Ok, I've just been informed that I am the friend being refered by Phil in HackingIsASickMachoCulture. I'll try to modulate my position a little bit, specially in contrast with Raymond's ideas. I believe the appeal to HumanNature to exculpate inclinations to act according to what could pass as compulsory instincts is hopeless. The idea that, for example, our need for privileged recognition motivates our actions and thoughts, no matter what else is at stake, only makes sense if we are to accept that we can be motivated by something we don't learn to assent or recognise. I take this sort of appeal to human nature as really lacking any possibility of defence. It is one of the bases of a libertarian ideology. In fact, the appeal to human nature, accompanied with some vague gestures towards Darwinian explanations, can appear to move us towards accepting that a bunch of selfish and pre-determined goals explain action and mental content.

Now, my image is rather that human nature cannot be anything that itself compels us towards any content. Reasons to think this way involve the unintelligibility of a piece of content that is given solely by nature (or expressible without any assentment to any norm of correction). Therefore, selfish struggle for privileged recognition is not part of human nature; we cannot explain motivation for action (especially actions that are as complex as those involving the free software community) by appealing to a ready-made list of natural goals. So something else should explain what motivates a community of hackers.

I did say to Phil that hacking is a macho culture and a sick one. Not that we should despise its members. We should rather try to understand what it takes for someone to join this culture. Phil describes nicely why I think it is a macho culture: it's a solitary competition for group aproval based on a capacity to do things better than others. It is sick because I take a lot (not all) of the people involved in the culture to be emotionally not nurtured and seeking to increase their self-esteem based on the privileged group recognition. Hackers often feel alienated from other people and do find refuge in screens and keyboards. Their activity, however, cannot be understood solely in these terms.

I agree with Raymond that people in the free software community are motivated by prestige (while I take the idea that motivation by prestige is natural rather absurd and blind to the mechanisms that our culture put in place everyday to alienate people and to tell them that they should be great at something our culture values (or could be taught to value) otherwise they are worth nothing: self-esteem, in our culture, is an expensive good).

Raymond's further moves, however, are deplorable. He claims that seeking prestige at high cost is alright and they should forget about their ideals of helping people and building more breathable software practices. He says (according to Phil, always) these ideals are not worthy and, indeed, they are not operative.

: Strictly speaking, he only says they aren't operative. It was my insinuation that we was against these. Though part of the rebranding of FreeSoftware as OpenSource is an assertion that free-software is not anti-business (or anti capitalist) – PhilJones

Raymond maintains that other would-be motivations are in fact (self-)delusive. I think that these motivations, that are present in the software community (see for instance the case of Stallman), are the key to the cure. In other words, these motivations are the path towards a more political approach to what they do and, as a consequence, of greater understanding of their predicaments as humans in our culture. By writing software that is out of the power of the big corporations they change something in the oppressive order of things. They can do more if they understand that their alienation (and their inclusion in a macho sick culture) is part of the game of squeezing people to conform so that diversity and freedom is always sacrificed for security for some and confort for the wealthy, male, white and first-world few.

They can understand that nothing compulsory commands their alienation and they can build communities that accept them rather than struggle to be accepted in a bizarre order of things. Having a good grip on their ideals is exactly what would prevent them from being manipulated (I take it that, in some sense, Raymond's ideas are part of what ends up manipulating hackers minds). It is also what could inform their action far from screens and keyboards and help them to get out of a sick, supercompetitive culture. The seeds of a different, less alienated culture are already at their disposal; Raymond asks them to ditch them.

Finally experiments: I think we can think about them. But we should also think about how we formulate the problem. I'll write about this eventually; probably after having the pleasure to discuss this more with Phil.

One last thing: I am all in favour of socialist hackers, if they are possible.


Hilan, I love this dialogue - especially the emotive picture of hackerdom as a sick macho culture. However, when I sit back from my initial reaction - my initial sense of "yeah there's something here" - I have to question a range of issues raised.

1) In your critique of the idea of a default HumanNature you seem to be suggesting that our cultures can override all natural instincts of our biological origins. If this is what you're saying then I think it's an un-usefully extreme position. I would contend that there is a lot of available evidence that we (as evolved monkeys) are likely to have strong sexual and social instincts (small group hierarchies or similar) that form a large part of our psychological make up as individuals. These psychological dispositions will (I contend) have a large influence over our possible, SustainableCultures. I therefore think it is perfectly valid to wonder about which aspects of our current culture derive from our biological origins - our inherited 'nature'.

2) You make a very sweeping (? tounge in cheeck ?) characterisation of hackers (although 'not all') as being socially inadequate. I think this repeats a convenient perspective that is often peddled by the 'digitally excluded'. I have never understood why spending time 'alone' in front of a computer is much different from spending time reading (or writing) books and it's surely more creative and interactive than spending time zoned out in front of the TV. Then there's millions of people who spend hours and hours watching other people play sport ???

Anyone participating in the social processes of an open source project is both being creative and is engaging with a community.

So surely we can ONLY judge someone's level of social 'adjustedness' by looking at how they actually interact with people - not simply by extrapolating from one of the ways they spend time.

Indeed, as I hinted above - I'm tempted to think that many people's views of hackers is a reflection of their discomfort that the hacker is doing something 'not normal' - something which far too many people feel excluded from. The hacker is not spending time with the normative social group (watching TV or football or down the pub) - and therefore is socially inadequate. How's that for peer pressure to switch off your brain !!!!

3) Finally, the discussion appeared to assume that people can only have one motivation for why they engage in an activity. The extremes being that they are either (delusional) self-agrandizers or politically motivated contributors to the social good. I think that, in reality, most of the time when we act there are multiple motivations to undertake the given act. This does not make us bad or morally ambiguous or somehow 'unpure'. This is just how things are. We go out with the girl becuase she's clever and because she's sexy and because we happen to live nearby each other. Similarly, there may be multiple reasons why people get involved with an open source project.

This multi-dimentional aspect of motivation is a good thing. It helps us to stick with decisions even when some of the original reasons no longer apply (e.g. the girl moves away :( ). The best decisions are (usually) backed up my multiple motivations. I therefore think it's wrong to push for 'motivational purity'.

That's all - for now ;)


PS: Hilan - missing you loads and Berna says 'hello'