When the hacker ethic meets old ideas about brand

The hacker ethic says we should value solving problems more than preserving institutions. But what happens to organizational identity when we do that?
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Opensource.com

Open organizations apply principles from open source software development more broadly. Existing organizations find the open approach appealing because it promises gains in productivity and efficiency—but openness may have farther-reaching consequences than we anticipate or intend.

One influential set of open principles comes from Steven Levy's book about the early history of the computing revolution, Hackers. Levy lays out what he calls "the Hacker Ethic," and it begins with "the Hands-On Imperative":

In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt.

Open source fulfils this vision for a significant facet of our society: software. While some obstacles remain—writing software requires a computer connected to the internet, not to mention time and ability—the barrier of restricted ownership is gone. Open source software is owned by no-one and everyone. We have released our code into the commons.

What might happen if we do the same with our organizations?

Open ownership

We're exploring a new understanding of ownership at Gratipay, a startup that helps companies pay for open source software. Yes, we have a binary distinction between our legal owners and non-owners (Gratipay is a worker-owned cooperative, itself a form of workplace democracy). But we prefer to emphasize "ownership" in the broader sense of feeling personally invested in our company—something each individual determines for themselves, resulting in a spectrum of ownership rather than a simple binary.

To echo Levy, if someone is "pissed off enough" about some aspect of Gratipay, we want to empower them to do something about it. Gratipay does not hire or fire people in the traditional sense. Instead, we practice open hiring, with an incremental onboarding process from first contact, through initial contributions (code or otherwise), to participation in our take-what-you-want compensation system, culminating in formal legal co-ownership. Gratipay's legal owners are like a board of directors who exercise long-term stewardship. In day-to-day operations, we take our place alongside everyone else in the collaborative decision-making processes characteristic of open source.

Open hiring and open ownership may seem like obvious, incremental steps in applying open source thinking to organizations, but they raise significant questions about just how far we will be able to go in opening up our organizations, and the challenges we might face along the way.

Down the rabbit hole

Consider that Gratipay has a fork, Liberapay, and some individuals contribute to both. Viewed as two open source projects, this isn't remarkable. But Gratipay and Liberapay are, prima facie, two competing organizations. Imagine Google and Facebook simultaneously employing some of the same key people—without non-compete agreements.

To a certain extent, knowledge transfer between organizations already happens under the surface even between closed organizations, as individuals move from one organization to another. Non-compete agreements can only do so much to staunch the flow. Open organizations have the potential to accelerate this sort of transfer by removing the brakes entirely.

Moreover, competing organizations do explicitly share knowledge and effort in certain circumstances. Linux is a clear example. Isuzu and Honda co-developing a diesel engine is another. But these are not core business functions. Gratipay and Liberapay, on the other hand, divulge their public issue trackers and strategic roadmaps.

For a hacker, the lasting benefit of a problem well-solved outweighs the temporary pain of a bruised ego or a shuttered brand.

Open hiring and open ownership seem to promise a more fluid economy, where each of us as individuals has a high degree of autonomy to move around between organizations, and to participate in multiple organizations simultaneously. That could also be a net benefit for society as a whole, since knowledge drives innovation, and optimizing resource allocation drives efficiency. But what does that mean for organizational identity and longevity? Is it even possible for existing organizations to convert to such a thorough vision of openness within the current framework of fiduciary responsibility?

To begin to understand how challenging this level of openness can be for existing organizations to achieve, consider the example of Balanced Payments, a startup whose adoption of openness helped them gain mindshare in a crowded market. However, openness ultimately contributed to their downfall. Balanced developed an important new feature in the open together with their user community, but someone else was silently watching: Stripe, a major competitor. Days before Balanced's scheduled roll-out, Stripe brought to market a rushed version of the same feature, stealing Balanced's momentum and sealing their fate. Are deeply open organizations like Balanced doomed from the start? How can they gain a foothold in the market against closed incumbents? Given the challenges, is there sufficient incentive to create open organizations in the first place?

The Balanced owners and employees moved on to other organizations: an instance of the knowledge transfer that happens between organizations, open or not. If Liberapay ends up solving the problem of funding open source vastly better than Gratipay, then those of us working on Gratipay can easily migrate our efforts to Liberapay, because Liberapay has inherited Gratipay's open hiring practices. What if the same were true of Balanced and Stripe? Would the transition have been more or less painful for the individuals involved? Would it have been better or worse for the two organizations? For the payments industry?

If I subscribe to the Hacker Ethic, my primary commitment is not to perpetuate an institution but rather to solve a problem. For a hacker, the lasting benefit of a problem well-solved outweighs the temporary pain of a bruised ego or a shuttered brand. Will we hackers be able to realize this comprehensive vision of the open organization, one that includes open hiring and open ownership? Will we be able to create a critical mass of these deeply open organizations, so that early adopters and eventually the early and late majority can find a livelihood there?

Today, imagining an organization of 10,000 or 100,000 people practicing this level of openness might be difficult. But if we are able to evolve our organizations in this direction, then we may some day live in a world in which a sufficiently motivated hacker can fix not just a software bug, but a traffic light.

