Armand Halbert
Customer Success Engineer

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Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Hackers and the Politics of Identity

The title “hacker” is back in vogue. Once a title that even denizens of Slashdot and Sourceforge reluctantly used, the rise of startup culture 2.0 has inspired a revitalization of the phrase. Hacker News, the leading technology aggregator, is chock full of recruitment ads for “iOS hackers”, “Rails hackers” or just “hackers”. All of them promise the sky to these enlightened individuals.

What makes a person a hacker? While the word has been around since the 70’s, it can refer to criminals, engineers, or hobbyist programmers. The only thing they have in common is that they work on computers. Eric S. Raymond makes an attempt in his famous essay How to become a hacker. He defines hacker as a participant in the Free/Open Source Software community, with the right set of attitudes and skills. Given ESR’s status in the dot-com era hacker community, and that almost all the related articles in Google are paraphrases of ESR’s essay, its fair to call it influential, and it certainly influenced me when I was typing my first lines of C++.

Years ago, this essay was my role model; hackers were who I looked up to, what I wanted to be. Every day I would log into Slashdot, read the articles and comments, to learn and be a better programmer. But though my technical knowledge grew, I also consumed a metanarrative that warped my view of the world, morality and justice. If How to Become a Hacker accurately describes what a hacker is, I don’t want to be one anymore.

I discovered this essay and the FOSS movement in 2005, when the corruption and incompetence of the Bush administration became apparent. I became disillusioned with Christianity, and the conservative politics of my parents. While the world around me suffered from nepotism and incompetence, here was a group that explicitly endorsed merit: the best coders get the most fame and respect. Hackers eschewed worldly things such as politics, appearance, and social status; all that mattered was freedom and code. If you worked hard enough, you could achieve Zen through code. Though I had abandoned heaven, I yearned for another form of salvation. I adopted a new faith, and replaced my Bible with Slashdot comments. But my new faith was no better than the old one. In reality, the community suffered from the same ego stroking, close-mindedness and status seeking that hackers were supposed to despise. There was never a meritocracy to begin with; only one hackers paid lip service to.

###The Hacker Metanarrative

Like many religions, “how to become a hacker” weaves a Manichean narrative of good vs. evil. It’s the hackers vs. everyone else, because everyone else gets in the way of hacking. If one read the anti-Microsoft screeds of Slashdot, you would think that Microsoft was a satanic cult, windows users its unwitting victims, and hackers lone heroes against the darkness. ESR continues this tradition by insisting hackers can only work on open-source unix systems. This serves to emphasize the apartness of the hacker, who uses different tools from the unwashed masses. ESR even goes so far as to invoke the imagery of wizards and muggles from Harry Potter in the hacker dictionary. The hacker is smarter than the non-hackers, and does not deserve to have his time wasted. In Harry Potter, only the bigoted think muggles are stupid and useless; Apparently ESR would fit right in with the likes of the Malfoys.

ESR portrays hackers as misunderstood by society. Like Batman, hackers are the heroes the computer world needs but don’t deserve. In his words:

Hackers (and creative people in general) should never be bored or have to drudge at stupid repetitive work, because when this happens it means they aren’t doing what only they can do — solve new problems. This wastefulness hurts everybody. Therefore boredom and drudgery are not just unpleasant but actually evil.

To sum up the “hacker attitude”: hackers are part of a special group that is smarter than everyone else. Therefore, the rules of society should not apply to them.

To ESR, hacking is so important that anyone actively hindering it is making the world a worse place. He goes on to encourage people to live a hermit lifestyle away from non-hackers.

Being something of a social outcast helps you stay concentrated on the really important things, like thinking and hacking.

The language here is used to imply that the hacker is too smart for society. Society is not intelligent enough to appreciate the hacker’s intelligence, and therefore society excludes him. ESR is hardly the only person to promote this narrative. Paul Graham’s essay Why Nerds Are Unpopular spells out the metanarrative for those who found ESR’s too subtle.

