Gisle Hannemyr

Tinker, Taylor, Scholar, Hacker
The hacker community
Computer power to the people
Deconstructing software
The premise for the paper is that "hackers" as an identifiable group of computer workers arose as a reaction to Taylorist influences on system development methods that instigated the destruction of programming as a craft. It then explores the rise of the hacker community, and the explicit and implicit ideologies expressed through hacking. Finally, by deconstructing computer artifacts of origin both inside and outside the hacker community, it attempts to contrast the two approaches to design, and to infer the embedded properties of the resulting artifacts.


Whenever computer centers have become established, that is to say, in countless places in the United States, as well as in virtually all other industrial regions of the world, bright young men of dishevelled appearance, often with sunken glowing eyes, can be seen sitting at computer consoles, their arms tensed and waiting to fire their fingers, already poised to strike, at the buttons and keys on which their attention seems to be as riveted as a gambler's on the rolling dice. When not so transfixed, they often sit at tables strewn with computer printouts over which they pore like possessed students of a cabalistic text. They work until they nearly drop, twenty, thirty hours at a time. Their food, if they arrange it, is brought to them: coffee, Cokes, sandwiches. If possible, they sleep on cots near the computer. But only for a few hours -- then back to the console or the printouts. Their rumpled clothes, their unwashed and unshaven faces, and their uncombed hair all testify that they are oblivious to their bodies and to the world in which they move. They exist, at least when so engaged, only through and for the computers. These are computer bums, compulsive programmers. They are an international phenomenon. [Weizenbaum 1976]
"Hackers" are computer aficionados who break in to corporate and government computer systems using their home computer and a telephone modem. [Meyer 1989]
The popular image of the computer hacker seems to be part compulsive programmer preferring the company of computers to people, and part criminal mastermind using his or her technical prowess to perpetrate anti-social acts. But this is at best only half the story. A number of people I know who are proud to be called "hackers" are sensitive, sharing, social and honest. And because being part of their community has given me innumerable moments of joy, I feel that this seminar on Pleasure and Technology may be a suitable occasion for me to come out and 'fess up about being a happy hacker.

Part of the confusion surrounding the word "hacker" stems from the fact that it as been applied to at least three distinct communities.

The "original" hackers were computer professionals who, in the mid-sixties, adopted the word "hack" as a synonym for computer work, and particularly for computer work executed with a certain level of craftsmanship. They subsequently started to apply the noun "hacker" to particularly skilled computer workers who took pride in their work and found joy in doing so.

Then in the seventies, assorted techno-hippies emerged as the computerized faction of the counterculture of the day. These were grassroots activists who believed that technology was power, and as computers was the supreme manifestation of the power of technology, they believed that they should be put into the hands of the people. While these activists did not speak of themselves as hackers or identify closely with the master programmers that populated the first wave, the term was thrust upon them in 1984 when they first were celebrated by the publication of Steven Levy's landmark Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution [Levy 1984], and then again by the first "Hacker's Conference" hosted by the Point Foundation and the editors of the Whole Earth Review. What characterized the second wave hackers was that they desperately wanted computers and computer systems designed to be useful and accessible to citizens, and in the process they pioneered public access terminals, computer conferencing, and personal computers.

Finally, in the second half of the eighties the so-called computer underground emerged, appropriated the terms "hacker" and "hacking" and partly changed their meaning. To the computer underground, "to hack" meant to break into or sabotage a computer system, and a "hacker" was the perpetrator of such activities.

Popular media's fascination with things subversive and spectacular has long ago ensured that it is the latter rather than the former definition that reign supreme. However, the strong association between the word "hacker" and the "computer criminal" has the unfortunate side effect that it hides the "other side" of hacking, the side that involve skilled craftsmen who believe that a computer is more than a means of production -- it is, among many other things, an instrument for creation, communication, mastery, artistic expression and political empowerment.

In the outset, however, it should be noted that the three hacking communities are not completely disjunct. The hacker of the sixties was not beyond appreciating lock-picking skills, both those addressing physical locks barring access to computer rooms, and software protection schemes such as password files and encryption schemes, and he also believed that information was born to be free -- including the source code he had written and the knowledge he had about the inner workings of various systems. And in 1990, when the Electronic Frontier Foundation was set up as a response to Operation Sun Devil (a US Secret Service raid at the computer underground), funding was provided by John Gilmour (of Sun Microsystems), Mich Kapor (co-creator of Lotus 1-2-3, Steve Wozniak (co-founder Apple Computer) and other well-to-do second wave hackers. As far as politics go: Today's generation-x anarchist hackers share with their artisan and activist hacker predecessors a distrust in authority, a libertarian attitude and a tendency to position themselves outside bourgeoisie society's norms and values. Some commentators [Anderson 1993, Rosteck 1994] considers hackers (of the anarchist variety) to be political partisans, very much in the same manner the Russian nihilists in the 19th century was considered to be part the radical political movement of that time.

