I excavated a bit of hacker history from old memories today. Not dead history either, but an important beginning of some large good things.
Earlier today I was in an email exchange with a Tier 1 tech support guy at a hardware vendor who makes multiport serial boards. I had had a question in as to whether a particular board supported the Linux TIOCMIWAIT ioctl. Tier 1 guy referred the question to an engineer in their Linux development group, and Tier 1’s reply to me happened to include his email chain with the engineer.
The engineer wrote to Tier 1 “Is that Eric Raymond ‘ESR’? He’s a big deal in open-source circles.” This made me smile, because when I get made that way it usually means the engineer’s going to work rather harder to make me happy than he would for some random. This is helpful to get my work done!
But there is a duty which is the flip side of that privilege, and that’s what I’m here to write about today. Because if you are reading this at all, your odds of becoming a geek-cred certification authority someday are higher than average, and if that happens, it’s better if you consciously understand what you ought to be doing.
For at least fifteen years my name and its tri-letterization has been something with which you could conjure up a lot of attention among hackers and other sorts of geek. This fact presented the more clueful of my personal friends with a delicate problem: under what circumstances would it be proper for them to invoke this instrument?
I have actually been asked for guidance about this more than once. I developed some guidelines more than a decade ago. To the best my knowledge my friends have been pretty good about applying them. I present them here for your amusement.
Every few months I get a letter from a would-be hacker petitioning me to accept him (always a “him” so far) as my disciple. Happened again today; I think this time I’ll share part of the request, and my response, so I have it to point to next time this happens.
This is not actually going to be a post about the G+ nym wars. Rather, it’s about something curious that I discovered while thinking about them.
I would like G+ to support persistent pseudonyms, so G+ users could say “+ESR” and have it point to my G+ profile. But here’s what’s interesting; I don’t actually want that capability because I want people to address me as “ESR” rather than my real name. I will cheerfully answer to either.
The reason I want a persistent alias as +ESR is more subtle. I want other people to be able to convey information about how they want to engage me by which label they choose. One might think of this as “aspect naming”, and it’s a slightly different phenomenon from pseudonymy or nicknaming, in a way I will explore in this essay.
It’s Saturday night at Penguicon. A few hours ago I blatantly pulled social rank on someone, and I am not ashamed. This is how it happened.
Human beings being what they are, famous people attract fans. Human beings being what they are, famous people also attract haters, the dark obverse of fans. If you are famous, normally your fans are going to be more visible to you than your haters because your fans will have more tendency to seek you out; but the Internet changes that by lowering the cost of hater behavior.
Here at Armed & Dangerous we’ve seen our share of fanboys (and, though with regrettably lower frequency, fangirls). We’ve also seen our share of haterboys (hatergirls are far more rare). I’ve now seen a large enough sample over the years that some interesting patterns have emerged. There follows, accordingly, a taxonomy of basic haterboy types.
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.
I had an IRC chat with one of my semi-regular commenters a few nights ago in which she reported giving a talk on hacker culture that went extremely well.
[00:12] <HedgeMage> It was one of those situations, though, where I felt *very* odd being treated like a subject-matter expert. I certainly don’t consider myself one in this case, though I guess it’s all relative, and as far as I could tell I knew more [abut hacker culture] than the audience.
[00:13] <HedgeMage> Sure, I knew more than those I was teaching, but it bothered me a bit that they seemed to think I was an expert when I clearly wasn’t.
[00:15] <esr> Been there, done that. The *really* weird stuff starts when you give descriptive reports of hacker culture that others begin to consider normative.
[00:15] <esr> If you’re not careful, you can unintentionally become a geek cred certification authority.
[00:15] <HedgeMage> I have an easy way to avoid that.
[00:15] <HedgeMage> I refer them to you :P
[00:16] <HedgeMage> So, no dying or I might end up there!
This actually isn’t the first time I’ve been in a conversation like this one. And that brings on some thoughts about social authority among hackers and geeks and in other subcultures that seem worth developing.
One of my commenters speculated as follows:
Perhaps I overestimate him, but I suspect that without Eric our choice would be Richard Stallman or Bill Gates without much in between. That isnâ€™t a pretty picture. Maybe Linus Torvalds would have help fill the vacuum, or perhaps someone else would have stepped up.
Because I think at least part of the time like a historian/anthropologist, I’ve actually spent a fair amount of effort contemplating what the world might look like if I hadn’t affected it. The more general and interesting question this touches (and what makes this particular instance actually worth thinking about) is a familiar one in historiography: to what extent the times make the man versus the man making the times.
