The Hacker Movement as a Continuation of Labour Struggle

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In this article, we propose that the history of labour struggle is continued in the hacker movement--for example, in the case of employees who crash their employers' computer equipment. Framing the discussion in this way highlights the kinship between the tradition of machine breaking in labour conflicts and hackers who break into corporate servers or write viruses. (1) But this connection is also valid for the hackers engaged in developing free software and open source software (FOSS)--and indeed, we are mainly concerned with the activity of the latter group.

Advocates of 'open source' tend to portray its development model as a neutral advancement of the method for developing software that leads to better technologies. (2) In support of their claim, they can point to the wide adoption of FOSS applications by the computer industry. For instance, the dominant server software and scripting language on the worldwide web are the Apache HTTP server (Netcraft, 2008) and the PHP programming language (Hughes, 2002). Linux runs on more architectures and devices than any other operating system today (Kroah-Hartman, 2006); Sendmail is responsible for routing the majority of email messages; BIND is indisputably the most widely used DNS server; and even the world wide web itself (3) is free software. Due to the terms under which these products are distributed, they are available for everyone to use, modify, redistribute and sell--that is, redistribute for a price.

The motivation of hackers for writing software and giving it away for free is one of the most widely debated topics among academics studying the hacker movement. Economists try to square this behaviour of hackers with the assumption of the rational economic man. They assume that hackers hand out software for free in order to improve their reputation and thus employability in the future: that the monetary reward has just been postponed (Lerner & Tirole, 2002). But while this statement may describe a current trend in the computer underground, it fails to explain the motivation of hackers prior to the establishment of a market in FOSS products. Neither does the opportunity--cost model take into account hackers who spend their time on illegal activities such as writing viruses and cracking encryptions. When hackers are asked about their motives, they play down the economic incentives and point to the fun of writing software, often comparing the joy of writing free software with the toil of waged labour (Shah, 2006). (4)

In our view, the joy of participating in FOSS projects should be seen against the backdrop of alienated work relations. Hackers gear their labour power towards the use value of the software as opposed to its exchange value: free software is produced to he used, not to be sold. In FOSS projects, work is an end in itself rather than a means for something else. That is the deeper meaning of the common expression among hackers that they write code just to 'scratch their itch' (Raymond, 1999). In attempting to escape from alienated existence, the hacker movement has invented an alternative model for organising labour founded on the common ownership of the means of production, on volunteer participation and the principle of self-expression in work. It is this promise that lies at the heart of the politics of the hacker movement. The practice of 'hacking' indicates the distance between doing and wage labour I a claim that can be substantiated using concrete political gains. One example is that of strong encryption programmes like Pretty Good Privacy, which are made publicly available to prevent governments from eavesdropping on citizens. Another case is the surge of anonymous file-sharing networks that have encouraged mass defection from the intellectual property regime. (5) These systems would not have been possible had decisions over technology still been confined to market incentives, corporate hierarchies and government regulation. …


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