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Aputsiaq Janussen * Adding Rationality to Himanen`s Hacker Ethic (was: Re: [ox-en] Conference documentation / Konferenzdokumentation)

Adding Rationality to Himanen`s Hacker Ethic

Aputsiaq Janussen [aputtu at]


Ethic is about right and wrong, good and bad; it has to do with
character, it has to do with codes and principles for behaviour. The
hacker ethic, then, is about the hacker?s conceptions of right and
wrong, about ethical hacker?s character-traits, their codes and
principles of behaviour. In order to present any account of the hacker
ethic, we need to know what a hacker is.


First step: what is a hacker?

Second step: how, when and why did the hacker ethic appear?

Third step: what could be at stake when we talk about the hacker

FIRST STEP: What is a hacker?

The today?s hacker culture has its roots in Massachusetts Institute of
Technology (M.I.T.) - at least what is described to be the old school
hackers. The first group of people calling themselves hackers were
from the university?s local Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC). According
to the TMRC-dictionary [1] a 'hacker' is "one who hacks, or makes
them"; a 'hack' is:

1.   an article or project without constructive end;

2.   work undertaken on bad self-advice;

3.   an entropy booster;

4.   to produce, or attempt to produce, a hack.

The hacker culture has become associated with the computer culture.
Part of the explanation is that members of the TMRC-Club attended at
the first computer courses delivered at M.I.T and later brought their
culture into the M.I.T. AI Lab. At the M.I.T AI Lab there were an
ethic that said that whoever sat at the computers should be free to do
whatever they wanted to - previous users should not restrict present
users capabilities [2]. The build the ITS (Incompatible Timesharing
System), they built EMACS and thrived through sharing their knowledge
and source code. Hackers can be found in many different domains - you
don?t have to associate hackers with computers - you can hack in any
medium; i.e. you can hack philosophy, hack physics, hack driving cars,
hack while eating Chinese food (as for example: a famous hacker once
managed to eat with 6 chopsticks at once).

Common to the hackers? activities is playfulness, cleverness and
exploration [3]. In taking a more personal approach on the hacker; my
own experience the last couple of years come from my daughter:
playfulness, cleverness and exploration are exactly what characterises
her activities. By default, I think we should be allowed to call a
very wide range of people hackers.

SECOND STEP. The appearance of the term, 'hacker ethic'.

Journalist Steven Levy coined the term 'hacker ethic' [4] in his
Hackers (1984). Levy himself explains how he came up with the term,

As I talked to these digital explorers, ranging from those who tamed
multimillion-dollar machines in the 1950s to contemporary young
wizards who mastered computers in their suburban bedrooms, I found a
common element, a common philosophy which seemed tied to the elegantly
flowing logic of the computer itself. It was a philosophy of sharing,
openness, decentralization, and getting your hands on machines at any
cost - to improve the machines, and to improve the world. This Hacker
Ethic is their gift to us: something with value even to those of us
with no interest at all in computers.

(Levy, 1984, 1994:7)

The Jargon File - also known as The Hacker?s Dictionary - contains a
definition of the 'hacker ethic', however, the term was not included
in Guy L. Steele Jr.?s (et al) 1983-version. The Jargon File must have
picked up the term later on, at least so it seems. Today, the first
part of the entry says, quote:

Hacker ethic. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful
positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share
their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to
information and to computing resources wherever possible.


Perhaps some hundred thousands of people have a shared conception of
the hacker ethic; they know that it is about a sharing community,
about writing free software/open source and about freedom. Some think
that the hacker ethic can change the society for the better. Others,
that the hacker ethic is some utopian, idealistic or communist crap.
However, the majority of people have not heard about the hacker ethic.
Some have not even heard of hackers - and still many people have a
misconception of what a hacker is; i.e. a hacker is not a cracker. (In
short: hackers has to do with playfulness, cleverness, and exploration
- hacking does not imply any criminal behaviour, whereas crackers are
those who poke around in networks, break into systems, destroy, commit
criminal acts in order to gain for themselves only etc.)

