Hackers, Liberalism, and Pleasure

Generally a hacker is a technologist with a love for computing, and a hack is a clever technical solution arrived at through non-obvious means (alternatively, it can mean a downright clunky and ugly solution, one, however, that gets the job at hand done). It doesn’t mean to compromise the Pentagon, change your grades, or take down the global financial system, although it can. Hackers tend to uphold the values of freedom, privacy, and access; they tend to adore computers—the cultural glue that binds them together. They are trained in highly specialized and technical arts, including programming, system administration, and security research. Many hackers use their skills at work but also spend a fair bit of time tinkering, building, and exploring outside labor demands. Some gain unauthorized access to technologies, though the degree of illegality greatly varies (and most hacking is completely legal). They tend to value playfulness and cleverness and will take most any opportunity to perform their wit through code or humor or even both: funny code.

One important aspect of hacking is the development of free and open-source software, such as Firefox and Linux. Now a techno-social movement, the hackers make the underlying directions of software, known as source code, legally accessible via novel licensing schemes, such as the GNU General Public License. Other variations have focused on cryptography and privacy. The “hacker underground” has brought into being a politics of transgression by seeking forbidden fruit—and it is this variant that has received the lion’s share of media attention.

A quick review of the language hackers frequently invoke to describe themselves or make ethical claims—freedom, free speech, privacy, the individual, meritocracy—reveals that many of them unmistakably express liberal commitments. “We believe in freedom of speech, the right to explore and learn by doing,” explains one hacker editorial, “and the tremendous power of the individual.”

By liberal, I don’t only mean a political party. Nor do I mean simply an identity that follows from being a card-carrying member of the ACLU or the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Here I take liberalism to also embrace a set of moral and political commitments: protecting property and civil liberties, promoting individual autonomy and tolerance, securing a free press, ruling through limited government and universal law, and preserving a commitment to equal opportunity and meritocracy. These principles are realized institutionally and culturally in various locations and contexts, including on the Internet and most especially with computer hackers. Hackers traverse a range of morally laced themes such as access, privacy, freedom, law, expressive activity, individualism, transgression, the social good, and sharing, of which free software and open source is just one example.

Hacking, however, cannot be reduced to liberalism alone, for it does not fully capture and exhaust the emotional aspects that hackers experience, most notably deep pleasure. Hacking is characterized by an odd confluence of occupational (and pretty constant) frustration and personal/collective joy. As I routinely observed during my fieldwork, hacking—whether in the form of programming, debugging (squashing errors), or running and maintaining systems (such as servers)—is nothing but (consistently) frustrating. Computers/software are constantly malfunctioning, interoperability is often a nightmare to realize, users are often “clueless” about the systems they use (and thus break them or require constant help), the rate and pace of technological change is relentless, and meeting customer expectations is nearly impossible to pull off predictably.

Despite the endless parade of frustrations, hackers always seem to derive pleasure from hacking (which sits in marked contrast to academics, who often seem to do everything possible to avoid writing). In its more mild form, hacker pleasure approximates Aristotelian eudaimonia, pleasure that prioritizes human flourishing through the development of skills and capacities. In pushing their personal capacities through tinkering with and making technologies, hackers experience the joy that follows from the self-directed realization of skills, goals, and talents.

Hacker pleasure, however, is not always so staid and controlled. Less occasionally, but still with notable frequency, hackers experience a more obsessive and blissful state, a pleasure so complete, engrossing, and enveloping, it has the capacity to obliterate self-awareness. In native hack-jargon, this state of bliss is the “deep-hack mode.” Matt Welsh, a well-known hacker and computer scientist, describes the utter magnetism of this mode: “very few phenomena can pull someone out of Deep Hack Mode, with two noted exceptions: being struck by lightning, or worse, your *computer* being struck by lightning.”

Because hackers often submit their entire will and being to technology—and are famous for denying their bodies sleep, at least for short periods of time, to do so—the pleasure they derive is at times experienced as transcendent bliss. In these moments, utility is exceeded so that the self can at once express its most inner being and collapse within the objects of its creation. In the aftermath of a particularly pleasurable moment of hacking, there is no autonomous liberal self to be found.

Thus, utility is not the only driving force in hackers’ creative acts. Although hackers are fiercely pragmatic and utilitarian—technology after all must work and work exceptionally well—they are also fiercely poetic and repeatedly affirm the artistic elements of their work. A concrete expression of technology/software as art is when source code is written as poetry or alternatively poetry is written in source code. For many free-software hackers, the act of writing software and learning from others far exceeds the simple enactment of an engineering ethic or a technocratic calculus for the sake of becoming a more proficient and efficient programmer or system administrator. Software development and related technical activities are construed as valuable avenues for highly creative forms of expression, even if they openly admit to various constraints.

Presenting hacking in terms of liberalism and pleasure gets us closer to what makes this site of ethics and technological production so intriguing. Because the joy of hacking intimately shapes the hacker desire for productive freedom, hacker pleasure forms part of the ground for adopting and extending liberal commitments. The unruly, deeply felt pleasures of hacking, which at times stray from liberal visions, hold a substantive link with them.

Gabriella Coleman, an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, is the 2010–11 Ginny and Robert Loughlin Founders’ Circle Member in the School of Social Science. Trained as an anthropologist, Coleman examines the ethics of online collaboration and institutions as well as the role of the law and digital media in sustaining various forms of political activism. Between 2001–03, she conducted ethnographic research on computer hackers primarily in San Francisco and the Netherlands, as well as those hackers who work on Debian, a free-software project.