Linux Did to Operating Systems What Jaws Did to the Ocean

Linux is a software company that found legendary success in what is the most influential commercial market: techno-sphere. They share elements of the typical start-up; develop new product, struggle to fund success, (hopefully) go public. It’s not a new story in today’s popular culture, with underdog stories, such as Slack technologies or the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series a few years back, happening every so often, but this was a pretty unique occurrence. For one, it’s not so common that Finland of all places makes something notable, especially at least of appeal here in the States. Additionally, the concept of Linux, free ware operating systems, completely contradicts the free market, as far as sustainability goes. It does go to show the power of hackers in the bazaar.

Through their tenacity, Linus Torvalds and company were able to sell their product without sacrificing their principles, despite the issues they came across in the process. For example, their lack of real structure allowed them to temporarily lose their rights to the Linux name. Composing a team of developers allows for some tight programming, but leaves the legal and business side of things under resourced. These aspects eventually do get serviced, but not without issues coming up beforehand.

However, Linux proved that this type of preplanning is not necessary. They were backed up by partners to continue smooth development, but I don’t think it was merely fortunate circumstances. Torvalds was able to leverage the resources from the University of Helsinki not by mere chance or because he was in the right place in the right time (to a degree), but because he applied himself in the proper way and found a network that believed in his product.

Linus also showed a breath of fresh air to corporate loyalty. He was able to “sell out” without sell out. He got a job with Transmeta, a simple necessity while he had a child on the way to take care of. He defied the questions in the industry of whether he would stay true to his open source principles by standing by said principles. Even as he met with the high ups and made a network, he would openly criticize their closed source models for development. The open source wasn’t just a gimmick to Torvalds, but a belief of humanity to reach the next technological stage.

On the other side of that coin, I do not think another open source success story with the same scope as Linux will ever happen. Linux tapped into an unexplored market and set the foundation for the open source community to find commercial and social success. It was far from the first, with Torvalds being inspired by Richard Stallman in his younger days, but Stallman did to Torvalds what Jaws did to Sharknado. There might be open source projects that gross as much if not more money than Linux, but the proportional impact cannot be the same. After all, a legacy is more than just the bread that the fore runner can bring in.

Not Another Nerd Origin Story

The cake title is a lie.

Linus Torvalds has been a bit of a legend to me. Not in the way that I aspire to be like him or deify him, but I’ve really only known him for his achievements, mainly creating Linux. That’s what I associate him with. That’s why I get a bit shocked each time somebody mentions he also invented Git. I’ve heard that detail many times, but it always surprises me because I just think of him purely as the creator of Linux. Candidly, I thought he was an elder by this point, if not dead. For this reason, I was absolutely intrigued by the story of his upbringing.

Torvalds’ story plays out like many historical nerds among him. He was a nerd from a young age and was inspired by a computer owned by his family to pursue his interests. I’m sure this trope is used not just to tell the story and draw pity, but to get the reader to connect. Frankly, it’s a bit played out by now. However, Torvalds takes that and uses it well. Even though he describes his nerdy lifestyle and his social ineptness, he doesn’t blame that on his interests. He blames his interests on his interests. He connected to math and physics early in life and was able to use a computer in his childhood.

Notably, Torvalds’ family is comprised of journalists and writers, and he tongue-in-cheekily talks about how he’s the black sheep in that respect. However, if this wasn’t written by a ghost writer, Torvalds’ writing is very well developed. During Birth of a Nerd, he employed the use of second person point-of-view and the present tense. I was genuinely interested by his life at this point.

Additionally, it was super interesting learning about his life in Finland. There’s something about learning about the technological landscape in America time and time again that just burns me out. But seeing it from a completely different perspective was enthralling. And I don’t know much about growing up in the Eastern European countries, it all seems pretty homogeneous to me, but the Torvalds were a black sheep in regard to the Finnish population due to the family speaking Swedish, something I never even considered.

The Finnish background is not just a part of Torvalds’ story, but I also think it was a huge factor to his legacy. He describes the dreariness of Finnish winters, forcing indoor activities and a form of stoicism on him. This I could connect to much more, living in Northern Indiana my entire life. Staying inside and tinkering about on my computer are some of my favorite memories. I’ve even taken to Stoicism myself, even if that is different from the Finnish stoicism.

