Freedom Digital Library

Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
I.5 | Contents | I.7

I.6. The Hacker Tribe

As mentioned in the Prologue, Daniel Quinn cites the circus as an example of a contemporary tribe that functions effectively within the environment created by civilization.1 I would like to suggest another, more spectacular and globe-girdling example: the free software / open-source community, or the tribe of hackers.2

Contents of this section:

The Real Meaning of Hacker
Hackers, by the way, are justifiably irritated by the pejorative and erroneous spin the "meanstream press" have attached to their chosen sobriquet. Just to set the record straight, a hacker is authoritatively defined as

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value. 4. A person who is good at programming quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in "a Unix hacker". (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.) 6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 8. [depreciated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The term "hacker" also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net.... It also implies that the person described is seen to subscribe to some version of the ... hacker ethic.

It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe oneself that way. Hackers consider themselves something of an elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new members are gladly welcome. There is thus a certain ego satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled bogus).3

Hackers invented, built, and populate the World Wide Web.4 Hackers have "reverse-engineered" the proprietary computer operating system Unix, originally developed by Bell Labs hackers Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, and have given to the world the free / open-source GNU / Linux operating system which practically runs the Internet today, and is probably more powerful, functional, stable and cost-effective, than any proprietary operating system now available for the expanding global population of personal computer users.

In The Cathedral & the Bazaar5 Eric Raymond provides considerable insight into the particulars of hacker culture, as well as a penetrating analysis of the astonishing success of the "bazaar style of software development" exemplified by the rise of Linux; in comparison to the "cathedral style" of proprietary software development. I submit that valuable lessons may be learned from a study of these disclosures, and that they are applicable to a far wider field than that of pure software development.

In particular, the global hacker tribe have demonstrated a remarkable agility in dealing with civilization, not by opposing it, but by doing, on an expanding and accelerating scale, essentially what I am advocating in this work, i.e. fomenting metaconsciousness. It is, in fact, "written into" the hacker ethic, which Raymond defines as:

1. The belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good [emphasis added], and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing free software and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible. 2. The belief that system-cracking for fun and exploration is ethically OK as long as the cracker commits no theft, vandalism, or breach of confidentiality.

Both of these normative ethical principles are widely, but by no means universally, accepted among hackers. Most hackers subscribe to the hacker ethic in sense 1, and many act on it by writing and giving away free software. A few go further and assert that all information should be free and any proprietary control of it is bad; this is the philosophy behind the GNU project.6

Sense 2 is more controversial: some people consider the act of cracking itself to be unethical, like breaking and entering. But the belief that 'ethical' cracking excludes destruction at least moderates the behavior of people who see themselves as 'benign' crackers.... On this view, it may be one of the highest forms of hackerly courtesy to (a) break into a system, and then (b) explain to the sysop, preferably by email from a superuser account, exactly how it was done and how the hole can be plugged – acting as an unpaid (and unsolicited) tiger team.

The most reliable manifestation of either version of the hacker ethic is that almost all hackers are actively willing to share technical tricks, software, and (where possible) computing resources with other hackers. Huge cooperative networks such as Usenet, FidoNet and Internet ... can function without central control because of this trait; they both rely on and reinforce a sense of community that may be hackerdom's most valuable intangible asset.7

Raymond's analysis of the utility of open-source8 software is careful to step around the "ideological" proposition that "information should be non-proprietary." Whether it "should" or "shouldn't," there are qualitative pros and cons that have "real-world" impact upon a product's utility, and these have been widely misunderstood.

For example, the idea behind making a creative work proprietary is ostensibly to deny one's competitors the ability to duplicate and profit from the work at its author's expense. One can see the thing from the author's point of view. A manufacturer, for instance, usually does not welcome a competitor selling the same product under a different brand name, especially when he, the original manufacturer, made the investment necessary to develop the product and bring it to market. One can appreciate how such a person might reasonably take measures to keep his product proprietary and exclusive to himself and his designated (paying) licensees.

