In the you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up department, I learned a few minutes ago that I have been quoted, approvingly, in an article published with the imprimatur of the Vatican. This is from a news report that made Slashdot; I have not seen the article itself, which is apparently print-only and is likely in Italian.
OK, yes, I did say, “Hackers build things, crackers break them.” And it’s nice that the author got the distinction right. But as for the rest of the argument…well, since they quoted me to support it, I guess I’m almost obligated to point out that it’s so wrong it’s hilarious.
The thrust of the article is an attempt to argue that the hacker culture and Christian virtue have essential parallels. The irony only begins with the fact that they by quoting me they attempted to derive support for this position from a third-degree Wiccan and atheist whose utter detestation of Christianity (and all other faith-centered religions) is no secret.
But it is in other ways evident even from a secondhand account that the author (one Antonio Spadaro) doesn’t actually understand the hacker culture very well, and is to a damaging extent projecting what he wishes to see on it rather than paying close attention to what’s actually there. Hacker culture, we are told, “opposes models of control, competition and private property”.
There’s just enough truth to that to make it far more misleading than claiming the exact opposite would be. It makes hackers out to be a bunch of fuzzy-sweater communitarians shading over into cultural Marxists. And indeed, hearing this sort of thing from the Vatican is a first – the usual attempts to co-opt us in this way issue from secular left-wingers.
Er, for those of you who also haven’t been paying attention, I am in my own person pretty good evidence that the hacker culture gets along with private property and competition just fine, thank you. If that weren’t the case my anarcho-capitalist politics would look like much more of an outlier than they do. But they don’t, because I am only a bit more outspoken and theoretically consistent than the average in the large contingent of libertarian hackers.
Any of you tempted to dismiss the above as argument by anecdote should remind yourselves of the fact that Spadaro cited me as an authority on the hacker nature. But of the handful of other people he might have cited similarly, I’m pretty sure not one – not even RMS, who’s the closest among our philosopher-princes to an ideological anti-capitalist – would cop to being opposed to private property other than in software.
And as for competition…hackers are a cooperative bunch, but I look around and see a lot of competition going on every day. That the goals are mainly reputational doesn’t make it any less real. Spadaro is, probably, one of these simple-minded thinkers for whom cooperation is good and competition is bad; such people can’t get that to really maximize efficiency you need to play both games well. Hackers play both games well.
To say that hackers oppose “control” is closer to being true, but it’s a pretty rum thing to hear approvingly from a Catholic priest. Hello? Hello? I was a Catholic once. Your religion is all about control; I’d call it the original totalitarianism if the Zoroastrians hadn’t gotten there first. Sin, guilt, dogma, thoughtcrime, and the demand to obey or burn in Hell are what you are made of.
So far, though, we’re in the territory of what I think of as “normal” projection; secular left-wingers utter pretty much the same wrong-headed things about hackers, and about the only change in the counter is that it’s their statist politics rather than their religion that makes their words hollow by being all about control and coercion.
In both cases (the priest Spadaro and any random left-winger) part of what’s going on is a massive disjunct between what they claim to believe about “control” and what they actually manifest in their behavior. Out of one side of the mouth they praise hackers for supposedly being opposed to “control”, and out of the other side they repeat the rhetoric of causes like Christianity and Marxism that are soaked in the blood of people who just wanted to be left the hell alone and uncontrolled.
Again, this is all bog-standard stuff. I’ve watched such people project misty-eyed collectivist idealism on the hacker culture so often that it doesn’t even bother me any more; I just laugh at the idiocy and move on. Where Spadaro takes off into a special, almost unique looniness is where he tries to connect the hacker culture to Christian theological ideas.
Fair is fair; I’ll start by admitting that if you happen to be deep inside a Christian worldview the idea that hacking is “a form of participation in the ‘work’ of God in creation” is at least reasonable. But, er, why just hackers? Why not other kinds of engineers, too? There’s nothing generative here, no account of what makes hackers special little angels or why. Consequently the claim is either meaningless or crazy.
“It’s a vision that is … of a clear theological origin,” Spadaro is reported to say. Right, because theology has to be at the bottom of every virtue. There is only one source of Good, and if you’re not plugged in you are either inconsequential or the enemy. See “totalitarianism”, above. Listen close, because Spadaro’s innocent-sounding claim here is absolutism, evil, and death speaking.
To his credit, Spadaro seems not completely unaware of the contradictions in his own view. The secondary source reports this:
Spadaro acknowledged there were problems of compatibility between the Catholic Church’s hierarchical organization and its focus on a “revealed truth” and the hackers’ rejection of authority and of any hierarchy of knowledge.
Um, yes. When I titled The Cathedral and the Bazaar as I did, the proximate cause was that Fred Brooks had used cathedral-building as a central metaphor in The Mythical Man-Month, and I wanted to challenge the model that book presented on both an objective and symbolic level.
But it was also in my mind that cathedrals – vertical, centralizing religious edifices imbued with a tradition of authoritarianism and “revealed truth” – are the polar opposite of the healthy, skeptical, anti-authoritarian nous at the heart of the hacker culture.
Spadaro wants to pretend that the circle can be squared, that the “problem of compatibility” can be ignored. And he has the audacity to quote me in support. But I know better – and so, I think, do most hackers.