Yesterday I discovered that Donald Knuth at least occasionally reads my blog. I only half-jokingly reported a vague feeling that I ought to be falling to my knees and crying “I’m not worthy!” In response, a “v. m. smith” popped up in my comments to say this:
Dude, you have written at least two books (that I have read) and possibly more. I have never read any of Knuthâ€™s books, so I am forced to consider this hypothesis:
You might be worthy.
Of course, itâ€™s only a hypothesis.
At this I laughed so hard that my eyes watered. That last line! I’m going to be giggling about it for weeks. But, you know, once I calmed down, I realized that “v. m. smith” had an actual point. Which led me to some interesting thoughts about fame, double vision and personal identity – how we choose to become what we are.
Received in email from Donald Knuth’s secretary:
I know from your blog that you’re doing lots of real important stuff these days. So I’m sure you want a break; you clearly must be ready to hack INTERCAL just once more.
Huh…Donald Knuth reads my blog?
Um…Donald Knuth reads my blog?
Wha…Donald Knuth reads my blog?
Eric clutches the nearest piece of furniture as the universe spins dizzily around him.
Eric successfully resists a vague feeling that he ought to fall to his knees and cry out “I’m not worthy!”
Er. Well then. I guess I’ll have to ship another release of INTERCAL, won’t I?
During the controversy I described in Condemning Censorship, Even of Werewolves one of the parties characterized me as “nuts and in decline.”. This failed to bother me, and not because I’m insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance. OK, I am largely insulated against such insults by my natural arrogance, but that’s not the main reason I easily shed this one.
In general I’m much less bothered about people who think I’m crazy than they usually think I should be because I know a lot about the life cycle of reform movements. I studied this topic rather carefully in early 1998, just after Netscape announced its intention to release the Mozilla sources, when I noticed that a burgeoning reform movement seemed to need me to lead it. I was particularly influenced in my thinking by the history of John Humphrey Noyes and the Oneida Community.
Here is part of what I learned: There comes a point in the development of every reform movement at which it has to kill the founder. Or anathematize him, or declare him out of his mind. Or neutralize him in a more subtle way by putting him on a pedestal so high that he can’t actually influence events on the ground.
Redoubtable hacker Chip Salzenberg wrote me last night with the subject line “You have ascended”. I quote in full:
Long time no chat. Hope you are well. In fact, I don’t have to hope, because I just read this in a book:
Raymond in his brilliant The Cathedral and the Bazaar  …
That’s all well and good, and I know enough authors not to be excessibly impressed by publication.
Thing is, this book is by Fred Brooks. As in, Brooks’ Law.
Oh My Lack Of God.
Do you have a halo now, or maybe a relic to protect you from feature creep?
After boggling for a few minutes, I wrote back:
I can almost top this. Donald Knuth once sent me a bug fix. For INTERCAL.
Hmmm.. Now, where did I stash that Amulet of Yendor?
If you found the preceding exchange cryptic, you
need to get out more are probably a normal human being with, like, a life. How sad for you.
I received this a few seconds ago in my mailbox. It’s not especially unusual for me to get wow-you-changed-my-life email, I see two or three in a typical month, but this one is…well, I’ll say a bit more intense than usual. Also, 34 is an unusual age; they tend to be teenagers. Sender’s name masked and one bit turned into a live link. Otherwise unedited, typos and all.
I just finished reading your [Hacker HOWTO] for the second time in as many
days. All of my life I have wanted to be a programmer. I have never
done it. I dealt with the failure of that by downloading cracked
software and telling myself that I was a “hacker.”
When I clicked on the link to your guide, my intention was to get
started on the road towards what I envisioned a hacker to be.
By the end of your guide, I was wallowing in humiliation. I felt…
well basically I felt like a jack ass. I never even knew what a
hacker was. I wasn’t even a cracker, just some poser with no
Your guide showed me that any of my few contributions to the cracker
community were meaningless, juvenile ploys for attention with no
progressive merit. They won’t matter in 6 months because I haven’t
After reading your guide, I began to research and really appreciate
the open source community. I saw that the degree of separation
between us wasn’t to huge of a gap and I realized that I could,
through dedication and hard(but fun) work, be part of something that
is growing and giving. A place where individual contributions aren’t
lost in the grand scheme of things, but help shape that scheme.
I am 34 years old and I have no problem admitting to you that your
guide made me feel like a complete ass. It also directed me to an
ideal I will be proud to contribute to.
For that, I thank you Sir.
I replied by quoting “I saw that the degree of separation between us wasn’t to huge of a gap” and said “I’m glad you got that far. Good luck on your journey.”
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you know your life has made a difference.