There are important differences, however, between software, and possibly of other kinds of information, and "manufactured goods." Contrary to widespread belief, software developers do not primarily manufacture software: they provide a service. Their service only begins with the acquisition of a software product by a client. In order to keep the client happy, the developer must maintain the product, make it as adaptable as possible to the client's unique needs, repair its flaws (debug the program), and provide enhancements and improvements throughout the useful lifetime of the product. A developer who conscientiously and reliably provides these services will out-perform a developer who does not. Such services can be time-consuming and costly, however, and if the developer treats his product as a manufactured good seeking a one-time sale, he may loose in the long run to his competitor who operates on the basis of a different model, other factors being equal.

The "bazaar style of software development" has turned out to have been such a "different model;" as opposed to the "cathedral style," which treats software, in part, as a manufactured good for sale. In 1991 a Finnish hacker named Linus Torvalds began work on a non-proprietary clone of the Unix kernel for Intel 386 processors. At the time, nobody had dreamed that a lone hacker, or even a team of hackers, could produce anything as complex as the kernel – the heart, the very core – of a functional operating system. Such "high end" projects, it was universally believed, could only be successfully developed by well-organized teams of highly trained professionals – which of course could only be assembled in the milieu of hierarchically structured corporate entities. Linus's project, however, attracted the voluntary participation of large numbers of other hackers, just because it was so cool, and by the end of 1993 Linux was competitive in reliability and stability with many proprietary Unix flavors, and supported an enormously larger software base – including even some commercial applications.

What was happening, and has continued to happen, was the synergistic convergence of a highly appealing project among hackers, with the sudden emergence of the Internet into the "mainstream" via the World Wide Web. This brought to bear the creative ingenuity of thousands of relatively isolated hackers from around the world, and the "impossible" emerged as the increasingly functional and robust "free software" product, GNU / Linux.9

From nearly the beginning [Raymond writes], [Linux] was rather casually hacked on by huge numbers of volunteers coordinating only through the Internet. Quality was maintained not by rigid standards or autocracy but by the naively simple strategy of releasing every week and getting feedback from hundreds of users within days, creating a sort of rapid Darwinian selection on the mutations introduced by developers. To the amazement of almost everyone, this worked quite well.10

No one was more thoroughly flabbergasted by the performance of the GNU / Linux operating system than longstanding GNU hacker Eric Raymond.

Linux overturned much of what I thought I knew [he writes]. I had been preaching the Unix gospel of small tools, rapid prototyping and evolutionary programming for years. But I also believed there was a certain critical complexity above which a more centralized, a priori approach was required. I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

Linus Torvalds's style of development – release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity – came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here – rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, which would take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock. As I learned my way around, I worked hard not just at individual projects, but also at trying to understand why the Linux world not only didn't fly apart in confusion, but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.11

Accordingly, Raymond undertook the ethnological study of how the hacker tribe that formed around Linux actually worked. Raymond wrote up his four-year analysis in a paper titled "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," first delivered publicly in May, 1997, at the Linux Kongress in Bavaria, and reproduced in his book of the same title.12

The hacker tribe greeted Raymond's analysis with thunderous applause, for he had given them an image of themselves, and a picture of what they were doing, and its significance, of which they themselves had been virtually unaware. The real kicker came eight months later, however, when Netscape Communications, Inc. announced their decision to go open-source with their line of Netscape browsers; and their CEO Jim Barksdale was citing Raymond's paper to the media as the "fundamental inspiration" for their decision.

This was the event [Raymond writes] that commentators in the computer trade press would later call "the shot heard 'round the world" – and Barksdale had cast me as its Thomas Paine, whether I wanted the role or not. For the first time in the history of the hacker culture a Fortune 500 darling of Wall Street had bet its future on the belief that our way was right. And, more specifically, that my analysis of 'our way' was right.13

Well, good on Eric Raymond! Yet he was sobered by the implications of the fact that someone from the heart of the "mainstream" had gone out on a limb to follow the path through the jungle being hacked by the hacker tribe. Up front, it looked like a big feather in the hacker cap – but what if Netscape's gambit failed? This was a significant possibility, for the colossus and prototypical "cathedral-builder" Microsoft had marked Netscape down for its prey; and victory for Microsoft in this contest would not do the hackers one bit of good.

