On Hacker Culture
What is hacker culture? What should it be? Is there a problem with hacker culture?
There is a large amount of pushback against individuals who have been crucial in defining hacker culture. A lot of times these become personal attacks. And that’s unfortunate. Underlying those personal attacks is a political choice to oppose what is also known as meritocracy. I find that the prevalent understanding of hacker culture isn’t widely different from meritocracy. This post is about both.
The “How To Become a Hacker” article by Eric S Raymond and the closely related How To Ask Questions The Smart Way article serve as frame of reference for this post.
There is no doubt that these are well intentioned articles meant to help people become the ideal “hackers”. This post is not questioning the intention of those articles. But it questions the things those articles take as axiomatic truths, establishes how that is meritocracy, and then proceeds to explain why that is unjust.
Is hacker culture all about meritocracy?
There are many definitions of hacker. Almost all of them includes the sense of “expertise” or that of someone who engages with a subject deeply. Hacker-howto says this:
There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term ‘hacker’. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you’re a hacker.
This definition makes it sound like hacker is a title others have to attribute to you. Like it is an elite circle.
But let us stick to the simpler definition of hacker as an expert.
Let us proceed to the section on hacker attitude. I will cherry pick some sentences.
Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence.
Creative brains are a valuable, limited resource. They shouldn’t be wasted on re-inventing the wheel when there are so many fascinating new problems waiting out there.
Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or have to drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens it means they aren’t doing what only they can do — solve new problems. This wastefulness hurts everybody. Therefore boredom and drudgery are not just unpleasant but actually evil.
Hackers won’t let posers waste their time, but they worship competence — especially competence at hacking, but competence at anything is valued. Competence at demanding skills that few can master is especially good, and competence at demanding skills that involve mental acuteness, craft, and concentration is best.
These sentences when taken at their face value seems like they are very sensible.
But embedded within these statements are two things
- “Hackers” deserve more respect than “regular” people.
- “Hackers” are self-made and deserve all that respect.
This is what makes it an elite circle which you can enter only by proving your “merit”. That’s the definition of meritocracy - a system in which you move up by demonstrating your abilities or merit.
What’s the problem with meritocracy?
Michael Sandel discusses this very elaborately in The Tyranny of Merit. Meritocracy holds the idea that merit is self-made. But how is merit made in real life?
I won’t go into the nature vs nurture debate. But intelligence is definitely correlated to having the right parents (their nutrition, your nutrition, their parenting, your schooling, all of that).
So intelligence is a result of a lottery because birth is a pure accident.
And is what you do with that intelligence a lot different? Your opportunities are limited by where you are. Colonialism, sexism, casteism, racism, and so on are self-perpetuating. They systemically decrease the opportunities available to those who are at the suffering end of these. If you were born as the “wrong” kind of person, you will have to work
n times harder.
Let us take only software hackers. To become a software hacker you need to spend a lot of time with computers. That means it needs two things - you need a lot of time, you need a computer (and internet and many other things, but I will keep it simple). Look at any hacker you know. They probably have had access to their own computer at a very young age. And they would have had an environment where they could spend lots of time with their computer. Those are not things that come by easily to everyone.
Now, let me address two counter arguments preemptively. “But do all people who have a computer and time become hackers?” No. That’s right. “But did all hackers have a computer and time?” Don’t they? Is it possible any other way?
These two questions appear similar but these are very different and the answers to them are also different. These answers are also very important.
The reason why hacker culture appears sensible is because all people who have a computer and time do not become hackers. There is an element of being a hacker that is self-made. It is a choice that some of these people with computer and time make to become a hacker. That leads to many people thinking that it is completely self made. Which brings us to the second question.
Is it possible to become a hacker without a computer or time? I think the answer is no. You would need either your own computer or someone else’s computer that you can work on for a long time. You would either need time in the day or in the night to learn all that goes into becoming a hacker. I think it is impossible to become a hacker without one’s own computer and time.
So are hackers really self-made? They are 0.001% self-made and 99.999% lottery winners.
By celebrating hackers and teaching others to “become a hacker”, we are essentially celebrating lottery winners and unironically teaching others that it is possible with determination and dedication to win lottery. That’s the problem with meritocracy.
Related reading: Brahmins as scientists and science as Brahmins’ calling: Caste in an Indian scientific research institute
Are you saying that I should not try to be a hacker?
No. By all means you should. Especially if you have the privilege to be a hacker it would be a waste of your privileges to not be a hacker. But while you become a hacker, be aware of the inequities in the world. And be humble enough to say that you won a lottery. And interact with “regular” people with that in mind. Winning a lottery does not make your time more valuable than someone else’s. Winning a lottery does not make you more worthy than someone else. So be a hacker, but also be a human.