This lifestyle led Torvalds to just take a genuine passion to computers and programming. This is why Torvalds is so different from the Steve Jobs type. The fruits of his programming were not for a product, but to learn and create. When he tinkered with his Sinclair QL, he was just learning how to interact with the machine and make it do exactly what he wanted it to do. His passion for Unix was genuine drive. While I don’t doubt that Jobs and Gates didn’t actually enjoy programming and learning how the computer worked, I feel like they had an extrinsic drive for money, while Torvalds took to it out of curiosity and little outside influence. Granted, this is a personal assumption, but if I’m going to play couch psychologist on these 3 characters, those seem like a fair difference between them.

Additionally, Torvalds’ story seems more communal. The Homebrew story gives off the impression of people trying to make the next Apple (ha ha). But Torvalds’ work with the Minux newsgroup, Peter Anvin, Ari Lemke, et al. seems more like a love letter to helping people out. It seems like a much healthier basis for an open source community, much like the Tech Model Railroad Club at MIT. Again, I don’t really have a proper argument to this other than history and intuition, but that’s that.

While Torvalds’ story is rather inspirational from what I have read, I don’t want to mimic this. In some way, I do feel like I’ve fallen out of love of programming and don’t have the same drive that Torvalds’ did. I can blame this a bit on the culture of Notre Dame, building minds and students suitable for careers instead of passionate minds, but I also am not a nerd in my free time. I don’t love learning about hacking news or making computers purr. I love my friends and video games and movies and music. And I want that to be a part of my story.

I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know which I want to pursue. I still have a wide net in my future. Part of me does want to follow my technological “itch”, but that itch was created by my favorite movie ever, Her by Spike Jonze. I don’t just want OS1 to be created, but I want to personally be a part of that. I want the spread of user information to be spread properly. But I also make music as a hobby. Frankly, I used to want to go into production for a few years, but I’m starting to realize that it should perhaps just be a hobby. But my other artistic passions are still there. Whether that is in the form of making music or making movies, I want to share my story in an aesthetic way. I have my foot in the door for technology, but not the arts. I also want the best for everyone and maybe go into politics someday. I would like to touch base on all of these passions, but I’m more concerned with what’s ahead of me and the uncertainty of it all at the moment.

Disney’s The Magic Cauldron

Many a software in this day and age receives regular patches. Whether it is for minor stability fixes or additional features, it is not uncommon to be asked to update your product before using it. Some may argue that this is due to lazy/rushed programming before launch, which is partially true in some cases, but not for the majority of updates. I get updates for iTunes maybe every other week, but it’s usually for something minor, like stability fixes or security patches, but would that really be considered lazy if something can only be found by crowdsourcing the stress testing? Or something like Discord, with updates that bring very welcome features that could not exist at launch, coming from such a small company. While software used to come as it was ~20 years ago, continual updates are how the system works now.

And that is one of the reasons open source is essential in the business sense. Software cannot be made one-and-done anymore, there requires constant review of the software and constant fixes to that code for something to compete. Businesses can utilize open source for the free software, of course, but they can also operate ON that free software, producing open source programs for people to use. That may not make sense, since there’s no guaranteed profit, but let’s study Mozilla.

Mozilla makes a free web browser, Mozilla FireFox, on top of plenty of other products, such as ThunderBird and SeaMonkey. They understand the value of open source by making all of their products open source, and they have created the #4 most popular web browser today and generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year. But they do this by way of royalties with other web corporations that rely on FireFox to distribute their content and set their services as the default, such as Google and Yahoo.

That’s on the corporate side of things, but what about the development? Since everything is open source, most of the development is handled by users that donate their time and skills to fix issues and help implement patches in a timely manner. There are Mozilla employees that aid in this as well, but they do it in tandem with the open source community. This allows the company to operate at a much larger scale by having more hands on the code. These developers volunteer often because Mozilla stands for their values, i.e. the open source community.

On top of the royalties, Mozilla makes money off of donations, whether that comes from money directly or things like merchandising, which honestly only makes the loyalty towards the brand even stronger.

Just one more brief examples is encyclopedias. Those book sets used to be common to see, whether in a library or somebody’s personal study (not so common). But once people understood the Internet, Wikipedia came and made these sets obsolete. This was in part of the ease of use, but also how fast information was being added by crowd sourcing the labor. A print encyclopedia can be obsolete the day it is printed, but Wikipedia allows for instant updates. However, encyclopedia companies have transitioned to the Internet, but their services are held in less regard because they were too late and they rely on different systems of funding (ads vs. Wikipedia’s donation drives).

