Hacker Co-opting - A Late Night Rant

Note: This is not backed by any sources so my recall of history may be entirely based on myth. Read at your own peril.

These days, the term hacker usually refers to someone with a ski mask looking at falling matrix numbers on a screen in a dark basement closet. But prior to this version of the word, hacker meant something else. It meant someone who would "hack things together". The term referred to a creative but practical person who could apply common sense and perhaps some technical knowledge to transform items around them into something that would better suit their needs. Oftentimes, this was also just done for fun and sport.

In a way, being a hacker is just another form of human expression. Similar to how singing, or dancing, or playing an instrument, or writing, or other forms of what we consider more "classical arts". Why? Because hacking things together is quite literally the manifestation of the human mind. The human mind is infinite and can imagine so many things. But when dancers dance, singers sing, and painters paint, they are turning what they see in their mind's eye and doing their best to birth that thing into the real world as closely as they possibly can. Being a hacker is no different. Hacking is simply the act of physically transmuting objects in the physical world into something the creator envisions in their minds eye.

Such expression is beautiful. And as a form of human expression, it oftentimes means that the only motive in performing this act is the joy that it brings the creator. Inherently, it is beautiful to see humans openly and freely express themselves. The irony of tech culture these days is that despite having a long legacy that leads back to this hacker culture, much of this culture has been co-opted by American capitalism.

For example, BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) and LSD (Lysergic Acid Diethylamide) came out of Berkeley. This was no coincidence. The counter-culture ideology that took root in Berkeley is oftentimes opposed to the capitalist approach that the US currently takes. As a result, writing software and giving it away for free became something that hackers do. Hackers would oftentimes write software out of pure passion and an ideological belief that because all peoples are equal, that software should be free, so as not to exclude anyone from this technology. Distributing this software was a form of empowering those who were not in power. As trivial as it may seem that some nerds in Berkeley gave away an operating system for free, we can trace many things back to this history. Open source software development is a major backbone of the software development industry. This is a modern day manifestation of hacker culture.

One of the biggest ironies to me is that capitalism takes software made by passionate people, and then uses it for profit without paying. Furthermore, YCombinator's HackerNews forum has largely co-opted the term hacker to now mean Silicon Valley tech startup founder/employee. While perhaps gatekeeping the term hacker in some puritanical sense may seem childish, I think the real underlying battle is the way capitalism continues to subsume anything and everything that humans do solely for the sake of benefitting their fellow man. I think that the ultimate message I am trying to convey is that hacker culture is not about making money, or maximizing ARR, or getting more Twitter followers, or increasing your TC by 20% YoY. This is Silicon Valley tech startup culture. Hacker culture is fun. Hacker culture is for people like Zack Friedman who makes nerdy things like a self-subtitle machine. Why did he do this? Because he wanted to learn and because it was fun. He doesn't have any profit motive (aside from ads on his YouTube videos and Patreon supporters). But my point is, he is not trying to leverage scale or anything to make massive returns. I think what we should really be focused on moreso these days is how we can help out our fellow man and neighbor in ways that are unscalable. Because ultimately, if everyone contributes a tiny bit to the solution, then we will collectively as a society benefit greatly from everyone's participation. Whereas if only some people are focused on solving the problem leveraging technology, the progress in many areas of life will simply never progress. For example, there will never be a cost effective trash cleaning robot that is better than a human at picking up litter from the streets. But if everyone did this for 1 hour a week, our cities would be substantially cleaner, not only because people would be cleaning up trash, but also because people would become more aware of the trash and be less likely to litter in the first pleace.

Anyways, my overall point is that you should do things for passion, not money, and only do things for money just as a means to an end, to pay the bills and put food on the table. That's it.

Zach Bellay published on

5 min, 844 words