The uses of tribal cohesion

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.

When I began working on the Jargon File in 1990, the hacker culture was probably no more than 1% of its current size – the population explosions that would follow from Linux and the mainstreaming of open source had yet to occur.

But as importantly, the culture was far more diffuse and less coherent. Partly this was because the Internet was still an expensive laboratory artifact with relatively few nodes, and access to those quite difficult unless you happened to have some connection to a handful of university laboratories.

But there was another factor, a subtler and more psychological one. Hackers of that day identified less with the hacker culture in general and more with specific projects or institutions – languages like Perl, operating-system communities like those around Unix or ITS, various university labs, the Free Software Foundation, and so forth. It’s not that something more like today’s tribal solidarity was completely nonexistent, but it tended to matter only among a small hard core of the most senior people in the culture. The term ‘hacker’ itself was not then in nearly as wide use among the sort of people who would (correctly) apply it to each other today.

By 1990-1991 I had decided this was a bug that needed to be fixed. My reasons were quite specific: crypto-export regulations, the proposals which culminated in the Clipper chip of 1993-1996, and various now-forgotten legislative rumblings which were eventually to culminate in the Communications Decency Act of 1996. From 1987 onward I had been aware of gradually increasing political pressures in the direction of locking down software and networks. Serious threats to liberty were, if not yet directly present, at least looming on the horizon.

The problem I saw was that the one group of people with the most to lose and the best basis of knowledge from which to push back didn’t have enough group cohesiveness to cooperate on that project. The EFF and the Free Software Foundation already existed (the EFF just barely, having been formed in 1990), but were sort of floating in midair without much of a grass-roots culture to back them up.

And…I suspected I had a potential handle on these problems! When I was giving interviews around the publication of the first edition of the New Hacker’s Dictionary, I was quite explicit about my political motives. I said that I thought the legislative climate was growing dangerous and that the public image around the term ‘hacker’ needed to be fixed, and that the book was in part an attempt to attract and amuse lots of non-hackers so we’d have allies outside our tiny group of technologists. (And that worked, by the way, especially among journalists and other wordsmiths.)

What I didn’t talk about so much – though it was hardly hidden from anyone paying attention to what I was doing and saying – was that I was also consciously attempting to re-engineer the hacker culture itself in the specific direction of (a) greater group cohesiveness, and (b) greater ability to infect others with its primary memes. Because that was what I thought it needed to become a political interest group with the ability to head off some of the crap I saw coming.

The Jargon File was a powerful instrument towards this end. By propagating a shared language and a quasi-mythologized history of the culture it created a sort of attractive memetic template to which people could choose to assimilate themselves. Each individual act of self-identification – each moment of “Cool! I want to be a hacker!” – or, just as commonly, “Huh. Guess I’m a hacker. Who knew?” – was an increment of social power for the culture I was trying to strengthen.

Entertainingly, I had no inkling at all that I would come to be perceived as a leader of that culture. That possibility never even occurred to me until I was asked to referree at the Free Software Conference in 1996. No. I was doing what I thought needed to be done because the entire context within which I wanted to work and play seemed threatened. For exactly the same reason, I stepped up and qualified to become an individual amicus curia in the Supreme Court fight against the CDA in 1996.

Nor did I did at that time have any clue that I would be committing far more visible acts of memetic engineering after 1997. But the “open source” thing was perfectly continuous with my earlier efforts. Here, finally, was the missing piece – the locus of identification powerful enough to pull together the entire culture and overshadow older loyalties to individual subtribes almost completely (well, bar a handful in the FSF’s frothing-fundamentalist wing, but that was an acceptable tradeoff).

Today, we live in a world where the Clipper chip is dead, the crypto-export restrictions likewise, and the CDA not only gone but that whole line of thinking a discredited laughingstock. Did the changes I engineered contribute significantly to that? In principle it’s difficult to know. But I think so.

I am rather more sure that they were essential tooling-up for a development I could not foresee at the time – the mainstreaming of open source after 1997. To meet that challenge, our culture needed the ability to grow its numbers and assert its norms and values at unprecedented scale. It’s a commonplace to note that my specific propaganda about open source helped it do that. What’s easy to miss, unless you’ve been paying close attention with the right sort of analytical perspective, is that my earlier work on making the hacker culture more cohesive and infective was also important. If we’d tried to meet post-1997 conditions with the more fragile constellation of in-group loyalties and the more limited ability to recruit bright proto-hackers we had had before I started to work the problem…well, maybe we’d have coped OK. Maybe. But it’s just as well that contingency was never tested. Gives me some willies thinking about it.

Now I want to flip the perspective on this account. Instead of seeing this story as something “ESR” did, I want to invite you to see it as something the evolving set of memes that is hacker culture did using just this guy Eric as an instrument, and creating “ESR” in the process. Because that is, in fact, how I see it. None of this was me sitting in a mad-scientist castle going “Bwahaha! The fools! I shall cunningly manipulate them all!” No. My awareness of what I was doing co-evolved with the hack in progress. I was responding organically, as a member of a nascent culture that was doing its damnedest to self-assemble out of preexisting materials and wake up. Because it was time.

What made it time was not merely the sense of political threat that was directly motivating me in the early 1990s, but a lot of stuff that was going on in the larger technological and social context. The exhaustion of various attempts to grapple with the software complexity problem. The plunging price of computers and the emergence of the Internet – the very possibility of dispersed online communities of interest…do I have really have to rehearse all those factors now, in 2010?

Cultures – collections of linked memetic programs running in the minds of humans – evolve under selective pressure just as species do. Sometimes they adaptively radiate; sometimes they adapt by developing more complex, denser organization. And as I was reshaping the hacker culture, the hacker culture was reshaping me – indeed, that process had begun years sooner in the late 1970s. The Jargon File wasn’t something I invented, it was something true that I lifted into a larger context; it made me as much as much as I made it. It’s like the Escher print of the hand drawing the hand drawing the hand; there’s no place the causal loop actually stops, no place to say “here it began”.

Twenty years later I’m pretty pleased with the results of the hack. I don’t kid myself that they were all positive, though. Well before 1996 I anticipated two negative ones. My complaining regular has neatly fingered the more serious of them.

Posers. I knew we’d get more posers. Any time a subculture increases in infectivity and prestige, you get an influx of people who want to talk the talk, but are unwilling or unable to walk the walk. And lo, it did come to pass. But, as I anticipated, that was an easily manageable problem. Really no more than a very minor irritation.

The more serious problem is that creepy groupthink follows naturally in the wake of tribal solidarity. Even if you don’t actually get all the way to creepy groupthink, a shift towards greater tribal solidarity implies that there’s some cohort of extreme individualists for which the culture will become an uncomfortable place.

After I wrote the above, my wife read it and said “Um, would that include you?” I thought about it for a moment and replied “Dunno. If I weren’t a pack alpha, maybe.” But on reflection, no. Hacker culture would have to become more groupthinky than I think is within the plausible envelope of outcomes before I’d be creeped out. I’ve done what I can to keep the possibility distant by never even trying to modulate my own thorny individualism and contrarianism, by utterly refusing to fear offending anyone with my guns or my libertarianism or my Heinlein quotes.

That’s all me, it’s all true, but it’s also part of the hack. It’s me demonstrating that a true hacker never bends his core values and his commitment to the best in himself under mere social pressure – that we may have become a tribe, but that doesn’t mean we ever have to let creepy groupthink win.

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