Still fewer have tried hard to think through the common objections,
argue for and against and finally write about the hacker ethic. At
least one of them see the hacker ethic as a serious challenge to
contemporary society?s norms and values. He has found that hacker
ethic has through technological creations such as the Internet already
shaped our society. The hacker ethic can still change the society to
the better.


'Hacker ethic' appears in the first book title.

In 2001, Pekka Himanen (Finnish philosopher) wrote "The Hacker Ethic
and the Spirit of the Information Age". It is the first title of a
book proclaiming to give an account of the so-called hacker ethic. The
books prologue is by famous hacker Linus Torvalds (father of the
Linux-kernel) and the epilogue is by sociologist Manuel Castells. The
main theme in Himanen?s book is this: the hacker ethic as a challenge
to contemporary society (in order to change society for the better).
In Himanen?s view contemporary society is in large parts still the
same as described by Weber. Weber plays an important role in Himanen?s
account of the hacker ethic. Therefore the following part is devoted
to Weber?s own account of the protestant ethic and the spirit of
capitalism. After presenting Weber?s account, we will return to our
main concern: Himanen?s account of the hacker ethic.


Max Weber?s "Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus."

In 1904-1905 Max Weber (German thinker, historian, father of
sociology) published De protestantische Ethik und der Geist des
Kapitalismus [6]. In his work, Weber accounts for important historical
presuppositions that he found had led to his contemporary culture and
society; i.e. Weber were looking for causes that had shaped the
Western capitalistic world that he lived in. Weber felt that the
spirit of capitalism - for better or worse - controlled contemporary
society at the time.

In order to describe his findings, Weber made use of two ideal-types:

1.   the protestant ethic, and

2.   the spirit of capitalism.

The protestant ethic describes religious, otherworldly and ascetics
who follow Gods commands - according to different reformed religious
sects; sects who evolved from Reformation beginning with Martin
Luther?s call for a more strict, puritanical and inner-worldly
Christianity. Followers of the protestant ethic - people seeking the
otherworldly, but living in this world could not be certain that they
would end up together with God after they died. They would be in doubt
whether or not God would let them enter heaven after finishing their
earthly life. They would in fact be so very much in doubt.

They worked harder than others and stayed more focused. They would not
let girls, booze and jolly parties disturb their calling; i.e. serve
God faithfully, enter the Kingdom of God, call it heaven, Eden or
paradise. By choosing work harder and do better than the rest, they
thought that they could get a hint, or just a tiny amount of certainty
whether or not they would end up in heaven. Staying truth to God and
being faithful in doing an excellent job became a sign of devotion to
God; a call of duty - to God. The protestant chose this way of life -
at that time he was free to choose.

Choosing that way of life actually led religious Protestants to higher
social ranking than other religious sects. At least, that was one of
Weber?s conclusions [7]. Protestants followed the call of God through
the Bible (in localized language-versions) instead of the call of
Catholic Pope in Rome (in Latin). The Protestants had thereby detached
themselves from a traditional Christianity, which favoured a
this-worldly economic order.

The Protestants were free agents who connected themselves into a
rational-capitalistic economy oriented by the market (and not
political power nor irrational speculations). A clear divide between
the economy of the household and that of the enterprise, and the
commercialisation Economical, legal and social systems became mere
effective, optimised and strict. The new systems would provide higher
rates of economical growth. Their children perhaps lacked the same
degree of dedication, and their children?s children at times lacked
the faith, and the grandchildren became secularised. The faithful way
of life was substituted by this-worldly life; the economical, legal
and social systems were by that time turned into self-subsisting
systems. In the last pages of his book Max Weber wrote, quote:

The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For
when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life,
and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building
the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now
bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production
which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born
into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic
acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine
them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter's view
the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the
"saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment."
But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

In this iron cage the order of the day was that you had to conform to
the system, or else you are out of job and out of money. The companies
hiring people to work for them had to compete or perish - the system
had lost its face, it had become an alien an overwhelming system.

