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18 January 2011, 09:25

In defence of hackers and open source

by Glyn Moody

One of the reasons that I regard the rise of WikiLeaks as such a key event is that it is throwing an interesting light on so many areas – many of them unexpected. That includes the ethics of hackers and the world of open source.

These were probed and found wanting recently in an entertaining article by Jaron Lanier. In case you missed his main claims to fame, here's what the other Wiki*, Wikipedia, has to say on him:

Jaron Zepel Lanier (born May 3, 1960) pronounced /ˈdʒɛərɨn lɨˈnɪər/ is an American computer scientist, composer, visual artist, and author. He made an experimental film in the past, but does not consider himself a film maker. In the early 1980s he popularized the term "Virtual Reality" (VR) for a field in which he was a pioneer. At that time, he founded VPL Research, the first company to sell VR products. His current appointments include Interdisciplinary Scholar-in-Residence, CET, UC Berkeley. In 2010, he was named to the TIME 100 list of most influential people.

His essay is entitled “The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks”, which gives you a flavour of his views on both. I think its main argument about WikiLeaks is fundamentally flawed, as I've written elsewhere, but here I want to concentrate on his sideswipes at hackers and openness.

His criticism departs from a promising starting-point: being around for a seminal meeting that ultimately, Lanier claims, led to the creation of WikiLeaks:

Wikileaks grew out of a forum hosted by John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I almost became one of the founders of EFF as well. I was at the founding meeting, a meal in San Francisco's Mission District with John, John Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor. What kept me out of EFF was a sudden feeling – at that very meal – that something was going wrong.

He goes on to explain his concern:

There was a fascination with using encryption to make hackers potentially as powerful as governments, and that disturbed me. I could feel the surge of ego: We hackers could change history. But if there's one lesson of history, it is that seeking power doesn't change the world. You need to change yourself along with the world. Civil disobedience is a spiritual discipline as much as anything else.

But this is where I think he starts to go off the rails: hackers don't “seek power”. They may have some power as a result of what they do, but that's just a by-product. By definition, hackers hack because they love hacking: it's “l'art pour l'art” for the 21st century. Of course, it's true that for Richard Stallman and his supporters, hacking also has a highly moral purpose – bringing freedom to people. But again, they do not “seek power”: they want to give, not take.

Towards the end of his piece, Lanier writes:

I used to think that an open world would favor the honest and the true, and disfavor the schemers and the scammers. In moderation this idea has some value, but if privacy were to be vanquished, people would initially become dull, then incompetent, and then cease to exist. Hidden in the idea of radical openness is an allegiance to machines instead of people.

Again, we have a completely unjustified assumption: “if privacy were to be vanquished”. I don't believe many hackers have called for “privacy to be vanquished” (in fact, I can't think of any, offhand). There's a conflation here of “openness” and “lack of privacy”, when they are different (although openness certainly does have implications for privacy – but that's not the same as equating the former with the absence of the latter).

This tendency to create strawmen and to veer wildly off-topic is not new for Lanier. A good example is his previous high-profile rollicking of all things open, “Digital Maoism”. Here's the section where he deals with open source:

Here I must take a moment to comment on Linux and similar efforts. The various formulations of "open" or "free" software are different from the Wikipedia and the race to be most Meta in important ways. Linux programmers are not anonymous and in fact personal glory is part of the motivational engine that keeps such enterprises in motion. But there are similarities, and the lack of a coherent voice or design sensibility in an esthetic sense is one negative quality of both open source software and the Wikipedia.

These movements are at their most efficient while building hidden information plumbing layers, such as Web servers. They are hopeless when it comes to producing fine user interfaces or user experiences. If the code that ran the Wikipedia user interface were as open as the contents of the entries, it would churn itself into impenetrable muck almost immediately. The collective is good at solving problems which demand results that can be evaluated by uncontroversial performance parameters, but it is bad when taste and judgment matter.

Next: The objective benefits of open source

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