Hacker Culture and the FLOSS Innovation
National Centre for e-Social Science, University of Manchester
This conceptual paper aims to contribute to our understanding of the FLOSS innovation and how it is shaped by and also shapes various perceptions on and practices of hacker culture. Unlike existing literature that usually normalises, radicalises, marginalises or criminalises hacker culture, I confront such deterministic views that ignore the contingency and heterogeneity of hacker culture, which evolve over time in correspondence with different settings where diverse actors locate. I argue that hacker culture has been continuously defined and re-defined, situated and re-situated with the ongoing development and growing implementation of FLOSS. The story on the development of EMACSen illustrates the consequence when different interpretations and practices of hacker culture clash. I conclude that stepping away from a fixed and rigid typology of hackers will allow us to view the FLOSS innovation from a more ecological view. This will also help us to value and embrace different contributions from diverse actors including end-users and minority groups.
Free/Libre Open Source Software (FLOSS) has emerged as an important phenomenon in the information and communication technology (ICT) sector as well as in the wider public domain. A new research strand has attracted scholars and practitioners to analyse the development of FLOSS from many perspectives. While the FLOSS community continues to grow, diverse actors (e.g. developers, firms, end-users, organisations, governments etc. just to name a few) are brought into play. Meanwhile, a variety of apparatuses and inscriptions (e.g. technical ones such as software and hardware tools, socio-economic ones such as licences, educational ones such as certificates, and socio-cultural ones such as on/off line discussion forums) are developed and employed to maintain the practice. The complex composition of the FLOSS community entails a heterogeneous field where innovation is sociotechnically constructed. Practices and values in the FLOSS community are interpreted differently in support of individual and organisational demands (social, economic, political, technical) of the actors. Such a heterogeneous world resembles an ecological system that contains diversity while resources (information, knowledge and tools) are commonly shared amongst actors.
Technically speaking, current research on FLOSS, across academic disciplines and industry fields, mainly focuses on measuring the efficiency and productivity in terms of code reuse, density of bugs, complexity of code or frequency of release, usage, and adoption in the software engineering approach of productivity cycles. A prominent example with regard to determining the benefits of the FLOSS development model is improving security. Given the nature of software technologies, it is generally agreed that ‘given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow’ (Raymond, 1999). Moreover, FLOSS also contributes to open standards and interoperability because the availability of source code increases the transparency of software and eases the development of compatible complementary software (DiBona et al., 1999; Feller and Fitzgerald, 2001).
Whilst these studies focus on a technologically deterministic perspective of FLOSS innovation, the intense interactions between people all over the globe in the FLOSS community indicate the importance of mutual shaping between all economic, socio-cultural and technical factors in the FLOSS innovation process. One of the key factors that shape the FLOSS innovation is said to be the hacker culture (Levy, 1984; Raymond, 1999; Moody, 2001; Himanen, 2001; Williams, 2002). Much existing literature dedicated to the understanding of motivations of participating in the FLOSS development has treated hacker culture as an incentive that drives programmers to compete or collaborate with each other. A collaboration-oriented argument highlights the features of gift culture, community-forming, knowledge-sharing, and social networking in the FLOSS innovation, whilst a competition-oriented argument emphasises the mutual-challenging and self-exploring aspects in a reputation-reward system. Either account, nonetheless, repeatedly overstates ‘the hackers’ as such a homogeneous group that 'fails to account for the plasticity of human motivations and ethical perceptions' (Coleman, 2005: chapter 5). As MacKenzie (2001) comments on Himanen’s work: “Its focus on hacker heroes and their individual ethical values as the core of hacker culture largely ignores the complicated practices of software development for the sake of what I can only read as an uncritical individualism centred on passion: ‘hackers want to realize their passions.’(Himanen 2001: 18)” (MacKenzie 2001: 544). In line with MacKenzie, I argue that sociological research on FLOSS communities should go beyond the idealised and self-serving versions of FLOSS projects towards understanding the FLOSS development as a sociological phenomenon. It is important to analyse material practices and mechanisms as well as social practices that 'developers commit themselves to an ethical vision through, rather than prior, to their participation in a F/OSS project' (Coleman, 2005: chapter 5). That said, hacker culture shall not be seen as a pre-existing norm in the FLOSS social world; it is negotiated semantically and contextually practised to embody different voices towards hacker culture. Thereby, FLOSS should be better treated as socially-informed algorithms where hacker culture is defined, annotated, practised, situated and redefined by a diverse range of actors.
