The Hacker Ethic: All Work and All Play?

Author Pekka Hinamen argues that the Info Age demands an attitude toward work that includes creativity and social values

By Stefani Eads

I knew only two things about Pekka Himanen before going to his New York promotional appearance for his new book, The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age: That he was still a teenager when he earned his doctorate in philosophy and that the Helsinki-born prodigy is also close friends with revered hacker and fellow Finn Linus Torvalds, who wrote the prologue and was also set to attend the New York promotion. Admittedly, I showed up to see Torvalds, creator of the open-source Linux operating system and an icon among the programming elite.

After all, Torvalds represents the epitome of the hacker ethos, as described in 1984 in Steven Levy's Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Torvalds is extremely passionate about his work -- writing software -- and believes in its intrinsic value. He's more motivated by the idea of creating something socially valuable than the goal of making money. And he encourages other programmers to share their work and build from the pooled ideas -- as he continues to do in the development of Linux.

The Hacker Ethic doesn't stray from these ideas, as I found out after reading the book, which was published earlier this year by Random House. Rather, it uses them as a base to "confront social forces that are not normally considered in discussions concerned exclusively with computers," Himanen writes. Simply put, "a hacker is an enthusiast of any kind," and in this sense, the hacker ethic Himanen refers to "becomes a name for a general passionate relationship to work." (Artists are good examples of hackers without money, he jokes later.)


  Himanen also avoids the usual anti-authoritarian dribble found in hacker literature and takes a more big-picture, sociological view of the fundamental driving forces emerging in the Information Age. He uses the hacker ethic's focus on creativity, the joyful pursuit of passion, and socially valuable activity to directly challenge the validity of the "Protestant work ethic."

In this respect, the book doesn't disappoint. Himanen thoroughly and persuasively skewers the dominant, Industrial Age value system, underpinned by the Protestant work ethic's belief that work is the purpose of life, and therefore, a duty and an end in itself. He argues that the Protestant ethic is so entrenched in society's psyche that its work-centered tenets and emphasis on earning money have become identified with "human nature." He cleverly and thoroughly illustrates it as a burdensome cultural inheritance through references that range from Plato to the 1999 Kosovo refugee crisis.

The book is divided into three parts. Torvalds' prologue -- which is the most accessible -- first explains the value system of his hacker brethren, articulating the origins of the "hacker ethic." Himanen then expounds on Torvalds' example with his theories, which are divided into three sections: the hacker work ethic, money ethic, and "nethic," or community ethic. In the epilogue, Manuel Castells, author of the 1,500-page trilogy, The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture, shows how the spirit of the hacker ethic fits in with his own larger concept of the networked society.


  Provided one can make it through patches of arduously academic and turgid text, Himanen's authorial debut offers a progressive examination of the relationships between work and money, and work and society. It questions why we live the way we do and suggests a new value system based on each individual working at what he chooses, in his own way -- what infamous hacker Eric Raymond calls "intense play."

The difference between the emerging work ethic of today's information-technology-oriented society and the Protestant work ethic is attitude, Himanen says. Do what you love, what stirs your passions -- then find a way to reap financial gain from it. As a work ethic, this idea isn't difficult to swallow. But the notion that activity should be motivated partially by social worth and opportunity for creativity rather than the cash it brings in is unrealistic for most people.

On first glance, The Hacker Ethic is easily interpreted as a communist or utopian diatribe. But as Torvalds pointed out during the book tour, hackers don't oppose getting paid for what they do -- except when it's at the sacrifice of sharing information. "The hacker ethic is anticapitalist in the sense that it portends money isn't everything, but it's not in the sense that it doesn't maintain money is evil," he says.


  It's hard to buy all elements of the hacker ethic since much of the book reads like a biased history lesson. Himanen fills most of his pages by outlining the roots of the Protestant work ethic and pre-Protestant ethic lifestyles and their relationship to one another. Moreover, Himanen gives more examples of the continued dominance of the Protestant work ethic than he does of the specific ways the hacker ethic is challenging it. To his credit, though, the author acknowledges the ethic's lack of widespread influence and its impending struggle for acceptance.

Himanen concludes that the information revolution organizes and optimizes work time even more intensely than industrialism and argues for a more free-rhythmed approach to living. "The information economy's most important source of productivity is creativity, and it isn't possible to create interesting things in a constant hurry or in a relegated manner from nine to five," he writes. "So even for purely economic reasons, it is important to allow for playfulness and individual styles of creativity."

Readers who identify as hackers probably will find Himanen's book refreshing and flawlessly logical -- the illumination of a new cultural politics. Those who don't will likely write off the theories as libertarian, ivory-tower babblings of the overprivileged. Regardless of which ethic proves to dominate the 21st century, it's clear that society will have to contend with the dissolving boundaries between work and play.

Eads covers the Internet and e-commerce for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.