After accepting the initial premise, it’s not a far step to see the “clueless” as actively getting in the way of the hacker, who knows best. Isolated to his computer, the hacker is not only powerless to change society; he forgets what society is like. Like the blind men and the elephant, hackers get their news from other hackers, who are isolated themselves. A feedback cycle develops where hackers feel alone and marginalized because they do not participate in society, and do not participate in society because they feel marginalized.

I’m ashamed to admit that I bought into the metanarrative. I had abandoned evangelical Christianity, but not the persecution complex that came with it. I was insecure and isolated; I felt invisible to an uncaring world. I hungered for recognition; Even if it were only Internet fame, I wanted my talents to be recognized. Like evangelical me, I needed to believe I was part of an elite group morally superior to others; open-source software and Linux provided me a reason. I suffered from depression, and felt miserable. But instead of confronting my own troubles, I invented enemies. Like most hackers, I am a white male, one of the most privileged members of our society. I was part of an elite group, but not by any merit on my part. I had no right to think of myself as marginalized or persecuted. It was easier to be angry rather than face my own insecurities and fears. But I could only blind myself for so long. Now that I’ve gained some perspective, I can see that the people who I listened to, held up as heroes, were just as insecure as I was.

Insecurity compels hackers to constantly reassure themselves that they are smarter than other people. This makes them actively hostile to newcomers, who are ignorant and can be yelled at for asking stupid questions. Hacker guides such as How to Ask Smart Questions reeks of bullying. While there is good etiquette advice in the essay, it also argues that if you make a mistake, you deserve to be treated with scorn. Kindness is not a weakness, and intimidating people to make yourself seem more important does not help the community, even if it makes you feel superior for a little while. I ended up never trying to contribute because I was never secure enough in my ability to believe I could help.

With this attitude, programming skills become a fortress of knowledge rather than a tool. As long as the hacker stays within the confines of his knowledge he feels safe. Of course, security comes at a price - the nature of a fortress is that it must be constantly defended from real enemies or imaginary ones. There’s a reason flame wars erupt over silly things like text editors: people come to personally identify with the tools they use, and people doing thing differently become a personal threat to that identity.

I’ve long abandoned the idea of “the one true path”. Programs are tools; you pick the one suited to the task at hand. There is no reason hackers can’t work on closed source systems as well as open source. While yes, the closed source nature of Windows makes developing low-level components for it difficult, it’s unfair to say there are no interesting problems to be solved on Windows. And it’s unfair to think only the technically challenged use Windows- there’s a developer culture there that would have much in common in hackers.

By only blessing open source unix systems, we are closing off the world of hacking to the general public who mostly use Windows and OSX. If hackers only solve problems on unix systems, they will only create solutions for other hackers. This is the case now. While technology infrastructure FOSS projects are successful, actual end-user applications tend to be unsuccessful. Computers are valuable because they can automate human work. If computers only helped programmers, they would be considered an interesting toy rather than a tool that can reshape society. While hackers won’t be able to modify the NT kernel, they can develop applications around it, applications that do a lot of good. Where would we be without Firefox and VLC? By getting bogged down in holy wars over technologies, we lose sight of that goal. Computing becomes an end in itself rather than a tool to improve lives.

People use the tools and systems they use because they work for them. And all the Slashdot comments in the world about the elegance of unix won’t change that. If FOSS is a better way, then it should produce software non-programmers want to use.


By blessing only open source software ESR constructs hacker as a political identity, where the only politically legitimate software is open source software. He also packages his libertarian ideals into his definition of the hacker attitude. In his own words, to be a hacker you must believe “freedom is good”. The phrase itself seems innocuous – after all, who hates freedom? But it’s the sort of mantra you only hear from the disciples of Ayn Rand. It fails to acknowledge that freedom means different things to different people. The mantra is used to instill his political beliefs into the easily swayed. Any authority that gets in the way of hackers is bad, while the authorities ESR considers legitimate are good. This serves to create a category of “hackers” (the enlightened) and “non-hackers”(unenlightened). Hackers are misunderstood and made to do stupid work by the non-hackers.

