Anarchism and the hacker ethic

I read HACKERS: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy when it first came out in 1984, and I liked it a lot.  I re-read it last week because of my new interest in anarchism.  The hacker groups described by Levy are great examples of communities organized on the basis of mutual aid and voluntary cooperation, rather than coercion or the profit motive.

Levy told how the rapid improvement and spread of computer technology originated with the hacker group at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Homebrew Computer Club in the San Francisco Bay area in the 1970s, both of which were organized around anarchist principles.  Some Homebrew organizers were, in fact, avowed anarchists.

Group members freely shared information and software programs, so as to improve on each other’s work.  They had little interest in money.  They were motivated by love of what they were doing, and rewarded by respect of their peers.

hackersWithout their work, the revolution in computer technology and availability would not have taken place when it did and in the way it did.

The word “hacker” has come to mean somebody who invades someone else’s computer system, usually with malicious intent.   The original meaning of the word was someone who could “hack” an existing software program to make it more efficient or to add more features.  It is true, however, that the MIT and Homebrew groups had little regard for passwords, locked doors or any other barriers to information.

The Hacker Ethic, as outlined by Levy, affirmed that (1) everybody should have equal access to computers, (2) information should be free to all, (3) authority is bad and decentralization good, and (4) hackers should be judged by their hacking and not age, race, academic degrees or position in society.  These principles seem to me to be the essence of anarchism as I am coming to understand it.

These quasi-anarchist utopias did not last, and could not have lasted.  The best programmers saw there was money to be made in software, and started companies.  The 19-year-old Bill Gates made a cameo appearance, accusing the Homebrew members of stealing from professional programmers.  Young Steve Wozniak is persuaded by the young Steve Jobs into turning the Homebrew program he made to impress his friends into the Apple II.

Internally, some of the companies operated for a time on an internal Hacker Ethic, but eventually came to adopt regular business practices of deadlines, regular hours and corporate planning.

Given the nature of our American culture and economy, the eclipse of the Hacker Ethic by what Levy called the Real World was inevitable.  And I certainly don’t begrudge the computer entrepreneurs their sudden wealth.  For one thing, they deserve their reward; for another, giving them large financial resources empowers them create new things of value.  Without commercialization, it might have taken longer for the fruits of the computer revolution to reach people like me.

At the same time Levy’s hackers illustrate the possibilities of what can be done by mutual aid and voluntary cooperation and not by government or corporate edict.

Take the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, another tap root of the computer revolution, which Levy didn’t report on.  Xerox researchers, given free rein, created the first computer with a screen, a keyboard, a mouse and a graphical interface.   Xerox never made it into a product, but when they gave Steve Jobs a tour of their facility, he turned their ideas into the Macintosh.

Later on, when Jobs accused Gates of copying Apple’s Macintosh, Gates replied, “It’s more like we both had this rich neighbor named Xerox and I broke into his house to steal the TV set and found out that you had already stolen it.”

Every account I’ve ever read of this condemns Xerox management for being so foolish as not to develop their technology, but especially for sharing it with competitors.  Nobody ever expresses gratitude to Xerox people for creating this valuable technology.  But maybe sharing was the key to progress.   Maybe we need a new Xerox PARC.  What do you think?

Click on How Xerox Invented the Information Age (And Gave It Away) for background on Xerox PARC.

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