My friend Dave shared this New Yorker piece with me. It’s a nice intellectual exercise to conflate the maker movement with a political or social movement, but the exercise reveals how little the author understands the hacker ethic that is so central to the maker movement.
Before I dig into just how misinformed I think the author is, I want to share the two basic tenets of the hacker ethic:
1. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.
2. The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.
The first tenet is what powers all things open source, from software, to hardware, to documentation. It sets up the gift economy that is the essence of hacking, and now of making. Because the community gives you tools and knowledge for absolutely nothing, you have an ethical duty to share what you have learned and to create new tools and knowledge. All hackers start off the same way: with little or no knowledge and equipment, yet rich in terms of time and energy. Over time the hours spent reading, getting flamed for asking stupid questions, and above all else, hours spent trying and failing all give way to expertise. That expertise leads to confidence, camaraderie, sometimes to employment opportunities, and possibly even a certain small amount of fame. All along your journey the community supports you, not often in a loving way, but it supports you none the less. It provides you with documentation, it answers your questions, it makes fun of your failures, and it challenges you. Along this journey, it’s your duty to be part of the discussion. You have to share what you have learned, and to answer (and possibly flame) those same stupid questions that you once asked. In time, you will find yourself so busy that you don’t have time to be part of the discussion as much, and you give back in other ways. My work with Hive13 and Cinci2600 is how I give back to the hacker, maker, and open source communities that have taught me so much and helped my career in such a meaningful way.
The second tenet is equally important and is paradoxically linked directly to the first. In the dark ages of computing, computers were very expensive and owned only by big businesses, big universities, and the government. This meant that if you wanted to learn about computers but you didn’t work for a big business, university, or government, then you either did without access or you accessed a computer system without permission. In either case, however, shared what you learned. If you found a flaw or vulnerability in a system, you shared it with the system owner so that it could be remedied before a less ethical person made use of it. If you found a vulnerability in a piece of software, you shared it with the software maker so that everyone who used the software benefitted. The act of cracking something is not in itself unethical, failing to share and disclose your findings is. Undisclosed findings are what give zero day vulnerabilities so much power.
Today, computers are cheap and ubiquitous, but the spirit of the second tenet is stronger than ever. Every day we come into contact with systems with strict rules about what you can do with them. Even though we own computer controlled telephones, game systems, cars, and household appliances, they are not ours to do with as we please because of these terms and conditions. Manufacturers, service providers, and media companies force us to agree to strict terms in order to use these devices that we have paid money to own or services that we have paid money to subscribe to. Tinkering with an electronic device or digital file that you own may very well be a violation of numerous agreements that you have made with some company. It is now possible to be a criminal system cracker on your own computer.
The second tenet is why we fight. We fight for access. We fight for privacy. We fight for control. We fight for freedom to make our own apps, to do our own repairs, and to force innovation from the outside. We fight to be able to make an object do something it was not meant to do.
The New Yorker article compares the maker movement to a 100 year old failed labor movement and craftsmanship renaissance known as the Arts and Crafts movement, where everyone was supposed to stop toiling away at corporate drudgery and pursue a philosophical life of mastering the creation of artisanal objects. According to the article, economics drives people to value utility and low cost over aesthetics. This trend toward consumerism is supposed to doom the maker movement as well. While it is possible that consumerism may run afoul of Marxist labor reform, hacking is not about socialism, nor is it about consumerism. The author clearly does not understand the two tenets of the hacker ethic. He conflates the maker movement with a kind of nouveau Marxist labor movement, and then criticizes tech entrepreneurs for getting rich by capitalizing on consumerism. No where in these two tenets is there a call for a socialist labor revolution, nor is there a call to reject capitalist consumerism.
The New Yorker article irks me by basically calling the maker movement a distraction from social and political activism. It basically accuses makers of being tool worshippers rather than people interested in meaningful action, as if engineering and social change are somehow mutually exclusive. Not only is that unfair because social and political philosophy is outside the scope of the maker movement, it’s also completely wrong.
Seeking salvation through tools alone is no more viable as a political strategy than addressing the ills of capitalism by cultivating a public appreciation of arts and crafts. Society is always in flux, and the designer can’t predict how various political, social, and economic systems will come to blunt, augment, or redirect the power of the tool that is being designed. Instead of deinstitutionalizing society, the radicals would have done better to advocate reinstitutionalizing it: pushing for political and legal reforms to secure the transparency and decentralization of power they associated with their favorite technology.
