Taking tips from a time when wearing trainers ruled

The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age
May 4, 2001

This book risks looking like a period piece from the bygone age when folk ruled the earth who started work in the afternoon, had pool tables in the office and did not own a pair of shiny shoes. Now these computer hackers are smartening up for new careers at the sharp end of the fast-food industry while the virtues of the old economy reassert themselves.

But Pekka Himanen's work has an importance that should outlive today's jitters about the commercial prospects of the web. He proposes that true computer types offer new ideas about such weighty issues as the divide between work and leisure, the importance of money and the ethic by which we should live. Armed with a PhD in philosophy, Himanen cites everyone from Plato and Plutarch to Bill Gates and E. P. Thompson to buttress his case.

As he sees it, a hacker is someone for whom work and pleasure both happen at a computer and to whom close regulation of working life by timekeeping does not apply. Himanen is no social scientist and there is no sign that he carried out extensive fieldwork among information technology professionals (for many, computer networks have meant more rather than less external control of working lives, after all). He argues that the hacker's relationship with work is more like that of the era before the industrial revolution. Only in monasteries was time observed closely, under a regime of self-denial that later became the model, oddly enough, for Weber's Protestant work ethic.

There is, of course, another side to the new working patterns that hackers value so much. Success in the modern era is measured by the number of crushing deadlines one has, which are exacerbated by the fact that cellphones and email make it impossible to escape the boss. Gone is the age when the leisure one had was the sign of being on top. But, as Himanen sees it, the true hacker gets round this problem by diving in and out of work, knocking off for games and play between chewing through vast amounts of creative effort.

The hacker way of life means a new motivation for work as well as new ways of organising it. The Hacker Ethic includes a lengthy case study of the development of the Linux operating system by Linus Torvalds and others. Torvalds has written the book's prologue and is an ally of Himanen and a fellow Finn, so the analysis is far from critical. But Linux is unquestionably a big development, involving thousands of hours of work by highly skilled professionals who knew they would receive no reward for their effort. Provided they could make a living some other way, they were happy to put effort into Linux for free. This supports Himanen's argument that in the hacker world, interesting work is a priority and can sometimes be world-changing.

It would have been possible to expand the case he makes with many other examples, for example of pro bono work that professionals perform for charities and other non-profit groups. And there have long existed self-organising professionals whose success was measured by output rather than by attendance: writers, artists, even academics. They structure their time to provide interest and career development much as the Linux hackers have.

This form of voluntarism may become more important as old-style clubs, societies and political parties with fixed meetings after the end of the traditional working day become less attractive to people with less predictable lives. But Himanen does not point out that the worldwide web itself has been developed to avoid profits and corporate dominance. Working that way has cost its inventors, mainly Tim Berners-Lee, the prospect of billionaire status.

One group that might benefit from The Hacker Ethic are the managers of creative professionals. They need to know more about how to motivate them, and how to tell when they are structuring their work autonomously and when they are simply on the skive.

In a perceptive epilogue to the book, sociologist Manuel Castells points out that new genetic technologies have more in common with the information technology revolution than their reliance on immense volumes of data. Both the web and biotechnology rely on forming and reforming data in new combinations to produce unexpected outcomes. You may run Linux instead of Windows on your PC, but imagine the legal complications of receiving a gene-therapy treatment that was produced as shareware by voluntary effort rather than manufactured by a pharmaceuticals company.

Martin Ince is deputy editor, The THES .

The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age

Author - Pekka Himanen
ISBN - 0 436 20550 5
Publisher - Secker and Warburg
Price - £12.00
Pages - 233

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