Thursday, July 29, 2004

Alabama Blind Boys See The Light

A Selection of Songs from the Alabama Blind Boys.

"The Blind Boys of Alabama first came to national attention in 1983, onstage during a production of The Gospel at Colonus, but they've been singing gospel music for more than 60 years.

Higher Ground, an album featuring a number of popular tunes they've converted to gospel, will be released this week. It's their 21st album in all, but only their second working with a full band.

As founding member Clarence Fountain tells Liane Hansen for Weekend Edition Sunday, mixing traditional gospel with contemporary music comes naturally to the Blind Boys. "Music is music," he says. Making gospel out of secular popular music is easy. "All you gotta do is keep the lines straight." By which he means, "clean it up."

For instance, on the Stevie Wonder-penned title tune, the Blind Boys simply made those lyrics written with a woman in mind apply instead to God. The record also features such popular tunes as "The Cross" by Prince and Aretha Franklin's 1970 hit "Spirit in the Dark" among other pop and traditional gospel songs.

On their 2001 album Spirit of the Century, the Blind Boys for the first time invited a full band to back them up. Their previous efforts, dating back to 1948, were either recorded a capella or featured spare instrumentation such as a single guitar. They kept the band for this album, and they once again invited some name musicians to the studio. Guitarist Ben Harper makes a return appearance, and for the first time, "sacred steel" guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph adds his talents to several tracks.

When Hansen asks what the Blind Boys learned from Randolph, Fountain points out that the singers are considerably older than the pedal-steel player, and that if anything, he learned from them. "I hope I taught him to beware," Fountain says. "(I told him), 'you're playing that steel guitar -- they'll have you over there in the rock and roll field, and you'll be done'."

Blind Boys of Alabama

The Blind Boys of Alabama

"Higher Ground" (Stevie Wonder)

"Wade in the Water" (Trad.)

"People Get Ready" (Curtis Mayfield)

Songs available from Higher Ground at NPR.

One of the Keenest Papers To Come Down the Pike in a Long Time

The Cultural and Spiritual Legacy of Fiat Inflation*

by J.G. Hülsmann

[From the Mises Daily Article July 28, 2004]

The notion that inflation is harmful is a staple of economic science. But most textbooks underrate the extent of the harm, because they define inflation much too narrowly as a lasting decrease of the purchasing power of money (PPM), and also because they pay scant attention to the concrete forms of inflation. To appreciate the disruptive nature of inflation in its full extent we must keep in mind that it springs from a violation of the fundamental rules of society.

Inflation is what happens when people increase the money supply by fraud, imposition, and breach of contract. Invariably it produces three characteristic consequences: (1) it benefits the perpetrators at the expense of all other money users; (2) it allows the accumulation of debt beyond the level debts could reach on the free market; and (3) it reduces the PPM below the level it would have reached on the free market.

While these three consequences are bad enough, things get much worse once inflation is encouraged and promoted by the state (fiat inflation). The government’s fiat makes inflation perennial, and as a result we observe the formation of inflation-specific institutions and habits. Thus fiat inflation leaves a characteristic cultural and spiritual stain on human society. In what follows, we will take a closer look at some aspects of this legacy.

I. Hyper-Centralized Government

Inflation benefits the government that controls it, not only at the expense of the population at large, but also at the expense of all secondary and tertiary governments. It is a well-known fact that the European kings, during the rise of their nation states in the 17th and 18th centuries, crushed the major vestiges of intermediate power. The democratic nation states of the 19th and 20th centuries completed the centralization of power that had been begun under the kings. The economic driving force of this process was inflation, which at that point was entirely in the hands of the central state apparatus. More than any other economic reason, it made the nation state irresistible. And thus it contributed, indirectly at least, to the popularity of nationalistic ideologies, which in the 20th century ushered into a frenetic worshipping of the nation state.

Inflation spurs the growth of central governments. It allows these governments to grow larger than they could become in a free society. And it allows them to monopolize governmental functions to an extent that would not occur under a natural production of money. This comes at the expense of all forms of intermediate government, and of course at the expense of civil society at large. The inflation-sponsored centralization of power turns the average citizen more and more into an isolated social atom. All of his social bonds are controlled by the central state, which also provides most of the services that formerly were provided by other social entities such as family and local government. At the same time, the central direction of the state apparatus is removed from the daily life of its protégés.

II. Fiat Inflation and War

Among the most gruesome consequences of fiat money, and of paper money in particular, is its ability to extend the length of wars. The destructions of war have the healthy effect of cooling down initial war frenzies. The more protracted and destructive a war becomes, therefore, the less is the population inclined to support it financially through taxes and the purchase of public bonds. Fiat inflation allows the government to ignore the fiscal resistance of its citizens and to maintain the war effort on its present level, or even to increase that level. The government just prints the notes it needs to buy cannons and boots.

This is exactly what happened in the two world wars of the 20th century, at least in the case of the European states. The governments of France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom covered a large part of their expenses through inflation. It is of course difficult to evaluate any precise quantitative impact, but it is not unreasonable to assume that fiat inflation prolonged both wars by many months or even one or two years. If we consider that the killings have reached their climax toward the end of the war, we must assume that many millions of lives could have been saved.

Many people believe that, in war, all means are just. In their eyes, fiat inflation is legitimate as a means to fend off lethal threats from a nation. But this argument is rather defective. It is not the case that all means are just in a war. There is in Catholic theology a theory of just war, which stresses exactly this point. Fiat inflation would certainly be illegitimate if less offensive means were available to attain the same end. And fact is that such means exist and have always been at the disposition of governments, for example, credit money and additional taxation.

Another typical line of defense of fiat money in wartime is that the government might know better than the citizens just how close victory is at hand. The ignorant population grows weary of the war and tends to resist additional taxation. But the government is perfectly acquainted with the situation. Without fiat money, its hands would be tied up, with potentially disastrous consequences. The inflation just gives it the little extra something needed to win.

It is of course conceivable that the government is better informed than its citizens. But it is difficult to see why this should be an obstacle in war finance. The most essential task of political leadership is to rally the masses behind its cause. Why should it be impossible for a government to spread its better information, thus convincing the populace of the need for additional taxes? This brings us to the following consideration.

III. Inflation and Tyranny

War is just the most extreme case in which fiat inflation allows governments to pursue their goals without genuine support from their citizens. The printing press allows the government to tap the property of its people without having obtained their consent, and in fact against their consent. What kind of government is it that arbitrarily takes the property of its citizens? Aristotle and many other political philosophers have called it tyranny. And monetary theorists from Oresme to Mises have pointed out that fiat inflation, considered as a tool of government finance, is the characteristic financial technique of tyranny.

IV. Race to the Bottom in Monetary Organization

As Austrian economists have argued in some detail, fiat inflation is an inherently unstable way of producing money because it turns moral hazard and irresponsibility into an institution. The result is frequently recurring economic crises. Past efforts to repair these unwelcome effects, yet without questioning the principle of fiat inflation per se, have entailed a peculiar evolution of monetary institutions—some sort of an institutional "race to the bottom."

Important milestones of this process were fractional-reserve banking, national central banking, international central banking, and finally paper money. The devolution of monetary institutions has been on its way for centuries, and it has still not quite reached the absolute bottom, even though the process has accelerated very considerably in our age of paper money.

V. Business Under Fiat Inflation

Fiat inflation has a profound impact on corporate finance. It makes liabilities (credits) cheaper than they would be on a free market. This prompts entrepreneurs to finance their ventures to a greater extent than otherwise through credits, rather than through equity (the capital brought into the firm by its owners).

