Hacker Ethics are not Completely Universal

I paraphrase the main values of the hacker ethics, taken from Steven Levy’s 1984 book, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution:

  • Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On imperative!
  • All information should be free.
  • Mistrust authority – promote decentralization.
  • Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degress, age, race, or position.
  • You can create art and beauty on a computer.
  • Computers can change your life for the better.

While such values are laudable, I find a series of reservations with the hacker ethics that makes me think of it as a more exclusive, restrictive culture than what many hackers gurus might have initially thought of:

  • It assumes a potentially equalitarian access to technology. Not all would-be hackers have the possibility to be exposed to the technological advances where hackers thrive. I cannot conceive a leading hacker dealing with obsolete technology. By definition, access to technology cannot be limitless to everyone.
  • Despite a free flow of information, the truth is that where you are born will condition your ability to become a hacker. Access to information alone is not enough. Why are there no well known hackers outsite the rich world?
  • Unless you speak and understand English you will never succeed as a hacker. All programming languages are based on the English lexicon and without it one cannot understand many of the nuances. The development of the hacker culture is also tied to a very specific environment and tradition.
  • Hacker culture is based on a civilization of abundance. Most people have their limited salaries and obligations to meet. The hacker culture assumes a continuous amount of free time, that many people simply do not have.  This excludes hacker values from universal adoption.

Hacker values are great ideals to be aspired by current generations of would-be entrepeneurs and even philosophers. Let’s not forget, however, that this culture was grown and fostered in a very particular set of circumstances and country. I do not believe that these ideals are necessarily universal. I can think of a parallel analogy with democracy: despite being universal in its aspirations it does not work in all cultures.


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