Weber?s intention was to decode his contemporary society, to
understand which important presuppositions that had formed the Western
world. Why was it that Greek philosophy, mathematics and rational the
theology had appeared in the West. Why was it that rational economy
first appeared in the post 14th century? The Western world can indeed
be seen as an extremely complex mechanism. Building complex systems
can be done in several ways, but there should be a freedom of choice,
freedom to cooperate and a freedom to change the most important
systems for the better. Building better systems and a better society
is what the hacker ethic is all about.

THE THIRD STEP. Himanen?s The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age

The similarity between Weber?s and Himanen?s title is everything but
by chance. Himanen is in fact picking up on Max Weber?s work - their
intention is somewhat the same.

However, in order to give an account of the hacker ethic, Himanen
explicitly and consciously equates the 'protestant ethic' with the
'capitalist spirit'. By doing this he eliminates the historical
dimension found in Weber?s book. Having done that, Himanen is able to
oppose the 'protestant ethic' with the 'hacker ethic' throughout is
own book.

Himanen finds that the hacker ethic distinguishes from the protestant
ethic in the three dominant domains:


     The hacker?s work ethic says that work should be done with an
     intrinsic interest and enthusiasm, which makes his work a joy.
     His work is not just a work, but first of all a passion. Hackers
     are not the only people with this relationship to his work.
     Himanen finds similar descriptions of a passionate relationship
     in various places: in the Ancient Plato?s dialogues, from
     different artists and professionals within many domains. The
     capitalist/protestant?s work ethic says that you should work in
     order to get paid, receive recognition and contribute to your
     society. The work in itself is not motivating for the protestant,
     whereas to the hacker the work is in itself interesting and


     The capitalist/protestant?s work ethic says that earning money
     enables you to gain control over networks and information, and
     thereby make even more money; even when you are not fighting for
     survival you should continue to act as if you were. The
     capitalist seeks profit through copyright, patents, brands,
     non-disclosure agreements and any other means - and they act as
     if it is a matter of survival. The hacker?s money ethic says that
     you can be paid to do what you like to do, but you should not
     restrict or exclude others from making money through copyright or
     non-disclosure agreements. As Himanen points out, quote:

The original hacker ethic was primarily a matter of what place money
is accorded as a motive and what types of its influence on other
motives should be avoided.


     In Himanen?s account hacker ethic it says that sharing
     information can cause a tremendous amount of wealth and
     innovation. Himanen points out that collaborating scientists - as
     seen at Plato?s Academy and many other places - have shown that
     publishing scientific knowledge has proven to be the very

     Stephen 'Woz' Wozniak (Apple, "capitalistic hacker", gained
     freedom through lots of money).

     Richard M. Stallman (FSF, "idealistic hacker", initiated the GNU
     Project, where free software were created in order to build a
     community that gives hackers and common users the freedom to use,
     improve, share and distribute their software). Bill Gates
     (Microsoft, the gifted ex-hacker, donates huge piles of money to
     the third world - is he some sort of a Robin Hood after all?).


The most radical implications of the hacker ethic is formulated under
the heading 'nethic'; a short term for 'networks ethic'.

The protestant/capitalist?s network ethic allows a radical divide
between household and enterprise, between people, companies, cities
and countries. It allows economical and political powers to exclude
others from their network, and it allows information providers to
divide and dominate information users.