As said, a hacker-driven innovation has been proposed to denote FLOSS development and this idea has been appropriated widely by researchers and practitioners in this field. It is generally recognised that FLOSS was originated from the hacker culture of the 60s and 70s, when hackers defined themselves as ‘clever software programmers who push the limits of the doable’ (Rosenberg 2000: 6). Existing studies on participants' motivations of sharing source code usually presume a firm open source 'hacker' culture that is widely shared amongst members in FLOSS communities and drives them to voluntarily participate in the FLOSS development and share their work (e.g. Hannemyr, 1999; Himanen, 2001; Weber, 2004; von Hippel & von Krogh, 2003).
But the definition of hackers is so ambiguous that it is very difficult to identify the object even if a variety of writings have been dedicated to this goal:
The first text systematically introducing computer hackers appears in 1984 when Levy compiled a detailed chronology of hackers in his book entitled Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. This book revealed an unknown world where technical innovation was developing at a high speed. Levy described how the activities of hackers influenced and pushed the computer revolution forward. In Levy's account, the era of hacking had commenced in the 1960s in university computer science departments where highly skilled students worked and shared information through computer networks. Members of this world tried to mobilise the power of computing in entirely novel ways. They communicated with each other through computer networks in source code. Because this world was so different from wider social life, its members were regarded with suspicion and often seen as deviant. Levy classified hackers into three generations from 1950s to 1980s according to their various actions and beliefs ‘associated with hacking’s original connotation of playful ingenuity’ (Taylor 1999: 36). According to Levy, the earliest hackers, the pioneering computer enthusiasts at MIT’s laboratories in the 1950s and 1960s, were the first generation of hackers, who were involved in the development of the earliest computer programming techniques. Then there was the second generation of hackers who were engaged in computer hardware production and the advent of the PC; the third generation of hackers (who were also fanatic game players), devoted their time into writing scripts and programmes for game architecture.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, with the popularisation of PCs, some hackers from the 80s gained great success in computer businesses such as Apple and Hewlett Packard. Apart from working on making hardware, some hackers created software applications and programs for PCs. Bill Gates’ Microsoft was started at this time. It seemed that their business success was so marked that their identity as ‘hackers’ per se was downplayed. To add to Levy's categories, I have also observed that with the growth of the Internet technologies, an unbalanced global software market dominated by Microsoft, and a wider political milieu suffering from all sorts of anti-terrorist discourses, the contemporary hacker generation is engaging with new ‘.net’ issues such as licensing, patents, security and privacy. In addition to developing software technologies, hackers at the age of Web 2.0 also have to deal with more social and political issues than before.
Levy's chronological categories of hackers was soon overtaken by scholarly studies in the 1990s investigating the hacker world and understand the key role that computer hackers play in the ICT network society. However, a thorough picture has never been mapped. Researchers invariably situate hackers in the field of computer network security and hardly avoid dichotomizing hackers into black hat or white hat. The sensational coverage on computer crime in mainstream media leads many scholars to place hackers in the context of deviance, crime or the expression of an obsessed user subculture with a gang mentality. Chantler (1996) observes hackers since 1989 and finally brought all the materials together in a thesis in 1996 titled Risk: The Profile of the Computer Hacker, which mainly introduces the biographical life of hackers and their activities. Meyer (1989), a criminologist, studies the social organization of the computer underground from a postmodernist view. Taylor’s (1999) book titled Hackers: Crime in the Digital Sublime, which tries to explore the hacker subculture from a more open perspective, nevertheless, still locates it in the context of digital crime, as the book title suggests. Thomas (2002) discusses the relationship between hackers and technology and portrays hacker culture in terms of their perception of technology, and human relationships (Thomas, 2002: xxiii). In this sense, hacker culture was seen as being formed through interaction with technology, culture and subculture. Thomas concludes his analysis of hacker culture with an account of the two controversial hacker figures, Kevin Mitnick and Chris Lamprecht, both used to conducting unlawful network penetration activities. Skibell's work that demonstrates that 'the computer hacker that society assumes is the principal threat is nothing more than a mirage, and that a revaluation of the dangers to computer security needs to be undertaken before sensible policy can emerge.’ (Skibell, 2002: 337). He comes to the conclusion that ‘the majority of computer intruders are neither dangerous nor highly skilled, and thus nothing like the mythical hacker.’ (ibid.: 336). In stating that ‘the hacker only exists in the social consciousness’ (ibid.), Skibell's work points out that perceptions on hackers are socially constructed. This association with computer network security has been widely represented by mass media and internalised by the public. Whenever there is an incident about computer network security, “hackers” are the one to be blamed.
