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      I think this is a basically good talk. It mirrors the distinction between libertarian & anarchist conceptions of freedom. The former is purely individualistic - you are free if you can do what you want, others be damned - while the latter acknowledges you are only free because the collective work & actions of others enables you to be free; a reciprocal responsibility exists for you to work & behave so others can experience the same freedom.

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      I’m not claim­ing to be a hack­er or to speak on behalf of hack­ers.

      I’ll claim to be a hacker and to speak on behalf of hackers.

      This talk should be carefully considered. It would be easy to debate its points into the ground, and somebody already tried last time this was shared; however, the breadth of the author’s argument really deserves better than a fisk.

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        Agree. I give talks I think of (and sometimes call) “closing off” talks and “opening up” talks.

        Closing off talks are for when I think I’ve solved a problem and I want to claim that I’ve got this fairly precise statement that everyone should agree with.

        Opening up talks are for when I’ve noticed a problem and I have some suggestions about solutions but I know they’re too vague (but I think other people are doing even worse than me - there are some aspects of the problem they haven’t even noticed or are dead wrong about).

        Seems to me that this talk about Hacker ethics is clearly positioned as an opening up talk. Not just because of the title, but also because of the way the examples are treated as tentative, and because of the deliberately vague conclusion.

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          I like the closing off/opening up concept. Seems great for metacognition about any argument, talk or otherwise.

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        The excerpt about sabotaging Margaret Hamilton’s PDP-1 work made me angry. To secretly modify a system so it works better for one group at the expense of everyone else… well that’s a familiar tactic. As does the revisionist history casting the destruction as liberation and the destroyers as ethically pure heroes.

        I know about Hanlon’s razor, but it’s very hard for me to not view Levy’s work as a propaganda campaign.

        [edit] …a propaganda campaign that annoyingly contains some things I think are worth preserving, such as the notion that information should be free, or that people should have the ability to control the software they use. Reconciling the good bits of ideology when they come from an imperfect source is always a challenge.

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        I’ll claim to be a hacker

        The article mentions the Jargon File. I have a copy that ESR had published as ‘The New Hackers Dictionary’ (earning the enmity of all of the other contributors to the MIT Jargon File, not least because he tweaked a lot of it to conform to his personal brand of libertarianism, but I digress). I had a similar reaction to it as the author.

        I haven’t looked through it for many years, but I do remember one thing clearly: Hacker isn’t a title that you can claim, it’s something that other people can bestow on you.

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          I was bestowed the title of hacker twice, once for working on FLOSS GPU drivers and once for helping to reverse-engineer Minecraft. I’ve also been invited to private meetings with other hackers multiple times.

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            But did you meet the elders of the Internet?

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              I’ve been yelled at in-person by Linus. I’ve had dinner with GvR.

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                rms has given me one of his official friendship cards, although I think he gives them out frequently - anyone know how frequently?

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                  I’ve not heard about his “friendship cards” before, but he handed a friend of mine one of his “pleasure cards” many years ago, which did not go appreciated.

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                  I didn’t get a card when I met him. I did buy a wildebeest plushie for charity, though, and he signed the tag.

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        I think the author is more of a hacker at core than she wants to admit - she almost succeeds in pointing out how the self-appointed “hackers” of today have become the very bastions of power that hacker culture tried to frustrate and reject, but then more or less abandons the point and proceeds to talk about how to avoid causing offense.

        I like the talk a lot and think it would do a world of good if taken to heart, but it takes the situation as a given and propagates the hollowing-out of the meaning of the word hacker.

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          I think adding a question to the “mistrust authority” line could help there: “What systems of authority am I challenging with what I make?”. IMO, that’s the most important element of what makes hacking hacking as opposed to any other creative pursuit. Making something to solve a problem “the right way”, within the bounds of the status quo, isn’t hacking. It’s not necessarily bad, but calling it hacking cheapens the term. A hack is subversive: at the very least it challenges the implicit authoritarian assumption of “this is how things are and should be done”, and sometimes subverts more explicit systems of authority, like “The Law”.

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            What systems of authority am I challenging with what I make?

            That’s an excellent question to pose. In the talk I really missed points like using encryption as a way of taking back control (think cipherpunks) and building decentralised systems that defy outside control.

            Modern instances of such systems would be Mastodon, Tor, AdNauseam, maybe IPFS and Matrix (I really wanted to mention Signal here because of its values, but it’s so tightly controlled by one company that it is easily subverted). Git might also qualify in principle, if not for the GitHub hegemony in practice.

