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The Ethic of the Code: An Ethnography of a ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ Community


Haywood, Douglas. “The Ethic of the Code: an Ethnography of a ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ Community.” Journal of Peer Production. Issue #3: The Critical Power of Free Software (2013): 1–14. Print.

p.1: This paper is based upon ethnographic research carried out over a two day period in May 2012, during which, I attended the UK element of Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) at Southampton University. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.1: This particular event was organised primarily by one individual, an employee of the university, and made up of approximately twenty attendees, predominantly Southampton University students, all males aged between 18 and 35 -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.2: Perhaps this is an example of what Heath and Potter refer to as the adoption of counter-culture imagery by corporations in an attempt to benefit from its status (Heath and Potter, 2005) -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.3: An essential part of this research was the exploration of the technologies produced by these groups as cultural artefacts. By viewing technologies as social constructions, I was able to ‘trace’ the journey that these objects took throughout the process of their creation. My aim in this was to interpret what these artefacts reveal about the groups which make them. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.3: Of particular relevance has been the concept of a ‘hacker ethic’ as defined by several authors including Steven Levy (1984), Christopher Kelty (2008), Pekka Himanen (2001) and Gabriella Coleman (2013). Although a fluid and homogenous term, this ‘hacker ethic’ is usually described as encompassing, but not limited to, openness, access to technology, informational freedom, antiauthoritarianism and a spirit of exploration that goes beyond the merely technological. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.3: that this ‘hacker ethic’ itself is part of a wider social and cultural change which informed not only computer hacking but also a range of other social movements and technologies including ‘Humanitarian Hacking’, open-data, open-gov, open-education, the clean web and crowdsourcing. What this previous literature has failed to address is what this social change was and at what point it occurred. Although technological advances clearly facilitated such change, this argument alone is technologically deterministic and, I would argue, insufficient. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.4: Conferences generally have been described by Raghu Garud (2008) as “discourse spaces”, sites of conversation between participants embracing different visions of the future and “selection environments” where certain approaches are legitimised over others (Garud, 2008: 1061). In this way, he argues that conferences can serve as settings in which fields are defined, what he terms “field configuring events”. Garud suggests that this makes conferences useful places in which to study new and emerging fields with no widespread agreement as to the boundaries and membership. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.4: These types of events are now becoming fairly common in academia, business, journalism, even government. I would argue that they are indicative of a particular way of viewing the world which bears a strong relationship to the ‘hacker ethic’. A social and cultural worldview associated with liberalism, collaboration, exploration and anti-authoritarianism, related to but not determined by hacking as a purely technological activity. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.5: Manual Castells may provide some explanation for just what such changes might be. In an epilogue to Pekka Himanen’s book (2001), Castells describes changes in working practices that emerged within the ‘Network Society’ since the 1960s with a greater emphasis upon capitalism, more focus upon informationalism, decentralisation and knowledge based working practices. Many of the traits of these societies described by Castells also appear to form important areas of the hacker ethic – deregulation, liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that hackers emerged from the libertarian social and cultural movements of late 1960 North America and several authors have argued that these open-source communities and their technologies themselves are in fact reflective of this background (Rheingold, 1993; Raymond, 2000; Marx, 2010; Healy, 1996; Cooper, 2000). -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.8: Communities of hackers have been described previously as ‘gift societies’ (Raymond, 2000), ‘virtual’ or ‘imagined’ communities (Ziegler, 2002) or communities of ‘interest’, ‘knowledge’ (Kleinknecht, 2003) or ‘practice’ (Wenger, 1998) in an attempt to explain the motivations behind them. It might be tempting to describe this group, and those involved in ‘Humanitarian Hacking’ more broadly, as something of a combination of several of these types. It is worth noting, however, that relatively little empirical data exists to substantiate previous theoretical frameworks used to describe hacker communities. There may, for example, be potential for the use of both quantitatively and qualitatively grounded Social Network Analysis (Shen and Monge, 2011) to explore factors such as the sharing of code and social media interaction in shaping these communities and to map the distribution of ‘power’ and ‘influence’ among members of this group. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.8: far from being ‘awkward’, my findings make evident that the act of hacking relies heavily upon (often masculine) sociability and the ability to negotiate complex group dynamics -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.8: On the other hand, a more critical reflection might note that the event was still relatively closed; to males, to ‘techies’, to university graduates. This sense is perhaps reflected by wider global practices so that the ‘democratisation’ of technology in fact still remains limited to certain groups. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014

p.13: There was certainly evidence within the RHoK event for Himanen’s notion that changes in working practices within the ‘Network Society’ are resulting in a blurring between work and leisure – the “Fridayisation of Sunday” (Himanen, 2001). This idea of hobbyism as a motivation for hacking has been employed (Levy, 1984) but remains relatively untested. It was an interesting exercise comparing the RHoK event to conventional paid employment. In some ways, the participants were taking part in what felt similar to work or university – they gave presentations, introduced themselves to the group, worked together with strangers, sat in front of a computer late into the night. Often, these projects were closely aligned to their own work or academic research. -- Highlighted mar 14, 2014