In contrast to the above mentioned literature, which was inspired largely by the sensational media coverage about the huge damage to companies from the attacks of malicious 'hackers', and their portrayal as negative factors in the development of ICT, a hacker, in the tradition of FLOSS literature, is regarded as a creative and enthusiastic programmer for some groups of actors (e.g. Raymond, 1999). These hackers more or less resonate Levy's first and second generation hackers. The difference lies on their understanding of hacker ethics, a manifesto of freedom of information. Their acts, no matter they are coding, writing, or other performances, pursue for a meaning of liberating information and challenging authority. Even in the context of a system attack, hacking is seen as a technical activity deploying arbitrary codes to free information, to challenge the weakness of software, database or firewall. Such codes include viruses and scripts that are both programmes. The operation of these codes might raise people’s vigilance towards the network security. Under these circumstances, codes are written to improve software quality or reliability in a way. Most of the time, these hacking tools are available on the Internet. Whilst this situation is said to allow ‘script kiddies’ to perform malicious acts on the web (e.g. to deface webpages or send viruses), their activities can be seen as an alternative form of self-expressions as well that demonstrates trial-and-error mindset. It is possible that the existing tools can be improved or new tool can be created to conduct these actions. In light of this, Ross (1991) summarises a variety of narratives found within the hacker community that express their behaviour:
- Hacking performs a benign industrial service of uncovering security deficiencies and design flaws.
- Hacking, as an experimental, free-form research activity, has been responsible for many of the most progressive developments in software development.
- Hacking, when not purely recreational, is [a sophisticated] educational practice that reflects the ways in which the development of high technology has outpaced orthodox forms of institutional education.
- Hacking is an important form of watchdog[, countering] to the use of surveillance technology and data-gathering by the state, and to the increasingly monolithic communications power of giant corporations.
- Hacking, as guerrilla knowhow, is essential to the task of maintaining fronts of cultural resistance and stocks of oppositional knowledge as a hedge against a technofascist future. (Ross 1991: 81-2)
Although a good number of practitioners do refer their hacker identity to this version of hackers, a single and stable definition of the ‘hacker’ is hard to give. 'Hacker' remains an obscure term. Having read these writings that mainly assign hackers into either the field of computer network security or the UNIX programming world, my point is that instead of seeking a universal definition of hacker, we should treat hacker as an umbrella concept that is defined and redefined by different people, situated and resituated in different contexts. There are so many different expressions of hacker identity. It is inadequate to focus the analysis on either stigmatised hacking or UNIX geek programming life alone. It appears to me that previous literature, few of which express the diversity of the hacker in modern society, is of limited value in understanding the hacking practices and their relationship with the ICT innovation system. It presents a reductionist notion, which appears to be, from my point of view, very problematic. In this article, neither do I wish to begin with a proposition that categorises hackers as deviant or marginal actors, nor do I wish to portray hackers simply in a positive light.
