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The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age

Graeme Kirkpatrick
Max Weber Studies
Vol. 2, No. 2 (May 2002), pp. 163-185
Published by: Max Weber Studies
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/24579606
Page Count: 23
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The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age
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Abstract

This paper develops a historical analogy between the pioneers of personal computing, or 'hardware hackers', of the 1970s and the seventeenth-century Protestant sects described in Weber's classic study. The psychological, cultural and sociological affinities of the two groups are emphasized, as are their roles in history. As Weber's Protestants are said to have instigated cultural changes conducive to capitalist development, so the worldview of the hackers contributed the idea—embodied in the personal computer itself—that has enabled capitalism to exploit information technology. The similarities between the two groups extend to the ironic historical fate of their respective belief and value systems. According to Weber, the Protestant sects were victims of their own success. Their stern advocacy of religious practice made possible a society whose dynamic principles tend toward the elimination of religious belief, while the Protestant emphasis on a life of diligence guided by reflection becomes valued for its utility rather than its intrinsic associations with virtue. Similarly, the hackers advanced the goal of ubiquitous personal computing because they invested their practice with a moral significance that revived older ideas of autonomy and empowerment through the exercise of reason. These ideas are effectively neutralized by design features of the con–temporary personal computer, especially its interface. The hackers' ideals seem almost anachronistic, while their advocacy of hard work with a PC has become a mere necessity of life for most people. In both cases, however, the radical, rationalist spirit at the core of the movement furnishes critical perspectives which, when reworked by subsequent thinkers, may inform critical practice.

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