In a natural system of money production, banks would grant credit only as financial intermediaries. That is, they could lend out only those sums of money that they had either saved themselves or which other people had saved and then lent to the banks. The bankers would of course be free to grant credits under any terms (interest, securities, duration) they like; but it would be suicidal for them to offer better terms than those that their own creditors had granted them. For example, if a bank receives a credit at 5 percent, it would be suicidal for it to lend this money at 4 percent. It follows that on a free market, profitable banking is constrained within fairly narrow limits, which in turn is determined by the savers. It is not possible for a bank to stay in business and to offer better terms than the savers who are most ready to part with their money for some time.

But fractional-reserve banks can do precisely that. Since they can produce additional banknotes at virtually zero cost, they can grant credit at rates that are lower than the rates that would otherwise have prevailed. And the beneficiaries will therefore finance some ventures through debts that they would otherwise have financed with their own money, or which they would not have started at all. Paper money has very much the same effect, but in a far greater dimension. A paper-money producer can grant credits to virtually any extent and at virtually any terms. In the past few years, the Bank of Japan has offered credits at 0 percent interest, and it right now proceeds in some cases to actually pay people for taking its credits.

It is obvious that few firms can afford to resist such offers. Competition is fierce in most industries, and the firms must seek to use the best terms available, lest they lose that "competitive edge" that can be decisive for profits and also for mere survival. It follows that fiat inflation makes business more dependent on banks than they otherwise would be. It creates greater hierarchy and central decision-making power than would exist on the free market. The entrepreneur who operates with 10 percent equity and 90 percent debts is not really an entrepreneur anymore. His creditors (usually bankers) are the true entrepreneurs who make all essential decisions. He is just a more or less well-paid executive—a manager.

Thus fiat inflation reduces the number of true entrepreneurs—independent men who operate with their own money. Such men still exist in astonishing numbers, but they can only survive because their superior talents match the inferior financial terms with which they have to cope. They must be more innovative and/or work harder than their competitors. They know the price of independence and they are ready to pay it. Usually they are more attached to the family business and care more for their employees than the puppets of bankers.

Because credits springing from fiat inflation provide an easy financial edge, they have the tendency to encourage reckless behavior by the chief executives. This is especially the case with managers of large corporations who have easy access to the capital markets. Their recklessness is often confused with innovativeness.

The economist Josef Schumpeter has famously characterized fractional-reserve banking as some sort of a mainspring of innovative economic development, because it provides additional money for entrepreneurs with great ideas.

It is conceivable that in some cases it played this role, but the odds are overwhelmingly on the other side. As a general rule, any new product and any thoroughgoing innovation in business organization is a threat for banks, because they are already more or less heavily invested in established companies, which produce the old products and use the old forms of organization. They have therefore every incentive to either prevent the innovation by declining to finance it, or to communicate the new ideas to their partners in the business world.

Thus, factional-reserve banking makes business more conservative than it otherwise would be. It benefits the established firms at the expense of innovative newcomers. Innovation is much more likely to come from independent businessmen, especially if income taxation is low.

VI. The Debt Yoke

Some of the foregoing considerations also apply outside of the business world. Fiat inflation provides easy credits not only to governments and firms, but also to private persons. The mere fact that such credits are offered at all incites some people to go into debt who would otherwise have chosen not to do so. But easy credits become nearly irresistible in connection with another typical consequence of inflation, namely, the constantly rising price level. Whereas in former times the increase of prices has been barely noticeable, in our day all citizens of the western world are aware of the phenomenon. In countries such as Turkey or Brazil, where prices increase at annual rates of 80 to 100 percent, even younger people have personally experienced it.

Such conditions impose a heavy penalty on cash savings. In the old days, saving was typically done in the form of hoarding gold and silver coins. It is true that such hoards did not provide any revenue—the metal was "barren"—and that they therefore did not lend themselves to the lifestyle of rentiers. But in all other respects money hoards were a reliable and effective form of saving. Their purchasing power did not just evaporate in a few decades, and in times of economic growth they even gained some purchasing power.

Most importantly, they were extremely suitable for ordinary people. Carpenters, masons, tailors, and farmers are usually not very astute observers of the international capital markets. Putting some gold coins under their pillow or into a safe deposit box saved them lots of sleepless nights, and it made them independent of financial intermediaries.

Now compare this old-time scenario with our present situation. The contrast could not be starker. It would be completely pointless in our day to hoard dollar or euro notes to prepare for retirement. A man in his thirties who plans to retire thirty years from today (2004) must calculate with a depreciation factor in the order of 3. That is, he needs to save three dollars today to have the purchasing power of one of these present-day dollars when he retires. And the estimated depreciation factor of 3 is rather on the low side!

It follows that the rational saving strategy for him is to go into debt in order to buy assets the price of which will increase with the inflation. This is exactly what happens today in most western countries. As soon as young people have a job and thus a halfway stable source of revenue, they take a credit to buy a house—whereas their great-grandfather might still have first accumulated savings for some thirty years and then bought his house in cash. Needless to say that the latter has always been the Christian way. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (13:8) we read: "Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law."

Things are not much better for those who have already accumulated some wealth. It is true that inflation does not force them into debt, but in any case it deprives them of the possibility of holding their savings in cash. Old people with a pension fund, widows, and the wardens of orphans must invest their money into the financial markets, lest its purchasing power evaporate under their noses. Thus they become dependent on intermediaries and on the vagaries of stock and bond pricing.

It is clear that this state of affairs is very beneficial for those who derive their living from the financial markets. Stockbrokers, bond dealers, banks, mortgage corporations, and other "players" have reason to be thankful for the constant decline of money’s purchasing power under fiat inflation. But is this state of affairs also beneficial for the average citizen? In a certain sense, his debts and increased investment in the financial markets are beneficial for him, given our present inflationary regime.

When the increase of the price level is perennial, private debt is for him the best available strategy. But this means of course that without government interventionism into the monetary system other strategies would be superior. The presence of central banks and paper money make debt-based financial strategies more attractive than strategies based on prior savings.

It is not an exaggeration to say that, through their monetary policy, Western governments have pushed their citizens into a state of financial dependency unknown to any previous generation. Already in 1931, Pius XI stated:

[. . .] it is obvious that not only is wealth concentrated in our times but an immense power and despotic economic dictatorship is consolidated in the hands of a few, who often are not owners but only the trustees and managing directors of invested funds which they administer according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure.

This dictatorship is being most forcibly exercised by those who, since they hold the money and completely control it, control credit also and rule the lending of money. Hence they regulate the flow, so to speak, of the life-blood whereby the entire economic system lives, and have so firmly in their grasp the soul, as it were, of economic life that no one can breathe against their will.[1]

One wonders what vocabulary Pius XI would have used to describe our present situation. The usual justification for this state of affairs is that it allegedly stimulates industrial development. The money hoards of former times were not only sterile; they were actually harmful from an economic point of view, because they deprived business of the means of payments they needed for investments. The role of inflation is to provide these means.

However, money hoarding does not have any negative macroeconomic implications. It does definitely not stifle industrial investments. Hoarding increases the purchasing power of money and thus gives greater "weight" to the money units that remain in circulation. All goods and services can be bought, and all feasible investments can be made with these remaining units. The fundamental fact is that inflation does not bring into existence any additional resource. It merely changes the allocation of the existing resources. They no longer go to companies that are run by entrepreneurs who operate with their own money, but to business executives who run companies financed with bank credits.

The net effect of the recent surge in household debt is therefore to throw entire populations into financial dependency. The moral implications are clear. Towering debts are incompatible with financial self-reliance and thus they tend to weaken self-reliance also in all other spheres. The debt-ridden individual eventually adopts the habit of turning to others for help, rather than maturing into an economic and moral anchor of his family, and of his wider community. Wishful thinking and submissiveness replace soberness and independent judgement. And what about the many cases in which families can no longer shoulder the debt load? Then the result is either despair or, on the contrary, scorn for all standards of financial sanity.

