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Hackerism, professionalism and paid work

The classics of Open Source anthropology, such as Raymond’s Cathedral and Bazaar and Himanen’s Hacker Ethics describe a community of highly skilled and motivated programmers, who work together because they like it, for whatever reason: having fun, learning, being clever, showing off, group identity, and so on. Like Torvalds notes in his introduction to “Hacker Ethics”, “having fun” is the highest point on the hierarchical ladder of motivations (a’la Maslow), meaning both that it is noble and that it is fragile. “Enthusiasm” is the operative word here, not effectiveness, not predictability, not superb skills. However, as ever, the argument goes that through enthusiasm “work”, especially creative action, is made better. Play and finalities, ends-in-themselves, were celebrated already by Aristotle as hallmarks of practical wisdom. Thus, effectivity, innovation, excellence may very well follow from communities of enthusiasts. This is the sense in which “hacker ethics” or the principles of OS collaboration may be extended to almost any other field, including design, curricula, and – warfare.
So what happens now, when many of the important and noteworthy OS communties are turning from communities of hobbyists into communities of paid workers, programmers who take part in the collaboration because a company pays them? This is a phenomenon confirmed, for example, in our OSSI survey: Debian is (still? forever?) a community of enthusiasts, while Eclipse is a community of paid workers (or a cluster of communities of paid workers). How is this shift going to change the anthropology and sociology of a) communities of non-hobbyists and b) the whole scene of OS collaboration? Clearly the rules of co-operation, its division and management are going to change. The funny thing is that they are going to change into something more familiar: the work ethic of market economies that can be rationalised through Taylorist principles. While free software enthusiasm and open source hobbyism were initially something of an enigma to received wisdom in software business (but: do we still have a sound economic theory explaining FOSS collaboration and productivity?), the shift from communities of hobbyists to communities of paid workers signals in a sense a return to “normal conditions”. Something is lost, something is gained.
One thing needed is a new anthropology and understanding of communities that mix hobbyists and paid workers into a hybrid. It is like trying to combine an army of volunteers with groups of mercenaries, which is not easy: the two groups march to different tunes, have different loyalties, customs, and so on. As long as the target is clear and common, the hybrid can work. However, treating hackers like they are workers may lead to problems (Mark Shuttleworth has an instructive case to report), as will treating workers like hackers. One figure that may be interesting in this respect is that of the professional in the old sense of the term. The professional is somebody who professes the more or less established best practices of a learned trade. The first “professors” were hired by groups of students by letting a hat go round. The professional in this sense is an enthusiast and a hired gun at the same time. However, her or his main allegiance lies in benefiting the trade, not in serving this or that master. The professional is his or her own master, autonomously developing his/her trade and co-operating with other autonomous agents. The career trajectory of some of the most profilic hackers seems to already point to this direction: they have certain key responsibilities for which they have to be released from their day jobs by a sponsor or a group of sponsors. Like the first univerisities grew around groups of learned professors and students, maybe we will see something like “The University of Debian” growing around some of the most vibrant and vital communities.

One Comment

  1. Caio wrote:

    Very nice article!

    Monday, May 18, 2009 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

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