I can tell you from experience that getting hacker and maker types to be socially engaged can be an insurmountable challenge, but that is not the fault of the tools, nor of the tool creators. It is the fault of the people who have access to the tools of social change but do nothing to make it happen. It is also the fault of those who desire social change but do not make effective use of the tools that can make change happen. While we in the west distract ourselves by using Facebook and Twitter to talk about football and celebrity mating habits, people in the Middle East used them to foment the Arab Spring. With that said, if you are interested in starting a movement of any kind, you are going to need tools, things like secure communications and strong crypto for storing sensitive documents. For that, I recommend at least one hacker, preferably a cipherpunk. You also need music, because you can’t have a revolution if the music isn’t right.
To be completely honest, the preoccupation with tools as things that cause evil is, in my opinion, a real failing of the east coast liberal intellectual establishment. In the case of this article it’s technology causing sociopolitical malaise. In other media outlets of similar geo-political affiliation it’s guns causing murders. The preoccupation needs to stop. Stop letting your irrational fear of something that you don’t understand lead you to blame an inanimate object for something caused by an individual’s poor decision making. This is no different than the religious right’s crusade against gay marriage, which is also based on irrational fear. Letting your rhetoric be dictated by fear and misunderstanding undermines your message. It makes you look stupid, like those d-bags that oppose gay marriage. A tool can no more create a movement than a gun sitting on a table can commit murder. In both cases, a live body has to stop browsing Reddit, take their hand out of their pants, and actually do something.
If you are reading this and are suddenly inspired to do something, might I suggest starting with the Electronic Frontier Foundation?
There choice bits of history and philosophy throughout the article, but this paragraph towards the end really sums up the conflation issue:
A reluctance to talk about institutions and political change doomed the Arts and Crafts movement, channelling the spirit of labor reform into consumerism and D.I.Y. tinkering. The same thing is happening to the movement’s successors. Our tech imagination, to judge from catalogues like “Cool Tools,” is at its zenith. (Never before have so many had access to thermostatically warmed toilet seats.) But our institutional imagination has stalled, and with it the democratizing potential of radical technologies. We carry personal computers in our pockets—nothing could be more decentralized than this!—but have surrendered control of our data, which is stored on centralized servers, far away from our pockets. The hackers won their fight against I.B.M.—only to lose it to Facebook and Google. And the spooks at the National Security Agency must be surprised to learn that gadgets were supposed to usher in the “de-institutionalization of society.”
Sure, everyone is on Facebook and GMail, but the real work gets done using tools like Tor, PGP, TrueCrypt, not to mention BitTorrent. They have their flaws, but they keep a good deal of your conversations and data out of the view of oppressors and provide a virtually unstoppable method for distributing your movements’ media. If you do not agree with the Google or Facebook stack, you can always run your own servers and use your own tools. Again, if you don’t want to do it yourself, I recommend getting a hacker to help you.
The hacker ethic and the maker movement are about sharing tools and knowledge, full stop. If all you’re interested in is social change, you’ve joined the wrong movement. Making and hacking are about enabling and empowering people to do things. The hacker ethic focuses on computer hardware, software, and networks, while the maker movement focuses mostly on mechanical and electrical engineering, but both disciplines don’t really leave much room for philosophy, politics, religion, or economics. Political, social, or economic issues might motivate you to hack or to make things, and the things you hack or make might support or your social or political activism, but the disciplines themselves don’t really feature much philosophy. I know hackers who are randian objectivists, bay area campus liberals, man hating feminist lesbians, transgendered, Scientologists, Sikhs and Muslims. They are free to organize or evangelize any cause that they want. That’s the great thing about being a hacker: none of your personal crap matters as long as you have something cool to share.
But don’t take my word for it, read the end of the Hacker Manifesto:
This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud. We make use of a service already existing without paying for what could be dirt-cheap if it wasn’t run by profiteering gluttons, and you call us criminals. We explore… and you call us criminals. We seek after knowledge… and you call us criminals. We exist without skin color, without nationality, without religious bias… and you call us criminals. You build atomic bombs, you wage wars, you murder, cheat, and lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals.
Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity. My crime is that of judging people by what they say and think, not what they look like. My crime is that of outsmarting you, something that you will never forgive me for.
I am a hacker, and this is my manifesto. You may stop this individual, but you can’t stop us all… after all, we’re all alike.