VII. Some Spiritual Casualties of Fiat Inflation

Fiat inflation constantly reduces the purchasing power of money. To some extent, it is possible for people to protect their savings against this trend, but this requires thorough financial knowledge, the time to constantly supervise one’s investments, and a good dose of luck. People who lack one of these ingredients are likely to lose a substantial part of their assets. The savings of a lifetime often vanish in thin air during the last few years spent in retirement. The consequence is despair and the eradication of moral and social standards. But it would be wrong to infer that inflation produces this effect mainly among the elderly. As one writer observed:

These effects are "especially strong among the youth. They learn to live in the present and scorn those who try to teach them ‘old-fashioned morality and thrift.’ Inflation thereby encourages a mentality of immediate gratification that is plainly at variance with the discipline and eternal perspective required to exercise principles of biblical stewardship—such as long-term investment for the benefit of future generations."[2]

Even those citizens who are blessed with knowledge, time, and luck to protect the substance of their savings cannot evade inflation’s harmful impact, because they have to adopt habits that are at odds with moral and spiritual health. Inflation forces them to spend much more time thinking about their money than they otherwise would. We have noticed already that the old way for ordinary citizens to make savings was the accumulation of cash. Under fiat inflation this strategy is suicidal. They must invest into assets the value of which grows during the inflation; the most practical way to do this is to buy stocks and bonds. But this entails many hours spent on comparing and selecting appropriate titles. And it compels them to be ever watchful and concerned about their money for the rest of their lives. They need to follow the financial news and monitor the price quotations on the financial markets.

Similarly, people will tend to prolong the phase of their life in which they strive to earn money. And they will place relatively greater emphasis on monetary returns than on any other criterion for choosing their profession. For example, some of those who would rather be inclined to gardening will nevertheless seek an industrial employment because the latter offers greater long-run monetary returns. And more people will accept employment far from home, because it allows them to earn just some little extra money, than under a natural monetary system.

The spiritual dimension of these inflation-induced habits seems to be obvious. Money and financial questions come to play an exaggerated role in the life of man. Inflation makes society materialistic. More and more people strive for money income at the expense of personal happiness. Inflation-induced geographical mobility artificially weakens family bonds and patriotic loyalty. Many of those who tend to be greedy, envious, and niggardly anyway fall prey to sin. Even those who are not so inclined by their natures will be exposed to temptations they would not otherwise have felt. And because the vagaries of the financial markets also provide a ready excuse for an excessively parsimonious use of one’s money, donations for charitable institutions will decline.

Then there is the fact that perennial inflation tends to deteriorate product quality. Every seller knows that it is difficult to sell the same physical product at higher prices than in previous years. But increasing money prices are unavoidable when the money supply is subject to relentless growth. So what do sellers do? In many cases the rescue comes through technological innovation, which allows for a cheaper production of the product, thus neutralizing or even overcompensating the countervailing influence of inflation. This is, for example, the case with personal computers and other equipment built with a large input of information technology.

But in other industries, technological progress plays a much smaller role. Here the sellers confront the above-mentioned problem. They then fabricate an inferior product and sell it under the same name, along with the euphemisms that have become customary in commercial marketing. For example, they might offer their customers "light" coffee and "non-spicy" vegetables—which translates into thin coffee and vegetables that have lost any trace of flavor. Similar product deterioration can be observed in the construction business. Countries plagued by perennial inflation seem to have a greater share of houses and streets that are in constant need of repair than other countries.

In such an environment, people develop a more than sloppy attitude toward their language. If everything is what it is called, then it is difficult to explain the difference between truth and lie. Inflation tempts people to lie about their products, and perennial inflation encourages the habit of routine lies. The present writer has argued in other works that routine lies play a great role in fractional-reserve banking, the basic institution of the fiat money system. Fiat inflation seems to spread this habit like a cancer over the rest of the economy.

VIII. Suffocating the Flame

In most countries, the growth of the welfare state has been financed through the accumulation of public debt on a scale that would have been unthinkable without fiat inflation. A cursory glance at the historical record shows that the exponential growth of the welfare state, which in Europe started in the early 1970s, went in hand with the explosion of public debt. It is widely known that this development has been a major factor in the decline of the family. But it is commonly overlooked that the ultimate cause of this decline is fiat inflation. Perennial inflation slowly but assuredly destroys the family, thus suffocating the earthly flame of Christian morals.

The Christian family is the most important "producer" of a certain type of morals. Family life is possible only if all members endorse norms such as the legitimacy of authority, the heterosexual union between man and woman, and the prohibition of incest. And Christian families are based on additional norms such as the love of the spouses for one another and for their offspring, the respect of children for their parents, the reality of the Triune God, the truth of the Christian faith, etc. Parents constantly repeat, emphasize, and live these norms. This daily experience "brainwashes" all family members into accepting them as the normal state of affairs. In the wider social sphere, then, these persons act as advocates of the same norms in business associations, clubs, and politics.

Friends and foes of the traditional Christian family agree on these facts. It is among other things because they recognize the family’s effectiveness in establishing social norms that Christians seek to protect it. And it is precisely for the same reason that advocates of moral license seek to destroy it. The welfare state has been their preferred tool for the past thirty years. Today the welfare state provides a great number of services that in former times were provided by families (and which, we may assume, would still be provided to a large extent by families if the welfare state ceased to exist). Education of the young, care for the elderly and the sick, assistance in times of emergencies—all of these services are today effectively "outsourced" to the state. The families have been degraded into small production units that share utility bills, cars, refrigerators, and of course the tax bill. The tax-financed welfare state then provides them with education and care.[3]

From an economic point of view, this arrangement is a pure waste of money. The fact is that the welfare state is inefficient; it provides comparatively lousy services at comparatively high costs. We need not dwell on the inability of government welfare agencies to provide the emotional and spiritual assistance that only springs from charity. Compassion cannot be bought. But the welfare state is also inefficient in purely economic terms. It operates through large bureaucracies and is therefore liable to lack incentives and economic criteria that would prevent the wasting of money. In the words of Pope John Paul II:

By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending. In fact, it would appear that needs are best understood and satisfied by people who are closest to them and who act as neighbours to those in need. It should be added that certain kinds of demands often call for a response which is not simply material but which is capable of perceiving the deeper human need.[4]

Everyone knows this from first-hand experience, and a great number of scientific studies drive home the same point. It is precisely because the welfare state is an inefficient economic arrangement that it must rely on taxes. If the welfare state had to compete with families on equal terms, it could not stay in business for any length of time. It has driven the family and private charities out of the "welfare market" because people are forced to pay for it anyway. They are forced to pay taxes, and they cannot prevent the government from floating ever-new loans, which absorb the capital that otherwise would be used for the production of different goods and services.

The excessive welfare state of our days is an all-out direct attack on the producers of Christian morals. But it weakens these morals also in indirect ways, most notably by subsidizing bad moral examples. The fact is that some alternative "life styles" carry great economic risks and therefore tend to be more expensive than the traditional family arrangements. The welfare state socializes the costs of such behavior and therefore gives it far greater prominence than it would have in a free society.

Rather than carrying an economic penalty, public license might then actually go hand in hand with economic advantages, because it dispenses the protagonists from the costs of family life (for example, the costs associated with raising children). With the backing of the welfare state, these protagonists may mock conservative morals as some sort of superstition that has no real-life impact. The spiritual dimension seems to be clear: The welfare state systematically exposes people to the temptation of believing that there are no time-tested moral precepts at all.

Let us emphasize that the point of the preceding observations was not to attack welfare services, which are in fact an essential component of Christian societies. The point is, rather, that fiat inflation destroys the democratic control over the provision of these services; that this invariably leads to excessive growth of the aggregate welfare system and to excessive forms of welfare; and that this in turn is not without consequences for the moral and spiritual character of the population.