The open source business model is a broken system that can easily be exploited, but it’s not unruly. People will give money to products they believe in, and there is value in being a popular product. Whether that’s just a means of selling user data or ad space, it’s definitely sustainable. And the “contract” work from the open source community allows for up to date products and user satisfaction.

ESR claims the open-source approach prevents a business from “getting rent from the secret bits”, but I think that’s a dated way of viewing open source. While there is benefit from having something your competitors don’t have, there’s also benefit in having free workers making a product they can safely enjoy under the directive vision of the corporation. It is not for every company – EA is not going to adopt the open source approach in their video games – but companies that can utilize it, like IBM, recognize how important open-source is and how it will influence the future of technology. I look forward to see how IBM helps grow Red Hat and how IBM grows with it. It’s certainly a good time to work for Big Blue.

Noosphere, Poosphere, We All Cheer for Free Gear

There is a service called Patreon, where users can pay their favorite content creators directly, such as YouTube accounts, artists, or even freelance news agents. This bypasses the chunk that content providers and potential managers can take from the few cents you make by looking at an advertisement when consuming your favorite creators’ content. I personally support 3 wildly different content creators on the platform, one making analytical video essays, one making philosophy discussion videos, and another making sketch comedy videos. I don’t pay much, at most $5 a month, but I do it because I enjoy the hell out of their content output and I want more of that content in my life.

While Patreon and the open source community are two very different mediums, they have parallels that can be drawn. One can passively participate in the open source community by benefitting from the open source product, much like how one can benefit freely from a content creator on YouTube or elsewhere. However, for the users that really appreciate the community and want to actively support their source of entertainment, users can contribute to the open source medium or directly support their favorite content creators.

In this way, I think I can explain the motivation behind contributing to the open source community, despite the lack of necessity to do so. When one really appreciates the content they consume and want to give back in a meaningful way, they can and will. They will be a part of the “gift culture” as ESR calls it. If they don’t have the coin or the skills, then they don’t need to also. There are plenty that don’t, after all. It isn’t an expectation, but a very welcome gesture to do so.

But what if one has the coin or the skill to contribute but choose not to? Is that a critique on the person? Perhaps a little bit, but contributing is not an expectation, rather a privilege to the creators.  As stated before, it’s the gift culture, and gifts are not to be expected, rather appreciated when they come. People are absolutely entitled to keeping their rarities to themselves. If that wasn’t the case, then the patrons aren’t special anymore! If it’s a closed, paid service, then there really isn’t a difference between the appreciators and the payers. When I play Overwatch, can you spot the difference between myself and the whales that spend mounds of cash on loot boxes (ignoring the fact that I have dropped on a guap on lootboxes on ONE occasion when I needed the Witch Mercy skin)? Probably not. At most, you can identify which players have been playing since the beginning by their season sprays/badges, but no one really pays attention to those details. Or what about the people that use the AWS “Free” tier and the upper tiers? Those are usually reserved for enterprises that use the service that much to justify upgrading their tier and nobody really cares about/notices the difference.

Ooh, what a good segue to my next point. Also like Patreon, the open source community has tiers to contribution. With Patreon, a creator can set different tiers depending on how much you pay a month/per creation or what have you. These mean more perks the more you give them. This is mirrored in the open source community with the different “faces” of reputation. The more you put in, the more you receive. While higher paying patrons get more rewards, that’s hardly the sole reason to do it. Usually, the higher rankings mean a higher spot in the credit sequence, or a personalized note from the creators. They want higher prestige from the creator themselves. Like ESR explains, “if one is well known for generosity, intelligence, fair dealing, leadership ability, and other good qualities, it becomes much easier to persuade other people that they will gain by association with you”. One of the creators I support on Patreon has a Discord server where the different tiers of patrons get different color roles. I would genuinely be lying if I said I did not want a higher tier just for that role. And this is after having a horrible, horrible experience with Discord that makes me not want to visit it often anymore. Humans are weird and they want higher status whenever possible. If that means contributing to the open source community in significant ways, so be it. After all, you can talk about Linus Torvalds to almost anyone technically versed and they will know who you are talking about. That’s some fame for free that you can’t replicate.

