Looking ahead to 2009, I can’t help but wonder what tens of thousands of skilled tech workers being kicked into a hostile job market will mean, what kind of creativity could be unleashed by workers who, though deprived of a steady paycheck, are freed from the tedious task of working for someone else. I think the results could prove to be positive for the Internet and its community over the long term.

In thinking about what an economically bleak 2009 will mean for the Internet, I kept coming back to something Chris Anderson wrote a few months ago, back before the tech world awoke to the full impact of the credit crunch.

Anderson (disclosure: he edits Wired, a publication for which I sometimes write) talked in October of a “gift economy.” Riffing on Clay Shirky’s notion of a “cognitive surplus,” he imagined this excess ability expanding as unemployed workers engage in labors of love for free, if only to do something valuable with their time and/or advertise their skills.

As a result I think you’ll see a boom in creativity and sharing online as people take matters into their own hands. Today, if you’re in-between jobs you can still be productive, and the reputational currency you earn may pay dividends in the form of a better job when the economy recovers.

I don’t mean to downplay how hard it is to be unemployed. But with tens of thousands of skilled tech workers being kicked into a hostile job market, the effects could prove to be positive for the Internet and its community over the long term.

Of course, employed engineers and other creative workers already apply their skills — in the service of their employers. Many are bored by the stifling grind. Not long ago on Hacker News, a developer complained how, as much as he loves coding, he just doesn’t like work.

Yeah, the million-dollar question from ‘Office Space’, find a way to make a career of whatever you’d do if you didn’t have to have a career. It’s possible, but it’s the “career” part I hate. I fail to understand the Protestant Work Ethic. I don’t see any reward in work, just lost time.

The notion that being creative in thrall to an employer results in as much “lost time” as watching a “Gilligan’s Island” marathon is a seditious one — and naturally it resonated with other developers. The post and the 188 comments are a great read. Many said they could have written it themselves, and it wasn’t very long before someone quoted Einstein:

The thought of having to expend my creative energy on things that make practical everyday life more refined, with a bleak capital gain as the goal, was unbearable to me.

I wonder what kind of creativity could be unleashed by workers who, though deprived of a steady paycheck, are freed from such tedious tasks. Some could come up with new ideas that help vault the web to a more advanced stage. Others may make micro-contributions that are equally powerful in aggregate. Such creativity could then foster an entirely new generation of startups, which would eventually lure away some of those who had remained at steady jobs all along.

That would be true to the Internet’s history, which advanced through vacillations between programming subculture and commercial enterprise. And currently, the pendulum is swinging back to subculture once again. Only this time, the web has a stronger capacity to both welcome those with free time and amplify their skills.

It’s not just coding, it could be Wikipedia-like community projects. It could be some of the legions of journalists setting up sites like VoiceofSanDiego, or improving the quality of self-produced videos on YouTube (which are reportedly starting to pay well for a few.)

Of course, money will be hard to come by for such labors of love. Some of the best ideas since the last downturn have failed to find a viable business model. A gift economy would be an especially profitless form of innovation. But that notion lies at the heart of the hacking ethic.

Or as Shirky put it, in distilling his notion of cognitive surplus into a general principle: “It’s better to do something than to do nothing.”

I can think of a few worse mottos for 2009.

  1. [...] was about to go to bed and read this essay by Kevin Kelleher about 2009 being the year of the Hacker, and eerily reflected alot of the thoughts I’ve been having and/or seeing happen out in the [...]

  2. ok….

    umm… let’s get this straight… a bunch of unemployed engineers/designers who aren’t working, start to code great things because they no longer work for the man!! not that they couldn’t have done this on their time after their job when they were employed. but now, they have the time/desire/skills to create great apps!!

    ok. forgive me for laughing. but damn man, can i get some of the bud you’re smokin’!

    have you seen a great deal of the crrap that’s already put out as open source… it’s pure garbage… just as most of the blogging stuff is crap.

    so you’re going to get a lot of engineers writing more crap!! which is not to say that you won’t get a few seriously great/useful things. but most so called ‘engineers/developers’ aren’t into the sweat equity thing. they’re looking for a chack. and if you’re not into the sweat equity thing, you’re really limited to working on the things you want to work on, which means you’re probably working on a project as the only person on the project. which means the chances of it being good are pretty damn small….

    but keep dreamin’!!!

    just don’t expect this huge surge of rgeat apps from unemployed engineers…


  3. I’m pretty sure Kevin is right on here, and his timing is fantastic.

    “Circuit Girl” (Jeri Ellsworth…see Wikipedia) just surprised me an hour or so ago by posting four edited versions of a webcast we’ve been playing at, “The Fat Man and Circuit Girl.”


    A lot of the themes resonate, Kevin. In one of the shows, Jeri has bent her considerable talents towards making an animatronic skeleton as a present for somebody she admires. Also, we harp on coming up with as many ideas as we can, which, if done in a public forum, would throw those ideas that haven’t already been patented into the public domain, thus keeping them available for Joe Fixhack to make, improve, give away, and even sell.

