The Problem of Ego

At the beginning of this essay I mentioned that the unconscious adaptive knowledge of a culture is often at odds with its conscious ideology. We've seen one major example of this already in the fact that Lockean ownership customs have been widely followed despite the fact that they violate the stated intent of the standard licenses.

I have observed another interesting example of this phenomenon when discussing the reputation-game analysis with hackers. This is that many hackers resisted the analysis and showed a strong reluctance to admit that their behavior was motivated by a desire for peer repute or, as I incautiously labeled it at the time, `ego satisfaction'.

This illustrates an interesting point about the hacker culture. It consciously distrusts and despises egotism and ego-based motivations; self-promotion tends to be mercilessly criticized, even when the community might appear to have something to gain from it. So much so, in fact, that the culture's `big men' and tribal elders are required to talk softly and humorously deprecate themselves at every turn in order to maintain their status. How this attitude meshes with an incentive structure that apparently runs almost entirely on ego cries out for explanation.

A large part of it, certainly, stems from the generally negative Europo-American attitude towards `ego'. The cultural matrix of most hackers teaches them that desiring ego satisfaction is a bad (or at least immature) motivation; that ego is at best an eccentricity tolerable only in prima donnas and often an actual sign of mental pathology. Only sublimated and disguised forms like ``peer repute'', ``self-esteem'', ``professionalism'' or ``pride of accomplishment'' are generally acceptable.

I could write an entire other essay on the unhealthy roots of this part of our cultural inheritance, and the astonishing amount of self-deceptive harm we do by believing (against all the evidence of psychology and behavior) that we ever have truly `selfless' motives. Perhaps I would, if Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Ayn Rand had not already done an entirely competent job (whatever their other failings) of deconstructing `altruism' into unacknowledged kinds of self-interest.

But I am not doing moral philosophy or psychology here, so I will simply observe one minor kind of harm done by the belief that ego is evil, which is this: it has made it emotionally difficult for many hackers to consciously understand the social dynamics of their own culture!

But we are not quite done with this line of investigation. The surrounding culture's taboo against visibly ego-driven behavior is so much intensified in the hacker (sub)culture that one must suspect it of having some sort of special adaptive function for hackers. Certainly the taboo is weaker (or nonexistent) among many other gift cultures, such as the peer cultures of theater people or the very wealthy.