A motivation of doing so is to do with a methodological challenge. As Taylor (1999) explains, the reason of such an ambiguous hacker identity is because of the loose social ties, and attempt to analyse the computer underground is therefore 'inherently difficult' (Taylor 1999: x). When Taylor studies the relationship between the computer underground and the computer security industry, it turned out to be difficult to pursue because
Ross also gives a similar explanation:
While only a small number of computer users would categorise themselves as “hackers,” there are defensible reasons for extending the restricted definition of hacking down and across the caste hierarchy of systems analysts, designers, programmers, and operators to include all high-tech workers—no matter how inexpert—who can interrupt, upset, and redirect the smooth flow of structured communications that dictates their position in the social networks of exchange and determines the pace of their work schedules. To put it in these terms, however, is not to offer any universal definition of hacker agency. There are many social agents … All [these social agents], then, fall under a broad understanding of the politics involved in any extended description of hacker activities. (Ross 1991: 92-3)
Given these methodological and ontological challenges, it is unwise then to characterise hackers as a homogeneous community and hierarchy akin to a gang organisation. There is no clearly bounded constituency of hackers. As Nissenbaum (2004) argues, the transformation in our conception of hacking over the past few decades is more a function of contextual shifts than of changes in hacking itself. This has been achieved not through direct public debate over conflicting ideals and interests, but through an ontological shift mediated by supportive agents of key societal institutions: legislative bodies, the courts, and the popular media. In a similar vein, my Ph.D. dissertation (Lin, 2004) employed the social worlds theory (e.g. Clarke 1991) and other methodologies inspired in the field of science and technology studies (STS) (e.g. Jasanoff et al., 1995; Sismondo, 2004) is to pursue this end. The thesis, instead of presuming hackers as a specific and relatively closed social group, treats the term ‘hacker’ as flexibly as possible. The notion "hacker" is interpreted differently to demonstrate one's identity and self-expression. Since the notion is not pre-defined, it allows heterogeneous readings and performances. I also suggest to contextualise hacker culture in everyday computing practices. A definition of hacker is identified and situated in a local context where an individual or a group of actors practise what and how they understand hacker culture. A hacker identity is constructed through performing some tasks in everyday computing. These tasks, usually pertaining to coding and programming, define and situate a stream of FLOSS innovation in a local context where the performers inhabit.
To overcome the methodological and ontological challenges, in the following, I will take a practice-based perspective to look at how hacker culture is embodied and embedded in everyday computing world and performed by individuals or groups who either share collective ideas and/or practices of hacking or demonstrate their unique understandings and performances of hacker culture. As a consequence, a hacker-driven product, an editor programme, forks into various versions whose developments differ in contexts. When one version derived from one sense of hacking gets more apparent, it would drift away from others and find another stage of performing their understanding of hacker culture. Thereby, I will conclude that a practice-based perspective is needed in order to capture the emerging, contingent, and dynamic hacker culture and its relationship with the FLOSS innovation system and the wider computing world. If there existed a universal definition of 'hacker', the FLOSS innovation would not be as burgeoning as it is now.
Hacker culture and the FLOSS innovation
Given the critical review of existing literature on hackers and hacker culture, it is obvious that one should stay away from simplicity and stereotypes of hackers. Parallel to Coleman's anthropological research on hacker groups that contributes to our understanding of 'how hacker valuations, motivations and commitments are transformed by the lived experiences that unfold in F/OSS projects and institutional that are mediated through project charters and organizational procedures', I suggest to take a practice-based perspective on the FLOSS development to strengthen the heterogeneity and diversity in the hacker 'social world', where local culture and situated knowledge derive from identities and commitments largely developed through prolonged interaction toward shared, yet continually emergent, goals (Lin, 2004). In other words, I highlight multiple visions and means of achieving them by attempting empirically to view the world in the actors' own terms. In so doing, I show that hacker culture is embedded and embodied in everyday software engineering practices linked with the FLOSS development.
The development of EMACSen (plural form of EMACS - Editing MACroS) can serve as a good illustration here. EMACS is one of the first programmes written by Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and released under the General Public License (GPL), the most popular FLOSS license. Its historical position of being a classic programme allows us to see how the development of a project was mutually shaped by the act of hacking which is situated in everyday practices (e.g. programming for programmers) and by different understandings of hacker culture in various contexts.
According to the document 'GNU EMACS FAQ'
The development of EMACS and the initiative of Stallman’s social contract (which inspires the advent of the infamous GPL) both show the co-production of socio-cultural milieu and technical artefacts. The technical tools such as different programming languages, the work atmosphere at the MIT AI Lab in the 70s and 80s, and the culture of sharing knowledge embedded in the programming practice in the 70s, all contribute to the innovation of EMACS. The original version of EMACS was created under a condition situated in a specific physical and social space (i.e. the MIT AI Lab), and programmed by a specific language (i.e. Lisp). That said, the daily environment and programming tool co-construct the development of EMACS. If ‘culture’ is defined as a way of living, which is invisible and embedded in our daily lives, the original version of EMACS that was created in a specific environment and programming culture that Stallman and others located is undoubtedly a socially-informed algorithm. It is also an embodiment of a version of hacker culture situated in the above mentioned environment, embedded in everyday programming practices. Stallman's understanding of hacker culture constantly appears in his writings and speeches, and this serves to explain the situation he designed and maintained EMACS and other software.