I’ve defined the political ideology featured in hacker communities as Technolibertarianism – libertarianism that emphasizes net neutrality, online privacy, open-source software, and piracy. Advocates often consider these issues more important than any other issue facing society. Theo de Raadt, for example, believed open drivers so important that he compared non-free drivers with apartheid in an award speech. While many Slashdotters criticized him for his speech, others interpreted criticism of him as an attack on openBSD and defended him. That a leader of a major project could keep his position after comparing proprietary software to apartheid, where people actually died, is shameful. Comments like this are hardly isolated to Theo; many other leaders, like RMS and Mark Shuttleworth are known for making bigoted remarks in defense of free software.

And when the community engages non-technical issues, it’s not much better. Slashdot constantly decries the “nanny state” and any action by the state is considered “encroaching on the rights of the people”. The voters are “sheeple” tricked into serving the two-party system through bread and circuses i.e. welfare and television. The government is constantly spying on citizens, and only the hackers are smart enough to see it. Hackers constantly lament the days when people were tougher and the state let people die from their own stupidity. The judicial system is considered hopelessly corrupt. Hackers are “too smart” for lawyers, and therefore don’t get selected for juries. Therefore, no guilty verdict can be trusted.

Technolibertarian narratives are strikingly similar to the narratives Fox news creates for conservatives. In the world of Fox News, conservatives are the few intelligent and upright people in a world overrun by atheism, welfare and media bias. Slashdot editors cherry pick articles that benefit their point of view, and users moderate in such a way that contrary opinions are easily squashed. While Bush and fox news is regularly bashed, hackers have more in common with the conservative worldview than they’d like to admit.

I was no different. After I started reading Slashdot, I adopted technolibertarianism with gusto. I read Atlas Shrugged my sophomore year of high school, and thought it was genius. Like Ender’s Game, Ayn Rand appeals to the insecure hacker; It creates a world where nerds are the smartest and the others are parasites feeding of their productivity. If something is wrong with life, it’s always the fault of the parasites. Capitalism benefits software engineers disproportionately; Even a mediocre programmer will live on the top side of the income for their entire life. In a society where social status is defined by net worth, it’s easy to believe you are smarter than others because you make more money. Lassiez-Faire capitalism is an attractive ideology because it allows the hacker to prove he is smarter than others.

Hackerdom often refers to itself as a meritocracy, where the smartest and most able inevitably rise to the top. Libertarian politics play well to the idea of a meritocracy. The ideal libertarian market economy would operate as one: the lazy and stupid are consigned to the slums, and the productive live opulent lives that they have earned. This fantasy ignores almost every aspect of reality, but libertarians play to it anyways. Even internally, hackers are not a truly merit-based hierarchy. Politics play a huge role in large open source projects, and ideological purity, friendship, and loudness are just as good ways to gain status as writing good code.

Libertarian politics appealed to the elitist in me. Being a libertarian made me feel above the two-party system, that I was one the few people smart enough to see through the sham elections. I was a Randian hero, a productive human being, not some bum looking for a handout. Really, I had just joined a cult, and was being fed a distorted view of the world. To believe that, I had to ignore that I benefited from government intervention in every aspect of my life. Thanks to the government, I will never contract a water borne illness, or find metal shards in my food. But Slashdot ignored the good, and I swallowed the politics I was fed. I took for granted that I had earned the life I lived, and didn’t believe the government had much to do with it. This is the height of my privilege in society: I could construct a narrative that painted the government as a drain on society while simultaneously benefiting from it. Instead of a tool for improving society, Libertarianism was a tool for hanging on to my privilege. I thought myself a revolutionary; instead I cheered on the Tsar’s army.

While I disagree with it now, I don’t think libertarian politics are completely invalid. However, the FOSS narrative constructed to justify it is. Software engineers are not an oppressed group, the rest of society is not a herd of sheeple, and software expertise does not grant any other form of expertise. Hackers like to see themselves as revolutionaries fighting the system, but they’re as much a part of the system as any established player. The FOSS movement may have started as students fighting the man, but it’s long since integrated itself into the system. The volunteer FOSS movement now relies on corporate and government support to fund their projects and feed the developers who work on them.

