Open sourcing ideas – A hacker approach to working and learning

Open sourcing ideas – A hacker approach to working and learning

We often use words to say much less than they could! Take the word ‘work’ for example. In our Western culture, evoking the word invariably calls up images of activities organised in time and space that are carried out essentially to earn money.

The following thoughts about work and learning were sparked by the first part of a book by Pekka Himanen called “The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age”. Pekka’s brief historical overview of work and his account of what he sees as the Hacker ethic of work had me thinking about my own attitude to work and ideas. 

Setting work in perspective

Pekka’s starting point 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 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 dominate attitudes to work worldwide. In that ethic, work was seen as a duty and as something to be done in its own right. Work became a thing in itself and not a part of other activities. With the growth of capitalism, time became the standard way of measuring work and money came to replace satisfaction with the activity 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 ask someone we’ve just met what work they do. Or think of the distress of those who are out of work and suffer a profound loss of identity because of it.

Simultaneously, the time at work has been progressively optimised through fragmentation and mechanisation. In most cases, the employee does not decide on the time and place of work. Even the introduction of telework has not radically changed that situation (although it could). Is there not a fundamental disempowerment of the employee who is unable to master the time required to accomplish work? The parallel with school is striking. School as an institution teaches pupils that, amongst other things, they can only learn legitimately where and when they are told to. (See Nine lessons of schooling … or why school isn’t what you think it is). In another parallel between school and work, it is the outcome that reaps benefit, not the path used to get there. Marks reward school work as a finished product rather than the learning process, just as work is remunerated on the basis of performance and output rather than processes.

Pleasure from work well done has little place in a world where cadence rules and every second counts. The growing feeling of urgency and the related feeling of (job) insecurity that has permeated the modern economy with its cut-throat competition, has led to a helter-skelter approach to work that leaves us breathless and cramped in our rush from one activity to another. If pleasure there is, then we have become junkies of the feverishly frenetic. An unfortunate consequence of evicting the craftsman’s pride and pleasure has been that maintaining quality has become a serious problem. Quality has been separated from work. In the absence of a feeling for quality, spreadsheets, rules and money are used as incentives to get work better done. To little avail. The fundamental question might well be: can this “damage” done to our attitude to work ever be remedied and if so, how?

Another motivation for working was social contacts. With the family shrinking from a large, close-knit community to one or two parents and a few children and the lengthy time spent on the job, work became the major source of social contact. Think of the difficulties many people have when they retire only to discover how few contacts they have outside the work sphere. More recently, in the name of efficiency, such socialisation has been curtailed. As a result, work risks losing a valuable asset: the rich learning attributable to informal exchange and collaboration. The counter productiveness of such a policy is all the more evident as companies and institutions are forced to set innovation at the centre of their priorities. Innovation is driven by exchange and collaboration between peers. Managers have been forced to introduce synthetic means of exchange to foster creativeness and institutional learning. In a nutshell, work has been separated from learning. (Note that our habitual use of the words ‘work’ and ‘learning’ presupposes they are separate ! This makes it difficult for us to think of them as two facets of the same thing. Even the drive to introduce life-long learning in the work place does not reunite the two.) 

Little by little, activities outside work have been treated more and more like work. “Leisure time” also underwent optimisation. It has to be used to its fullest. Radio and television, and even more so social media, rhythm our (non-working) lives with their reminders. their news flashes and all sorts of services and commodities to help us make the most of our time. Social media has far exceeded traditional media in occupying much of our leisure time.

Smart phones and tablets with their apps and related social media 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 smartphone that keeps us tethered to work at all times. But this shift has not made work more leisurely. Rather leisure has become laborious, as has learning. In our western societies, school is the work place of the young. Goal-oriented seriousness and accountability permeate most of our activities leaving a lot less room for serendipitous discovery and surprise and joy at the unexpected. In a world that is said to be changing 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 trial-and-error approach 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 which model learning on ‘working’, making learning laborious and machine-like. This is partly because passion, openness and caring, which are powerful sources of motivation, are often absent in a system that sees learning as a serious duty to be done at set times just like work. As I mentioned above, motivation in schools is driven by a payment system based on marks. If you doubt what I say, just listen to young people talking about their lessons. 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 motivation for 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 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. Work is ultimately seen by the hacker as an open collaborative effort and it is valued for its social worth. Beyond this consideration lies a fundamental question. In considering ‘hackerism’ as a model for society, is the hackers’ system of values sufficient to ensure what might be called the general ‘good’? Or does it fall into the trap of other contemporary value systems, like liberalism, that believe allowing free rein to certain mechanisms without reference to any other values automatically leads to a better situation for all?

Alan McCluskey, Connected Magazine, Feb 9th, 2002. Updated Mar 16th, 2020.