As we'll be seeing in greater depth in a moment, Microsoft's strategy has been to box their market exclusively into reliance upon Microsoft products by "embracing and extending" universal protocols in such a way as to turn them into de facto Microsoft protocols – so that only Microsoft proprietary software can use them. This is exactly counter to the original intent of Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the HTTP and HTML protocols which support the World Wide Web;14 and it is anathema to hacker culture.

For Netscape [Raymond writes], the issue was less about browser-related income (never more than a small fraction of their revenues) than maintaining a safe space for their much more valuable server business. If Microsoft's Internet Explorer achieved market dominance, Microsoft would be able to bend the Web's protocols away from open standards and into proprietary channels that only Microsoft's servers would be able to service.15

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Street-Smart Savvy
The success of the Netscape open-source initiative was suddenly intertwined with the success, and possibly even the survival of the hacker tribe. In response, Raymond became a Netscape consultant in February, 1998, for the purpose of developing a strategy for bringing success to their initiative. He describes some of the elements of that strategy, along with ancillary measures he and other hackers took to broaden the appeal of what in consequence became widely known as the Open Source movement.16

What the hackers had been producing had mostly gone under the name Free Software,17 following the pioneering work of Richard Stallman18, founder of the GNU Project.19 In the present instance, however, a number of elements emerged as crucial to the success of the Netscape initiative, and crucial to the expansion of the momentary beachhead thereby established for the hacker tribe:

  1. In order to succeed, the products and methods of the hackers – essentially the GNU / Linux operating system – must be perceived positively by the big fish in the "mainstream," specifically by the captains of industry in the domain of software development among the Fortune 500.

  2. In order to accomplish this, it was essential that GNU / Linux be represented favorably in that segment of the press that is particularly influential among the Fortune 500: specifically, the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, and Barron's.

  3. Parallel education of the hacker tribe, particularly in the tactics of guerrilla marketing, was also seen as essential.

  4. To these ends, the term "Open Source" was adopted, and tied as a standard of certification to the Open Source Definition, which was adapted in turn from the Debian Free Software Guidelines.20

Whether deserved or not, "Free Software" had acquired an association in the popular and trade press as representing hostility to proprietary information in general, and consequently to the interests of the very decision-makers it was now seen as crucial to impress favorably. Additionally, the ambiguity of the word "Free" ("Think 'free speech,' not 'free beer'," explains Stallman) was seen as introducing an element of confusion where clarity was essential. Accordingly, the above initiatives were taken by Netscape and Raymond, and found swift cooperation among large segments of the hacker tribe, including Linus Torvalds, Tim O'Reilly, and Tim's O'Reilly & Associates, a major publisher of hacker manuals.

The immediate objective was to take advantage of the window of opportunity opened by Netscape's decision to go open-source with their browsers, and achieve a foothold of "legitimacy" in "mainstream" perceptions for GNU / Linux, and for the "bazaar style" of software development. If other "mainstream" major players, besides Netscape, could be persuaded to follow suit and similarly adopt some elements of the "bazaar style," and / or port their software to Linux, this would go a long way toward securing a kind of "homeland" for the hacker tribe.

Time was of the essence. You can hold a publicity campaign together only so long before it starts going stale. If you can't achieve tangible results within that time frame, the "window of opportunity" closes, and you're back at "square one," or worse. In the event, Corel Computer announced their Linux-based Netwinder network computer in May, and the database giants Oracle and Informix ported their products to Linux in July. After that, software vendors began porting to Linux on a routine basis. Between July and November, meanwhile, the targeted financial press began to come on-stream with steady coverage, initiated by a piece in The Economist, and a cover story in Forbes, and the perceived solidity of GNU / Linux steadily climbed.21

Conversely, the prototypical "cathedral style" software giant Microsoft began taking increasing alarm at the performance of GNU / Linux, and commenced measures to combat the growing menace. This is documented by what have become widely known as "The Halloween Documents,"22 internal Microsoft memoranda, leaked to Eric Raymond by a Microsoft insider, and immediately published on the Open Source site. They are long, arcane, and prolix; and Raymond's pithy annotations add to their length. They are well worth reading nevertheless, because they provide a unique window into an historical phenomenon from an unintentionally candid point of view, and provide insight into the rich contrasts between the "cathedral" and "bazaar" mentalities. They are also possibly the most eloquent advertisements ever penned for the GNU / Linux operating system, and the "bazaar style" of software development.