The purpose of this essay, however, is not to partake in the forever ongoing dispute between hackers old a new about who can claim this prestigious title :-)[1]. My interest, in writing this paper, is to discuss hacking as an approach to creation of computer artifacts. The trespassing aspects of hacking, whether they are motivated by politics or vandalism, is of less interest to me.

Tinker, Taylor, Scholar, Hacker

In the 1950s, people working with computers had much in common with artists, artisans and craftsmen. There was room for creativity and independence. Management methods of control were not yet developed. There was no clear division of labour. Skilled programmers, like all good craftsmen, had intimate knowledge and understanding of the systems they worked with. A humorous account of the state of affairs in those early days is rendered in Ed Nather's "The Story of Mel". It first surfaced as a Usenet message in 1983. When it was reprinted in [Raymond 1991] it was heralded as "one of hackerdom's great heroic epics".

This did not last. By the mid-sixties, management wanted to bring computer work in line with other industrial activities, which essentially meant that they wanted programming to be part of a managed and controlled process.

To accomplish this, they apparently revived a more than fifty year old fad, called "Scientific Management" [Taylor 1911]. Scientific Management was invented by the engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, and aimed at taking away from workers the control of the actual mode of execution of every work activity, from the simplest to the most complicated. Taylor's argument was that only by doing this could management have the desired control over productivity and quality.

The methods advocated by Taylor were to increase standardization and specialization of work. In the computer field, this spelled, among other things, the introduction of programming standards, code reviews, structured walkthroughs and miscellaneous programming productivity metrics.

The most profound effect of application of Taylorist principles to computer work was the introduction of a detailed division of labour in the field. Computer workers suddenly found themselves stratified into a strict hierarchy where a "system analyst" was to head software development team consisting, in decreasing order of status and seniority, "programmers", "coders", "testers" and "maintainers". Then, below these on the ladder was a number of new adjunct positions created to serve the software development team: "computer console operators", "computer room technicians", "key punch operators", "tape jockeys" and "stock room attendants". Putting the different grade of workers in different locations further enforced the division of labour. Most corporations in the sixties and seventies hid their mainframes in locked computer rooms, to which programmers had no access. This isolated programmers from technicians, diminishing their social interaction and cutting of the opportunity for the exchange of ideas. It also prevented programmers from learning very much about the workings of the machine they programmed.

As noted in [Braverman 1974] and [Greenbaum 1976], at the core of this process was dequalification of computer work, the deliberate destruction of programming as a craft, and the breaking up of working communities -- all in order to give management more control over computer workers.

The emergence of hackers as an identifiable group coincides closely in time with the introduction of various Taylorist methods in software development. Many of the most skilled programmers resented what was happening to their trade. One of the things that characterized the early hackers, was their almost wholesale rejection of Taylorist principles and practices, and their continued insistence that computer work was an art and a craft and that quality and excellence in computer work had to be rooted in artistic expression and craftsmanship and not in regulations. So, long before the proponents of sociotechiques and "Scandinavian School" system developers questioned the Taylorist roots of modern software development, hackers voted against it with their feet -- by migrating to communities where a non-Taylorist stance vis-à-vis computer work was tolerated.

Hacker lore abound with horror stories about earnest hackers who, due to some misfortune or just some stupid misunderstanding, suddenly find themselves caught in the Taylorist web of some major corporation. The high point of these stories is often to expose some Taylorist principle to scorn and ridicule as corporate stupidity defies itself and Taylorist productivity measures (such as line counting) prove to be easily subverted. Thus, in the folklore, the hacker emerges triumphant, as the moral as well as actual victor of the skirmish. Many of these stories has since found their way into Scott Adams comic strip "Dilbert", partly based upon Adams own experiences as "corporate victim assigned to cubicle 4S700R at the headquarters of Pacific Bell" and "true life" e-mail submissions from computer workers out in the field [Adams 1996].

In real life, things are not always so amusing, and sometimes real anger surfaces when hackers voice their feelings about the destruction of their craft -- as in this message, posted to an Internet mailing list known as unix-wizards in February 1989:

Programming standards and code review committees attract all the jerks trying to angle their way from the ranks of us hackers into the Vice-Presidency of the Division. While these characters are deceiving themselves into believing they have a career path, they cause everyone else a good deal of trouble. [...] Structured Programming is often the buzzword for an attempt to routinize and deskill programming work to reinforce the control of hierarchy over the programming process -- separate from and sometimes different from, improving quality.

The hacker community

As Taylorism descended upon the corporate world, the hackers entrenched themselves at the campuses of the large technical universities of the US (in particular MIT, Stanford and Carnegie-Mellon), where their non-conformism was tolerated and their skills even appreciated.