            Making something to solve a problem “the right way”, within the bounds of the status quo, isn’t hacking. It’s not necessarily bad, but calling it hacking cheapens the term.

            This also didn’t sit well with me. When we call code “hacky” or “a total hack”, it is typically cutting corners. Sometimes we cannot help but to admire its cleverness, if it manages to avoid the pitfalls of the obvious “right way” by cutting corners so extremely that it works for the cases you care about, and only those. This is intentionally “programming as forgetting” - forgetting all the arguably important characteristics of the real world. Quite the opposite of what the talk’s author is arguing for.

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      I agree with some of this, not all of it. In particular I really want to formulate a version of this that loses the deontology but keeps the anarchy, but I think I have a lot of reading ahead of me if I want to do that.

      I really love the replacing answers with questions aspect of it though.

      Plus it is a much-needed exposition of some serious problems that have been around for a long time. A lot of gendery people in tech have had to grapple with this stuff but I haven’t seen anyone attempt to actually convince a general audience of it before, let alone this well.

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        You may find some of the work from Safety science, particularly Resilience Engineering, to be useful.

        In particular, Steven Shorrock has great blogposts like this one


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          Ah! Belatedly, thanks very much for the citation. I do safety stuff in my work and am slowly becoming familiar with the field, but I didn’t know that author.

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            You may find this list and repo useful


            Always happy to discuss things here. And I do mean discuss. This is an area of the world and research that is open to a lot of diverse opinions and point of views for good reasons. Arguing is rarely that useful there even when we disagree.

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              Very much agreed.

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      It’s a good talk that raises important problems with software development culture, and the intention is certainly good. Programming is forgetting is a good way to frame the fallibility of (computerized) systems, but the premise and the rest of the talk seems to be mostly about programming or creating. i.e., the docile, meek and modern Silicon Valley tech culture definition of “hacking”. It’s the type of “hacking” that occurs in hackathons organized by large corporations who want to appear cool and scout for talent, where the participants provide labor in exchange for inexpensive, unhealthy food and the possibility of a job offer.

      The hacker culture from the book was much bigger than that. The more naughty parts of hacker culture - making systems do things that they weren’t intended to do (like making phone calls for free), breaking into systems etc. wasn’t about making things for others, but about curiosity, freedom and self-expression.

      And one should not forget that it was also about “sticking it to the man”. Freedom from oppression by intentionally destroying the neatly arranged order enforced upon the world by electronic systems. This talk does not address that part, and in fact it seems to think hacker culture was responsible for this kind of oppression! Yes, hackers make things and write code, but so did corporate suits who programmed the systems the hackers were trying to subvert. If you focus only on the “making things” side of the coin you lose that important aspect of the hacker culture.

      The posed questions as alternative to the “answers” from the book seem to focus mostly about being a good citizen and not causing trouble for others. That’s about as close as you can get as the opposite of what hackerdom is about.

      Having said that, framing programming as forgetting and posing the questions the author came up with are excellent ways to get started to think about the flaws in a system and to find ways in which to break, circumvent and disrupt them.

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        And one should not forget that it was also about “sticking it to the man”. Freedom from oppression by intentionally destroying the neatly arranged order enforced upon the world by electronic systems. This talk does not address that part, and in fact it seems to think hacker culture was responsible for this kind of oppression!

        Yes, that didn’t sit well with me too. So, I have not read Levy’s book so I will talk about the general issue of judging the past with our present’s morals. It should not be a taboo, but if we are doing that, then we are allowed to ask the same kind of questions the article proposes. Instead of just implying that the hacker scene of the 60’s as described by a book from the 80’s was wrong-headed, it is better to ask what kind of greater evil were they trying to combat back then. The counterculture of the 60’s was mostly concerned with authority, especially that coming from government. That was only fifteen years after WWII, and at the height of the Cold War.

        Obviously, some things don’t age that well and are especially uncomfortable if reframed to our day and age.

        The point made in this talk is great, though.

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      Instead of saying access to computers should be unlimited and total, we should ask “Who gets to use what I make? …”

      If “I” (or very close people) isn’t a sufficient answer you better be paid handsomely for it to be worth your while.

      There’s a philosophy where the users matter more than the creators, and in hacker-adjacent communities (since the transcript is refering to Levy, I’ll use a comparably old definition of hacker), where a lot of things are done for fun or curiosity, for free, that can assume exploitative forms quickly.

      The outrage when Eugen asked folks to leave if they don’t like the direction he is taking Mastodon was quite illustrative.

Stories with similar links:

  1. Programming is Forgetting: Toward a New Hacker Ethic via mechazoidal 6 years ago | 25 points | 6 comments