Publication of The Halloween Documents breathed new life into the open-source campaign with an explosive resurgence of press coverage, and gave Microsoft a very public black eye by confirming the worst suspicions of Microsoft critics about the lengths to which they were willing to go – or at least consider – in dealing with their competition. The publicly disclosed Microsoft memoranda confirmed, among other things, that the essential long-term strategy at Microsoft was to "de-commoditize" standard protocols – which is an arcane way of saying that Microsoft deliberately "embraces and extends" standard protocols in ways that render them inaccessible to any but Microsoft programmers. Here is a quote from Halloween Document I:

De-commoditize protocols & applications

OSS [an acronym for "Open Source Software"] projects have been able to gain a foothold in many server applications because of the wide utility of highly commoditized, simple protocols. By extending these protocols and developing new protocols, we can deny OSS projects entry into the market.

David Stutz makes a very good point: in competing with Microsoft's level of desktop integration, "commodity protocols actually become the means of integration" for OSS projects. There is a large amount of IQ being expended in various IETF working groups which are quickly creating the architectural model for integration for these OSS projects.23

To which Raymond adds the following annotation:

In other words, open protocols must be locked up and the IETF24 crushed in order to "de-commoditize protocols & applications" and stop open-source software.

A former Microserf adds: only half of the reason MS sends people to the W3C working groups relates to a desire to improve RFC standards. The other half is to give MS a sneak peak at upcoming standards so they can "extend" them in advance and claim that the 'official' standard is 'obsolete' when it emerges around the same time as their 'extension'.25

Or as Raymond puts it elsewhere, "No wonder hackers often refer to Microsoft's strategy as 'protocol pollution'; they are reacting exactly like farmers watching someone poison the river they water their crops with!"26

Microsoft is thus a typically civilized outfit, neither better nor worse than countless other civilized organizations at perpetual war with every entity on Earth not cooperative with their agendas of exploitation, plunder, and control. It is a story as old as civilization itself, told and retold in endless variety, yet always to the same catastrophic effect: "Roll over and play dead, or we'll destroy you!"

The truly remarkable story here is the story of the hacker tribe, which possibly for the first time in five thousand years exhibits signs of having the street-smart savvy required to stand up to civilization, and thrive in the face of its most vicious predations. The story hasn't entirely played out, yet the signs to date are propitious.

This performance is extraordinary. I believe it is a straw in the wind – at least – and may indicate a major sea change in the course of human events.

The point of all this – in case you may have mislaid the thread of the discussion – is: given that civilization doesn't work and is sweeping all entangled in its coils over the Cataract and into the Abyss, the most urgent "mission – for those who choose to accept it," and wish to avoid the catastrophic destiny of civilization, is to find a way to higher ground, entirely away from the "mainstream." In general, as already discussed, the way away from civilization, must lie among the patterns of the tribe, which have evolved over the course of millions of years, and work very well – in most circumstances. The patterns of pre-civilized tribes have not worked very well, however, when confronted by civilization itself, and have been routinely destroyed or crippled wherever they have been found by civilized peoples. The performance to date of the hacker tribe exhibits indications of being a possible exception to this five-thousand-year-old rule. Accordingly, I speculate that the bazaar style of software development pioneered by the hacker tribe may represent a straw in the wind pointing a viable way to higher ground for those who have reached the point of decision to walk away, if possible, from civilization.

Here, our path diverges, in a sense, from that of Eric Raymond – not due to disagreement, but due only to a difference of emphasis. Raymond is a hacker, and his primary concern is quite properly the evolution of the hacker tribe and the "bazaar style" of software development. I am not a hacker, and my primary concern is with the survival and ongoing evolution of the human experiment on Earth. The two are entirely compatible, yet are not entirely congruent.