The hacker?s network ethic seeks to include and avoid exclusion; i.e.
there is no discrimination based on age, educational level, religion,
skin-colour or whether you are a competitor on the economical market.
The hacker?s network ethic says that you should be able to join, and
when you enter the common network you should still have constitutional
rights like that of the human rights (freedom of speech, right to
privacy etc.). When people are excluded you?re your network, you can?t
use that network to care for him - by allowing everyone to enter the
network, in a common community, members have a chance to care. I can
help you and you can help me, we can laugh, discuss, and collaborate -
that is basically what the hacker?s network ethic says. Bring people
together, let them hack, collaborate, care about real problems; this
is the perfect setting for creativity - the perfect setting for
hacking systems in order to remove irrational limits, change systems
for the better and thereby provide everyone in the system a better


In Himanen?s account, the hacker ethic is characterised by seven
values: passion, freedom, the hackers? work ethic, their money ethic,
their network ethic (nethic), caring and creativity (i.e. creativity
understood as the ability to come up with surprising and
self-transcending ways of contributing with truly and real values.)


You have now heard that ethics has to do with character. You have
heard that hackers have certain character-traits. That the term hacker
ethic were coined in 1984 by journalist Steven Levy. In 2001,
philosopher Pekka Himanen undertook a serious-hackerish study of the
hacker ethic. Himanen found that the society described by Max Weber
one hundred years earlier, still exists and are dominating people?s
life. Weber?s intention was to explain why rational-economical
society, the modern capitalist society, first appeared in the Western

Modern society seen as a formally free, but monstrous commercialised
system; a system consisting of networks that are allowed to exclude
members of society to gain profit. Himanen?s account of the hacker
ethic pin-point problems in three domains: the money ethic, the work
ethic and the network ethic. He finds that the hacker ethic are to
some extent superior to the protestant ethic - but what is most
important is the ability to chose passionate, meaningful life where
work and money in themselves are no longer systematically control our


My main concern in Himanen?s account is that the question of
rationality isn?t accounted for. Himanen?s catalogue of ideas is rich
- I am not in a position to present his thousands of sharp
observations - however, questions arise:

Whose rationality will thrive in the Information Age dominated by the
hacker ethic? The hacker ethic is about finding a meaningful life -
and hacking systems can lead to better systems.

Whose justice will prevail - will it be easier for young and bright
students to live in this new hacker-ethical society than it is for
grandmother and grandfathers? Focusing on rationality like Weber did
brought him to some key understandings of the Western society. I am
not convinced that the protestant ethic - a ethic that tells you to
work hard, stay focused, keep goal-oriented etc. - didn?t do a great
job to provide modern society. In fact, to me it seems that what we
have a system shaped by free agent and free markets; it is at times
dysfunctional and we need to stay alert.

At times it isn?t working, it doesn?t bring us the freedom to life a
good life. For that we need hacks and other kind of improvements.

I?ve found that focus on rationality with rationality indeed is
characterising some of the greatest hackers of all time. Hackers like
Socrates, Plato, Kant and - yes - Richard M. Stallman. We have seen
that the GNU General Public License has changed kept free software
alive. One of the main reasons is that the license obeys the
copyright-law - it not only obeys the printed law, but it obeys the
original spirit of that law - it obeys the copyright-law, and is used
contrary to the mainstream usage; i.e. diving, dominating and cashing
money from people by imposing ridicules restrictions on how to share
your software, books and in general: useful knowledge. If Stallman
didn?t knew how the legal system worked, if he didn?t had taken time
to track the implicit rationality of the system - his hack probably
wouldn't have worked. The hacker ethic is about sharing and community
for sure, but in order to get to that point important steps are to be
taken. It has to do with freedom, moral feelings and taking action;
when done in the hacker-movements some call it hacktivism, following a
nethic or some belief that they don't have to call it anything. What
is important here is not the name, but being able to reuse the wisdom
- therefore it makes 'double' sense to call it something simple and


Ethic is about right and wrong. Hacking is about playfulness,
cleverness and explorations. The hacker ethic is about the right and
wrong of hackers who adhere to some common traits, some common codes
and principle of behaviour.