Nevertheless, while the social norm established in the original version of EMACS linked to innovation gained greater political weight, given Stallman’s later act of advocating 'free software', some users were reluctant to conform to the social obligations. This is one of the reasons why Stallman’s GNU Emacs is labelled as a moral product regardless of its technical utility. People who did not share Stallman’s vision went on creating other editor programmes. Furthermore, new versions of EMACS were created through yet other problem-solving process (e.g. EINE, ZWEI, XEmacs etc. are derived from the need of porting EMACS with other programming languages). These forked versions of EMACS were created because their creators situated their hacking in different programming tools that they used everyday. In fact, as documented (e.g. Moody, 2001), the reasons for the divergences vary in social scope (e.g. disagreement on Stallman’s social contract), and technical scope (e.g. the original version of EMACS did not run on other programming languages or support certain type of machines). For instance, the versions EINE and ZWEI for Lisp, developed by Weinreb, could be considered as some hacked versions of EMACS situated in some specific programming environments. While these motivations of forking all link with programmers' mundane and situated practices and influenced by complicated socio-technical factors, the forked products represent as dis/agreements on Stallman's interpretation and articulation of hacker culture.
An evolving hacker culture and the EMACS development
The development of EMACS leads to several major FLOSS innovation in roughly 3 aspects: technical, socio-cultural and legal. The technical innovation refers to various versions of software programmes based on the original version of EMACS initiated by Steele. The socio-cultural innovation refers to a community-based type of collaboration to develop software motivated by Stallman's social contract. The legal innovation refers to the advent of GPL, which inspires the emergences of many different software licences. The hacker culture defined by the early developers such as Stallman and Steele at the time and space where they were situated in has been embodied and embedded in the early development of EMACS.
However, over time, Stallman's way of hacking has been challenged, negotiated, refined and resituated with the emergence of other versions of EMACS. Rather than being a question of which version of EMACS is technically better, which way of hacking is more efficient, which way of licensing is more politically correct, the question from a sociological perspective would be how different understandings of an intermingling of social, technical, economic and legal factors were taken into account and taken actual form in the EMACS development. The story above thus shows that there is no one dominant or homogeneous notion of hacker culture. If a universally defined hacker culture (say, Stallman's version of hacker culture) existed and mandated all hackers' behaviours, there would not be so many versions of EMACS, different editors and software licences to date. This also echoes my view that hacker culture needs to be understood in a practice-based sense concerning how actors perform their understandings of hacker culture, and how various FLOSS innovations are initiated, developed and accepted in different contexts.
Parallel to EMACS, many other FLOSS projects have been witnessing similar technical, socio-cultural, legal innovations. In terms of a practice-based view, each project and forked subproject is an embodiment of a definition and performance of hacker culture, whether practitioners explicitly or implicitly identifies themselves as hackers. Some practices emerging from Stallman's way of defining and performing hacker culture have been institutionalised in ways such as open sourcing software under GPL-alike licences and sharing information across various medias (e.g. mailing lists, IRC channels, wikis, blogs, websites). Although many FLOSS communities are conducting these collective practices derived from Stallman's hacker culture, it does not necessarily mean that there is a single philosophy and ontology of hacker culture indifferently shared amongst all members. A hacker social world (Lin, 2004) de facto accommodates heterogeneous 'hacker groups' and hackers who assign different meanings to the umbrella concept 'hacker'. These social groups mutually engage in, interact, communicate and negotiate with one another. In other words, if there were a hacker community, it is a social world that incorporates heterogeneity through engaging actors on a constellation of collective practices, the practices of experimenting/challenging existing knowledge paradigms and of sharing information and knowledge situated in local context. Over time, the orbit within which hacking practices are found has been extended, and is much wider than was the case for those studies conducted notably in relation to the FLOSS development. For instance, the innovation based on a community-based collaborative culture is now recognised in the wider computing world such as popular blogging and wiki phenomenon.