I expect the open-source movement to have essentially won its point about software within three to five years [Raymond wrote]. Once that is accomplished, and the results have been manifest for a while, they will become part of the background culture of non-programmers. At that point it will become more appropriate to try to leverage open-source insights in wider domains.27

It has been "three to five years" or so since Raymond wrote those words, and perhaps now is the time to begin applying "open-source insights in wider domains." And perhaps it is also appropriate that this be undertaken largely by non-hackers. The question on the agenda paper then becomes, "What elements, if any, of hacker culture in general, and of the 'bazaar style' of software development in particular, are applicable to circumstances outside the domain of software development?"

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Lessons From the Bazaar
Eric Raymond points out an interesting incongruity in the open-source movement between their stated ethos and their actual practice. According to to the Open Source Definition, and to software licenses compliant with it, such as the GNU General Public License,28 as Raymond puts it, "anyone can hack anything. Nothing prevents half a dozen different people from taking any given open-source product ..., duplicating the sources, running off with them in different evolutionary directions, claiming to be the product."29 This particular form of "promiscuity" – sanctioned by (alleged) consensus, and by the letter of OSD-compliant licenses – is called "forking," and is almost never done in hacker practice. The real consensus among the hacker tribe, as disclosed in actual practice, adheres to a much more "puritanical" ethic, and certain taboos are rarely if ever violated.

In particular, ownership of an open-source project is treated as sacred among hackers. Because software is not a "manufactured good," but an ongoing service to its clients, an open-source project has a dynamic evolutionary life, potentially involving the creative input of many hackers over the course of the project's lifetime. "The owner(s) of a software project," Raymond writes, "are those who have the exclusive right, recognized by the community at large, to re-distribute modified versions."30 A project owner, "recognized by the community at large," may be an individual or a group, and may acquire project ownership in one of three ways:

  1. Originate the project;
  2. Be publicly named as successor by the project's previous owner;
  3. Assume ownership of an orphaned project.

The first of these is obviously rock-solid, and is universally recognized as such. The second is sometimes necessitated by the owner's inability or loss of interest in the project necessary to sustain the responsibilities of ownership. In such cases it is incumbent upon the owner to find a competent successor to carry on project ownership, maintenance, and oversight. The third possibility may occur when an individual or group of hackers take an interest in a project which has no evident or active owner.

In the latter case, elaborate measures are taken, first if possible, to locate the project owner, or failing that, to establish among the community that the project really has no owner, and that the hacker(s) taking an interest in the project are competent to resuscitate and support it. This may take some time, to allow every opportunity for the real owner to surface, and / or for any contention to the proposal to be brought forward and publicly aired. And even at that, the tribe may reserve judgment on the new owner until he, she, or they have significantly improved the project from the wellspring of their own creativity. The same may be true even of a publicly anointed successor to an open-source project.

Meanwhile, there is no taboo against privately (i.e. not for public distribution) modifying and recompiling the source of an open-source distribution for the purpose of adapting it to a particular computing environment, or giving it customized capabilities for a specific task. This is what open-source software is for.

These measures, universally adhered to by members of the hacker tribe, are not "required by law," i.e. by the Open Source Definition; yet they are given universal respect and observance by the tribe. Why is this?

Raymond suggests that these practices have evolved among the hacker tribe at least over the extended period he has personally observed them, and that they have much in common with parallel practices that have similarly evolved in entirely different contexts. He observes that these customs have evolved over time, they have done so in a consistent direction. That direction has been to encourage more public accountability, more public notice, and more care about preserving the credits and change histories of projects in ways which (among other things) establish the legitimacy of the present owners.

These features suggest that the customs are not accidental, but are products of some implicit agenda or generative pattern in the open-source culture that is utterly fundamental to its operation.31

I submit that these customs, peculiar to the hacker tribe, have evolved in the way they have because they work. And they consequently have much in common with social patterns that have similarly evolved throughout the entire spectrum of Life. They also have much in common with the so-called "Golden Rule,"32 and with the version of it that I have repeated many times elsewhere,

  1. Do whatever you like;
  2. Allow all others the same liberty.

No one wants to have their project ripped off or "forked" by a rogue hacker; and so – no one in the hacker tribe does this. And any that do may be quickly labeled a loser, bogus, or worse,33 throughout the tribe. The same dynamic manifests in naturally occurring social organizations of all kinds. The fish that joins a school, or the bird that joins a flock, and habitually bumps into those around it, doesn't remain long "in school." Conversely, the fish is part of the school, the bird is part of the flock, the elk is part of the herd, the wolf is part of the pack, the hacker is part of the tribe... because of the advantages thereby afforded to each individual member of the social organism. These advantages are highly valued, and this value is preserved to the extent it is honored by each individual.

