Blog Post

2009: Year of the Hacker

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.

24 Responses to “2009: Year of the Hacker”

  1. John and Jim get fired the same day from the same job… Both of them are excellent at what they do. Both start sending resumes everywhere. In fact they both worked for the same company on the same project at the same level applying the same set of skills, albeit in different hours. Their boss micromanaged every aspect of what they did. We’ll assume he knows about selling stuff and managing. He has a slight notion of what it was that John and Jim used to do to deliver results. But you have your goals, policies, dates, meetings, ROI’s and such as any company has… The boss understands this better than any of Jim’s or John’s suggestions on how to do something better with the project.

    Both are unemployed and with tons of spare time. John decides to do something to keep the skills handy in case somebody hires him. Jim has decided to watch soap operas and catching up with tv series (hey, it could be that he starts meditating or mountain biking, but let’s get real ok?).

    John one day might look at some glitch on an open source project, he then codes some stuff to fix it and presents a solution.

    Jim is still doing nothing of the sort.

    John hears somebody about some new tool, programing pattern or language… This makes him interested in learning more.

    Jim has finished watching all seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (or whatever his girlfriend is watching).

    John comes up with an idea that might generate a new program or service. It might as well not generate a stream of revenue yet, but this is a labor of love to him.

    Jim that beard doesn’t become you.

    Both John and Jim get called one day, there’s one position open on a new company… You, dear reader, own that company… Upon presenting themselves and explaining each in a separate internview that they have been without work all this time, Jim tells you that he has been looking for a job, while John comes to you and says all the other things he did while out of work…

    Question: Who are you willing to hire? John, who in the face of adversity remained calm, sober and kept on developing his skills? Or Jim?

    This tough times are going to make us all rethink what is that which we do. If we have a job during those times we will be doing our work better, just to try and make sure that we keep the job. If we lose it we should be doing something that might somehow resemble what John did… Our intentions might not be the most noble (putting bread on our tables and creating a cool application that tweets thoughts by staring at the screen might not help all humanity in the long run), but at least they might fuel something positive in the end (that whole “let’s NOT make the world suck even more” attitude).

  2. bjholland

    There is no reason to form such a fixed opinion about whether or not this possibility in the future will happen or not. Sounds possible to me. We can’t know and part of the future is made by our opinions and actions as we decide to make the future with our collective imaginations and environmental/political factors creating the whole.

    This happens to be my situation – I lost my programming job in August and now I am developing some websites on my own. Some content and community sites. I am participating more in what is out there now. I like to think that I will help creatively and by putting in a little more of my time to improve what is there.

  3. Ah, to be young and naïve.

    People have had to struggle and work (for others or themselves) for over 100,000 years, 10,000 if you believe in creation, and all of a sudden “work” is a waste of time? This would be funny except that a lot of people agree with it which makes it scary. Who is going to “pay” (food, shelter, clothing) for all of those that don’t “work”?

    I don’t want to “work” either, but you know I would rather eat and have my kids cloathed that think the good of mankind or OSS will somehow take care of me and mine. OSS is not garbage (I “do” run a company on it) but this article is.

  4. ciberratt

    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

  5. 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?

  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. 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!


  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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…