Pekka Himanen: The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis

Notes from Pekka Himanen’s conference The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis held at the Open University of Catalonia/Internet Interdisciplinary Institute, Barcelona (Spain), on November 2nd, 2009.

Manuel Castells: Introduction

The hacker ethic is the cultural factor that emerges from the Network Society. If the Network Society is a new social paradigm, the hacker ethic is the culture that results from all the changes that conform the Network Society.

Pekka Himanen: The Hacker Ethic: The Way Forward after the Current Global Economic Crisis

An emphasis to be made is that the hacker ethic is not only about computer scientists, or about geeks and nerds, but it is a wider cultural transformation in the sense of the number and kind of people that might fit the definition. The hacker ethic can effectively be taken out of the technological sphere.

So, in context, if this is a Network Society and this is its culture, what is the role of hacker ethic in today’s economy and today’s crisis? Beyond economic development we need a broader sense of development. And it is likely that this new ethic can be part of the solution, of this broader sense of development.

Fundamental challenges nowadays:

  • Clean: Climate change, being radical innovation the way to go forward;
  • Care: Welfare society 2.0, as inequality increases and more people are unattended;
  • Culture: Multicultural life, how to cope with the increasing cultural crossroads that globalization is creating.

How can innovation turn challenges into opportunities? How can hacker ethic help in creating innovation-based solutions? Hackers can help to discover cleaner energy sources, biohackers will eventually help in creating a healthier society (being DNA the open source of life), cultural hackers can help in creating new and more meanings in multicultural life.

The problem is that the world economic, innovation and scientific centres are not evenly distributed across the world, but mainly concentrated in the US, Europe and some Asian countries. Why are these so much concentrated?

Innovation centre dynamics, or what do you need to have an innovation centre:

  • Culture of creativity: hacker ethic
  • Community of enrichment, where failing is accepted, where entrepreneurship is fostered, where ideas are economically supported (funded)
  • Creative people

Face-to-face communication — added to virtual communication and knowledge exchange — is what creates this climate or environment of innovation. This is what we find in Silicon Valley around Stanford University, or in other innovation centres around the world.

Increasingly, creative, innovative, knowledge intensive jobs are any more at the edges of the economic system, but at their sheer centre. Thus, it is important to know how to enable and foster the creation of such centres, as they are likely to be the solutions — or the solutions providers — for the crisis and for future development.

Ancient Athens went through an important era of huge investments that concentrated a lot of creative activities driven by Plato, Socrates, Pericles, etc. The Agora and surrounding buildings was an infrastructure for communication and interaction that brought together people from different backgrounds. Just like Silicon Valley and Stanford University.

Hacker’s ethic: creativity, that relies on a community of enrichment, that relies on mutual confidence. In this three layer structure, you both (a) feel like part of a big, powerful community and (b) are actually acknowledged as a person (not as a number). And it is a self-feeding logic.


Ismael Peña-López: how do you change mindsets? how do you transform a short-run profit system into a meritocratic, hacker system? Himanen: the most important thing to do is to change education. On the other hand, there are plenty of good examples of applied hacker ethic; there are also good ideas that get funding for addressing the more urgent challenges, and maybe what’s changed is that, instead of having a project, or a business plan, is having a mission.
Castells: it is not about being good or bad, but clever or stupid. All major innovations come from communities and just rarely from individuals or even small teams. All major advances are based on smart collaboration.

Enric Senabre: What’s the acceptance of the hacker in public opinion? Himanen: hackers are not computer criminals; and hackers are not computer nerds. It is about a real ethos. It’s an informational work ethic, a creative ethic.
Castells: The good thing about the term “hacker ethic” is that it challenges many prejudices and ex-ante thoughts at the same time.

Daniel López: How to move forward the concept of “hacker”? What about “craftmanship”? Himanen: Of course, hacker has something to do with craftmanship. But the term hacker is also a self-adopted term by hackers themselves, which makes it special.

Q: Do you consider yourself a hacker, or feel like one? Himanen: yes, it is all about passion, a creative passion, and the way of doing things almost obsessively, though a pleasant obsession.

Q: Is hacker ethic spreading? Is there more people becoming hackers? Himanen: There is some evidence that in two years there’ll be work shortage, as many people will retire. And people will be able to chose their works and do it on a mission-basis or on an environment-basis, more than just wage or other similar conditions.

Ricard Ruiz de Querol: Is the actual crisis a financial crisis? If so, what’s the feeling like in hackers environments about it? Himanen: hacker ethic is a neutral term, it just describes the relationship with work. And it is independent from social values. Notwithstanding, it is difficult that lack of specific social values (e.g. a better world) is compatible with hacker ethic. What, then, would your creativity serve?

Anna Soliguer: How can hacker ethic inspire social movements? Himanen: In some sense, Obama followed a hacker ethic. The thing is how to link participation in social movements with leadership.

Q: Is there any particular reason why hacker ethic is stronger in welfare states (e.g. in Scandinavia)? Are people from the Pirate Bay hackers? Do they pursue a better world? Himanen: Finland, for instance, is a place where, in general, there is this creative environment that is so strongly needed for hacker ethic to emerge (e.g. it took Linus Torvalds 8 years to finish his Masters’ thesis and nobody made an issue about it). On the other hand, if you have some basic needs covered (by a welfare state) you’re not that urged to make profit out of your ideas or personal time.
Castells: most hackers come originally from the US, where not welfare but the idea of freedom is what predominates. The idea being that you can have different economic systems that lead to hackerism, but what is necessary is the aim to create and a system that allows this creation. On the contrary, continental Europe, traditionally the craddle of the welfare state, has not a huge community of hackers.

Ismael Peña-López: Reality has change so much from the origins of the hacker ethic in the late 60s and the early 70s. Will the hacker ethic fade out and disappear? What, then, will happen with the Network Society? Himanen: political involvement is only partly true. People where not that involved in politics but in social rights movements, and, on the other hand, people still are involved, though in different ways: people are not interested in political hierarchies, but other ways of engagement. Indeed, people are increasingly engaged, though in newer ways.
Castells: hacker ethic is not a cause of the Network Society, but a consequence. Hence, the whole world is entirely inside the Network Society and there is no way back. On the other hand, the creativeness of the hacker ethic had to cut through the system during the late 60s and early 70s, to fight against bureaucracies. Nowadays, on the contrary, it is the corporate world who is adopting hacker ethics (e.g. Google), and most big companies are increasingly relying on the passion to create, even Microsoft is doing this. If we forget about the label “hacker”, we will find plenty of examples of “creativity” and “innovation”, which is at the core of hacker ethic.

Begoña Gros: at our schools, we are promoting neither creativity nor passion. What’s it like in Finland? Himanen: curiosity is fostered in Finland. When you’re passionate about one thing, you begin putting questions about that, and this is something that the Finnish educational system is comfortable with. On the other hand, you’re invited to find what you want to do in life, to find a meaning, before going on (e.g. to the job market). The good thing about Linus Torvalds is not only his talent, but the ability to develop things, to help things become important not only for you but for others. This means, notwithstanding, that we have to go on encouraging creativity and innovation at school, so to make a hacker ethic possible amongst students.