This suggests to me the broader generalization that participants in social communities of all kinds are naturally guided by the invisible, always-everywhere presence of the metaconsciousness that occupies the nonlocal, nonlinear interstices among "All Things" – if we allow it; and that dominator civilization doesn't work largely because dominator civilization does not allow this natural fluidity to take its metaconscious course. Dominator civilization has hardened around the inflexible consensus that there is only one right way to live – which is why civilizations have been abandoned by their builders in the past, and why we must abandon civilization today, if any of us are to survive and carry the human experiment beyond civilization.

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How Do They Do It?
Yet the open-source hacker tribe evidently thrive within the civilized milieu – something that tribes for the past five thousand years have consistently failed to do. How do the hackers do it?

They do it for the most part not by fighting the "cathedral-builders" – although they have the street-smart savvy not to take any wooden nickels from them either – but by pursuing their "bazaar-style" inclinations just for the fun of it, because hacking is what they like to do best. They are self-selected, and each hacker works on the project of his or her choice. There is no hierarchy, no one makes "assignments" for anyone but him or herself, and there is no supervision, or effort at "quality control," as is found among the "cathedral-builders." The peer review and dynamic consensus of thousands of other hackers covers all these allegedly "necessary" components of the "cathedral style."

Some of the lessons that we, who would walk away from civilization, may take from the tribe of hackers, are to

  1. Do whatever you like;
  2. Allow all others the same liberty;
  3. Allow no one to preempt your liberty;
  4. Take full and exclusive responsibility for your decisions, and their consequences;
  5. Produce something valued by others;
  6. Remain unattached to your work.

Mainly, allowance, liberty, and responsibility are inseparable compliments; one cannot exist without the others. Dominator civilization provides neither allowance nor liberty, and is a deliberate mechanism for evading responsibility. Even the pharaohs, for whom, and by whom dominator civilization was created, are without real liberty themselves, all their plundered wealth and so-called "power" notwithstanding; for their tenuous and ultimately unsustainable position is parasitically dependent upon the functioning of sustainable social systems – which they suicidally hunt down and disable or destroy, a) because they must plunder them to sustain themselves, and b) because they cannot otherwise control them, and feel consequently threatened by them. Similarly, the supreme "cathedral-builder" in the software domain has (so far without success) attempted to sabotage, stifle, and destroy the Open Source Software movement – not by producing an honestly superior product line, but by preempting and polluting the open protocols upon which the open-source market depends. This is not competition: this is war, the underlying foundation and final bulwark of dominator civilizations everywhere.

The greatest lesson from the the bazaar, it seems to me, is this: There are alternatives to "rolling over and playing dead" when confronted by preemptive force, or war, or civilization. Let us explore this line of thought further.

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Alternatives to "Rolling Over and Playing Dead"
The tribe of hackers is not a tribe of "revolutionaries." Their primary objective is not to "change the world" – although that seems to be one of the outcomes of what they naturally do. Mainly, hackers like to hack; so that is what they do. Further, early in the gestation of what has become the hacker tribe, there developed a widespread ethic of sharing their individual creativity; i.e. sharing their code. In my vocabulary, this is a prototypical example of fomenting metaconsciousness. To have one's code adapted into a different application – with attribution – became a badge of honor, in one's self-image, and in the view of one's peers. "Theft" of "intellectual property" simply was not, and is not an issue among open-source hackers. Because hackers place a high value upon having their creativity adapted and shared (with attribution) in the works of their peers, they take scrupulous care to give full attribution to the authors of works they adapt into their own creative projects.

