Vanity Notes

A personal blog about programming and socialism.

These articles should not be taken as the official view of any organisation.

Let Hacker Culture Die

Posted 15 Nov 2020

The Hacker subculture originated in the early 1960s. It was only later that the word became associated with cybercrime.

Linus Torvalds, in The Hacker Ethic, gave perhaps the best characterisation of a hacker: to a hacker, a computer (not what runs on it but the computer itself and what it can be made to do) is entertainment.

This entertainment is also useful labour: much of modern technology, and multi-billion dollar companies, were built off hacker work that has been voluntarily and freely gifted to the commons on a colossal scale.

The hacker ethic has also meant fighting for freedom against big corporations and monopolies who lock down computing devices so that customers can’t control their own devices, who use patents and copyrights to crush smaller competition, drive up prices and prevent technological improvements, who persecute people sharing films and music and put up 96-year long paywalls around culturally important media, who invade our privacy and sell our personal data, who force invasive advertisements on us and reduce the security of our devices.

All of this is a resoundingly positive contribution from the hacker ethic but this individualistic counter-culture has its problems too. It’s true that open source software developers voluntarily producing free software “owe” us nothing, and we can sympathise with the burden of expectations from end-users. However, hacker culture has an infamously abrasive and abusive tone.

This was okay when hackers worked with other hackers - if it’s entertainment, then when it’s not fun you can leave and work on something else. But these days more and more people have careers in software development.

Workers in every industry deserve to be able to go about their workday without experiencing the abusive language, slurs, or bullying that seems normal to those coming from the hacker culture.

Let the old individualist hacker culture die and instead let’s keep the joyful, anti-corporate, hacker spirit alive collectively, as professionals, in diverse and democratic workplaces, in our trade unions, and in our professional societies.