But humans also want reimbursement for the work they put out. What’s the point otherwise? That’s the whole point of rewards on Patreon. In the open source community, that usually means reputation, but there is more to reputation than just having your name out there. There is respect behind your name when you have the right reputation. Candidly, I don’t have that much first-hand experience with the open source community, but if somebody were to talk about xtraeme, I could would know the relative weight behind that name. Basically what I’m getting at is, to sustain a healthy community, there needs to be a system of rewards to contribution. This does not always mean fame, but there needs to be some return to the contributors. But that does not mean there needs to be money involved, either. Gaining a weight to their name is more than enough in most situations.

Hackers in the Cathedral

When considering my own experience with software development, I have experienced the most success with the bazaar method of information sharing. There is free and open documentation for my many, many problems, and I don’t feel like a burden to my supervisors or instructors by being able to look it up whenever. Additionally, whenever I encounter a problem, I can bet that at least one person brave enough to ask a question on Stack Overflow or the Github community forums has also experienced this issue. A good deal of my problems is very easy to solve, allowing my software development to be more independent without being independent. It’s physical independence, which has it’s issues, but it also gives me a sense of comfort, as I’m sure it does with other people.

Another aspect of the bazaar is continuous updates, whether that is in product features or security patches, there are constant eyes on the software making sure that it meets standards, creating a rather dynamic piece of software. As Raymond argues, this is important to the development process. The number of eyes on the software are able to tame the complexity by allowing testers and developers to freely communicate and update the software and they work hand in hand. It almost seems obvious that bazaar development method is far superior. Or is it?

While it is very easy for a programmer to parrot the greatness of the open source community, a community that has rightfully earned its place in the technology community as a whole, it is still possible to confidently say that it does not solve every problem. The cathedral method has it’s definite benefits. While I prefer my own software development method to more follow the bazaar method, my experience as a user almost always is improved with the cathedral method.

Products like Microsoft Office are far superior to its open source contemporaries, of course. However, out of my software experience, I don’t spend that much time in Microsoft Word. I spend a lot of time on the internet. I like to play games from time to time. I enjoy producing music in digital audio workshops. All of these are examples of products that are created in a cathedral setting and me, as a user, LOVE these products. Granted, I have to pay for them, whether that is money or my personal information, but I pour hours into these products and it just brings a blast.

But why? I believe a big part of that is a consistent voice. Sure, the community behind Linux Mint are creating this dynamic operating system that I like to use, but I don’t want a dynamic gaming experience all of the time. Sometimes, I want to throw Smash Bros Ultimate and know EXACTLY the game I am playing. Granted, in this day and age, there are periodic updates, but the core gameplay is the same. And, having a user base that effectively stress tests the software every day, finding all the holes they can possibly exploit, is the same as having a plethora of eyes on the software, except the progress of updates is unbeknownst to the user base, which is fine. I don’t always need to know what’s about to happen. Sometimes I just like to play some music on Ableton without being up to date on the upcoming features.

So, in essence, I prefer the bazaar method of software development when I am the one programming, but I much prefer the products that arise from the cathedral method. As for the method of the future, I think the future can maintain both methods, much like it does today. Both methods can grow and evolve at their own rate. Sometimes that will be independent of each other, but there will likely be crossover between the two, much like the eyeballs keeping the software in check applying to both the open source community and stress testing users. Maybe someday, a third method will emerge that will also hold elements of both prevalent methods, but I don’t think one will dominate over another.

Lottery Winners Give Advice

Modern hackers, like Paul Graham, got rich by selling a piece of software for a high price to a customer that was willing to pay big bucks for it, in his case Yahoo!. Was Graham’s Viaweb worth the $49 million? Possibly, possibly not. I don’t know how much of Yahoo!’s success has to do with their acquisition of Viaweb, but during the dot com boom, that piece of software meant more than it would have been before or after that period.

There’s an element of timing that goes with successful startups. Had Graham tried to sell Viaweb in 2018, or somehow in 1910, we would not be reading his compendium of essays. Graham speaks of a handful of qualities necessary for a successful startup, such as hard work, leverage, etc, but he seems to overlook how lucky he really was. He does note that the current age is different – we are living in the post-Industrial revolution age – but he doesn’t consider the timing of his start up.

For modern hackers, a fortune can be made, but only because there are corporations that want to be on the cutting edge of technology, and sometimes, due to the slowness of corporations, they must buy their technology from outsiders before competitors get the upper-hand. This means modern hackers benefit from free lancing if they can make a good product, but it takes more than grit and hard work to make a successful start-up, as Graham leads the reader to believe. Modern hackers must have the soft skills to market their product as useful, either to a customer base or the parent company.

