Every few months I get a letter from a would-be hacker petitioning me to accept him (always a “him” so far) as my disciple. Happened again today; I think this time I’ll share part of the request, and my response, so I have it to point to next time this happens.
My usual audience is well aware why I am qualified to review Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom, but since I suspect this post might reach a bit beyond my usual audience I will restate the obvious. I have been operating as the hacker culture’s resident ethnographer since around 1990, consciously applying the techniques of anthropological fieldwork (at least as I understood them) to analyze the operation of that culture and explain it to others. Those explanations have been tested in the real world with large consequences, including helping the hacker culture break out of its ghetto and infect everything that software touches with subversive ideas about open processes, transparency, peer review, and the power of networked collaboration.
Ever since I began doing my own ethnographic work on the hacker culture from the inside as a participant, I have keenly felt the lack of any comparable observation being done by outsiders formally trained in the techniques of anthropological fieldwork. I’m an amateur, self-trained by reading classic anthropological studies and a few semesters of college courses; I know relatively little theory, and have had to construct my own interpretative frameworks in the absence of much knowledge about how a professional would do it.
Sadly, the main thing I learned from reading Gabriella Coleman’s new book, Coding Freedom, is that my ignorance may actually have been a good thing for the quality of my results. The insight in this book is nearly smothered beneath a crushing weight of jargon and theoretical elaboration, almost all of which appears to be completely useless except as a sort of point-scoring academic ritual that does less than nothing to illuminate its ostensible subject.
This is doubly unfortunate because Coleman very obviously means well and feels a lot of respect and sympathy for the people and the culture she was studying – on the few occasions that she stops overplaying the game of academic erudition she has interesting things to say about them. It is clear that she is natively a shrewd observer whose instincts have been only numbed – not entirely destroyed – by the load of baggage she is carrying around.
Today’s very special non-world-ending software release, triggered if not originated from here at Eric Conspiracy Secret Laboratories is the amazing Zen simulation, Robot Finds Kitten. I bow in respect before Leonard Richardson and the other giants of kitten-finding history and am humbly proud to be counted among the select few who have contributed to this monumental, er, monument.
Get yer hot fresh tarball right here. It will improve your sex life, clear up your financial problems, cure your acne, and make you as a god among men. Would I lie?
I nearly issued a forking threat a few minutes ago. Only the second time I’ve felt a need to do that and the first was in 1993, so this is not something I do casually. And I drew back from the brink.
But I may have to if the maintainer I’m dealing with doesn’t clean up his act. His library is critical to one of my projects, but his behavior has been increasingly sloppy and erratic lately. He made a serious design mistake which he’s been trying to paper over with kluges; the kluges have made the code unstable and the latest shipped version is actually broken to the point of unusability without a patch.
I learned a new way of thinking about social behavior at Agile CultureCon last week – Dave Logan’s taxonomy of tribal stages and his interestingly specialized notion of what a “prophet” is. For review, see Logan’s TED talk.
Logan explains the distribution of tribal stages as follows: Stage 1, “Life Sucks”, is the violent and profoundly dysfunctional tribalism of gangs and prisons (approximately 2% of tribes); Stage 2, “My life sucks”, is bureaucracy (about 22% of tribes); Stage 3, “I’m great (but you’re not)!” is most of business and academia (about 48% of tribes); Stage 4: “We’re great!” is where you start to see serious creativity, tribal self-awareness, and collective sense of mission (about 22% of tribes); and Stage 5 “Life’s great!” is high-creative behavior totally driven by values rather than ego or struggle against some adversary (about 2% of tribes).
A “prophet”, in Logan’s model, is somebody who expresses the deepest shared values of a tribe and invites people in it to change stage (and fuse with other tribes at the new stage). Because most people, most of the time, live in tribes with a stage 3 culture, the most common upward transition (and the most common kind of prophet) is from stage 3 to stage 4.
I noted in a previous post that hearing this in a talk made the hair on the backs of my arms stand up. Because I have lived through, and was one of the prophets of, the hacker culture’s transition from largely unconscious mixed stage-3/stage-4 to fully conscious mostly Stage 4 behavior (“We’re great!”) in the 1990s.
