I’ve just had an insight I find a bit disturbing. Though perhaps I shouldn’t.
Occasionally I visit Scott Alexander’s excellent and thoughtful blog, Slate Star Codex. Today’s entry reminded me of Laurence Iannaccone’s research on Sacrifice and Stigma, which argues that onerous religious requirements are effective ways of building in-group trust because they are commitment signals that are difficult to fake.
It occurred to me to wonder: do hackers do this? And…I think we do.
One thing we sacrifice as a commitment signal is time. Software engineering and the support tasks around it are notorious time sinks, and working on open-source projects readily expands to fill up every free waking hour you have. The results are visible as code and commit volume.
Admittedly, it’s hard to disentangle the extent to which this is an intended commitment signal from how much we love what we do. But maybe this isn’t such a problem as it appears; religious people claim to love their group observances too, and appear to be truthful in this at least some of the time.
The question, then, is how much of the quasi-obsessive, apparently overcommitted behavior of hackers comes not from the obvious primary rewards of creative work but from a desire to signal in-groupness. I don’t know the answer, but now that I’m considering the question I’m pretty sure it’s not zero.
Note that this is a different mechanism than seeking reputation for the quality of one’s work. That comes from results, whereas the commitment signal comes from investment.
And, er, why play for in-groupness and peer trust? Well, I point out that my blog regulars recently threw nearly three grand in donations at me so I could build the Great Beast of Malvern, on which I am typing now. I think we may reasonably suppose this had something to do with peer trust.
The Great Beast is an extreme example, but there are rewards of peer trust less obvious and more common, such as the ability to recruit help for projects you need done.
Another thing we frequently sacrifice is earning capacity. Yes, there are plenty of people nowadays who have good jobs writing open-source code – but then, there are plenty who don’t, too. At least some are voluntarily forgoing more lucrative employment at closed-source shops. Principle? Possibly. Commitment signaling? Also possibly. As I never tire of pointing out, all interesting behavior is overdetermined.
Because I am an honest rationalist, I am now going to point out a significant problem with this theory. A straight-line analogy with Iannaccone’s type case of mainline protestants vs. evangelicals suggests that the hard-core self-sacrificers and fundamentalists in the hacker community ought to be gaining adherents at the expense of more moderate and inclusive tendencies.
This is not the direction in which the community has been moving since the early 1990s. Yes, yes, I know, as one of the “moderate” thought leaders and a strong advocate of inclusiveness I might not be considered entirely disinterested here…but I always believed I was liberating a pent-up demand rather than bucking a trend in the opposite direction, and history seems to have borne out that belief. Our fundamentalists certainly talk like a beleaguered minority…
There are a couple of possible explanations. One is that Iannacone’s theory is, despite its superficial plausibility, broken – he has somehow mistaken accident for essence. Another is that despite the apparent similarity in behaviors there is some fundamental difference between the psychology of religious believers and hackers that means his insights are true about the former but do not map over to the latter.
The possibility that I think is both most interesting and most likely to be true is that Iannacone’s theory is correct but incomplete: the rigorists only win if in-group signaling is the most important consequence of rigor, and not generally if there are other instrumentally rational and sufficient motives for those behaviors. In the hacker culture, we ship software; we do things that have useful results. And ultimately we judge by those results; “Show me the working code” easily beats “Show me your sacrifice.”
A related point is that fundamentalists are almost by definition worse at building coalitions with people outside their in-group than moderates are. That may be an acceptable handicap for an inward-facing religious group, but to the extent that hackers need to play well with others to get what they want, that requirement gives our moderates an advantage.
Overall, while I think the application of Iannacone’s ideas I’ve sketched is descriptively very plausible, there is one final problem with it. It’s not very generative. I have not yet identified a testable consequence. Perhaps one of my regulars will notice one.