This means for a hacker to be pecuniarly successful today, they must “sell out” and make a product not for love of the tech, but love of success using tech.

As for out society, I do believe it should encourage taking risks. Too much of society is focused on perfection, or close to it, in order to be successful in later iterations in your life. This can be devastating for somebody that does not benefit from the current structure of society and destroy their self-worth. It’s easy to tell somebody that received a bad mark on an exam that their grade does not define them, but when that causes a decrease on their GPA, which many jobs require a higher than average GPAs, it becomes easy to believe that that is simply not true.

This translates to businesses. If somebody opens a sandwich shop and it does not do well, they may think they aren’t cut out for the business world, and it’s likely that they’ve invested quite some time to open that sandwich shop. Perhaps they didn’t find their true niche. Or perhaps the world wasn’t ready for a sandwich shop at the time! Those factors should be considered when assessing self-worth, but is easy to ignore with the today’s society.

Does this mean everybody can make the next big business, it’s just a matter of trying? Absolutely not. There are some people that truly should not take the risk of starting a business. But they can take that risk and possibly learn that they actually enjoy the stability of working for another business and find their worth in that way. If one does not recognize their faults after so many attempts and put themselves in a poor situation financially, then I suppose it’s a tough lesson to learn, but that’s the beauty of self-agency.

The next big thing on the horizon. It’s a little service called blockchain. Actually, artificial intelligence. I read on Forbes that 2019 is the year of the smart home assistant. So maybe it’s actually IoT?

Actually, the next big thing is unknown. In one way, the current big thing is battle royale games, with an incredibly successful and slightly unethical freemium model. But how many people were realistically predicting that 2 years ago? While I can say I do believe the next big thing has to do with the Internet in some capacity, I can’t properly predict what it will be. I do hope that it includes something with artificial intelligence and smart home assistants. Maybe somebody will develop OS 1. But that’s merely a dream.

If history repeats itself, we are about to enter a whole new paradigm of experiencing technology, and I think AR will be the next big thing. However, this incorporates a lot of the above. IoT. Artificial intelligence and deep learning. Seamlessly integrated systems. It’s a technology that has been around for a while, but only recently has it developed into something that people genuinely like to experience, and the barrier to entry is getting relatively cheaper too. But again, maybe I’m just hoping to have OS 1.

Is Milton Friedman an Artist?

The idea of a hacker that Paul Graham paints is very closely related to the idea of a hacker that Steven Levy created. They may not be the exact same (if you use the definition of a “true hacker” in this sense) but they seem like the same idea from different perspectives.

Graham outlines in “The Word ‘Hacker’” that the term hack can mean a well crafted and expert solution to a problem, or it can refer to a shoddily made workaround. In both cases, the one that made the hack – the hacker – is proud of what they have created and effectively solve their solution. This is very in line with the origins of hacking in MIT described by Levy, where the students were hacking out of sheer curiosity of their limits. Whether or not Alan Kotok’s implemented calculator was the most beautifully designed piece of software is up for debate, but it was undeniably the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for Kotok. Incidentally, this in line with Graham’s description outlined in “Hackers and Painters”, where Graham draws the distinction between a hacker and a computer scientist.

Hackers do not need to know, or necessarily want to know, how computers work, rather, they just want to make something beautiful from their imagination using the software available. It may be a bit more technical, as a toddler is able to make a painting and be considered a “painter”, and a hacker needs more competence to make something that works on a computer, but those building blocks are the only hurdle to overcome. One does not need to know how a CPU works in tandem with the processer and the disk to store and information and make the magic black box work, they just need to look up some coding tutorials on YouTube and they know a thing or two about hacking. They may not have the skills to access any worthwhile database or make a code that works in O(n­3) time to O(n log n), but they have the passion to make something, which is more than enough.

However, the two authors do not define the same hacker. They have overlap, but the specifics are different. Levy’s hackers had more defined rules. They resisted authority. They were married to the open source community. Their works are not for profit.

If we take a glimpse at Graham’s life, these rules are inconsistent. Graham himself sold Viaweb to Yahoo!, a prevalent tech giant at the time, and co-founded Y Combinator, an organization focused on giving money to creative tech solutions to hopefully find a successful product. This goes totally against the aforementioned rules outlines by Levy.

