In my last two blog posts, on the attempted hijack of the Lerna license and speech suppression in the Python documentation, I have both urged the hacker culture to stay out of political issues and urged what some people will interpret as “political” stance with regard to political correctness and “diversity”-driven speech demands.
The expected “gotcha!” comments that “ESR is saying hacker projects should stay clear of politics while arguing politics” have duly followed. While the way this sort of objection is usually posed barely rises above the level of a stupid rhetorical trick, there is an actual issue of principle here that deserves exploring.
The wrong way to do it would be to argue over the scope of the term “politics”. I’m going to take a different tack, starting with the observation that the hacker culture is a social machine for producing outcomes that its participants desire. Good code; working infrastructure; successful and rewarding collaborations. Artistic expression of the special kind that is master-level engineering.
Thus, hacker culture has a telos, a purpose – more precisely, a collection of linked and mingled purposes that can be considered as a unit. Achievement of those purposes depends on a rich array of processes and customs. If those processes are disrupted, the culture will cease to be able to achieve its purposes.
That would be a bad thing, and not just for hackers. Our civilization has become dependent on the infrastructure that the hacker culture invented and maintains. Damage to our culture, failure to fulfill our telos – these are no longer parochial issues. We hold up the sky and have a corresponding duty to our civilization, which is to defend our processes so we can keep doing our job.
Therefore, I propose to replace the question “What kind of politics should the hacker culture be engaged in?” with two that are sharper and more responsive to our duty. These questions are:
1. What exertions of power and influence do we need to resist in order to protect our processes, prevent our social machine from breaking down, and achieve our telos?
2. Should we, as a culture or as projects within that culture, engage in “politics” (however that is defined) beyond the issues selected by the previous question?
To arrive at a generative answer to that question, I’m going to start with two hot-button political issues that I think are at opposite ends of the threat spectrum implied by the first question. Those are: internet censorship, and the nature and scope of immigration controls.
Hacker culture has no more critical dependency than the free flow of information over the Internet. Only this allows us to sustain large-scale cooperation among geographically scattered individuals. We have a correspondingly strong duty to protect and extend that liberty – and not just a duty to ourselves, but to the civilization that increasingly relies on us.
On the other hand, no possible choice about immigration policy threatens our processes. It matters very little whether a hacker is sitting in New Jersey or Nigeria, and as the Internet build-out continues that geography becomes ever less important. Thus we have no duty here as members of the hacker culture; any individual position we might have is irrelevant to the hacker telos.
Not all issues are so clear cut. But before pursuing that problem further, let me address the second question. Why should we avoid political entanglements that are not clearly connected to our process and our telos?
I think I answered that one pretty clearly in my post on the Lerna flap. Political fights we don’t need to be in are internally divisive – they risk fractionating us into warring tribes, fatally damaging our ability to cooperate. That is directly against the telos. I have also written previously “You shall judge by the code alone.” That is the individual compact of mutual tolerance that is a precondition for not fractionating over politics.
I should add now that even when we face outwards rather than inwards towards each other , every fight we don’t need to be in burns up energy and social capital we need to preserve for the fights that are important.
There’s a third issue here: we benefit, in facing outwards and performing our function in civilization, from not being seen to have axes to grind. To keep the infrastructure running we benefit from having every political faction in society see us as friendly neutrals. I’d go so far as to say being perceived as friendly neutrals is tied to our telos.
OK, somebody’s going to ask how that is compatible with dealing with…say…a political tendency that is avowedly pro-censorship, like Communism? Do we have to exert ourselves to be “friendly neutrals” to Communists?
No. Because we’re even more critically dependent on free information flow than we are on being seen by outsiders as politically impartial. That kind of liberty is closer to our telos than having good PR with every totalitarian in the world.
The question that flows from the “Communist” example is not trivial, but it’s at least one that can be used as a guide to right action. The philosophical version is this: given the hacker telos as a set of related terminal values, what is the smallest set of non-terminal values we must defend? Correspondingly, in he public sphere, what political positions must we have?
Here are some obvious ones:
* The right of individuals to speak as they wish to any who wish to hear them without censorship or fear of reprisals.
* The right of individuals to associate and cooperate on shared projects.
* The right of individuals to own and use the tools required for their creative work.
* The right of individuals to form cooperative groups that themselves have speech and ownership/use rights required for their work.
* Opposition to coercive control of our communications channels by anyone, whether that ‘anyone’ is a government or something else.
It actually takes a pretty stupid person to not see that hackers must defend these positions, which is why I’m not worried that they hurt our friendly-neutrals position much.
Now I’m going to pick on something much more contentious, because I think it illustrates how we should reason as hackers when the connection to our cultural telos is much less clear, and provides an example of what kind of individual political self-restraint our duty as hackers requires.
I am personally widely known to be a strong advocate of the individual right to own and bear arms; in U.S. terms, a Second Amendment absolutist. Yet, I have never argued that other hackers have a duty to embrace this cause.
It’s not because I couldn’t do so. Firearms rights are not like immigration controls, with no connection to the hacker telos. They are an individual-autonomy issue somewhat removed from the hacker telos but connected to it. To see this, ask: if society can ban civilian firearms on a consequential-harm argument, can it ban other things for the same reason? Like, say, cryptography? Or 3D printers? Or general-purpose computers?
But no. I’ve never pushed this argument in my role as hacker thought leader because I judge doing so would likely inflict net harm. The division it would sow within our community would likely do more damage than winning that argument could contribute to the defense of our telos. Thus, I refrain. I see my duty and I hold my fire.
On the other hand, consider Cody Wilson and Defense Distributed. Must hackers defend his right to distribute 3-D-printer CAD files for personal firearms? Here I think the answer is unambiguously “yes”. DD is squarely within the hacker telos in maintaining that individuals should be able to share, use, and modify these files without hindrance. The jump from censoring them to censoring putatively “dangerous” software is no jump at all. I’ll put my “ESR” mojo behind that position all day long and have no doubt whatsoever I am doing my duty to the hacker telos.
And yet, as to firearms rights in general, I continue in self-restraint for the good of our community – that is, I speak a strong position as an individual but do not claim that hacker terminal values entail it. I’m going to finish this essay by arguing for a similar sort of restraint.
Most of the political arguments roiling our waters these days have something to do with “diversity”. I’m going to stay honest here by admitting that I think far too many of the people waving this banner are totalitarian wannabes for whom it is merely pretext, with the actual goal of imposing a degree of speech and thought control that would do George Orwell’s Inner Party proud. Those people won’t be dissuaded from disrupting the hacker social machine no matter what I say, because nothing actually matters to them but the power to punish.
Some of you, though…some of you genuinely believe that the hacker culture is in desperate need of “diversity” reform. That “You shall judge by the code alone” is not enough. And to you I have this to say:
Refrain. You have failed to take account of the vast harm you are risking – that of destroying the functional neutrality and mutual tolerance that keeps our social machine running and our telos fulfilled. Perhaps “You shall judge by the code alone” is an imperfect norm, but it’s at been least pretty good at keeping us from tearing each others’ throats out for the last forty years. Identity politics, on the other hand, always reduces to a game of “which tribe is strongest and most ruthless” and thus inevitably ends in blood and tears.
As a hacker, I have a duty – to other hackers, and to the civilization we serve – of political self-restraint, to keep the hacker culture functioning. So do you.