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Hacker History Revisited by goosecommerce
October 19, 2009, 4:37 am
Filed under: History and Historians | Tags:

Or, Hells Yes We Make The Future


So, recently I’ve been rethinking the hacker/historian analogy I made a few weeks ago. Two pieces, amongst other things, have me re-cogitating.

The first is a very small piece of a longish review of Google Wave, by Daniel Tenner ( h/t to BoingBoing).

But then again, most geeks don’t do all that much document-based collaboration, by email or otherwise. Programming doesn’t require a whole lot of collaboration, beyond that provided by source control tools and bug tracking system. Being Robert Scoble probably doesn’t require you to spend days working on a specification document for some finicky aspect of project X, or at least not very often, and he’s probably not the one collating everyone’s suggested changes and resubmitting the document for further review.

In your average corporate environment, though, this happens all the time.

I really only bring it up to highlight something I hadn’t stressed before, which is that while both hackers (ok, in this instance “geeks,” but whatever) and humanists collaborate with other colleagues in their work, they don’t do it on every piece — in fact, the discrete unit of output is very much a personal affair (though I imagine this is more so in academia, several times over).

In any case, both differ from the collaboration that happens in (for-profit and non-) corporate workspaces. Anecdotally, this rings very true: my academic self is consistently appalled by how much uncredited work sharing – for presentations! books even! – is de rigueur at my s.o.’s office.

The second is a more substantial piece, posted by Paul Buchheit (creator of Gmail and other neato whiz-bangs that make Google enough money to play in the Goldman Sachs League of supervillainy, er creative destruction) to his blog.

Buchheit’s piece argues that hacking is about mapping the “actual rules” of complex systems – usually miles away from “rules as they are intended or commonly perceived” – and then finding shortcuts and loopholes, thus performing ” ‘miracles’ — things which violate the perceived rules.” Importantly, Bucheit argues that hacking isn’t limited to computing: “[w]herever there are systems, there is the potential for hacking, and there are systems everywhere. Our entire reality is systems of systems, all the way down.”

So, keeping that in mind, here’s the bit that really caught my eye (emphasis mine):

To discover great hacks, we must always be searching for the true nature of our reality, while acknowledging that we do not currently possess the truth, and never will. Hacking is much bigger and more important than clever bits of code in a computer — it’s how we create the future.

I like this a lot. I like that it encapsulates why creative intellectual pursuits have to be iterative (constantly refining), and presents a new perspective that, if a bit grandiose if taken too literally (whether applied to e-mail systems or historical works, imho), does have more than a grain of truth. In regard to ‘doing history’, if “always searching for the true nature of our reality’ while acknowledging the imperfect nature of even our potential knowledge is wrong, then I don’t want to be right. And I like the two sets of rules idea as a pragmatic inspiration for work, if not as a realistic map of the universe (too hermetic for me).

Also: I’m beginning to think that thinking about history is actually just a sneaky way of getting philosophical. This is a trend I intend to resist ’round these parts.

1.) I.e. the intriguing FB conversation on the subject of my previous post; but as that was mainly about how my last throwaway line made a hash out of how Real Big Science gets done, and not the argument contained of the post itself, so I’m going to lay that aside for now, points taken.

2.) Though I can’t help but putting in a caveat for the piece, and others like it: I like some of the ideas in it, but the ideology behind it drives me nuts. Remind me some day and I’ll rant at length about the ignorance and arrogance implicit in the business-engineering mindset that seems to be so prevalent among successful Silicon Valley types (well, those that publish, anyway; See also: Scott Adams). Suffice to say that anyone who considers The Game to be primarily an example of a clever system exploit is living a life both deeply annoying and unexamined.

Image cite: Olya, DSC_0449,” Flickr, CC License


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