But. I am by no means sufficiently ignorant or egotistical to think I was our only prophet. Most obviously there was Richard Stallman a decade before me, issuing a stage 4 call to higher values around “free software”. But because I was a historian before I was a prophet, I can’t really stop there. I find myself asking who the earlier prophets were!
My last four days, at the Agile CultureCon split between Philadelphia and Boston, have thrown more new ideas and techniques at me than I’m used to encountering in a normal four months. Or more. It was very challenging and exciting, the more so because I was immersed in a culture at some distance from those where I usually hang out.
The organizers (Dan Mezick & Andre Dhondt) and various friends (now including me) are launching from agile software development into new ways of organizing work and communication that dynamite a lot of common assumptions about the necessity of power relationships and hierarchies. What makes this really interesting is not the theory but the working examples. They’re not dealing in vague platitudes, but in methods that can be taught and replicated. (And yes, I will describe some of them later in this post.)
Nobody in this crowd thinks politically (or at least if they do, it doesn’t show); it’s all framed as ways to fix corporate cultures to make them more productive and happier. But what this was, underneath occasional freshets of vaguely new-agey language, was a three-day workshop in practical anarchy.
One of my commenters reports that he showed my essay on evaluating the harm from closed-source software to Richard Stallman, who became upset by it. It shouldn’t be news to RMS or anyone else that I think he’s a fanatic and this is a problem, but it seems that every few years I have to explain the problem again. I make the effort not because of personal animus but because fanaticism does not serve us well – we’ve made huge progress since 1998 by not repeating RMS’s mistakes, and I think it’s important that we continue not to replicate them.
Some people are obsessive about never using closed-source software under any circumstances. Some other people think that because I’m the person who wrote the foundational theory of open source I ought to be one of those obsessives myself, and become puzzled and hostile when I demur that I’m not a fanatic. Sometimes such people will continue by trying to trap me in nutty false dichotomies (like this guy) and become confused when I refuse to play.
A common failure mode in human reasoning is to become too attached to theory, to the point where we begin ignoring the reality it was intended to describe. The way this manifests in ethical and moral reasoning is that we tend to forget why we make rules – to avoid harmful consequences. Instead, we tend to become fixated on the rules and the language of the rules, and end up fulfilling Santayana’s definition of a fanatic: one who redoubles his efforts after he has forgotten his aim.
When asking the question “When is it wrong (or right) to use closed-source software?”, we should treat it the same way we treat every other ethical question. First, by being very clear about what harmful consequences we wish to avoid; second, by reasoning from the avoidance of harm to a rule that is minimal and restricts peoples’ choices as little as possible.
In the remainder of this essay I will develop a theory of the harm from closed source, then consider what ethical rules that theory implies.
That is: having noticed that open-source volunteers now have a large and increasing role in maintaining critical shared infrastructure like the Internet, is there a sustainability issue here? Once the old guard who were involved in the early days (people like Jim Gettys and Dave Taht and myself) dies off, are we going to be able to replace them?
I shall set forth my reasons for optimism.
During the last few years I’ve noticed a change in the meaning of my life – well, my life as a hacker, anyway. I had an exchange on a mailing list last night that made me think it’s not just me, that the same change has been sneaking up on a lot of us.
It’s part of the hacker ethos to (as Alan Kay put it) predict the future by inventing it – to playfully seek solutions to problems people outside our culture are not yet even thinking about. We still do that, and I think we always will.
But increasingly, as the world of pervasive networks and ubiquitous computing hackers imagined decades ago has become reality, we’re not just the innovators who thought of it first. Now we’re responsible; having created the future, we have to maintain it. And, as the sinews of civilization become ever more dependent on the Internet and software-intensive communications devices, that responsibility gets more serious every year.
This makes for a subtle change in our duties and our relationship to our work – a gradual shift from merry prankster to infrastructure gnome.
Penguicon (venue of the upcoming Friends of Armed & Dangerous party) is a combination science-fiction convention and Linux/open-source conference, two geek tastes that taste great together.
One of Penguicon’s customs is that people wander around handing out affinity-group badge ribbons to those they deem worthy (or simply to be funny). In many past years I handed out a silver-on-blue ribbon that simply says “hacker”. But the last couple years I’ve been busy and distracted and my stash of ribbons had run out.
