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Run-on Sentence Summary

Eric Raymond, creator of SendMail and unofficial figurehead of the open source movement, explains the phenomenon in a series of classic essays.


This series of essays, chronicling and attempting to explain the open source revolution, is now a piece of history in its own right. Raymond comes off as a bit weird and egotistical, but his ideas resonate.

I highlighted half of the book, but there are two main threads that emerge when I think back. The first is the book’s anthropological analysis of the open source phenomenon. He gives a detailed history, culminating back then in the late nineties with the victory of linux and the monumental open sourcing of the netscape browser (now firefox) in order to compete with big evil Microsoft. The book pairs well with another I’ve read, Rebel Code, which provides a much more thorough and detailed history. Unlike rebel code, Raymond tries to explain in terms of human behavior why open source has been so successful.

He points out how ownership of open source projects, which in theory are completely open and free for anyone to modify however they please, is closely analogous to how new land was acquired back in the wild west. Just like when homesteading a tract of land, social norms arise surrounding claiming new territory, or taking over control of land (or a project) when the original owner appears to have abandoned it.

In an attempt to explain why people would work for free, he explains how, unlike our broader capitalist exchange economy, open source runs on a gift economy, which seems to appear as a way to get status among groups that have plenty of resources to share, as among the very rich. The fact that he actually uses the term “gift economy” immediately makes me think of burning man, but also reminds me of the ultimate frisbee community. I have been attracted to all three for their idealism, and this analysis helped give me a new perspective on these cultures I am a part of. Whether he is right or if he is oversimplifying complex human behavior is a different point.

The other fascinating aspect of this book was using it as a window into the hacker mindset and culture of the late nineties. The stories of Linus and others are full of bravado and glorified hero coders, and a strong cultural identity shines through. Hackers may be nerds and social outcasts, but they can achieve amazing things and are part of a brotherhood.

He explains: "Being a social outcast helps you stay concentrated on the really important things, like thinking and hacking. For this reason, many hackers have adopted the label “nerd” and even use the harsher term “geek” as a badge of pride — it’s a way of declaring their independence from normal social expectations.”

He despises how normal people and the media confuse the notion of a hacker, which he sees as a creator and a hero, with what he calls a “cracker,” or someone who breaks in to computer systems. This separate subculture is completely at odds with his identity and the hacker aesthetic. Interesting to see how this confusion persists nearly 20 years later.

It is remarkable to see how far software culture has come. People nowadays complain of “brogrammers” and a million other undesirable groups that pollute and dilute the hacker roots, but really, our wider culture is finally becoming technically saturated enough that “normal people” are becoming developers. A programmer doesn’t have to be the skinny white nerdy sidekick in an action movie that can touch a keyboard and perform magic on queue, but can even play sports or gasp be a woman. More growing pains are inevitable, but I am eager to understand and see my tribe (as he refers to the developer community) continue to evolve.

Final Thoughts

This was an entertaining history, and a fascinating view into hacking’s cultural roots. It might not be as interesting if you are not a developer yourself.

Favorite Quote

“Similarly, to be a hacker you have to get a basic thrill from solving problems, sharpening your skills, and exercising your intelligence. If you aren’t the kind of person that feels this way naturally, you’ll need to become one in order to make it as a hacker. Otherwise you’ll find your hacking energy is sapped by distractions like sex, money, and social approval."