The foregoing considerations are by no means an exhaustive account of the cultural and spiritual legacy of fiat inflation. But they should suffice to substantiate the main point: that fiat inflation is a powerhouse of social, economic, cultural, and spiritual destruction.

* * * * *

J.G. Hülsmann is senior fellow of the Mises Institute. This is an excerpt from his book forthcoming from the Acton Institute. Comment on the Mises blog.


[1]Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno (1931), §§ 105, 106. See also Deuteronomy 28: 12, 43–44.

[2]Thomas Woods, "Money and Morality: The Christian Moral Tradition and the Best Monetary Regime," Religion & Liberty, vol. 13, no. 5 (Sept./Oct. 2003). The author quotes Ludwig von Mises.

[3]In many countries it is today possible for families to deduct expenses for private care and private education from the annual tax bill. But ironically (or maybe not quite so ironically) this trend has reinforced the erosion of the family. For example, recent provisions of the U.S. tax code allow family budgets to increase through such deductions—but only if the deductible services are not provided at home, but bought from other people.

[4]John Paul II, Centesimus Annus, § 48.

*For an autographed copy of this article please contact the editor of this web space.

The Academy and the Monastery

Excerpts from The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of Information Age by Pekka Himanen with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells.

Dedicated to Eric Raymond - the introducer of the allegory of the cathedral and the bazaar

The Open Model

According to the hackers' "jargon file," the original hacker ethic meant the belief that "information-sharing is a powerful positive good." In practice this meant the ethical duty to work through an open development model, in which the hacker gives his or her creation freely for others to use, test, and develop further. Although for the author of this writing, the ethical arguments for the hacker model are the most interesting and important ones, there is also a more pragmatic level that is significant and fascinating. Just as we can add to our ethical arguments for the hackers' passionate and free way of working the more pragmatic point that, in the information age, new information is created most effectively by allowing for playfulness and for the possibility of working according to one's individual rhythm, we can likewise say that the open model is not just ethically justified but also very powerful in practice (in fact, the "jargon file" also says that it is a "powerful positive good"). It is worth of taking a closer look at the hackers' idea of openness from this purely pragmatic viewpoint. Thus all observations in this essay will be purely pragmatic; those who want to read more about the ethical arguments for the hacker model may turn to my book The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells (Random House, 2001).

The development of the Net is an excellent concrete example of the hacker ethic in action, but the Linux project, which has arguably taken the ideal of openness the furthest so far, serves as an even better one. Torvalds started working on Linux in 1991 while he was a student at the University of Helsinki. After developing an interest in the problems of operating systems, Torvalds imported into his home computer the Unix-like Minix operating system, written by Dutch computer-science professor Andrew Tanenbaum. By studying and using it as a developmental framework, he proceeded to design his own operating system. An essential feature of Torvalds's work was that he involved others in his project from the very beginning. On August 25, 1991, he posted a message on the Net with the subject line "What would you like to see most in minix?" in which he announced that he was "doing a (free) operating system." He received several ideas in reply and even some promises for help in testing the program. The operating system's first version was released on the Net as source code free to all in September 1991.

The next, improved version was available as soon as early October. Torvalds then extended an even more direct invitation to hackers to join him in the development of the new system. In a message sent to the Net, he asked for tips about information sources. He got them, and development advanced quickly. Within a month, other programmers had joined in. Since then, the Linux network has grown at an amazing creative pace. Thousands of programmers have participated in Linux's development, and their numbers are growing steadily. There are millions of users, and their number, too, is growing. Anyone can participate in its development, and anyone is welcome to use it freely.

For the coordination of their development work, Linux hackers use the entire toolbox of the Net: e-mail, mailing lists, newsgroups, file servers, and webpages. Development work has also been divided into independent modules out of which hacker groups create competing versions. A group consisting of Torvalds and a few other principal developers then decides which of these versions will be incorporated in the improved version of Linux (and, of course, the modular structure also develops gradually). Torvalds's group does not, however, hold any permanent position of authority. The group retains its authority only for as long as its choices correspond with the considered choices of the hacker community. Should the group's choice prove less than enlightened, the hacker community proceeds to develop the project in its own direction, bypassing the former leaders of the pack.

In order to control the continuous development of Linux, publications have been divided into two series. In the stable versions, safe for use by average users, the y in the release number x.y.z is even (e.g., version 1.0.0), whereas in the developmental versions, aimed at programmers, the y is the stable version's y + 1 (e.g., the stable 1.0.0's improved but still not finally tested developmental version is 1.1.0). x grows only when a truly fundamental change is made (at the time of writing, the latest available version is 2.4.0). This simple model has worked surprisingly well in the management of Linux development.

In his well-known essay "The Cathedral and the Bazaar," published originally on the Net, Eric Raymond has defined the difference between Linux's open model, and the closed model preferred by most companies, by comparing them to the bazaar and the cathedral. Although a technologist himself, Raymond emphasizes that Linux's real innovation was not technical but social: it was the new, completely open social manner in which it was developed. In his vocabulary, it was the shift from the cathedral to the bazaar.

Raymond defines the cathedral as a model in which one person or a very small group of people plans everything in advance and then realizes the plan under its own power. Development occurs behind closed doors, and everybody else will see only the "finished" results. In the bazaar model, on the other hand, ideation is open to everyone, and ideas are handed out to be tested by others from the very beginning. The multiplicity of viewpoints is important: when ideas are disseminated widely in an early stage, they can still benefit from external additions and criticisms by others, whereas when a cathedral is presented in its finished form, its foundations can no longer be changed. In the bazaar, people try out different approaches, and, when someone has a brilliant idea, the others adopt it and build upon it.

Generally speaking, this open-source model can be described as follows: It all begins with a problem or goal someone finds personally significant. That person may release just the problem or goal itself, but usually he or she will also provide a Solution-version 0.1.1, to use the Linux numbering system. In the open model, a recipient has the right to freely use, test, and develop this Solution. This is possible only if the information that has led to the Solution (the source) has been passed on with it. In the open-source model, the release of these rights entails two obligations: these same rights have to be passed on when the original Solution or its refined version (0.1.2) is shared, and the contributors must always be credited whenever either version is shared. All this is a shared process, in which the participants move gradually-or sometimes even by leaps and bounds (say, a shift from version 0.y.z to version 1.y.z)-to better versions. In practice, of course, projects follow this idealized model to a greater or lesser extent.

The Academy and the Monastery

Although Raymond's allegory of the bazaar and the cathedral elegantly captures the difference between the open-source and closed-source models, I would like to explain the power of the open model vis-a-vis the closed model further by suggesting another pair of allegories: the academy and the monastery. In fact, the open-source model resembles the academy even more directly than the bazaar. Scientists, too, release their work openly to others for their use, testing, and further development. Their research is based on the idea of an open and self-correcting process. The sociologist Robert Merton wrote that this idea of self-correction was as important a principle to science as openness. He called it organized skepticism - historically, it is a continuation of the synusia of Plato's Academy, which also included the idea of approaching the truth through critical dialogue. The scientific ethic entails a model in which theories are developed collectively and their flaws are perceived and gradually removed by means of criticism provided by the entire scientific community.

Of course, scientists have chosen this model not only for ethical reasons but also because it has proved to be the most successful way of creating scientific knowledge. All of our understanding of nature is based on this academic or scientific model. The reason why the hackers' open-source model works so effectively seems to be-in addition to the facts that they are realizing their passions and are motivated by peer recognition, as scientists are, too-that to a great degree it conforms to the ideal open academic model, which is historically the best adapted for information creation.