Dave Taht is in my basement trying to use GPSD to set up NTP-independent time service on an WNDR3700 router, and having some problems. I’m upstairs teaching GPSD to emit a clock-drift message – both projects are because we’re trying to build a monitoring framework for accuracy-checking NTP. The following IRC exchange ensues:
[11:31] dtaht2 looks like I have an underconfigured gpsd, miscompiled gpsd or ntp [11:32] dtaht2 OR does gpsd not provide time until it gets a full fix? [11:32] esr That's correct. [11:33] dtaht2 yes, in terms of 'or' statements, the above evaluates to 'true'. However... which? [11:33] esr Some devices report time from one satellite but you can't count on that. Most won't report time without 3 sats in view and good enough SNR. [11:34] dtaht2 cgps does report the time, so this particular device is [11:35] esr OK, you have a problem somewhere else in the chain. And a learning experience just ahead of you. [11:35] dtaht2 and a dark tunnel ahead. There may be grues. [11:36] esr Take your flashlight. [11:36] dtaht2 w;w;w; [11:36] esr You see a rusty wand with a star on one end. [11:37] dtaht2 get wand; wave aimlessly [11:38] esr Nothing happens.
Actually, I went downstairs and said the last line to Dave rather than typing it. He then laughed immoderately.
If you failed to understand the above, you are probably a normal human being and not an unregenerate geek who spends too much time in basements. This is sad for you.
Got a query from a journalist today working on a major story about a certain large corporation that’s been much in the news lately. Seems the corporation’s founder has been talking up his organization’s allegiance to “the hacker way”, and she not unreasonably wanted my opinion as to whether or not this was complete horse-puckey.
So as not to steal the lady’s thunder, I won’t reveal the identity of Corporation X. I will, however, repeat a version of my answer with its identity lightly obscured – because I think these are questions we should ask any corporation that talks like that.
Tim O’Reilly proposes that we designate the 30th of October as “Dennis Ritchie day”. That works for me. Pass it on.
Since my readers are probably wondering: Yes, I knew Dennis slightly. He contributed to The Art Of Unix Programming and was very supportive of the project. He was indeed as pleasant and gracious as others report…a true gentleman and, of course, a hacker of such stratospheric accomplishment as to have few or no peers. But he treated me like one anyway — and that was an honor.
One of the side-effects of using Google+ is that I’m getting exposed to a kind of writing I usually avoid – ponderous divagations on how the Internet should be and the meaning of it all written by people who’ve never gotten their hands dirty actually making it work. No, I’m not talking about users – I don’t mind listening to those. I’m talking about punditry about the Internet, especially the kind full of grand prescriptive visions. The more I see of this, the more it irritates the crap out of me. But I’m not in the habit of writing in public about merely personal complaints; there’s a broader cultural problem here that needs to be aired.
The following rant will not name names. But if you are offended by it, you are probably meant to be.
Once, in a bygone century, in the half-forgotten place called USENET, there were masters of satire and parody who could be an example to us all in these latter days. Among the greatest of their arts was the AFJ – the April Fool’s Joke, yes, but in the hands of these masters the AFJ could become minor epics of elaboration, subtlety, and Zen-like enlightenment.
Today, Grasshopper, we shall speak of the four levels of AFJ mastery, and how the aspiring student may attain them.
Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.
I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.
Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.
I’ve written before on the hacker culture as a invisible college defined partly by a network of trust, gatekeepers, and certification authorities. Jay Maynard ask the next question: What are the non-technical things every hacker should know?
One of my regulars has expressed mildly disgruntlement about the degree to which a feeling of mutual tribal solidarity has taken hold among hackers, and become an increasingly defining characteristic of them. He finds it creepy – he didn’t use the phrase “disquieting groupthink”, but I’m pretty sure he was thinking something like it.
“You are, I regret to say, partly a victim of my social engineering…” I said to him, and promised to explain that. Yes, what he’s reacting against is in significant part my doing, and I did it for specific reasons, and it had the results I intended. This does not mean all the consequences were unmitigatedly good – sociocultural engineering, like other kinds, is a matter of tradeoffs under constraint. Explanation in more detail follows.