User profile image.
I'm the founder of Gratipay, an open organization with a mission to cultivate an economy of gratitude, generosity, and love. We help companies and others pay for open source—and we're funded on our own platform. Offline, I live outside Pittsburgh, PA, USA, and online, I live on Slack, IRC, and GitHub.

8 Comments

This is a good thought provoking piece. I haven't been scooped yet in my own work - but I can imagine the frustration that would come with it. If we can take money out of the equation it certainly makes it much more possible to live by a pure hacker ethic as credit for an idea (even if it is stolen and completed by someone else) can be traced back to the originators. As automation eliminates the need for more jobs - the current economic system may itself lay the foundation for this to become more widespread (e.g. if the majority of society is living on a guaranteed basic income ala Canada's new experiments http://business.financialpost.com/news/economy/hamilton-lindsay-and-thu…).

Universal basic income (UBI) does seem to be part of the equation. That lessens the importance of money at the low end, so that it becomes easier to take risks on new ventures. What's more puzzling to me, though, is how to account for institutional supply if we lessen the importance of money at the *high* end. The profit motive is so strong! It's almost tautological to say that entrepreneurs are driven by the profit motive. And yet, I want to believe that there are deeper, truer motivations underlying at least a good swath of entrepreneurship. A sample sentiment from a recent conversation: "I want to create good jobs for people so that they can go out for a nice meal every now and then." For this person, the profit motive proxies care for others. Surely it often proxies barren greed, but I hold out hope for a virtuous cycle to emerge wherein open organizational forms call forth and reify the better angels of our nature.

In reply to by Joshua Pearce

Great article with broad concepts, but it really needs a follow-on to discuss some of the more practical aspects connecting organizations with their customers - i.e. the entities who will pay some sort of salary (or even just hosting costs).

The hacker ethic is important socially, but it operates on the individual level. Once you talk about an open *organization*, there are more aspects to how the world sees, interacts with, and considers using the outputs of an organization that really need some discussion. Code is only valuable to the world if other people use it: individual hacker projects are less likely to actually get *used* in the larger world than community or company-driven projects.

Separately, the really big looming issues are trademarks and brands. People kind-of are thinking about how an open organization builds a brand, although most of us reading opensource.com have far less experience than even the smallest advertising company. But the real issue that is still widely misunderstood is trademarks, and how the law defines ownership for them.

In an "open organization", who owns the trademark? The hacker's point of view is immaterial - it all depends on what the legal entity using the trademark and providing the software product is.

Organizations (~= legal entities) still exist in a perfect hacker world, and an *open* organization is still an *organization*, operating within the framework of (e.g.) trademark law. Whether a particular organization chooses to enforce trademarks within that framework is an open question, as is the evolution of that framework should openness carry the day.

But, why do you see trademarks and brands as such crucial issues?

In reply to by Shane Curcuru

The brand is (for a short definition) what the world perceives as the product or organization's identity. It's how new users (and potential contributors of all sorts) find you, and it's the symbol everyone else associates with who you or your organization are.

Trademarks are the legal instantiation of a brand. Trademark laws are both fairly complex, rely on tiny details of how your web pages are presented in the real world, and - on top of that - are widely misunderstood. More to the point, you generally can't share a trademark across organizations, because the entire point of a trademark is that consumers associate a *single* entity with the product they're buying or using.

Obviously, it depends on each organization and their goals - and how the marketplace of potential competitors acts - if trademark law will actually matter in daily life for your project. Unfortunately, when trademark disputes do come up, they can be very messy, and can be hard for traditional open source projects (especially nonprofits) to fix once a problem comes up.

And your example is a perfect one: Gratipay versus Liberapay - forks in code and business models, but different brands and trademarks. While the differences are obvious and intuitive for people working on these projects, the main difference to other humans is the world is the brand.

In reply to by Chad Whitacre

This is an interesting topic and worthy of consideration (in Gratipay we're thinking about this in https://github.com/gratipay/inside.gratipay.com/issues/692; I've taken the liberty of cc'ing you there).

Now, the point of trademark law as I understand it is consumer protection. But enforcing trademark law is expensive and difficult, requiring constant vigilance, and neglecting to act to protect a trademark means giving it up (yes?).

But why is trademark law still relevant in the age of Twitter, when consumers can be informed of brand confusions swiftly and directly? Aren't social media and email cheaper and faster ways of protecting consumers than legal actions?

In reply to by Shane Curcuru

Remember how I said that trademark law is widely misunderstood? 8-)

> "But enforcing trademark law is expensive and difficult, requiring constant vigilance, and neglecting to act to protect a trademark means giving it up (yes?)."

It depends, but in general, no to all of the above - at least in the practical cases that open source projects like we're talking about here deal with.

This is a much bigger conversation than a reply thread here, but suffice to say there are a bunch of fairly simple things you can do that give you decent insurance about protecting your trademark later. Picture it like insurance: you have to pay (a tiny bit - in project organization, not money) up front, for protection later.

If you don't act at all to protect your trademarks now, *if* something comes up later, you'll be stuck. But with a little work beforehand, you have a reasonable ability later to *choose* if you want to defend the trademark or not.

Thanks for the GitHub mention, will follow over there.

In reply to by Chad Whitacre

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