The collective hacking practices appear to be important factors in the emergence of FLOSS. If there is a norm existing in 'the hacker community', it should be in the sense of Robert Cover (1992) (cited by Coleman (2005)) who argues that 'the production and stabilization of inhabited normative meanings requires ongoing and sometimes conflicting interpretation of codified textual norms'. Such continual acts of reinterpretation and commitment is exactly because of the heterogeneity in the hacker social world. Heterogeneity, on the one hand, becomes the resource that helps mobilise the FLOSS innovation, and on the other hand, drives diverse actors to re/define and practise the hacker culture they perceive differently. Analysing hacker culture and understanding how collective (hacking) norms and practices are interpreted, articulated and performed differently by different people, in this regard, provide a culturally contextualised understanding of the FLOSS innovation.
Conclusion and future studies
This article begins with a review on the existing research into hacker culture and its relationship with the FLOSS development, and discusses different articulations and interpretations on the concepts of hackers and hacker culture. Looking at such a variety of materials, I argue that the evolution of FLOSS involves continuous negotiations of meanings and consequently a practice-based and sociological perspective is needed to help us better understand the dynamics in the FLOSS evolution: the changing roles and work practices of FLOSS developers and how their cultures and identities are formed through interacting with each other and with the artefacts in their everyday environments through committing to the collective open source practices. Based on the story of the evolution of EMACS and a plurality of forked versions, I delineate how this diversity of EMACSen embodies and symbolises different practices and articulations towards 'hacker culture'. Unlike most of the previous research on hacker movement, I take a practice-based perspective to document the various voices on hacker movement & the evolution of FLOSS, and their interactions (conflicts and negotiations) and consequent impacts. A shift from a rigid and fixed typology of hacker culture to a practice-based perspective on hacker culture would allow us to look at how the collective production of FLOSS skills and practices emerge from negotiating the meanings and interpretations of hackers. It also offers a holistic but critical view to study various performances of hacker culture and and their relationships with the FLOSS development, such as the hacktivism referred by Jordan and Taylor (2004), different hacker ethics (Coleman, 2005), Indymedia and Wikipedia's mediactivism, and other forms of digital struggles and geek fights (e.g. software patents, repression of peer to peer file-sharing, IP & data retention laws are attacking digital freedom daily). It implicates that the FLOSS innovation system serves as a socio-technically efficient platform to enrol wider socio-technical resources from the public as well as the private sectors to provide for greater innovation capacity in software development because this platform allows a free evolution of hacker culture that is constantly re/defined, re/interpreted and re/situated (Lin, 2004).
Having said that, once a static and normative definition of hacker culture is tackled, and the emphasis is placed on different understandings and performances of the concept, it indicates the importance of integrating end-users and minority in this dynamics world (e.g. women, vision-impaired, people from developing countries) groups in the FLOSS innovation process (e.g. Lin, 2006a, 2006b). So far, the term 'hacker' is either claimed by advantaged groups in the software engineering (e.g. male, white) and acclaimed in their networks, or declaimed by more mainstream media as deviants. Both discourses are voiced from the positions of the advantaged that ignores other ways and interpretations of hacking. They also contributed largely to many inequalities in the FLOSS social world. These minority groups do not usually fit into the mainstream hacker culture loudly advocated by mainly an advantaged group in software engineering or stigmatised by mainstream media.
A practice-based view on hacking is to distribute the right of interpreting and performing hacker culture to a wider and more diverse range of actors involved in the FLOSS development. It is less interesting for me to group who are the hackers. It is more important for me to make sure that people are equally entitled to the title 'hacker' and equally allowed to practise what they believe is hacking. In so doing, I value everyday technologies, tacit knowledge and local culture in hacking and in the FLOSS innovation. What I would like to present here is a contextualised perspective on hacking.
Apart from valuing contributions from minority hacker groups and their contributions to the FLOSS development, future studies should also centre on how different hacker groups define their territory, how different hacker groups interact with each other? In what way? Do they cooperate, or do they draw a line between each other? These sociological issues are critical to our understanding of the dynamics both in the hacker social world and the FLOSS innovation system where geeks and activist cultures are brought together.
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