the Church, and against the Church's extraction of wealth from its believers. At that time, those were anti-institutional, anti-hierarchical and anti-bureaucratic principles. Although the high number of branches of Protestantism was criticized by Calvin, principle was withheld in practice. This resembles the hacker's principle of forking a project: if you don't like what is someone else doing with some project, you take a copy of the source code15 and start work on it in the direction you wish. The principle of scripture alone is similar to the hacker's dedication to the code, the text that makes all software what it is. All doubts about interpretations can be resolved by looking at the source. For all hackers, to dive straight to the source code is not the last resort, but rather the first course of action. Interpretation is personal, direct and engagement with no proxy is in most cases the only right option. Trust in people's ability to dive straight to the code, to make up their own mind by reading it, to make a critical evaluation, to decide for themselves, are key for hackers. This unmediated contact with the scripture and trust in people is embodied in the Free Software principle of ``freedom to study how software works and adapt it to your needs, access to the source code is precondition for this Stallman (2002). Aiding capitalism, allowing economic emancipation of individuals was for Weber a side effect of Reformation, not its intended purpose, regardless of its insistence on individual material gains, and its dislike of capitalism, demonstrated by Luther, for example. This paradox is best seen in the quote of John Wesley where it is clear how well Wesley is aware of the paradox (Weber, 1965: 175). Capitalism didn't follow main principles of Protestantism, it followed some of them, those that suited it. If it had followed Protestantism to a large extent, it wouldn't be so difficult to fit hackers and Free Software into capitalism. The dark mood in which Weber concludes his book, the last few pages that are misused as a label so often, state the problem more precisely: ``Puritans wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so(p.181). Puritans, not all Protestants.

If there is one important part of the hacker ethics that might go against the Protestantism, it could be its insistence on doing the work as enjoyment and improving the technology so that it can serve humanity and so that humans can be lazy. Two hackers of the highest standing, Larry Wall (inventor of programming language Perl) and Yukihiro Matsumoto Matz (inventor of influential programming language Ruby), both stated it on many occasions: for a true hacker, laziness is a virtue, and computers are there to serve humans. Both of them are very religious, and Matz even served as a missionary for his church. Linus Torvalds, one of the most important hackers today, is known for statements that can be seen as fundamentalist. Consider this from the Linux coding style guide: ``Heretic people all over the world have claimed that this inconsistency is ... well .. inconsistent, but all right-thinking people know that a) K&R are _right_ and (b) K&R are right16 (K&R are Kernighan and Ritchie, inventors of programming language C). Or, this from one of his interviews: ``Which mindset is right? Mine, of course. People who disagree with me are by definition crazy (Until I change my mind, when they can suddenly become upstanding citizens) (Barr, 2005). Richard Stallman, because of what some considered inflexibility when discussing core premises of Free Software, was seen as a fundamentalist. Debates about preferences to which software, or which programming tool, to use are frequently referred to as religious wars17. All of this is left mostly untouched under the framing of business friendly Open Source. This is not a coincidence. Anything that gets included into capitalist economy has to be stripped of any previous attributes and represented as a mere commodity (Zizek, 2006), an entity to be produced, sold and utilized. There are two sets of complexities that are erased in a single move of becoming open source: that of Free Software prior to its inclusion into the capitalist economy, and that of the commodity form itself - base entity of the capitalist economy." (http://rabelais.socialtools.net/FreeSoftware.ToniPrug.Aug2007.html)

More Information

  1. See also The Hacker Manifesto and the Play Ethic
  2. The Hacker Ethic and Meaningful Work. Tom Chance, essay


Links on 'Hackers Ethics'

Compiled by Becha [5]:

  • On Ethics
  1. http://becha.home.xs4all.nl/hackers-ethics-for-the-world-after-collapse-december-2013.html
  2. http://www.puscii.nl/blog/content/philosophy-hacking

  • Teaching Hackers Ethics
  1. Mailing list: https://lists.puscii.nl/wws/info/hacker-ethics
  2. Wiki http://wiki.netresearchnet.org/index.php/Hacker_Ethics

  1. http://opensource.com/education/14/2/teach-hacking-schools-open-education
  2. http://www.hackerhighschool.org/
  3. http://opensource.com/sites/default/files/articles/About_Hacker_Highschool.pdf
  4. http://opensource.com/education/13/2/next-generation-open-source-hackers
  5. http://mackenty.org/index.php/dev/comments/hacking_in_high_school_yes_but
  6. http://www.certified-ethical-hacker.co.uk/
  7. Teaching Linux: http://www.linuxinsider.com/story/80290.html?rss=1