Broadly speaking, one can say that in the academic model the point of departure also tends to be a problem or goal researchers find personally interesting; they then provide their own Solution (even though in many instances the mere statement of the problem or proclamation of a program is interesting in itself). The academic ethic demands that anyone may use, criticize, and develop this Solution. More important than any final result is the underlying information or chain of arguments that has produced the Solution. (It is not enough to merely publish "E = mc2"-theoretical and empirical justifications are also required.) Nevertheless, the scientific ethic does not involve only rights; it also has the same two fundamental obligations: the sources must always be mentioned (plagiarism is abhorrent), and the new Solution must not be kept secret but must be published again for the benefit of the scientific community. The fulfillment of these two obligations is not required by law but by the scientific community's internal, powerful sanctions.

Following this model, normal physics research, for example, continuously provides new additions ("developmental versions") to what has already been achieved, and after testing these refinements the scientific community accepts them as part of its body of knowledge ("stable versions"). Much more rarely, there is an entire "paradigm shift," to use the expression that philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn introduced in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In the broadest sense, there have been only three long-lived research paradigms: the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic physics, the "classic" Newtonian physics, and the Einsteinian-Heisenbergian physics based on the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. Seen this way, present theories are versions 3.y.z. (Many physicists already call the version 4, which they believe is imminent, "The Theory of Everything." Computer hackers would not anticipate the arrival of version 4.0.0 quite so eagerly.)

The opposite of this hacker and academic open model can be called the closed model, which does not just close off information but is also authoritarian. In a business enterprise built on the monastery model, authority sets the goal and chooses a closed group of people to implement it. After the group has completed its own testing, others will have to accept the result purely as it is. Other uses of it are called "unauthorized uses." We can use our allegory of the monastery as an apt metaphor for this style, which is well summed up by Saint Basil the Great's monastic rule from the fourth century: "No one is to concern himself with the superior's method of administration or make curious inquiries about what is being done." The closed model does not allow for initiative or criticism that would enable an activity to become more creative and self-corrective.

It is true that many hackers oppose hierarchical operation for ethical reasons, like that it easily leads to a culture in which people are humiliated. But they also think that the nonhierarchical manner is the most effective one. From the point of view of a traditionally structured business, this may initially seem quite senseless. How could it ever work? Should not someone draw an organization chart for the Net and Linux developers? It is interesting to note that similar things might be said of science. How could Einstein ever arrive at his E = mc2 in the chaos of self-organized groups of researchers? Should science not operate with a clear-cut hierarchy, headed up by a CEO of Science, with a division chief for every discipline?

Both scientists and hackers have learned from experience that the lack of strong structures is one of the reasons why their model is so powerful. Hackers and scientists can just begin to realize their passions, and then network with other individuals who share them. This spirit clearly differs from that found not only in business but also in government. In governmental agencies, the idea of authority permeates an action even more strongly than it does in companies. For the hackers, the typical governmental way of having endless meetings, forming countless committees, drafting tedious strategy papers, and so on before anything happens is at least as great a pain as doing market research to justify an idea before you can start to create. (It also irritates scientists and hackers no end when the university has been turned into a governmental bureaucracy or monastery.)

But the relative lack of structures does not mean that there are no structures. Despite its appearance, hackerism does not exist in a state of anarchy or mean paradisiacal utopianism any more than science does. Hacker and scientific projects have their relative guiding figures, such as Torvalds, whose task it is to help in determining direction and to support the creativity of others. In addition, both the academic and hacker models have a special publication structure. Research is open to anyone, but in practice contributions included in reputable scientific publications are selected by a smaller group of referees. Still, this model is designed so as to guarantee that in the long run, it is the truth that determines the referee group rather than the other way around. Like the academic referee group, the hacker network's referee group retains its position only as long as its choices correspond to the considered choices of the entire peer community. If the referee group is unable to do this, the community bypasses it and creates new channels. This means that at the bottom the authority status is open to anyone and is based only on achievement-no one can achieve permanent tenure. No one can assume a position in which his or her work could not be reviewed by peers, just as anyone else's creations can be.

The Hacker Learning Model

It goes without saying that the academy was very influential long before there were computer hackers. For example, from the nineteenth century onward, every industrial technology (electricity, telephone, television, etc.) would have been unthinkable without its underpinning of scientific theory. The late industrial revolution already marked a transition to a society that relied upon scientific results; the hackers bring about a reminder that, in the information age, even more important than discrete scientific results is the open academic model that enables the creation of these results.

This is a central insight. In fact, it is so important that the second big reason for the pragmatic success of the hacker model seems to be the fact that hackers' learning is modeled to a large extent the same way as their development of new software (which can actually be seen as the frontier of their collective learning). Thus, their learning model has the same strengths as the development model.

A typical hacker's learning process starts out with setting up an interesting problem, working toward a solution by using various sources, then submitting the solution to extensive testing. Learning more about a subject becomes the hacker's passion. Torvalds initially taught himself programming on a computer he inherited from his grandfather. He set up problems for himself and found out what he needed to know to solve them. Most hackers have learned programming in a similar informal way, following their passions. The examples of the ability of ten-year-olds to learn very complicated programming issues tell us much about the importance of passion in the learning process, as opposed to the slow going their contemporaries often find their education in traditional schools to be.

Later on, the beginnings of Torvalds's operating system arose out of his explorations into the processor of the PC he purchased in 1991. In typical hacker fashion, simple experiments with a program that tested the features of the processor by writing out either As or Bs gradually expanded into a plan for a Net newsgroup-reading program and then on to the ambitious idea of an entire operating system. But even though Torvalds is a self-taught programmer in the sense that he acquired his basic knowledge without taking a class, he did not learn everything all by himself. For example, in order to familiarize himself with operating systems, he studied the source codes of Tanenbaum's Minix as well as various other information sources provided by the hacker community. From the very beginning, in true hacker fashion, he has never hesitated to ask for help with questions in areas in which he has not yet acquired expertise.

A prime strength of the hacker learning model lies in the fact that typically a hacker's learning teaches others. When a hacker studies the source code of a program, he often develops it further, and others can learn from this work. When a hacker checks out information sources maintained on the Net, he often adds helpful information from his own experience. An ongoing, critical, evolutionary discussion forms around various problems. The reward for participating in this discussion is peer recognition.

The hackers' open learning model can be called their "Net Academy." It is a continuously evolving learning environment created by the learners themselves. The learning model adopted by hackers has many advantages. In the hacker world, the teachers or assemblers of information sources are often those who have just learned something. This is beneficial because often someone just engaged in the study of a subject is better able to teach it to others than the expert who no longer comes to it fresh and has, in a way, already lost his grasp of how neophytes think. For an expert, empathizing with someone who is just learning something involves levels of simplification that he or she often resists for personal intellectual reasons. Nor does the expert necessarily find the teaching of basics very satisfying, while a student may find doing such teaching tremendously rewarding, since he or she does not as a rule get to enjoy the position of instructor and is generally not given sufficient opportunity to use his or her talents. The process of teaching also involves by its very nature the comprehensive analysis of subject matter. If one is really able to teach something to others, one must have already made the material very clear to oneself. While preparing the material, one has to consider it carefully from the point of view of possible further questions and counterarguments.

Once again, this hacker model resembles Plato's Academy, where students were not regarded as targets for knowledge transmission but were referred to as companions in learning (synetheis). In the Academy's view, the central task of teaching was to strengthen the learners' ability to pose problems, develop lines of thought, and present criticism. As a result, the teacher was metaphorically referred to as a midwife, a matchmaker, and a master of ceremonies at banquets. It was not the teacher's task to inculcate the students with preestablished knowledge but to help them give birth to things from their own starting points.

In the hacker community, too, we can think of the best experts as the community's gadflies, midwives, and symposiarchs. They are able to entice the collective learning process, which links the learning and development models together as a powerful hacker way of creating things.

From The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age by Pekka Himanen with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells (Random House, 2001).

For more, see This writing can be published freely on the web with this information included. {that is what some folks call copyleft.}

A Rather A Priori Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age

Excerpts from The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of Information Age by Pekka Himanen with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells.


