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17. Acculturation Mechanisms and the Link to Academia

An early version of this paper posed the following research question: How does the community inform and instruct its members as to its customs? Are the customs self-evident or self-organising at a semi-conscious level, are they taught by example, are they taught by explicit instruction?

Teaching by explicit instruction is clearly rare, if only because few explicit descriptions of the culture's norms have existed to be used up to now.

Many norms are taught by example. To cite one very simple case, there is a norm that every software distribution should have a file called README or READ.ME that contains first-look instructions for browsing the distribution. This convention has been well established since at least the early 1980s, but up to now it has never been written down. One derives it from looking at many distributions.

On the other hand, some hacker customs are self-organizing once one has acquired a basic (perhaps unconscious) understanding of the reputation game. Most hackers never have to be taught the three taboos I listed in Section Three, or at least would claim if asked that they are self-evident rather than transmitted. This phenomenon invites closer analysis -- and perhaps we can find its explanation in the process by which hackers acquire knowledge about the culture.

Many cultures use hidden clues (more precisely `mysteries' in the religio/mystical sense) as an acculturation mechanism. These are secrets which are not revealed to outsiders, but are expected to be discovered or deduced by the aspiring newbie. To be accepted inside, one must demonstrate that one both understands the mystery and has learned it in a culturally approved way.

The hacker culture makes unusually conscious and extensive use of such clues or tests. We can see this process operating at at least three levels:

In the process of acquiring these mysteries, the would-be hacker picks up contextual knowledge which (after a while) does make the three taboos and other customs seem `self-evident'.

One might, incidentally, argue that the structure of the hacker gift culture itself is its own central mystery. One is not considered acculturated (concretely: no one will call you a hacker) until one demonstrates a gut-level understanding of the reputation game and its implied customs, taboos, and usages. But this is trivial; all cultures demand such understanding from would-be joiners. Furthermore the hacker culture evinces no desire to have its internal logic and folkways kept secret -- or, at least, nobody has ever flamed me for revealing them!

Respondents to this paper too numerous to list have pointed out that hacker ownership customs seem intimately related to (and may derive directly from) the practices of the academic world, especially the scientific research commmunity. This research community has similar problems in mining a territory of potentially productive ideas, and exhibits very similar adaptive solutions to those problems in the ways it uses peer review and reputation.

Since many hackers have had formative exposure to academia (it's common to learn how to hack while in college) the extent to which academia shares adaptive patterns with the hacker culture is of more than casual interest in understanding how these customs are applied.

Obvious parallels with the hacker `gift culture' as I have characterized it abound in academia. Once a researcher achieves tenure, there is no need to worry about survival issues (Indeed, the concept of tenure can probably be traced back to an earlier gift culture in which ``natural philosophers'' were primarily wealthy gentlemen with time on their hands to devote to research.) In the absence of survival issues reputation enhancement becomes the driving goal, which encourages sharing of new ideas and research through journals and other media. This makes objective functional sense because scientific research, like the hacker culture, relies heavily on the idea of `standing upon the shoulders of giants', and not having to rediscover basic principles over and over again.

Some have gone so far as to suggest that hacker customs are merely a reflection of the research community's folkways and are actually (for most) acquired there. This probably overstates the case, if only because hacker custom seems to be readily aquired by intelligent high-schoolers!

There is a more interesting possibility here. I suspect academia and the hacker culture share adaptive patterns not because they're genetically related, but because they've both evolved the one most optimal social organization for what they're trying to do, given the laws of nature and and the instinctive wiring of human beings. The verdict of history seems to be that free-market capitalism is the globally optimal way to cooperate for economic efficiency; perhaps, in a similar way, the reputation-game gift culture is the globally optimal way to cooperate for generating (and checking!) high-quality creative work.

This point, if true, is of more than (excuse me) academic interest. It suggests from a slightly different angle one of the speculations in The Cathedral And The Bazaar; that, ultimately, the industrial-capitalist mode of software production was doomed to be outcompeted from the moment capitalism began to create enough of a wealth surplus for many programmers to live in a post-scarcity gift culture.

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