The Joy of Hacking

In making this `reputation game' analysis, by the way, I do not mean to devalue or ignore the pure artistic satisfaction of designing beautiful software and making it work. Hackers all experience this kind of satisfaction and thrive on it. People for whom it is not a significant motivation never become hackers in the first place, just as people who don't love music never become composers.

So perhaps we should consider another model of hacker behavior in which the pure joy of craftsmanship is the primary motivation. This `craftsmanship' model would have to explain hacker custom as a way of maximizing both the opportunities for craftsmanship and the quality of the results. Does this conflict with or suggest different results than the reputation game model?

Not really. In examining the craftsmanship model, we come back to the same problems that constrain hackerdom to operate like a gift culture. How can one maximize quality if there is no metric for quality? If scarcity economics doesn't operate, what metrics are available besides peer evaluation? It appears that any craftsmanship culture ultimately must structure itself through a reputation game—and, in fact, we can observe exactly this dynamic in many historical craftsmanship cultures from the medieval guilds onwards.

In one important respect, the craftsmanship model is weaker than the `gift culture' model; by itself, it doesn't help explain the contradiction we began this essay with.

Finally, the craftsmanship motivation itself may not be psychologically as far removed from the reputation game as we might like to assume. Imagine your beautiful program locked up in a drawer and never used again. Now imagine it being used effectively and with pleasure by many people. Which dream gives you satisfaction?

Nevertheless, we'll keep an eye on the craftsmanship model. It is intuitively appealing to many hackers, and explains some aspects of individual behavior well enough [HT].

After I published the first version of this essay on the Internet, an anonymous respondent commented: ``You may not work to get reputation, but the reputation is a real payment with consequences if you do the job well.'' This is a subtle and important point. The reputation incentives continue to operate whether or not a craftsman is aware of them; thus, ultimately, whether or not a hacker understands his own behavior as part of the reputation game, his behavior will be shaped by that game.

Other respondents related peer-esteem rewards and the joy of hacking to the levels above subsistence needs in Abraham Maslow's well-known `hierarchy of values' model of human motivation [MH]. On this view, the joy of hacking fulfills a self-actualization or transcendence need, which will not be consistently expressed until lower-level needs (including those for physical security and for `belongingness' or peer esteem) have been at least minimally satisfied. Thus, the reputation game may be critical in providing a social context within which the joy of hacking can in fact become the individual's primary motive.