At the core of our technological time stands a fascinating group of people who call themselves hackers. They are not TV celebrities with wide name recognition, but everyone knows their achievements, which form a large part of our new, emerging society's technological basis: the Internet and the Web (which together can be called the Net), the personal computer, and an important portion of the software used for running them. The hackers' "jargon file," compiled collectively on the Net, defines them as people who "program enthusiastically" and who believe that "information-sharing is a powerful positive good, 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." This has been the hacker ethic ever since a group of MIT's passionate programmers started calling themselves hackers in the early sixties. (Later, in the mid-eighties, the media started applying the term to computer criminals. In order to avoid the confusion with virus writers and intruders into information systems, hackers began calling these destructive computer users crackers. In this book, this distinction between hackers and crackers is observed.)

My own initial interest in these hackers was technological, related to the impressive fact that the best-known symbols of our time - the Net, the personal computer, and software such as the Linux operating system --- were actually developed not by enterprises or governments but were created primarily by some enthusiastic individuals who just started to realize their ideas with other like-minded individuals working in a free rhythm. (Those who are interested in the details of their development may turn to the appendix, "A Brief History of Computer Hackerism".) I wanted to understand the internal logic of this activity, its driving forces. However, the more I thought about computer hackers, the more obvious it became that what was even more interesting about them, in human terms, was the fact that these hackers represented a much larger spiritual challenge to our time. Computer hackers themselves have always admitted this wider applicability of their ways. Their "jargon file" emphasizes that a hacker is basically "an expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example." In this sense, a person can be a hacker without having anything to do with computers.

The main question transformed into, What if we look at hackers from a wider perspective? What does their challenge then mean? Looking at the hacker ethic in this way, it becomes a name for a general passionate relationship to work that is developing in our information age. From this perspective, the hacker ethic is a new work ethic that challenges the attitude to work that has held us in its thrall so long, the Protestant work ethic, as explicated in Max Weber's classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905).

To some computer hackers, this kind of linking of the hacker ethic to Weber may at first seem alien. They should keep in mind that in this book the expression hacker ethic is used in a sense that extends beyond computer hackerism, and that for this reason it confronts social forces that are not normally considered in discussions concerned exclusively with computers. This expansion of the hacker ethic thus presents an intellectual challenge to computer hackers, as well.

But first and foremost the hacker ethic is a challenge to our society and to each of our lives. Besides the work ethic, the second important level of this challenge is the hacker money ethic - a level that Weber defined as the other main component of the Protestant work ethic. Clearly, the "information-sharing" mentioned in the hacker-ethic definition cited above is not the dominant way of making money in our time; on the contrary, money is mostly made by information-owning. Neither is the first hackers' ethos --- that activity should be motivated primarily not by money but rather a desire to create something that one's peer community would find valuable --- a common attitude. While we cannot claim that all present computer hackers share this money ethic or that it is likely to spread into society at large, as we can about their work ethic, we can say that it has been an important force in the formation of our time and that the hackers' debate over the nature of the information economy could lead to consequences at least as radical as those of their work ethic.

The third element present within the hacker ethic from the very beginning, touched upon in the cited definition by the phrase "facilitating access to information and to computing resources," could be called their network ethic or nethic. It has addressed ideas such as freedom of expression on the Net and access to the Net for all. Most computer hackers support only some parts of this nethic, but in terms of their social significance they must be understood as a whole. The impact of these themes remains to be seen, but they definitely go to the heart of the ethical challenges of the information age.

This book is based on an ongoing collaboration between its three authors, a collaboration taking place in various forms over several years (with Manuel Castells through research we conduct together in California, and with Linus Torvalds in the midst of just having fun). The idea for a book dealing with the hacker ethic was born the first time all three of us met, in the fall of 1998, when we were invited speakers at a symposium hosted by the University of California at Berkeley, that traditional hacker stronghold. At that time, we decided to expand our presentations, which dealt with the same subjects as the present work. Linus, we decided, would start as a representative of computer hackerism, Manuel would present his theory of our information age (consisting of the rise of informationalism, the new information-technology paradigm, and a new social form, the network society), and I would examine the social meaning of the hacker ethic by placing the example of Linus's computer hackerism against Manuel's larger background picture of our time. Naturally, each one of us would still speak for himself.

The book adheres to this plan: in his Prologue, "What Makes Hackers Tick? a.k.a. Linus's Law," Linus --- as the originator of one of the most famous hacker creations of our time, the Linux operating system - describes his view of the forces that contribute to the success of hackerism. Manuel has spent the last fifteen years on a study of our time, culminating in his three-volume, 1,500-page work, The Information Age (second revised edition, 2000). In this book's Epilogue, "Informationalism and the Network Society," he presents for the first time the findings of his research, with some new important additions, in a form accessible to the general reader. My analysis is placed between Linus's and Manuel's and is divided in three parts accordingt to the three levels of the hacker ethic: the work ethic, the money ethic, and the nethic. (Some further elaborations of these themes can be found at the book's Website,

Those readers who prefer to have a description of the theory background before, and not as a closing systematization of, my examination, may consult Manuel's epilogue right away. Otherwise, let Linus start.

Linus Torvalds says in his Prologue that, for the hacker, "the computer itself is entertainment," meaning that the hacker programs because he finds programming intrinsically interesting, exciting, and joyous.

The Hacker Work Ethic

The spirit behind other hackers' creations is very similar to this. Torvalds is not alone in describing his work with statements like "Linux hackers do something because they find it to be very interesting." For example, Vinton Cerf, who is somtimes called "the father of the Internet," comments on the fascination programming exerts: "There was something amazingly enticing about programming." Steve Wozniak, the person who built the first real personal computer, says forthrightly about his discovery of the wonders of programming: "It was just the most intriguing world." This is a general spirit: hackers program because programming challenges are of intrinsic interest to them. Problems related to programming arouse genuine curiosity in the hacker and make him eager to learn more.

The hacker is also enthusiastic about this interesting thing; it energizes him. From the MIT of the sixties onward, the classic hacker has emerged from sleep in the early afternoon to start programming with enthusiasm and has continued his efforts, deeply immersed in coding, into the wee hours of the morning. A good example of this is the way sixteen-year-old Irish hacker Sarah Flannery describes her work on the so-called Cayley-Purser encryption algorithm, "I had a great feeling of excitement. . . . I worked constantly for whole days on end, and it was exhilarating. There were times when I never wanted to stop."

Hacker activity is also joyful. It often has its roots in playful explorations. Torvalds has described, in messages on the Net, how Linux began to expand from small experiments with the computer he had just acquired. In the same messages, he has explained his motivation for developing Linux by simply stating that "it was/is fun working on it." Tim Berners-Lee, the man behind the Web, also describes how this creation began with experiments in linking what he called "play programs." Wozniak relates how many characteristics of the Apple computer "came from a game, and the fun features that were built in were only to do one pet project, which was to program . . . [a game called] Breakout and show it off at the club." Flannery comments on how her work on the development of encryption technology evolved in the alternation between library study of theorems and the practice of exploratory programming: "With a particularly interesting theorem . . . I'd write a program to generate examples. . . . Whenever I programmed something I'd end up playing around for hours rather than getting back to plodding my way through the paper."

Sometimes this joyfulness shows in the hacker's "flesh life" as well. For example, Sandy Lerner is known not only for being one of the hackers behind the Internet routers but also for riding naked on horseback. Richar Stallman, the bearded and longhaired guru, attends computer gatherings in a robe, and he exorcises commercial programs from the machines brought to him by his followers. Eric Raymond, a well-known defender of hacker culture, is also known for his playful lifestyle: a fan of live role-playing games, he roams the streets of his Pennsylvania hometown and the surrounding woods attired as an ancient sage, a Roman senator, or a seventeenth-century cavalier.

