The Hacker Ethic
Etsy’s Code As Craft series recently featured award-winning author, Steven Levy, on the topic “The Hacker Ethic”. Levy is a writer at Wired and bestseller author of “Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution,” in which he first coined the term “hacker ethic.” I was fortunate to be among the audience to hear about the computer history that came with the term “hacking”.
Levy started by quoting Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to investors in Facebook’s filing, in which he addresses some the key points of The Hacker Way:
“The Hacker Way is an approach to building that involves continuous improvement and iteration. Hackers believe that something can always be better, and that nothing is ever complete….Hacker culture is also extremely open and meritocratic. Hackers believe that the best idea and implementation should always win — not the person who is best at lobbying for an idea or the person who manages the most people.”
Facebook embraces this subculture of hacking. Google, in its own way, also subscribes to this subculture. Their “Don’t be Evil” slogan was something that which they didn’t ever have to regret, Levy contended. It had became part of their larger vision.
What is a Hacker?
Are hackers antisocial nerds who stayed away from people and only dealt with computers? Shattering the stereotype, he referred to some of his early experiences interacting with these folks. They were interesting, creative people who got excited about ideas and could communicate and share these ideas, he said.
Early History of Hacking and the Development of the Hacker Ethic
Hacking started at Cambridge in the 1950’s in Building 20 at MIT, among a small group of students in the Tech Model Railroad Club:
“When a piece of equipment wasn’t working, it was “losing”; when a piece of equipment was ruined, it was “munged” (Mash Until No Good); the two desks in the corner of the room were not called the office, but the “orifice”; one who insisted on studying for courses was a “tool”; garbage was called “cruft”; and a project undertaken or a product built not solely to fulfill some constructive goal, but with some wild pleasure taken in mere involvement, was called a ‘hack.’” (Steven Levy, Hackers)
At the time, “a hack was a prank.” While hackers were experimenting, a three million dollar computer came to MIT. Delighted by the addition, these students tried to gain access to the machine. Back then, programs were written on paper tapes and fed into the computer. One hacker would change it, then someone else would examine it and make it better. Thus, early on, hackers developed a need for information and placed a premium on having access to information. Thus came the principle, “All information should be free.”
Hackers enjoy making beautiful works and believe “there is beauty in good code”’. Steve Jobs also subscribed to this idea of creating art on the computer. He made the first Apple computer to impress his friends and his first computer was a hack.
But is Steve Jobs a Real Hacker With a Closed System?
After making the Macintosh a walled garden, Jobs diverged from the common hacker belief that all information should be free. Levy talked about the divergent philosophies of Richard Stallman who had called Jobs a mercenary by keep Apple’s core closed. Levy acknowledges that today the term “hacker” has a looser definition.
Referencing Y Combinator, an incubator in California where he has taught classes, Levy noted YC members have no problem believing that that they should try to make money while still calling themselves hackers. Making money and hacking are not at odds. Today, it is possible for someone to subscribe to a subset of hacker values, as both Apple and Facebook have done.
Levy ended by commenting on the future of hacking. In 1984, as he finished the book, Hackers, he ended it on a pessimistic note because he didn’t believe this culture would last. After spending decades observing the hacker culture, he now believes hacking is alive and thriving.
Levy did make one final point on startups that he sees today. Too many people, he believes, are trying to found companies just to found companies. He would like to see more startups pursue ideas with real impact on people’s lives. To change people’s lives for the better, that may be the most important principle of The Hacker Ethic.