Next Previous Contents

6. The Hacker Culture as Gift Economy

To understand the role of reputation in the open-source culture, it is helpful to move from history further into anthropology and economics, and examine the difference between exchange cultures and gift cultures.

Human beings have an innate drive to compete for social status; it's wired in by our evolutionary history. For the 90% of that history that ran before the invention of agriculture, our ancestors lived in small nomadic hunting-gathering bands. High-status individuals got the healthiest mates and access to the best food. This drive for status expresses itself in different ways, depending largely on the degree of scarcity of survival goods.

Most ways humans have of organizing are adaptations to scarcity and want. Each way carries with it different ways of gaining social status.

The simplest way is the command hierarchy. In command hierarchies, allocation of scarce goods is done by one central authority and backed up by force. Command hierarchies scale very poorly [Mal]; they become increasingly brutal and inefficient as they get larger. For this reason, command hierarchies above the size of an extended family are almost always parasites on a larger economy of a different type. In command hierarchies, social status is primarily determined by access to coercive power.

Our society is predominantly an exchange economy. This is a sophisticated adaptation to scarcity that, unlike the command model, scales quite well. Allocation of scarce goods is done in a decentralized way through trade and voluntary cooperation (and in fact, the dominating effect of competitive desire is to produce cooperative behavior). In an exchange economy, social status is primarily determined by having control of things (not necessarily material things) to use or trade.

Most people have implicit mental models for both of the above, and how they interact with each other. Government, the military, and organized crime (for example) are command hierarchies parasitic on the broader exchange economy we call `the free market'. There's a third model, however, that is radically different from either and not generally recognized except by anthropologists; the gift culture.

Gift cultures are adaptations not to scarcity but to abundance. They arise in populations that do not have significant material-scarcity problems with survival goods. We can observe gift cultures in action among aboriginal cultures living in ecozones with mild climates and abundant food. We can also observe them in certain strata of our own society, especially in show business and among the very wealthy.

Abundance makes command relationships difficult to sustain and exchange relationships an almost pointless game. In gift cultures, social status is determined not by what you control but by what you give away.

Thus the Kwakiutl chieftain's potlach party. Thus the multi-millionaire's elaborate and usually public acts of philanthropy. And thus the hacker's long hours of effort to produce high-quality open source.

For examined in this way, it is quite clear that the society of open-source hackers is in fact a gift culture. Within it, there is no serious shortage of the `survival necessities' -- disk space, network bandwidth, computing power. Software is freely shared. This abundance creates a situation in which the only available measure of competitive success is reputation among one's peers.

This observation is not in itself entirely sufficient to explain the observed features of hacker culture, however. The cracker d00dz have a gift culture which thrives in the same (electronic) media as that of the hackers, but their behavior is very different. The group mentality in their culture is much stronger and more exclusive than among hackers. They hoard secrets rather than sharing them; one is much more likely to find cracker groups distributing sourceless executables that crack software than tips that give away how they did it.

What this shows, in case it wasn't obvious, is that there is more than one way to run a gift culture. History and values matter. I have summarized the history of the hacker culture elsewhere in [HH]; the ways in which it shaped present behavior are not mysterious. Hackers have defined their culture by set of choices about the form which their competition will take. It is that form which we will examine in the remainder of this paper.

Next Previous Contents