The hacker ethic argues that:

1.   Freedom weighs more than money.

2.   Hacking irrational, unjust systems can turn them into rational,
     just systems.

3.   Inclusive networks are more efficient than excluding networks.

Some call it a 'free society' and other call it the 'GPL society'.
What is most important is that it is a good society. Well, what is a
good society then? This is yet another important question to be


Lessons to learn (again).

o    Case 1. Kantian ethic and the Golden Rule in free software.

     Free Software were termed by Richard M. Stallman. In the 1960?s
     and 1970?s all software were free software, but with the
     commercialisation of software the M.I.T. AI Lab became divided -
     and the community-ethic slowly died. In his essays such as the
     The GNU Manifesto (written in 1984) and The GNU Project (1989)
     Stallman wrote that dividing and dominating user, and not sharing
     useful information was essentially wrong. In his 1984 he
     explicitly refers to the Kantian ethic and the Golden Rule. In
     connection to what have been said, we can track the divide
     between household and enterprise - the divide released great
     powers - whether or not we ought to bridge that gap, or perhaps
     just hack the separate systems and make them compatible is hard
     to decide upon.

o    Case 2. Free universities.

     To modify binary code is next to impossible; therefore provide
     users with the source code and proper documentation.

     The writing of the source code for a working operating system
     like GNU/Linux has been a tremendously difficult job to complete
     - lots and lots of people have been involved in lots and lots of
     specialized topics.

     To modify an advanced theory put forth in a scientific paper is
     next to impossible without access to references. Access to
     information, open source and free documentation has been
     practised at the universities for centuries - it is no sheer luck
     that it worked, and it is not by chance that Richard M.
     Stallman?s philosophy has remarkable resemblance with academic
     principles. If you didn?t knew M.I.T. is in general providing
     free and open course material under the Creative Commons License;
     see URL:


1.   Himanen, Pekka (et al), Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the
     Information Age, Vintage, London, 2001

2.   Levy, Steven, - Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 1984, revised
     edition in 1994, New York.

3.   Stallman, Richard M. (ed. Joshua Gay), Free Software, Free
     Society, GNU Press 2002

4.   Steele Jr., Guy L.  (et al), The Hacker's Dictionary. A Guide to
     the World of Computer Wizards, Harper & Row 1983.

5.   Weber, Max, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des
     Kapitalismus, first published in 1904/5. In English it translates
     into The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in
     Danish, Den protestantiske etik og kapitalismens ånd, Nansensgade
     Antikvariat 1995


1.   TMRC Dictionary (Begun by Pete Samson in 1959) Online-version
     available at URL:

2.   Jargon File (Begun by Raphael Finkel, later maintained by Guy L.
     Steele Jr. (et al))

               Early version online: The Original Hacker's Dictionary,

               New version online: Raymond, Eric S., Jargon File,

© Aputsiaq Janussen, 2004. Licensed under the GNU Free Documentation


[1] Back in 1959 the dictionary was begun by Pete Samson, as mentioned
before, a member of the Train Model Railroad Club and also one of the
first M.I.T. computer hackers. URL:

[2] Richard M. Stallman?s explanation in the documentary-movie
Revolution OS.

[3] Richard M. Stallman, "On hacking" (2002); "It is hard to write a
simple definition of something as varied as hacking, but I think what
these activities have in common is playfulness, cleverness, and
exploration." (

[4] The book is a must for every serious investigation of the hacker
culture and the so-called hacker ethic. Steven Levy?s personal

[5] "Jargon File", the Jargon File (also known as The Hacker?s
Dictionary) were begun by Raphael Finkel (a Stanford hacker) in 1975.
The original Jargon File did not contain the entry "hacker ethic", in
fact nothing explicit about ethics at all - this was still the case in
Guy L. Steele Jr.?s (et al) 1983-version.

[6] The title of the English translation is "The Protestant Ethic and
the Spirit of Capitalism".

[7] Max Weber?s work instantly provoked a debate amongst a wide range
of scholars.

Contact: projekt

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