    Although I would suggest that a kind and creative person, even if employed in a “normal job,” will usually find time to do something creative and kind. Just as a true songwriter will always write songs, and it’s only the wannabes who just talk about the song they are working on.

    At the very least, I do hope that any downside of the employment situation will be offset by a mass accumulation of creativity and generosity, with a dash of tech, coming from the Good People. It could mean a lot to the world.

  4. There are a many people in the employed domain who if left without a job will have the talent to spawn their own works for profit in the self-employed domain. Anything to keep the blade sharp and to continue to add to “experience” on their resumes. Some will go back to school. Some will work not-for-profit. Some will work open source. However, the majority will walk away from jobs they weren’t qualified to do in the first place.

    The dot com bubble in 2000 found us with all these no-talent people attempting to create internet businesses when they couldn’t code worth crap. When the bubble burst suddenly the industry realized how much chaff there was. Qualified talent was still hard to find.

    How many people that entered the Gold Rush or any rush in any industry really had the ability to produce? Pareto gives you the number, about 20 percent.

    I had to leave my last job because I felt like I was on board an overloaded life boat. In a technological environment that cannot see two years ahead we were dealing with people trying to make ten year plans. In all their wisdom they were still using COBOL and planned to be using current technology ten years in the future. If I wanted to I could have probably kept my head down and worked for that company until I retired. The problem was the place was an asylum.

    I agree with Einstein’s quote. But Einstein was employed in a patent office working on his physics in his spare time. That’s a hard grind burning the candle at both ends until you can get the winning product out. It is also difficult to have that kind of vision. I am reading R. Buckminster Fuller right now and only until he was a total failure and ready to take his own life did he realize that he had nothing to lose by thinking on a global scale.

    I am in the ranks of the self-employed right now. I think I can make a difference, but the learning curve will be a steep one.

  5. Personally I think we’ll see more people at the bar, drinking away their misfortunes! You can meet me there! Ha Ha

    Sometimes getting fired is the best thing that can happen to anyone – but it seems like the worst thing at the time.

    I say this to all my fellow entrepreneurs – “Unsuccessful Men Never Knew How Close to Success They Really Were, Before They Gave Up”

    No idea who said it – but it’s one of those sayings I keep sticky taped to my wall!

    All the best for 2009 everyone!


  6. It could happen: more people with more time to “spare.”

    You don’t always control your timing, things happen to the economy that are beyond your control. We started FairSoftware when the economy looked great, because we believed in the concept that geeks wanted to start a side-business together.

    Now that everyone is freaked out (absurdly so in my opinion), our proposition looks much more relevant. Time will tell.

    Smart engineers don’t become suddenly dumb just because the economy tanked

  7. So does web traffic rise with unemployment? That’s hard to say because so many people surf the web at work, they may not even have a computer or Internet connection at home, or they were employed to work on the web, or maybe without a job they will cancel their Internet service, or maybe they will spend less time online because they can’t afford to shop their favorite websites. Or maybe they need two lower-paying jobs (or longer hours at a lower paying job) to make up for the higher paying job they lost, resulting in less time spent online. Or instead of playing around on Facebook after work they decide to go back to school and take night classes. It’s hard to say one way or the other.

    In part I agree with you. If you have nothing left to lose, desperation might get you to dust off that difficult idea you had during the good times. However, the truly creative never “sold out” in the first place, they worked on their best ideas all along and suffered the consequences all along, working part-time “day” jobs to pay the bills, scratching out pseudo-code on lunch breaks. Maybe with the exception of the Renaissance, I don’t think great art has much to do with economics, in all my study of art history, artists will make art with whatever materials they have, however they can, and many of them were really well off when everyone else was hurting, and some just had a huge inheritance, like Cezanne, and didn’t think about money at all. How artists make money is almost as interesting as the art itself.

    Yet another way of looking at it: we won’t notice much difference. As far as Internet technology goes, 20 years ago, the difference is only cosmetic, and now more people have access. This comment form, for example, we’re using XHTML instead of ANSI, DSL instead of dialup, WordPress instead of Wildcat, you get the picture. We have faster machines, more memory, more colors and more pixels, to do all the same stuff we did before. Are we really any more efficient?

  8. [...] Kelleher’s article on GigaOm this morning titled 2009: Year of the Hacker made me think back to the rise of open source after the Internet crash of 2001.  In the [...]

  9. To the guy who says OSS is garbage… you obviously haven’t a clue… lets see… Open Office, Joomla (and 1000’s of it’s extensions), many good implementations of Linux, Gimp, Asterix PBX, etc, etc. Yea, no good solid software there.

    I can run an entire company on OSS – and on PC’s that cost $99 each from Wal-Mart.

    If you really think OSS is *that* bad then I don’t believe you either:

    a – have ever really used it


    b – have a clue how to use it

  10. Hackesr are driven by dfferent motives, spare time isn’t one of them.


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