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Open sourcing ideas - A hacker approach to working, learning and writing
We often use words to say much less than they could! Take the word "work" for example. In our Western culture, the word is so inextricably bound to the idea of activities that are strictly organised in time and space and which we carry out essentially to earn money, that it is hard for us to think of "work" as anything else.
The following thoughts about work were sparked off by the first part of a book by Pekka Himanen called "The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age". I bought it a while ago but hadn't read it till now. The irony of circumstances is such that I unwittingly began reading the book just after having had to clock on for the first time after more than thirty years of working. Pekka's brief historical overview of work and his account of what he sees as the Hacker ethic of work set my profound uneasiness at having to clock on in a different perspective. More importantly, it had me thinking about my own attitude to work, writing and ideas.
Setting work in perspective
Pekka's starting point in his book is the changing ethic of work since the Middle Ages. At that time, for the Church Fathers work was an unfortunate consequence of the fall from grace. One certainly didn't work in the Garden of Eden or in Paradise. Whereas in Hell, being forced to do senseless work was probably the greatest torture. Think of the myth of Sisyphus who was condemned to unendingly roll a bolder up a hill only to see it roll back down again. Only in monastic orders was work organised according to a strict timetable and seen to be done for the good of one's soul. As such, it was a precursor of the Protestant work ethic that was to invade attitudes to work worldwide. In that ethic, work was seen as a duty and as something to be done in its own right. With the growth of capitalism, time became the standard way of measuring work done and money came to replace work itself as the prime motivation for working. Work had become one of the principal activities in life, structuring most of our other activities. Work gave and still gives meaning and structure to life. If you don't believe me, just think of how we invariably begin by asking someone we have just met what work they do so to get to know them better. Or think of the distress of those who are out of work and feel a profound loss of identity because of it.
Simultaneously, the time at work was progressively optimised through fragmentation and mechanisation. In most cases, it is not the employee that decides on the time and place of work. Even the introduction of telework has not radically changed this situation (although it possibly could). Is there not a fundamental disempowerment of the person on the part of management in deciding that the employee is unable to master his or her use of time to accomplish the work to be done? Is not such a seizure of power by others over an individual's life not ultimately degrading and detrimental to the overall development of humanity. The parallel with school is striking. School as an institution teaches pupils that they can only learn legitimately where and when they are told to by others who are supposed to be more knowledgeable or more powerful than them. Rather than empowering young people to learn, as such, does not institutionalised school disempower them, removing their natural curiosity and capacity to learn and grow at their own initiative? Just think of the wonder of a young child that learns to speak without the slightest help from school. It is not surprising that school is so laborious with so many who feel no further motive to learn. For many people, their time at school has left them with a profound feeling of incapacity and even failure, whereas all of us are born natural learners. (Careful about that word "learn". We tend to assimilate it with what one does at school. Obviously many people are NOT good at that, but that doesn't mean that they are incapable of learning.)
Pleasure from work well done has no place in a world where every second counts. Is it really a question of seconds? Maybe not. But the growing feeling of urgency and the related feeling of insecurity that has permeated the modern economy with its cut-throat competition and a tenseness that is cultivated by the media, has led to a helter-skelter approach to work that leaves us breathless and cramped in our rush from one appointment to another. If pleasure there is, then it is feverishly frenetic. The unfortunate consequence of the eviction of the peaceful craftsman's pleasure with work well done has been that maintaining quality has become a serious problem. Quality has been separated from the work itself. In the absence of a feeling for quality, rules and money are used as major incentives to do work better although to little avail. The fundamental question might well be: can this "damage" to our attitude to work ever be remedied and if so, how?
Another motivation for working was the social contacts it brought. On the one hand, with the shrinking of the family unit from the extended family (with a large close-knit community of more or less distant relations) to the nuclear family (with one or two parents and at most a couple of children) coupled with the investment required at the work place, work became a major source of social contact. Think of the difficulties that many people have when they retire only to realise that they are alone because they have few contacts outside the work sphere. At the same time, in the name of optimisation, such socialisation has to be kept to a strict minimum. Here too, work lost a valuable asset, the richness of learning from each other through informal exchange and collaboration. The counter productiveness of this situation has become more evident since companies and institutions have put innovation on their agendas. Innovation is known to be driven by exchange and collaboration between peers. Managers are then forced to introduce synthetic means of exchange to foster creativeness and institutional learning. Work had been separated from learning. (Not that the nature of our habitual use of these two words "work" and ""earning" presupposes that they are separate entities! This makes it difficult for us to talk about them as being united. Even the drive to introduce life-long learning into the work place does not reunite the two.)
Little by little, activities outside work were also treated more and more as work and our "leisure time" also underwent optimisation. We have to use our leisure time to its fullest. Radio and television rhythm our non-working lives with their news flashes and all sorts of services and commodities are offered to help us make the most of our time. Once again others offer to look after our time and activities for us, because they claim to know how to do it so much better than we do. After all, aren't they professionals at it? One of the underlying questions raised here is the role of experts as privileged holders of knowledge. They concentrate knowledge in their hands to the detriment of the capacity of "non-experts" to learn and decide. If they were to distribute their knowledge freely and widely, they would possibly loose their source of income and the related power over others. A knowledge system based on individual specialisation is our current answer to complexity. But the retention of that knowledge as a source of revenue and power by the few could be self-defeating. Responding to a complex world requires the empowerment of as many individuals as possible rather than the concentration of knowledge in the hands of a limited number of experts.
