Hacker culture

hacker_cultureHacker culture
Arturo Di Corinto
Rome, Italy

Entering a leg in a tense ten-year debate, we can say that maybe the “hacker class” does not exist, but the hacker culture certainly yes. And with as much certainty we can say that it has profoundly shaped our society. Historically, the hacker culture has emerged in the creative use of information technologies and its origins can be traced in the dormitories of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on horseback of the sixties, when a group of geeks used to play with electric trains decided that was more fun to play with computers and coined the term hackers, to denote those who made working better software, telephones and relay with a “hack”. Since then, the hacker culture has expressed itself as a playful relationship with machines, electric wires and computers.
This aptitude has resulted in the creation of hardware and software more simple, usable, economical and versatile, to facilitate the creation of networks of machines and people. Motivated by intellectual challenge, the passion for research, the recognition within the community and with the ambition to achieve something useful for themselves and for others, in almost half a century hackers have given us powerful tools to make better and faster all that each stage of the technological revolution offered to us.
In fact, the hacker culture has not only produced the protocols that still the Internet uses, operating systems on which still are based supercomputer, the open source software, peer to peer networks and cooperation tools such as blogs and wikis, but it has changed the way we confront the world of knowledge, information and technology.
But if the result of this culture seems obvious in all human activities that use computer tools, now ubiquitous and pervasive – these irreplaceable machines over the years had become generatrices of meaning and living environments – it is less obvious how to identify the traits and characteristics that apply in the so-called knowledge society.
So the question is: how linking the hacker culture to innovation and knowledge management? Then, has the hacker culture been fully assimilated by the informational societies? Do they live in symbiosis with such societies or represent an element of conflict iniside them?
If we define innovation as an opportunity to do what yesterday was impossible or unthinkable, and if the sharing of knowledge is the first engine of innovation, we understand how the hacker culture and stories of hackers have strictly to do with it.

In a direct way, because many hackers have become entrepreneurs of technological innovation. Steve Jobs and Richard Stallman are universally regarded as heroes of the information revolution, but we can think that without the Shawn Fanning’s Napster today might not exist music online stores; that without the Niklas Zennström’s Skype, we’d still have impossible user interfaces to call over the Internet, and that without the Rob Malda’s Slashdot we’ll be living a pre-blog era.

But the hacker culture relates to knowledge and innovation in a more subtle way. First, because many hackers, often unknown, dedicate their lives to innovate ideas, practices, tools, applying their method – free-style programming, cut-up and lateral thinking- in innovative and not always orthodox ways. It had been the case of Jerome Rota and Max Morice that with a reverse engineering gave the world the popular DivX codec. Or the case of DVD-John who gave an unthinkable boost to the security industry breaking the CSS code in DVD discs. Second, because if the production of goods is increasingly adopting the openness and decentralization approach as the main way to work, the hacker ethic of working, cooperating and sharing, the horizon of unlimited communication, is now one with the prevailing patterns of production of intangible.
In contexts where knowledge intensive hierarchies are a brake on production of ideas, where cooperation and technical virtuosity are the precondition for overcoming bureaucratic routine and where decentralization is the only way to work in parallel on complex projects, it is evident that modern society is in debt with the hacker’s style of work.
An aptitude that has gradually made obsolete the organization of pyramidal company, which ranks in continuous interplay with the outside world, to outline forms of enterprise network, according to business models that encourage employees to work from the outside, without distinction between time work and leisure, the hacker culture has become a metaphor of the modern organization as a connected system, open and decentralized.
But even if we do not appreciate it, the influence of this culture is mainly in the method applied to solving problems, a method based on the free exchange of information, the free sharing of ideas and results, free use of common knowledge. A “philosophy” that combining the enormous confidence of hackers in freedom, cooperation, free competition, it’s framing a “post-Calvinist” idea of labor and markets.
For all this it’d be difficult to think of innovation today without the passion for sharing typical of the Republic of Science that they imagined.
But if we can say that the hacker has become the prototype of the knowledge worker of informational societies, there is one aspect of its culture that has not yet been assimilated, and it’s the relationship it has with the property. Hackers have always considered the intellectual property as an obstacle to deploy the potential of social cooperation based on the computer machines, and this is the result of their deep aversion to any fences which prevent access to the Information Commons, the common assets of knowledge.

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