But this shows an interesting dynamic in the difference of hackers. While Levy’s hackers try to be self-sufficient, Graham’s use authority to make capitol gains. He recognizes that technology is not just something to experiment with, but something that can be used for profit. Which isn’t to say it makes the work hackers do less passionate or less genuine, but it allows that incentive to be a part of the lifestyle. In fact, not keeping everything open source is almost essential for a unique market advantage.

Not to delve too much into politics, but the difference between Levy and Graham can be analogous to communism and capitalism, respectfully. This is not to say any writer is more right or has a better definition of hackers, but the beliefs are not unique to the emerging technology. Levy’s hackers want to advance the tech community as a whole and help each other become better hackers, but Graham’s hackers do what they want because they want to, which can be a bit selfish, but the selfish incentive can also drive the community forward.

Graham’s idea of a hacker doesn’t change my mind of a hacker so much as it does lets me understand hackers more. That is, hackers don’t need to follow a set of rules and beliefs to be a “real” hacker. Hackers have the freedom and ability to define themselves however they want to be. In the current world of technology, there are too many people to place so many restrictions and use elitism to separate the real hackers from the frauds. As long as somebody has the passion and interest to further their skills at technology, then they should surely be able to pursue those. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and working in tandem with Graham’s painter analogy, if somebody likes what they have created, no matter how juvenile or manufactured, then it should be valid hacking.

In regard to my desirability to be a hacker, I think Graham’s perspective drives that forward. It’s much more welcoming, which goes a long way for anyone less than the top tier. While I don’t consider myself inept at programming, I recognize my peers with better skills than myself, and it can negatively affect my attitude and self-worth. However, I don’t need to be the best to feel useful, I just have to enjoy my own creations and hope someone else does too, and that goes a long way with my personal passions of hacking and painting.


Following the blog’s timeline, the next wave of hackers were known as the “game hackers”. They used their programming skills not for traditionally “useful” applications, like creating a digital calculator, a la Alan Kotok, or accessible software for the everyday person, a la Micro-soft’s BASIC, but were instead in a position to create software for leisure. Computer games were not a novel concept, with primitive games like Spacewar! developed on PDP-1 way back in the 60s, but to play such a game required having the hardware itself, uncommon for the common man. Due to the hardware constraints of the personal computers, games were often limited to text-based adventures, such as Zork or Adventure. The latter, however, become the inspiration for Ken and Roberta Williams, creating the next generation of hackers.

Ken and Roberta Williams, along with a team of 5 programmers, created Mystery House, a computer game that featured a narrative story, much like Adventure did, as well as dedicated graphics. When they talked to a software distributor, Programma, they were given the ultimatum of receiving a fraction of the revenue in royalties, to which they denied and published the game themselves, keeping all the profit. This led to the creation of Sierra On-Line, a pioneer in computer gaming publishers, leading the way for other game publisher companies to follow.

Becoming a game developer required expertise in programming and netted a large return in investment if the final product was successful, and with the small catalog of games at the time, it was likely that a fun and competent game would succeed. Through the publishing company, the sales could be handled by people that were better suited to market their product, allowing the programmer to do what they do best – program. Programming was becoming lucrative in a way that was not previously possible, inspiring a new wave of programmers that did not necessarily do it for the love of computers, but for the expectation of money.

Although there is a clear difference between the game hackers of new and the historical “true hackers”, the two groups are not mutually exclusive and can coexist. Much like any hobby, there will be purists and the mere “hobbyists” that don’t have the same appreciation of the craft but still profit of it. In music, this can be illustrated using modern classical composers, like Notre Dame’s own Alex Mansour, versus modern DJs, that themselves question whether they are “just posers pushing buttons” (Diplo). However, despite massive success, these DJs and producers still value their own creations and protect their intellectual property, whether selfish or not.

We can see this hacker ethic survive in the modern world of proprietary software through the open source crowd, from small form groups like Notre Dame’s Linux Users Group, to entire communities that use the internet to exchange their ideas and creations (Source Forge, Git, etc). One can argue that this explosion of commercial software is responsible for inspiring those to follow the hacker ethic. As a matter of fact, I will argue that right now!