Raymond has also given a good summary of the general hacker spirit in his description of the Unix hackers' philosophy:

To do the Unix philosophy right, you have to be loyal to excellence. You have to believe that software is a craft worth all the intelligence and passion you can muster. . . . Software design and implementation should be a joyous art, and a kind of high-level play. If this attitude seems preposterous or vaguely embarrassing to you, stop and think; ask yourself what you've forgotten. Why do you design software instead of doing something else to make money or pass the time? You must have thought software was worthy of your passions once...

To do the Unix philosophy right, you need to have (or recover) that attitude. You need to care. You need to play. You need to be willing to explore.

In summing up hacker activity's spirit, Raymond uses the word passion, which corresponds to Torvalds's entertainment, as he defined it in the Prologue. But Raymond's term is perhaps even more apt because, even though both words have associations that are not meant in this context, passion conveys more intuitively than entertainment the three levels described above-the dedication to an activity that is intrinsically interesting, inspiring, and joyous.

This passionate relationship to work is not an attitude found only among computer hackers. For example, the academic world can be seen as its much older predecessor. The researcher's passionate intellectual inquiry received similar expression nearly 2,500 years ago when Plato, founder of the first academy, said of philosophy, "like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself."

The same attitude may also be found in many other spheres of life-among artists, artisans, and the "information professionals," from managares and engineers to media workers and designers, for example. It is not only the hackers' "jargon file" that emphasizes this general idea of being a hacker. At the first Hacker Conference in San Francisco in 1984, Burrell Smith, the hacker behind Apple's Macintosh computer, defined the term as follows: "Hackers can do almost anything and be a hacker. You can be a hacker carpenter. It's not necessarily high tech. I think it has to do with craftsmanship and caring about what you're doing." Raymond notes in his guide "How to Become a Hacker" that "there are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things [than software], like electronics and music-actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art."

Looked at on this level, computer hackers can be understood as an excellent example of a more general work ethic-which we can give the name the hacker work ethic-gaining ground in our network society, in which the role of information professionals is expanding. But although we use a label coined by computer hackers to express this attitude, it is important to note that we could talk about it even without any reference to computer people. We are discussing a general social challenge that calls into question the Protestant work ethic that has long governed our lives and still maintains a powerful hold on us.

Let's see what type of long historical and strong societal forces the hacker work ethic, in this sense, faces. The familiar expression "Protestant work ethic" derives, of course, from Max Weber's famous essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905). Weber starts out by describing how the notion of work as a duty lies at the core of the capitalist spirit that arose in the sixteenth century: "This peculiar idea, so familiar to us to-day, but in reality so little a matter of course, of one's duty in a calling, is what is most characteristic of the social ethic of capitalistic culture, and is in a sense the fundamental basis of it. It is an obligation which the individual is supposed to feel and does feel towards the content of his professional activity, no matter in what it consists, in particular no matter whether it appears on the surface as a utilization of his personal powers, or only of his material possessions (as capital)." Weber goes on to say: "Not only is a developed sense of responsibility absolutely indispensable, but in general also an attitude which, at least during working hours, is freed from continual calculations of how the customary wage may be earned with a maximum of comfort and a minimum of exertion. Labour must, on the contrary, be performed as if it were an absolute end in itself, a calling."

Then Weber demonstrates how the other main force described in his essay, the work ethic taught by Protestants, which also arose in the sixteenth century, furthered these goals. The Protestant preacher Richard Baxter expressed that work ethic in its pure form: "It is for action that God maintaineth us and our activities; work is the moral as well as the natural end of power," and to say "I will pray and meditate [instead of working], is as if your servant should refuse his greatest work and tie himself to some lesser, easier part." God is not pleased to see people just meditating and praying --- he wants them to do their job.

True to the capitalist spirit, Baxter advises employers to reinforce this idea in workers of wanting to do one's job as well as possible by making it a matter of conscience: "A truly godly servant will do all your service in obedience to God, as if God Himself had bid him do it." Baxter sums up this attitude by referring to labor as a "calling," a good expression of the three core attitudes of the Protestant work ethic: work must be seen as an end in itself, at work one must do one's part as well as possible, and work must be regarded as a duty, which must be done because it must be done.

While the hacker work ethic's precursor is in the academy, Weber says that the Protestant ethic's only historical precursor is in the monastery. And certainly, if we expand on Weber's comparison, we can see many similarities. In the sixth century, for example, Benedict's monastic rule required all monks to see the work assigned to them as their duty and warned work-shy brethren by noting that "idleness is the enemy of the soul." Monks were also not supposed to question the jobs they were given. Benedict's fifth-century predecessor John Cassian made this clear in his monastic rule by describing in admiring tones the obedience of a monk, named John, to his elder's order to roll a stone so large that no human being could move it:

Again, when some others were anxious to be edified by the example of his [John's] obedience, the elder called him and said: "John, run and roll that stone hither as quickly as possible;" and he forthwith, applying now his neck, and now his whole body, tried with all his might and main to roll an enormous stone which a great crowd of men would not be able to move, so that not only were his clothes saturated with sweat from his limbs, but the stone itself was wetted by his neck; in this too never weighing the impossibility of the command and deed, out of reverence for the old man and the unfeigned simplicity of his service, as he believed implicitly that the old man could not command him to do anything vain or without reason.

This Sisyphean straining epitomizes the idea, central to monastic thought, that one should not question the nature of one's work. Benedict's monastic rule even explained that the nature of the work did not matter because the highest purpose of work was not actually to get something done but to humble the worker's soul by making him do whatever is told-a principle that seems to be still active in a great number of offices. In the medieval time, this prototype for the Protestant work ethic existed only within the monasteries, and it did not influence the prevailing attitude of the church, much less that of society at large. It was only the Protestant reformation that allowed the spread of monastic thinking to the world beyond the monastery walls.

However, Weber went on to emphasize that even though the spirit of capitalism found its essentially religious justification in the Protestant ethic, the latter soon emancipated itself from religion and began to operate according to its own laws. To use Weber's famous metaphor, it turned into a religiously neutral iron cage. This is an essential qualification. In our globalizing world, we should think of the term Protestant ethic in the same way we think of an expression such as platonic love. When we say that someone loves another person platonically, we do not mean that he is a Platonist-that is, an adherent of Plato's philosophy, metaphysics and all. We may attribute a platonic love relationship to a follower of any philosophy, religion, or culture. In the same way, we can speak of someone's "Protestant ethic" regardless of his or her faith or culture. Thus, a Japanese person, an atheist, or a devout Catholic may act-and often does act-in accordance with a Protestant ethic.

One need not look very far to realize how strong a force this Protestant ethic still is. Commonplace remarks like "I want to do my job well," or those made by employers in their little speeches at employee retirement parties about how a person "has always been an industrious/responsible/reliable/loyal worker" are the legacy of the Protestant ethic in that they make no demands on the nature of the work itself. The elevation of work to the status of the most important thing in life-at its extreme, a work addiction that leads to complete neglect of one's loved ones-is another symptom of the Protestant ethic. So is work done with clenched jaws and a responsibility-ridden attitude and the bad conscience many feel when they have to miss work due to ill health.

Seen in a larger historical context, this continued dominance of the Protestant ethic is not so surprising when we remember that even though our network society differs in many significant ways from its predecessor, the industrial society, its "new economy" does not involve a total break with the capitalism Weber describes: it is merely a new kind of capitalism. In The Information Age, Castells stresses that work, in the sense of labor, is not about to end, despite wild paradisiacal forecasts such as Jeremy Rifkin's The End of Work. We easily fall for this illusion that technological advances will, somehow, automatically, make our lives less work-centered-but if we just look at the statistical facts of the rise of the network society so far and project them into the future, we must agree with Castells on the nature of the prevailing pattern: "Work is, and will be for the foreseeable future, the nucleus of people's life." The network society itself does not question the Protestant ethic. Left to its own devices, the work-centered spirit easily continues to dominate within it.

