Reading 01: A Danger of Hacker Culture

Reading 01: A Danger of Hacker Culture

What is a hacker? The answer to this question has changed quite a bit over recent years. Initially, a hacker was a reclusive computer expert, likely social inept, who could do incredible things but had a one-track mind of sorts – hacking is more or less all they do. Recently, it’s been flipped on its head: a hacker is someone skilled in the areas that can change the world, someone who’s not afraid to solve the problems they see, regardless of what the establishment thinks! Programming is a superpower!

While this looks to some like a more positive view of “hackers” (the result of those “hackers” starting to be the ones with power), I think this can be damaging in its own way. That’s always the risk when a trait like this becomes something you are rather than something that you do. Nobody says “I hack.” People say “I’m a hacker!”  It’s not simply a question of skill, attitude, or any one thing. It becomes a question of how one lives one life.

Computer science, and the tech industry as a whole, still has many social problems. Chief among them is the issue of diversity. There has also been a recent push for imposter syndrome to be recognized and combatted. Given that this is the case, why, why are we all celebrating this image of a hacker? We’re pushing the idea that if you don’t check all these boxes, don’t write network APIs for fun, you’re not a hacker! You don’t belong! This kind of gatekeeping can only be harmful to the industry.

A startling example is from “Hackers and Painters” When discussing hiring practices, Paul Graham writes that “When we interviewed programmers, the main thing we cared about was what kind of software they wrote in their spare time. You can’t do anything really well unless you love it, and if you love to hack you’ll inevitably be working on projects of your own.”

What?! No! Is work/life balance a thing of the past? How does this look to an outsider?

Consider someone with an interest in the tech industry trying to figure out if it’s for them. “Hmm,” they might think, ”is this for me? Am I the right fit for this kind of work?” Then, they read this quote. “Guess not, I want to raise a family!” How do people not see how destructive this could be to the culture of programming?

We should dial it back just a bit. Yes, I won’t disagree that some of the truly “disruptive” (buzzword alert!) new projects and software are more likely to come from those that spend all of their free time coding away. But, we should push back against the notion that this is the only way to be a computer scientist. We should be free to pursue other things in our free time – have a hobby! Play an instrument! Raise a family! – without feeling that it makes us somehow less in the eyes of the tech world.