The identities we choose will always have a political dimension to them. But there is no reason why hackers should identify as libertarian, even techno ones.

###The Trappings Of Rationality

Technolibertarian politics depends on a certain level of anti-intellectualism. Hackers may criticize religious authorities, and readily listen to STEM experts, but when the humanities speak, it is ignored. Squishy sciences are considered hopeless, and hacker opinions about them are more accepted than opinions by actual experts in the field. Even opinion leaders who studied the humanities consider their field unimportant compared to computer science.

Universities themselves are a controversial subject in hacker circles. It is known that a computer science degree does not confer an ability to program. If someone spends 4 years working on an open source project, it will make them just as good a programmer as someone with a bachelor’s in computer science. Since programming skill is conflated with intelligence in hacker circles, some have argued that universities are useless. Many professors (including CS professors) are not tech-savvy, and are considered unintelligent. From this perspective, the university has only false knowledge to give; only the hacker can dispense true wisdom. Online universities have been heavily promoted on tech aggregators because they promise to put education back in the hands of “the people”(hackers). Unlike university, they focus on practical skills, rather than touchy-feely subjects.

Hackers are supposed believe in intelligence and thinking above all else. But being an engineer does not make one an intellectual. In hacking, thinking is great – as long as it’s their type of thinking. Being an intellectual is more than just being smart. It involves critically examining your ideas, engaging with intellectuals outside your field, and being willing to consider that you are wrong. The fortress of knowledge that the hacker builds his ego upon is threatened by any non-technical knowledge. It is impossible to have a metanarrative that depends on constantly showing you are smarter than everyone else and be an intellectual. To be wrong would be admit that your identity is flawed. To the hacker, non-hacker intellectuals all represent the same threat: a field he does not understand, and therefore a chance to be wrong.

In place of actual critical thinking, hackers have substituted the trappings of rationality. Similar to how a toy steering wheel allows a child to pretend they are driving a car, the trappings of rationality allows hackers to pretend they are actually thinking. But intelligent people are not immune to being crackpots. Conspiracy theories abound on Slashdot, and crank political views are all too common. Intelligence becomes a trap; to admit to be wrong is to admit to being unintelligent. To protect themselves from being wrong, hackers start labeling their own worldview as “rational” and everything else as “irrational”. Often this is done by creating strawmen and attacking them instead of actual positions. A prominent example of is feminism. Men’s Rights circlejerks are routinely modded up on Slashdot. Site editors constantly post stories of innocent men having their lives ruined by false rape accusations and child pornography charges. The metanarrative of hacking is incompatible with feminist thought. To acknowledge that male privilege even exists would break the hacker myth. It would mean that hackers have not earned their place in society and are not as persecuted as they like to think they are. And rather than face their flaws, it becomes easier to think fields like gender studies fundamentally irrational than to engage them as intellectual equals.


I’ve used male pronouns throughout this essay to refer to hackers. This is no accident. 1.5% of contributors to FOSS are women, and hackers think of themselves as a boy’s club. Slashdotters love to use pop evolutionary psychology to argue that women are not as good programmers as men, and therefore all is right in the FOSS community. If science disagrees with their preconceived notions of gender they’ll find a flaw in the science, real or imaginary, but any study that validates their opinions is accepted as gospel.

Hackers often fail to acknowledge the possibility that women do not participate because the community makes them feel unwelcome. The hackers that don’t engage in sexism rarely stand up to the ones that do. In addition to arguing women are statistically bad programmers, complaints about harassment, online and off are ignored. When Norin Shirley was sexually assaulted at ApacheCon, the community’s response was predictable. While there were supportive comments, many refused to admit the event happened. Instead of castigating the attacker, Norin was blamed (for drinking) or called a liar. Norin Shirley later wrote a post that she did not feel safe attending OSCON, as she had been harassed at a previous OSCON in addition to the events. This was hardly an isolated event , and every time it comes up, male members of the community blame the victim for the event and move on. Sexist remarks are rarely called out, and only now are convention organizers starting to adopt anti-harassment policies.