They treat their peers, in other words, as they themselves appreciate being treated. This reflects an attitude that is almost entirely unlike that found at large in civilization – notwithstanding all the lip-service paid in civilized societies to the so-called "Golden Rule." Hackers do not preach, "Do unto others as you would that they should do unto you." They practice it amongst themselves, and it works quite nicely. Civilization, on the other hand, in contrast to what they preach, practice an entirely different "Golden Rule:" "He who has the gold makes the rules."

I sift from these observations two lessons: a) the open-source ethic is a manifestation of a fundamentally altered state of mind34 from that which prevails in the "mainstream;" and b) it is evidently possible for such an "altered state" to emerge spontaneously in large numbers, and proliferate on a global scale. Nobody planned for this to happen; nobody "orchestrated" it, or lobbied for it, or organized a "movement" to bring it about. Richard Stallman35 became personally determined not to run proprietary software on his computers, and commenced developing Free Software alternatives. Linus Torvalds began hacking on an alternative to the proprietary Unix kernel; growing numbers of other hackers thought this was cool, and joined in the fun; and hay presto! GNU / Linux emerged as the best operating system on the market, and continues to improve. Meanwhile, Tim Berners-Lee developed a set of protocols for sharing information across diverse hardware and software computing platforms, and voilà! The World Wide Web. These are developments which have occurred during the past twenty years; and they have had a profound impact upon the conduct of human events during this almost instantaneous interval. These developments have occurred not because of civilization, but in spite of it – yet not in opposition to it.

Also, I think it important to mention that the universal behavior of the open-source hackers is not a product of "legislation." What has been in a sense "legislated" in the open-source community, and generally acknowledged as such, is the Open Source Definition; yet this is not a reflection of how hackers actually behave. They govern themselves significantly more strictly than "the law allows." This further confirms my conviction that human "legislation," upon which civilization allegedly relies to maintain "civil order," is actually superfluous, inconsequential, and is at best an encumbrance, not an aid, to the social dynamic.

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Metaconsciousness in Action
Now, it must be admitted that the idea of contemporary hackers constituting a tribe can be stretched only so far. Their culture and behavior have many elements in common with those of functional tribes in many other times and circumstances; yet few hackers, I speculate, would object to being described as "civilized," and many might object to being characterized otherwise. Most hackers live in cities, or on or near college or university campuses. They depend upon contemporary industry and technology for their lives, their sustenance, and even for their sense of who they are. They eat food, buy gasoline, rent rooms or have mortgages, just like "ordinary civilized folk," and I have not heard a deafening cry from the hackers that their number-one priority in life is to walk away from civilization. The hacker tribe exhibit their tribal qualities in an artificial "space" created by computers and telecommunications networks – a "noosphere," as Raymond terms it, and their ethics have evolved organically, in response to the peculiarities of hacker culture in its contemporary context, not in emulation of prehistoric or contemporary tribal patterns.

For all of these reasons, I find the hackers such an interesting and compelling example for those of us for whom walking away from civilization is a high priority. They did not deliberately set out to bring about their combined accomplishments. They simply did, individual by individual, what they individually wanted to do; each hacker "scratched his or her own itch," to borrow Raymond's metaphor. The emergence of the GNU / Linux operating system, and the amazing suite of highly functional software that runs on it, are what I would call a direct manifestation of "metaconsciousness in action;" and as mentioned earlier, the metaconsciousness of the group always transcends that of the individuals comprising the group. Individuals, in other words, are not necessarily conscious of the metaconscious agenda of the group in which they participate.

To illustrate, by contemplating an entirely different scale: what "conception" might a single neuron, or a synaptically-connected group of neurons, have of the creative experience of the human in whom they are participants? I do not pretend to know, yet I can imagine that a single neuron has very little "comprehension," at its scale, of the nervous system of which it is a part; and similarly, that we humans have very little comprehension of the metaconsciousness of which we are a part. That is why I can also imagine the metaconsciousness of civilization well advanced in the process of committing apoptosis, even while we individual "cells" wring our hands at the daily disclosures of contemporary events. Forgive us, for we really do not know what we are doing!