Having the marketplace of software restricts information and universal knowledge, but that does not mean the true hacker ethic dies. In certain ways, it makes the true hacker ethic even stronger and makes those that subscribe to it even more passionate. Hackers are able to unlock games hidden behind DRM protections faster and faster, often with improved performance, exemplifying the idea that stronger protections only create smarter “criminals”. Open source alternatives to software are becoming more commonplace, see Microsoft Office versus LibreOffice, mirroring Kotok’s aim to port the calculator to the computer.

Additionally, the world does not work in absolutes. A programmer can have the “true hacker” ethic in their minds and allow it to influence their creations, but they can also act in the commercial world. Even this behavior is being more accepted in the commercial world. People are free to mod games, creating extra content to the game without the restriction of upper management, and these mods are fueled by passion of the game. While these used to be supplemental downloads the player would have to seek, services like Steam are integrating them into their platforms, giving the modders a marketplace, whether that means charging a small fee (unpopular by today’s standards, but justified) or just exposure. While some companies can become “corrupted by the ring” – Nintendo for example – some game companies are beginning to embrace it, like SEGA, who hired a team of developers that made Sonic the Hedgehog fan games to create Sonic Mania, an official installment to the series, using SEGA’s own resources to develop. They saw the passion their games inspired and gave those inspired the ability to create personal works of art, as well as the commercial success.

Whether it’s better to be a “professional programmer, … the goal-oriented … responsible engineer” or the programmer with “love for [computing] in [your] heart” and “hacker perfectionism in [your] soul” is up to the individual programmer. Whatever makes them happy and feel fulfilled should be the route they go. The important thing to foster a whole range of perspectives to programming. No gatekeeping. No extremists. Just a beautiful synthesis of the different programming mentalities. Afterall, if there is no authority to combat, how would the true hacker feel accomplished?

Hardware Hackers and Reforming the Programming Landscape

While the “hackers” from MIT explored the limits of the computing resources available, developing their array of games and hacks on the PDP-X machines, the actors in West Coast were tackling different challenges. Akin to the “true hacker” idea of anti-bureaucracy, the “hardware hackers” wanted to truly abolish power from authority. The “true hackers” were fixated on the idea of challenging the priesthood that restricted computational power, but they were still piggy backing off “the man” by using resources their university would purchase/receive and allow them access to. There was a layer of authoritarianism that they belonged to, despite their opposition to it. This was not the case for the “hardware hackers”.

“Hardware hackers” had the counter-culture mentality of civil rights for all and equality across the board. On top of movements like second wave feminism and anti-war activism, “hardware hackers” wanted to make computers more accessible and affordable for the everyday man. Initially, this began as offering easy communication amongst terminals connected to a centralized mainframe by Lee Felsenstein and Jude Milhon. This new idea paved the way for normalized computers and to introduce programing to the youth. This allowed Bill Gates and Paul Allen to develop Micro-soft’s BASIC, an “easy” to use programming language that limited some control from the user but made the process altogether more streamlined. In tandem with the application of Moore’s law at the time, it was becoming much easier for the common person to learn to program for their own benefits, as opposed to just creating tools for the government, a la the Department of Defense.

However, this created a new breed of hackers. These hackers were no longer just nerds that wanted to program for the advancement of the field, but they were businessmen. To utilize the power of BASIC, the user had to purchase the interpreter. With the ability to make more personalized computers, there opened up a new market that was ripe for the picking, which pioneers like Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs took control of and found success in that climate. Of course, this could not have been done without the initial sharing of ideas and resources. Without the Homebrew Computer Club – operating similarly to the Tech Model Railroad Club – there would not be an Apple computer.

This is quite different from the “true hacking” sense of programming, which is driven by the belief that all information should be open and free. In order to have a competitive edge, there is a necessity to have secrets in your product. This obvious difference creates quite the contrast between groups, as programming was no longer a niche hobby, but it is now an untapped goldmine of pure profit. However, these differences would not combine and compromise, rather they now were opposite teams of the same game.

However, tensions were not just present between the old-head hackers and the new, but they were between each other. Since programming was not just a hobby anymore, but becoming a household item, finding an advancement in the tech was not just a personal victory, but a way to make money. This even divided the Homebrew Computer Club, the birthplace of Apple, by creating an almost toxic environment and no longer drawing the same crowds. The mere idea of sharing code upset Gates, as seen in his open letter to code hobbyists.