Communication technologies have enabled an interpenetration of work and leisure (what other name should we use for that which is not work?) breaking down the barriers between the two. Just think of the cellular phone that rings in the middle of a concert or a film as a colleague seeks to reach us for last minute news. But this shift has not made work more leisurely. Rather leisure has become laborious like work, as has learning. Goal-oriented seriousness and accountability permeate most of our activities leaving little room for playfulness and joy. In a world that is said to be changing very rapidly and in which creativity is at a premium, surely playfulness and risk-taking should be key assets.
The "hacker" approach to work
The underlying values of the Protestant work ethic are money, work, optimality, flexibility, stability, determinacy and results accountability. In contrast, Pekka Himanen points to quite different values that motivate the Hackers' approach to work: passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring and creativity.
One of major facets of this "hacker" approach to "work" is that work and learning are not separated. The experimental approach of trial and error to getting things done constitutes a powerful learning process that is particularly adapted to creativity and complex, changing situations. This sort of learning is fundamentally different from that of institutionalised schools that separate learning from "working". One of the curious consequences of this school approach is that learning in schools becomes more laborious. This is partly because passion, openness and caring, which are powerful sources of motivation to learning, are often absent in a system that sees learning as a serious duty to be done at set times, in set places according to instructions given by others than the actors themselves. Motivation in schools is created by a payment system in the form of marks. If you doubt what I say, just listen to young people talking about their lessons and the work they do. They are more likely to talk about the marks they got than what they have learnt. As such, one might say that school adequately fulfils its role in preparing young people to accept payment as the principal goal of work.
Another facet is that work and quality are not dissociated. The "hacker" does what he does with care. Although this seems to resemble the caring attitude of the craftsman or the companion, the approach of the hacker is not rooted in a long-term tradition. On the contrary, the hacker breaks with tradition, raising innovation to a central value. What's more, the individual freedom claimed by the hacker in his or her work (not only in terms of time and place but also in terms of activities) contrasts with the well-traced framework that regulated the work of the craftsman or companion. Two factors mitigate this radicalness. The first is the fact that work is ultimately seen by the hacker as an open collaborative effort and the second is that one of their measures of the value of work is its social worth. Beyond these considerations lies the fundamental question, in considering "hackerism" as a model for society, as to whether the system of values of the hackers is sufficient to lead to what might be called the "good". Or does it not fall into the trap of other current value systems, like liberalism, that believe that allowing free reign to certain mechanisms without reference to any other values automatically leads to a better situation for all?
A "hacker" approach to writing
In reading about the attitude of these "white" hackers to work, I couldn't help but draw parallels with my own attitude to work, writing and developing ideas. The approach of software hackers is passionate, experimental, open and collaborative. My work with Connected has in many ways been very similar. Starting from ideas I've read or discussed with someone and that strike me as stimulating, I rework them, bringing in my own perspective and my own experience. I then pass some of them on for free via Connected Magazine to all those who are interested, in the hope that some of them will do likewise. Unfortunately there doesn't seem to be much of a tradition for such an approach to ideas. Or maybe it is just that there aren't suitable mechanisms for that collaboration to take place.
Academics do re-work ideas of others or at least continually make reference to writings of their peers. Unfortunately, the result is often quite uninspiring if not sterile. It may be that their perception of the requirement to be scientific is worn like a straight jacket within which figures, descriptions and bibliographic references vie with each other in a search for legitimacy rather than vision. It may also be partly because they either seek to put down the ideas of the others. It may be because what they refer to is in itself not inspiring. Or it may be that they have nothing inspiring themselves to say about what others have said and can take us no further. Those people who stand out as writers of inspiring ideas publish finished works that in a lot of respects are closed. They do not invite us as readers to engage in a dialogue to build on those ideas even though the ideas inspire us. If there is a collaborative process behind the writing, it is rarely made public. The closedness of such an approach is possibly a consequence of the printing process which requires considerable time and investment and naturally leads to producing works rather than on-going work. Using the Web as a publishing medium may possibly be more favourable to wide-based work-in-progress, but much depends on our attitude to using it. I don't wish to decry those who write books. I am very much indebted to certain books. I have learnt enormously from passionately reworking those works and publishing some of my thoughts about them on the Web.
We tacitly believe in the brilliance of the individual author or artist who can only break new ground alone and who ends up being revered by all. The Open Source movement lays a claim to excellence by having a whole community working on improving software. Is it not possible that a similar approach to the collaborative development of ideas and making then freely available to all could also lead to excellence far beyond what we are accustomed to?
Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise
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Created: February 9th, 2002 - Last up-dated: February 11th, 2002