Seen in this overall context, the radical nature of hackerism consists of its proposing an alternative spirit for the network society-a spirit that finally questions the dominant Protestant ethic. In this context, we find the only sense in which hackers are really crackers: they are trying to crack the lock of the iron cage.

The Purpose of Life

The displacement of the Protestant ethic will not happen overnight. It will take time, like all great cultural changes. The Protestant ethic is so deeply embedded in our present consciousness that it is often thought of as if it were just "human nature." Of course, it is not. Even a brief look at pre-Protestant attitudes toward work provides a healthy reminder of that fact. Both the Protestant and the hacker ethic are historically singular.

Richard Baxter's view of work was completely alien to the pre-Protestant church. Before the Reformation, clerics tended to devote time to questions such as "Is there life after death?" but none of them worried about whether there was work after life. Work did not belong among the church's highest ideals. God himself worked for six days and finally rested on the seventh. This was the highest goal for human beings as well: in Heaven, just as on Sundays, people would not have to work. Paradise was in, office was out. One might say that Christianity's original answer to the question "What is the purpose of life?" was: the purpose of life is Sunday.

This statement is not just a witticism. In the fifth century, Augustine compared our life quite literally to Friday, the day when, according to the teachings of the church, Adam and Eve sinned and Christ suffered on the cross. Augustine wrote that in Heaven we'll find a perennial Sunday, the day on which God rested and Christ ascended to Heaven: "That will truly be the greatest of Sabbaths; a Sabbath that has no evening." Life is just a long wait for the weekend.

Because the Church Fathers saw work as merely a consequence of the fall from grace, they also took very particular conceptual care in their descriptions of Adam's and Eve's activities in Paradise. Whatever Adam and Eve may have done there, it could not be seen as work. Augustine emphasizes that in Eden "praiseworthy work was not toilsome"-it was no more than a pleasant hobby.

The pre-Protestant churchmen understood work, "toil," as punishment. In medieval visionary literature that speaks to churchmen's images of Hell, the implements of labor fully reveal their true nature as instruments of torture: sinners are punished with hammers and other tools. What's more, according to these visions, there is in Hell an even more cruel torture than the directly inflicted physical one: perennial toil. When the devout brother Brendan saw, in the sixth century, a worker on his visit to the beyond, he immediately made the sign of the cross: he realized that he had arrived where all hope must be abandoned. Here is the narrator of his vision:

When they had passed on further, about a stone's throw, they heard the noise of bellows blowing like thunder, and the beating of sledge hammers on the anvils and iron. Then St. Brendan armed himself all over his body with the sign of the Cross, saying, "O Lord Jesus Christ, deliver us from this sinister island." Soon one of the inhabitants appeared to do some work. He was hairy and hideous, blackened with fire and smoke. When he saw the servants of Christ near the island, he withdrew into his forge, crying aloud: "Woe! Woe! Woe!"

If you do not conduct yourself well in this life, the thinking went, you are condemned to work even in the next. And, even worse, that work, according to the pre-Protestant church, will be absolutely useless, meaningless to an extent you could never have imagined even on your worst working day on earth.

This theme crystallizes in the apotheosis of the pre-Protestant worldview, Dante's Divine Comedy (completed just before his death in 1321), in which sinners who have devoted their lives to money-both spendthrifts and misers-are doomed to push huge boulders around an eternal circle:

      More shades were here than anywhere above,
      and from both sides, to the sounds of their screams,
      straining their chests, they rolled enormous weights.
      And when they met and clashed against each other
      they turned to push the other way, one side
      screaming, "Why hoard?", the other side, "Why waste?"
      And so they moved back round the gloomy circle,
      returning on both sides to opposite poles
      to scream their shameful tune another time;
      again they came to clash and turn and roll
      forever in their semicircle joust.

Dante borrows this idea from Greek mythology. In Tartarus, where the very worst human beings were dispatched, the most severe punishment was meted out to greedy Sisyphus, who was doomed to endlessly push a big rock up to the top of a hill, from which it always rolled back down. Sunday always beckons to Sisyphus and the sinners in Dante's Inferno, but it never comes. They are condemned to an eternal Friday.

Considering this background, we can now gain a better understanding of how great a change in our attitude to work the Protestant Reformation entailed. In allegorical terms, it moved life's center of gravity from Sunday to Friday. The Protestant ethic reoriented ideology so thoroughly that it even turned Heaven and Hell upside down. When work became an end in itself on earth, the clerics found it difficult to imagine Heaven as a place for mere time-wasting leisure, and work could no longer be seen as infernal punishment. Thus, reformed eighteenth-century cleric Johann Kasper Lavater explained that even in Heaven "we cannot be blessed without having occupations. To have an occupation means to have a calling, an office, a special, particular task to do." Baptist William Clarke Ulyat put it in a nutshell when he described Heaven at the beginning of the twentieth century: "practically it is a workshop."

The Protestant ethic proved so powerful that its work-centeredness permeated even our imagination. A great example of this is Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel written by a man trained as a Protestant preacher. Marooned on an abundant island, Crusoe does not take it easy; he works all the time. He is such an orthodox Protestant that he does not even take Sunday off, though he otherwise still observes the seven-day week. After saving an aborigine from his enemies, he aptly names him Friday, trains him in the Protestant ethic, and then praises him in a manner that perfectly describes that ethic's ideal worker: "Never man had a more faithful, loving, sincere servant, perfectly obliged and engaged; his very affections were ty'd to me, like those of a child to a father."

In Michel Tournier's twentieth-century satirical retelling of the novel, Vendredi (Friday), Friday's conversion to the Protestant ethic is still more total. Crusoe decides to put Friday to the test by giving him a task even more Sisyphean than what Cassian's monastic rule prescribed:

I set him a task which in every prison in the world is held to be the most degrading of harassments-the task of digging a hole and filling it in with the contents of a second; then digging a third, and so on. He labored at this for an entire day, under a leaden sky and in heat like that of a furnace. . . . To say that Friday gave no sign of resenting this idiotic employment, is not enough. I have seldom seen him work with such good will.

Sisyphus has truly become a hero.

The Passionate Life

When the hacker ethic is placed in this large historical context, it is easy to see that the hacker ethic --- understood not just as the computer hackers' ethic but as a general social challenge --- resembles the pre-Protestant ethic to a much greater degree than it does the Protestant one. In this sense, one could say that for hackers the purpose of life is closer to Sunday than to Friday. But, it is important to note, only closer: ultimately, the hacker ethic is not the same as the pre-Protestant work ethic, which envisions an attainable paradise of life without doing anything. Hackers want to realize their passions, and they are ready to accept that the pursuit even of interesting tasks may not always be unmitigated bliss.

For hackers, passion describes the general tenor of their activity, though its fulfillment may not be sheer joyful play in all its aspects. Thus, Linus Torvalds has described his work on Linux as a combination of enjoyable hobby and serious work: "Linux has very much been a hobby (but a serious one: the best type)." Passionate and creative, hacking also entails hard work. Raymond says in his guide "How to Become a Hacker," "Being a hacker is lots of fun, but it's a kind of fun that takes a lot of effort." Such effort is needed in the creation of anything even just a little bit greater. If need be, hackers are also ready for the less interesting parts necessary for the creation of the whole. However, the meaningfulness of the whole gives even its more boring aspects a worth. Raymond writes: "The hard work and dedication will become a kind of intense play rather than drudgery."

There's a difference between being permanently joyless and having found a passion in life for the realization of which one is also willing to take on the less joyful but nonetheless necessary parts.

From The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age by Pekka Himanen with Linus Torvalds and Manuel Castells (Random House, 2001). For more, see This writing can be published freely on the web with this information included.