As other outsider communities[2], the hackers developed a strong scepticism for the products of mainstream society, and they often preferred to develop their own programming tools and computer systems rather than rely on commercial solutions. For example did the MIT hackers develop its own operating system (ITS -- Incompatible Timesharing System[3]) for its DEC PDP-6 and PDP-10 computers which pioneered advanced concepts such as networking, file-sharing between machines and terminal independent I/O. The hacking community also tried to develop its own hardware. The MIT Lispmachine, the Stanford University Network (SUN) workstation and the Carnegie-Mellon SPICE computer are other examples of efforts in this direction. In the Bay Area, community efforts such as the Homebrew Computer Club designed, built and wrote the software for what was to become known as personal computers.

Even today, this tradition continues. The hacker's operating system of choice is Linux, a free[4] Unix-compatible operating system developed as a community effort headed by Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki. And most hackers prefer the tools and utilities developed (again as a communal effort) by the GNU project at the Free Software Foundation (in Cambridge, Massachusetts) to their commercial counterparts.

The reason the hackers preferred writing their own software and constructing their own machines was not just rooted in a frontiers-man belief in self-reliance. By rejecting the fragmented and controlled world of Taylorism, the hacker community had developed its own distinct perspective on computing and computers. This perspective favoured open systems, integrated solutions and distributed resources. Whether this perspective emerged from the hacker's work style, or vice versa is impossible to tell, but the early hackers rapidly adopted a community-oriented style of working. They preferred to work as intimate as possible with the technology, and as interactively as possible with each other. This meant that they wanted direct access to the computer, and they also wanted to share files, look at each others screen images, review and re-use each other's source code, co-author code libraries, and so on. The commercial machines and operating system of that era with their batch job submission systems, operator priesthoods and rings of protection was not suitable for this, and the hackers proceeded to construct the tools they felt they needed to support their style of working.

The next step in establishing a hacking community was the ARPAnet. The ARPAnet was funded by the Advanced Research Project Agency of the Department of Defence. The main objective behind the ARPAnet program was to link computers at scientific laboratories so that those researchers could share computer resources.

When the ARPAnet emerged, it sported an unorthodox architecture that made it radically different from existing communication infrastructures such as the long-distance telephone network. Instead of establishing a (virtual) circuit between the two end points and use this circuit to carry communication, messages was routed through the network by splitting them into small, independent and totally self-contained "packages" which was then left to find their own way to their destination, where they was re-assembled into complete messages again before being delivered[5]. This solution has a number of interesting implications. It means that the entire network is distributed and self-similar -- there is no "centre" and therefore no means by which an authority can assume "central control". With a certain degree of redundancy this also makes the network very robust against failure. If a portion of the net breaks or it is blocked for other reasons -- the net will automatically route packages around it (Hence the hacker proverb: "The Net interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.")

Another thing that characterized the ARPAnet, is the ease with which new services can be added to the network. The network provides the infrastructure to transport messages between any two points connected to the network. To create a new service, one designs a new set of messages and defines the semantics of those messages be writing one or more computer programs that understands and are able to act upon the messages. Now, anyone connected to the network and who has the new programs installed on their computer can take advantage of the new service created. As the net itself provides a most eminent infrastructure for disseminating computer programs (which are just one special type of message), it was easy for all interested parties to bootstrap into new services, as they became available.

Hackers were attracted to the ARPAnet project. Both the engineering challenges involved and the goal (to enable the sharing of resources, tools and technologies) must have held a strong appeal, as must the distributed architecture and the flexibility and power to create new computer based services.

Consequently, first wave hackers became some of the most vigorous members of the communities commissioned to develop the ARPAnet. This resulted in hacker sensibilities being ingrained with the net, and -- as the ARPAnet became the Internet, it became an intrinsic part of the hacker culture -- and the preferred place of residence of the hacker community.

The second wave hackers initially created their own communication infrastructure. First they set up stand-alone Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs) which could be reached by individuals using a modem to dial into the board. Then the boards were connected into homebrew global computer networks such as FIDOnet and PeaceNet. In 1985, Stewart Brand, the editor/publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog and Review, established the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (The Well), which emerged as one of the first and most significant of the Internet's online communities [Rheingold 1993]. The Well brought together hackers of the first and second wave. Brand (with Kevin Kelly) also organized one of the first "hacker" conferences in 1984, to which he invited prominent first and second wave hackers as well as assorted counterculture celebrities.

As the Net grew, it also helped the hacker community and culture spread beyond it core areas (the large US technical universities and Bay Area computer counterculture), to become a world-wide phenomenon. Finally, the recent commercial success of the Internet has made hackers skilled in creating distributed applications an appreciated resource in Internet-savvy companies, where some of them proudly display their roots on their business card, such as Jamie Zawinski