What I am suggesting, then, is not that the hacker "tribe" have found "the answer" of how to deal effectively with the human predicament, and have pioneered the path through the jungle which will conduct the rest of us, if we follow them, safely beyond civilization to higher ground. I am suggesting, rather, that they have developed an ethos, and a tribal practice which has demonstrated its effectiveness in the marketplace,36 and is in many ways quite distinct from the "mainstream" practices which prevail in civilized societies. The hackers have demonstrated an approach to life, work, and commerce that is strikingly distinguishable from "standard operating procedure" in the "mainstream," and have done so on a scale large enough to have made an unmistakable impact upon global commerce and human events. This is by no means "the end of the story," after which we are all assured of "living happily ever after." It is, however, a clear signal that there are alternatives, even at this late hour, to the "business as usual" approach offered by the "mainstream." And I am suggesting that we explore and develop these alternatives further, and apply them more broadly than the hackers have done in the specialized field of software development.

[Return to contents of this section.]


1. Quinn, 1999.

2. Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral & the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, O'Reilly, Beijing, Cambridge, Farnham, Köln, Paris, Sebastopol, Taipei, Tokyo, 1999.

3. The New Hacker's Dictionary, Third Edition, compiled by Eric S. Raymond, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England, 1996, 1998, pp. 233-4. Note that boldface words in reference to The New Hacker's Dictionary refer to entries in the Dictionary (also called the yellow book), on-line at

4. J. Harmon Grahn, "The World Wide Web," The New Paradigm, vol. III, #4, 1/26/2000.

5. Raymond, 1999. [on-line at].

6. The GNU project. It is also in approximate harmony with the philosophy behind the Freedom Digital Library. See our Draft Vision Statement, § 4.2, for elaboration. See also Martin, 1995. I'll add here the idea that any author is entitled by free choice to make his or her work proprietary, just as anyone is entitled to have and to keep secrets; and is conversely responsible to take whatever measures he or she can to keep it so. It is not properly incumbent upon any third party to keep an author's work proprietary, or to keep his secrets, absent explicit person-to-person agreement to do so – for the reason that all preemptively "legislated" obstructions to the free flow of information are by nature obstacles to the expansion of metaconsciousness, and are consequently stifling to the evolution of Life in Cosmos; and all Life is naturally entitled to defend itself from any entity or agency that threatens or stifles it.

7. Raymond, The New Hacker's Dictionary, pp.234-5.

8. See the Open Source Definition at

9. These developments are related in "A Brief History of Hackerdom" Raymond, 1999, pp. 23-5. "Linux" should most properly be called "GNU / Linux," as Linus built his kernel around the GNU system under development at the Free Sofware Foundation. And, by way of a hint to those who would number themselves among the hacker cognoscente, "Linux" should most properly be pronounced "Leenuks," in consistency with the way Linus pronounces his name: "Leenus," not "L eye nus."

10. "A Brief History of Hackerdom," Raymond, 1999, p. 24.

11. "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," Raymond, 1999, pp. 29-30.

12. Raymond, 1999, pp. 27-78.

13. "The Revenge of the Hackers," Raymond, 1999, p. 203.

14. Grahn, January 26, 2000.

15. "The Revenge of the Hackers," Raymond, 1999, p. 202.

16. The Open Source Definition resides on-line at

17. See

18. See

19. See

20. See Source: "The Revenge of the Hackers," Raymond, 1999, pp. 205-9.

21. Ibid., p. 214.

22. On-line at

23. Halloween Document I, boldface emphasis added.

24. The Internet Engineering Task Force.

25. Loc. cit.

26. "Homesteading the Noosphere," Raymond, 1999, p. 115.

27. "Beyond Software?," Raymond, 1999, p. 227.

28. See

29. "Homesteading the Noosphere," Raymond, 1999, p. 87.

30. Ibid., p. 89, emphasis in original.

31. Loc. cit., p. 92.

32. See "The Golden Rule Across Religions".

33. See The Yellow Book.

34. See The Integral Vision of Ken Wilber, ff., in section II.7 for extensive discussion of evolution into gradually higher stages and states of human consciousness.

35. Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU Project.

36. The sine qua non of "success" in the civilized world.

Metaconsciousness: Mythology for a Post-Civilized World
I.5 | Contents | I.7