Over the years I’ve written at least three expositions of the hacker mindset that use the form of mystical poetry or teaching riddles. Probably the best known of these nowadays is The Unix Koans of Master Foo (2003), but there has also been The Loginataka (1992, 2010) and the short Zen poem I included in How To Become A Hacker.
One of the regulars at my Friday gaming group is a Greek Orthodox priest, but an educated and broadminded one with whom I get along surprisingly well considering my general opinion of Christianity. A chance remark he made one night caused me to recite at him the line from the 2010 portion of the Loginataka that goes “The way of the hacker is a posture of mind”, and then when he looked interested the whole four stanzas.
He laughed, and he got it, and then he articulated the reason that I write about being a hacker in this form so well that he made me think about things I hadn’t considered before and probably should have. Like, what if other people don’t get it? All they’d see when they looked at the Loginataka or the Unix Koans is pretentiousness or satire.
But no. The mystical language of these works is functional in a very direct way, which the priest grokked instantly and I will now explain. It has applications beyond the way I’ve used it.
First: The way of the hacker really is a posture of mind. Being a hacker isn’t a skillset (like being a programmer or an electrical engineer), nor is it a social presentation (like, say being a goth or a hipster). It’s a mental stance: partly an attitude, partly a set of cognitive habits, and partly other qualities even more difficult to label and define.
Second: It’s a very useful mental stance. That is, it enables people to do things that are nifty and useful and occasionally staggeringly important. Like, say, inventing the World Wide Web important. So creating ways for people to enter and inhabit this stance actually has a lot of utility.
Third: The tough thing about mental stances is that they cannot be conveyed by explanation. Even if I could come up with paragraphs of precise analytical language about how hackers think, it would be like trying to explain “red” to a color-blind person by listing a frequency range and pointing at stoplights. At best such an explanation could only be useful for reasoning about the hacker posture of mind from outside it, not entering it.
The problem of how to induce valuable mental stances in human beings when explanation is insufficient is not a new one. All religions and mystical schools face it, and all have solved it in broadly similar ways. One way is direct mimesis: you imitate the behavior of an initiate rigorously, hope for the behavior to induce a mental state usefully like the initiate’s, and a surprising percentage of the time this actually works.
Another way is to develop artifacts like mystical poetry or koans which have the instrumental quality that they tend to induce the desired state(s) of mind in anyone who meditates on them. Because it operates on human brains that are all wired pretty similarly, mystical poetry from many different traditions has common qualities: vivid, dreamlike imagery, strong use of rhetorical antinomy, and hypnotic rhythms are three of the most obvious. They induce a sort of indirect mimesis, putting you in something like the mental state of the composer.
If you are anywhere near being a hacker, you already see where this is going – I’m interpreting koans and mystical poetry as a form of functional brain-hacking, not unlike surrealist art (which famously aimed at “the transformation of mind and all that resembles it”). Once you’ve realized this, the only question is whether these techniques can be tuned to induce the hacker posture of mind – as opposed, say to producing satori or union with the Holy Spirit, or existential crisis, or whatever other traditional religio-mystical-philosophical state one might have in view.
Since I did in fact write the Loginataka and the Unix Koans, I guess I’m not going to surprise anyone at this point by asserting that yes, I think this is possible. Furthermore, there is evidence in the behavior of others (the way people respond to these works) that they succeed as more than satire – that they are a ha-ha-only-serious that is useful for inducing the hacker posture of mind in those ready to achieve it.
Now, I am not here to argue that mystical poetry is enough by itself; after all, in religious/mystical traditions, it’s always coupled with other kinds of discipline and instruction. In the hacking context, those “other kinds of discipline and instruction” are implied by learning a difficult technical skill, usually programming. The point is that in hacking as in mysticism, skill training plus direct mimesis (imitating the senior hackers around you) plus indirect mimesis (via koans and inductive poetry) can take you farther and faster than skill training and fumbling for the desired posture of mind in a random and unguided way.
The priest understood this immediately, even though he’s never written a line of code in his life. His branch of Greek Orthodoxy has a strong mystical tradition, and when I said “the way of the hacker is a posture of mind” his eyes widened.
I’m not a big fan of religion, in general. My own religion, to the unusual and limited extent I have one, is largely designed as a way to satisfy the emotional needs addressed by religions without requiring the practitioner to believe several truckloads of irrational bullshit before breakfast. But while I generally welcome the weakening of the grip of religion on peoples’ minds, one of the things I recognize we tend to lose along with that is the techniques religions have cultivated over many centuries for indicating and inducing altered states — postures of mind, states of consciousness.
That technology, assuming we can pry it loose from the truckloads of irrational bullshit, is worth saving. If only because, yes, we can use it to grow hackers…and probably other sorts of useful people, too. Programming and related tech skills are far from the only kind in which competence is partly a function of posture of mind; perhaps every profession would benefit from having its own mystical poetry.