Of all the misogynistic events in the history of the community, perhaps the worse was the Hans Reiser saga. Slashdotters insisted that Reiser was innocent, there was no way one of their own could commit a murder. Never mind that a pool of his wife’s blood was found in his car and it was clear he had tried to dispose of the evidence. It was all a vast conspiracy; Nina Reiser faked her death to extort money from her estranged husband. Calling Nina Reiser a “thieving bitch” became the fast track to +5 insightful. And as the evidence mounted up, the conspiracy theories became ever more desperate. Slashdot stubbornly refused to admit the possibility he was guilty. It was not until Hans Reiser showed the police where she was buried before it was accepted he had killed his wife.

After Reiser’s trial, I could not look at the community the same way again. While other parts of the community had troubled me, I could rationalize them into my ideology. This I could not. Never had the community been so obviously wrong. Hackers were supposed to be gender-blind, but the level of vitriol towards Nina Reiser could only be explained as rank misogyny. There was never a “gender-blindness” to begin with, just rationalizations for sexist beliefs.

I’m not innocent of it either; I believed in it just as much as any other slashdotter. I now know that it was wrong for me to do so. We all have obligation to call out sexism in the community, especially the most privileged of us. A community that bars itself to half of the population cannot be said to be fair, or based in merit. Aren’t these supposed to be virtues of hackerdom?

###My Debt to the Community

Despite my criticism, Slashdot and How To Become a Hacker did me a lot of good. Breaking into computers is cool when you’re young and beginning to explore the world of technology. I read Masters of Deception, and wanted to be like them. I did not grow up in the era of anonymous and lulzsec. But if I did, I probably would have liked to emulate them. Instead, I found ESR’s essay, and learned there were better ways to apply my talents than to break into computers. It’s better I learned from someone in the FOSS community than from the petty vandals of 4chan. I needed something to believe in, and there were worse things to spend my time on than Slashdot. ESR’s essay inspired me to the best programmer I could. I owe my hobby and career to it.

There are good parts to the community, parts that attracted me to begin with. The FOSS community started as a vision of giving everyone open access to computing, no matter how rich or poor they were. The communal spirit of sharing code allowed great things to be accomplished, and is responsible for the open Internet that we know today. But good intentions were swamped by bad ones, and the bad intentions are so counter to my sense of justice that I cannot in good conscience identify as part of the movement.

Even if I never visit Slashdot anymore, I can’t really say I’ve left the community. I still regularly use FOSS development tools, and have no intention of switching. But I have come to reject it as part of my identity. I don’t say this casually or without confliction. For a long time, it was a core part of me, and I owe a great debt to the community. For all I owe it, I’ve given back nothing. When I looked up to hackers, I was too insecure in my skills to believe I could contribute, so I just lurked, hoping that one day I would be smart enough to help. Now that I do feel confident in my ability, I don’t want to help anymore. Am I justified in biting the hand that has fed me for such a long time?

I’ve concluded that blind loyalty is not a virtue in in of itself. The narratives we build must always be questioned, because they are flawed models of the world. To even begin fixing ourselves, we must start by acknowledging our flaws. I can’t say I have a better way, or a map to give the community. I don’t even have a map for myself.

I should acknowledge that the community has gradually started to fix itself. While Slashdot is still active, it no longer is the go-to source for tech news. As “hip” startup cultures in San Francisco and New York City come to dominate the industry, hackers have begun to integrate themselves into mainstream society. Feminists have forced the community to acknowledge the worst of its sexism, and more and more conferences have adopted zero-tolerance towards harassment and sexist comments. Maybe there will be a day when I will be proud to rejoin the community. Until that day though, it is time for me to put a childish identity away.

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