The powerful hacker culture

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In my post the hacker culture is winning, I observed that the subculture developed in the software industry is infecting the wider world. One such visible culture shift is the concept of “version update”. In the industrial era, companies would design a phone, produce it and ship it. There might be a new type of phone the following year, but whatever you bought is what you got. In some sense, both politically and economically, the industrial era was inspired by the military model. “You have your orders!”

Yet, recently, a car company, Tesla, released an update so that all its existing cars acquired new functions (self-driving on highways). You simply could not even have imagined such an update in the industrial era.

It is an example of what I called innovation without permission, a feature of the hacker culture. It is an expression of the core defining hacker characteristic: playfulness and irreverence. Hackers will install Linux on the latest PlayStation even if Sony forbid it and made it impossible. Why would any team invest months of work on such a futile project?

What is unique to hackers is that displays of expertise have surpassed mere functionality to take a life of their own. Though my colleagues in the “Arts” often roll their eyes when I point it out, the hackers are the true subversive artists of the post-industrial era.

The hacker culture has proven its strength. We got Chelsea Manning’s and Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks, the somewhat scary underground work by Anonymous, Edward Snowden’s leak, the Panama papers and so forth. Aaron Swartz scared the establishment so much that they sought to put him behind bars for life merely because he downloaded academic articles.

You might object that many of these high-profile cases ended with the hackers being exiled or taken down… but I think it is fair to say that people like Aaron Swartz won the culture war. As a whole, more people, not fewer, are siding with the hackers. Regarding the Panama Papers, there were some feeble attempts to depict the leak as a privacy violation, but it no longer carries weight as an argument. TV shows increasingly depict hackers as powerful (and often rightful) people (e.g., House of Cards, The Good Wife, and Homeland).

Who is winning ground do you think?

What makes the hacker culture strong?

  • Hackers control the tools. Google, Microsoft and Apple have powerful CEOs, but they need top-notch hackers to keep the smartphones running. Our entire culture is shaped by how these hackers think through our tools.The government might be building up fantastic cyberweapons, but what the Snowden incident proved is that this may only give more power to the hackers. You know who has access to all your emails? Software hackers.Our tools have come to reflect the hacker culture. They are more and more playful and irreverent. We now have CEOs posting on Twitter using 140 characters. No “sincerely yours”, no corporate logo.
  • Hackers are rich with time and resources. Most companies need hackers, but they can’t really tell what the best ones are up to. How do you think we ended up with Linux running most of our Internet infrastructure? It is not the result of central planning or a set of business decisions. It happened with hackers were toying with Linux while the boss was looking. When you have employees stacking crates, it is easy for an industrial-age boss to direct them. How do you direct extremely smart people who are typing on keyboards?Apparently, Linus Torvalds work in his bathrobe at home. He spends a lot of time swearing at other people on posting boards. He can afford all of that because it is impossible to tell Linus what to do.

I don’t think it is mere coincidence if the powerful people are embracing the hacker culture. I could kid and point out that the true hackers may not represent many people, they may not formally hold much wealth, but they metaphorically control the voting machines and hold all the incriminating pictures. But rather, I think that smart people realize that the hacker culture might also be exactly what we need to prosper in the post-industrial era. The military approach is too crude. We don’t need more factories. We don’t need more tanks. But we sure can use smarter software. And that’s ultimately where the hackers take their power: they put results into your hands.