So now, there are almost two extremes in the computing world. The free and open world that used computing to bring good to the world and solve problems with fun little hacks, and the commercial world that used this new tech for profit and corporation, effectively oppressing those who rely on it. While these are two different views, they are not mutually exclusive. Technology can clearly be a force for good, making lives more efficient and finding solutions to otherwise costly problems, as well as a dangerous tool of oppression. And these different viewpoints do not have to align with one particular group of “hacking”. The “true hackers” can bring good through their passions, but it can also be damaging to the hacker and their relationships, as well as the application of their hacks. On the flipside, the commercial world opened up a whole new world of computing for those that would not experience it otherwise, driving the affordability with Moore’s law, while also creating tension to the businessmen and killing passion. Much like any hobby, there are pros and cons that must be outweighed at any turn.

With regard to the implications of my own creations, I choose to not think of it. While disgusting technologies can emerge – like nuclear weaponry – there is a beauty that can be created from that source – like radiography and nuclear power, perhaps one of the most sustainable energies discovered to this day. With any technology, someone will eventually create the nuclear weapon and someone will create nuclear power plant with or without weighing the ethical, moral, and social impacts of such a tech beforehand.

Reflection 00: True Hackers

According to Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, a “true hacker” does not mean the malicious technical savant that is often portrayed in media, such as USA Network’s Mr. Robot or the 1999 hit blockbuster The Matrix, but is someone that takes the resources they are given, whether that be a computer system, a model train set, or what have you, and find new ways to manipulate their system. While “manipulate” also carries a negative connotation colloquially, it means using craftiness and advanced skills to change the application of such systems in this context. For example, in the age of early computers, where accessible programs are few and far between, a “hacker”, such as Peter Samson, could take what they know about how the TX-0 processes input data to have it play music, an unintended affect by the original creators.

Additionally, hackers believe that all information should be open-source and free, so that anybody else can study such techniques and admire or improve upon it. This idea allows many different minds and viewpoints observe some information and either contribute to the overall goal or apply it for their own benefit. It is a communal mindset that aims to advance technical knowledge by pooling the collective knowledge of the hacker community.

From these principles of hacking, the malicious behavior can be predicted. If all information is free (except the occasional security key), then different systems can be observed, and – with the right mindset – vulnerabilities can be discovered and exploited to the benefit of the hacker. However, this seems like the natural price to pay in order to have the “positive” benefits of the hacker mentality, that being the advancement of technology and a universal collective knowledge.

With this in mind, the idea of being a “true hacker” can seem appealing to many, especially those in the technical community, like myself and my fellow computer science students. So long as sensitive information is concealed, true hacking should be the bastion of this community. However, there are many facets of this mentality that bring more harm than good.

For instance, this community of “true hackers” often devote huge portions of their life to their beliefs, like any passion one may pursue. However, like any other hobby, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing, and this mentality often promotes too much of that good thing. In part by the community at large, where peers will constantly be contributing to this open source landscape, which may create an expectation for other users, but also by the hobby itself. Something about studying the computer system is addicting to the user. Solving problems seem easy, but often are extremely difficult and time consuming. But, once a working solution is found, the feeling of gratification more than makes up for all that time spent frustrated for possibly days on end. The outcome is attractive, but nowhere near as attractive as the solution that the user made. The user feels like they aren’t useless and have presentable skills. It’s an addicting cycle if you choose to put the time into it.

There is also an anti-authoritarian angle expressed with true hacking. The “man” has their secrets and refuse to share their information with the masses, stifling innovation. This isn’t exclusive to hacking either. This view is expressed often and is quite popular, whether that comes in the form of punk music, communistic revolutions, or the open source community. However, these methods never end in the way they are planned to be. Punk musicians either become part of the mainstream or suffer from obscurity. Communist countries develop power struggles and more class chaos. Open source communities rely on crowd sourcing to stay afloat or get bought out by the “man” themselves (a la RedHat/IBM). On a user level, users rely on equipment backended by these major corporations.

The idea of a “true hacker” is enticing, but, as Professor Douglas Thain would say, “there ain’t no free lunch” and the drawbacks to being a part of this community are certainly a turnoff to many. They certainly are to me. I value having a healthy balance between work, passion, and social lives. If all three are to be combined into one, I could make decent contributions to the community at large, but I don’t believe I will be happier than I am now. Quite the opposite, I think I would constantly be sad and only feed into it more, escaping into the hacking world. I wish to have moderation in my life and this lifestyle does not agree with that. However, I still admire those that do choose to live that lifestyle.