The Varieties of Hacker Ideology

The ideology of the Internet open-source culture (what hackers say they believe) is a fairly complex topic in itself. All members agree that open source (that is, software that is freely redistributable and can readily evolved and be modified to fit changing needs) is a good thing and worthy of significant and collective effort. This agreement effectively defines membership in the culture. However, the reasons individuals and various subcultures give for this belief vary considerably.

One degree of variation is zealotry; whether open source development is regarded merely as a convenient means to an end (good tools and fun toys and an interesting game to play) or as an end in itself.

A person of great zeal might say ``Free software is my life! I exist to create useful, beautiful programs and information resources, and then give them away.'' A person of moderate zeal might say ``Open source is a good thing, which I am willing to spend significant time helping happen''. A person of little zeal might say ``Yes, open source is okay sometimes. I play with it and respect people who build it''.

Another degree of variation is in hostility to commercial software and/or the companies perceived to dominate the commercial software market.

A very anticommercial person might say ``Commercial software is theft and hoarding. I write free software to end this evil.'' A moderately anticommercial person might say ``Commercial software in general is OK because programmers deserve to get paid, but companies that coast on shoddy products and throw their weight around are evil.'' An un-anticommercial person might say ``Commercial software is okay, I just use and/or write open-source software because I like it better''. (Nowadays, given the growth of the open-source part of the industry since the first public version of this essay, one might also hear ``Commercial software is fine, as long as I get the source or it does what I want it to do.'')

All nine of the attitudes implied by the cross-product of the categories mentioned earlier are represented in the open-source culture. It is worthwhile to point out the distinctions because they imply different agendas, and different adaptive and cooperative behaviors.

Historically, the most visible and best-organized part of the hacker culture has been both very zealous and very anticommercial. The Free Software Foundation founded by Richard M. Stallman (RMS) supported a great deal of open-source development from the early 1980s forward, including tools like Emacs and GCC which are still basic to the Internet open-source world, and seem likely to remain so for the forseeable future.

For many years the FSF was the single most important focus of open-source hacking, producing a huge number of tools still critical to the culture. The FSF was also long the only sponsor of open source with an institutional identity visible to outside observers of the hacker culture. They effectively defined the term `free software', deliberately giving it a confrontational weight (which the newer label `open source' just as deliberately avoids).

Thus, perceptions of the hacker culture from both within and without it tended to identify the culture with the FSF's zealous attitude and perceived anticommercial aims. RMS himself denies he is anticommercial, but his program has been so read by most people, including many of his most vocal partisans. The FSF's vigorous and explicit drive to ``Stamp Out Software Hoarding!'' became the closest thing to a hacker ideology, and RMS the closest thing to a leader of the hacker culture.

The FSF's license terms, the ``General Public License'' (GPL), expresses the FSF's attitudes. It is very widely used in the open-source world. North Carolina's Metalab (formerly Sunsite) is the largest and most popular software archive in the Linux world. In July 1997 about half the Sunsite software packages with explicit license terms used GPL.

But the FSF was never the only game in town. There was always a quieter, less confrontational and more market-friendly strain in the hacker culture. The pragmatists were loyal not so much to an ideology as to a group of engineering traditions founded on early open-source efforts which predated the FSF. These traditions included, most importantly, the intertwined technical cultures of Unix and the pre-commercial Internet.

The typical pragmatist attitude is only moderately anticommercial, and its major grievance against the corporate world is not `hoarding' per se. Rather it is that world's perverse refusal to adopt superior approaches incorporating Unix and open standards and open-source software. If the pragmatist hates anything, it is less likely to be `hoarders' in general than the current King Log of the software establishment; formerly IBM, now Microsoft.

To pragmatists the GPL is important as a tool, rather than as an end in itself. Its main value is not as a weapon against `hoarding', but as a tool for encouraging software sharing and the growth of bazaar-modebazaar-mode development communities. The pragmatist values having good tools and toys more than he dislikes commercialism, and may use high-quality commercial software without ideological discomfort. At the same time, his open-source experience has taught him standards of technical quality that very little closed software can meet.

For many years, the pragmatist point of view expressed itself within the hacker culture mainly as a stubborn current of refusal to completely buy into the GPL in particular or the FSF's agenda in general. Through the 1980s and early 1990s, this attitude tended to be associated with fans of Berkeley Unix, users of the BSD license, and the early efforts to build open-source Unixes from the BSD source base. These efforts, however, failed to build bazaar communities of significant size, and became seriously fragmented and ineffective.

Not until the Linux explosion of early 1993–1994 did pragmatism find a real power base. Although Linus Torvalds never made a point of opposing RMS, he set an example by looking benignly on the growth of a commercial Linux industry, by publicly endorsing the use of high-quality commercial software for specific tasks, and by gently deriding the more purist and fanatical elements in the culture.

A side effect of the rapid growth of Linux was the induction of a large number of new hackers for which Linux was their primary loyalty and the FSF's agenda primarily of historical interest. Though the newer wave of Linux hackers might describe the system as ``the choice of a GNU generation'', most tended to emulate Torvalds more than Stallman.

Increasingly it was the anticommercial purists who found themselves in a minority. How much things had changed would not become apparent until the Netscape announcement in February 1998 that it would distribute Navigator 5.0 in source. This excited more interest in `free software' within the corporate world. The subsequent call to the hacker culture to exploit this unprecedented opportunity and to re-label its product from `free software' to `open source' was met with a level of instant approval that surprised everybody involved.

In a reinforcing development, the pragmatist part of the culture was itself becoming polycentric by the mid-1990s. Other semi-independent communities with their own self-consciousness and charismatic leaders began to bud from the Unix/Internet root stock. Of these, the most important after Linux was the Perl culture under Larry Wall. Smaller, but still significant, were the traditions building up around John Osterhout's Tcl and Guido van Rossum's Python languages. All three of these communities expressed their ideological independence by devising their own, non-GPL licensing schemes.