There's an Anarchist Behind Your Computer

Lately I’ve been hearing a lot of anarchists equate computers with authority and social control. This is strange to me. The people who design computers and write software have their own subculture, and its principles are highly aligned with anarchy. Certainly capitalism has put its mark on the computers we use daily, but that’s simply because the ever-expanding behemoth of commoditization poisons everything it touches. This can be compared to the music industry: few would argue that rock and roll is a capitalist tool, simply because it has been turned into a product that is bought and sold. Yet hardware and software are being treated this way, and those who make it are viewed with disdain.

The word “hacker” is misunderstood in popular culture to mean someone who cracks into other people’s systems (that’s properly a “cracker”). Among those who code software, a hacker is a clever person who comes up with a better way of doing something. The way hackers generally express themselves is in writing better and more efficient code. But any clever solution is considered a hack, and most hacks are not malicious.

An example of non-software hacking would be Phil Zimmerman, a hacker who wanted a way for anti-nuclear activists to be able to communicate securely. The data encryption program he came up with (PGP, or Pretty Good Privacy which, like many hacker words, is a bit of a joke) is widely used today. But back in 1991, the US government didn’t like that his data encryption was getting into foreign hands so they charged Zimmerman with “munitions export without a license”. Zimmerman’s hack was to print out the source code and get it published by MIT Press. As a book in the library of congress, he could argue that PGP was protected under the First Amendment. A clever hack.

Note that when I say coders are part of an inherently anarchist subculture, I don’t mean to say that every person who writes code adheres to these beliefs. But I am saying that the subculture itself is inherently radical. As an analogy, one might argue that the history of punk music is deeply tied to anarchist principles. But no one would presume that means every punk fan, or even every punk music band, lives by these ideals. But you might go so far as to say that exploring the history of punk and striving to live a punk-as-fuck life would likely push one towards a more anarchist way of thinking. This is what I’m saying about software and hardware developer culture. Many people today are chasing down engineering degrees just to get a decent paycheck. But those who do it out of love, and those who seek to understand the inside jokes and ethos from whence their language was written, will find a radical belief system at its center.

The freedoms hackers strive to promote are of import to all who use computers. The Internet, open source, and crowdsourcing are the biggest and most successful applications of anarchist principles in the history of recorded civilization. It’s time anarchists took note of their most natural ally: the software hacker.

Here are some of the principles that are critical to the hacker subculture. They may strike you as familiar.

Information Should Be Free

“The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” –hacktivist John Gilmore

The geeks who write code and design computers believe information should be free and open. To hackers, any system is better if kept transparent. This belief was born of seeing how unrestricted access to information can allow the creation of better software. But those who follow this philosophy tend to be opposed to censorship in all forms.

Hacktivist Richard Stallman puts it this way: “Arrangements to make people pay for using a program, including licensing of copies, always incur a tremendous cost to society through the cumbersome mechanisms necessary to figure out how much (that is, which programs) a person must pay for. And only a police state can force everyone to obey them.

Consider a space station where air must be manufactured at great cost: charging each breather per liter of air may be fair, but wearing the metered gas mask all day and all night is intolerable even if everyone can afford to pay the air bill. And the TV cameras everywhere to see if you ever take the mask off are outrageous. It’s better to support the air plant with a head tax and chuck the masks.

Copying all or parts of a program is as natural to a programmer as breathing, and as productive. It ought to be as free.”

Julian Assange and Wikileaks are well known examples of hackers making efforts to keep information free. You may also be familiar with whistleblower Edward Snowden, who was essentially a professional hacker.

Open Access

The practical application of a philosophy of openness leads into the next hacker ethic: sharing. It’s not enough for information to be free. Hackers believe that code should be shared.

Without open access to the code that makes up our software, it’s difficult for projects to be improved or bugs tackled. Progress slows to a crawl. Conversely, the strides made through cooperative coding have inspired a generation of people who turn to the wisdom of crowds for all kinds of projects.The Internet itself is an example of the possibilities of collaboration that succeeds on such a staggering scale, it would have beyond the scope of imagination for most people alive several generations ago. Writing software works much the same way: when coders use sites like Github to work together, they’re able to produce far more than they could alone. Hackers believe this is not only a convenience, it’s a right.

This struggle has been with hackers since the beginning of computers. In the early days of coding, software wasn’t seen as a commodity. Most software only ran on the machine it was made for, so it didn’t even occur to them that it was something that could be bought or sold.

Coders shared freely, and it was common to build on or perfect software that others had begun. The Harvard Computer lab had a policy that they’d not allow installation of software unless the code was publicly posted. At MIT good software was developed by coders accessing a free box of sorts, from which they’d improve the code and put it back for the next person to use.The nature of coding is collaborative, in that, at a certain magnitude, it becomes impractical for one person to complete the code on her own. While factory workers had to grow into the idea that they should control the means of production, software uniquely began as a completely open culture of free sharing.

“If you can’t open it, you don’t own it”

Thus true hackers believe in the “Hands-on Imperative”: users should be able to tinker with things. For example, it’s commonplace these days for companies to state in their license agreements (those long EULAS we sign) that warranties that are void if the owner attempts to take the object apart and put it back together. Another example is Digital Rights Management (DRM), the corporate practice of putting extra stuff in data like mp3s, e-books and video games to make them difficult to share. Hackers would consider this malicious, and might even refer to such code as a virus.

Free as in Speech

Coders aren’t mere armchair revolutionaries. Hackers fight for these principles of on a daily basis. In the examples above, a hacker is giving the man the finger just by fixing a friend’s laptop,or creating a torrent file to illegally share the latest DRM-protected video game. My point is not that these are highly revolutionary actions, my point is that they do these things with the spirit of rebellion. Most people don’t care about or understand issues like DRM and EULAs, but hackers feel that these corporations are impinging on their rights and they’re happy to fight back.

It was Bill Gates who spread the notion that code was something that should be paid for. In 1976 his widely distributed “An Open Letter to Hobbyists” complained that because engineers were sharing his BASIC software, the new Microsoft company was unable to profit. To many the idea of selling software was an alien concept, and there were plenty of others who were offended he was hiding the code. It had to be hidden, or anyone else could copy and sell it, but that also meant the coders couldn’t make their own improvements and mods. This went against the very values hackers had bonded over. Gates was sacrificing quality for profit.

In response to this growing idea that a page of ones and zero could be a product, beloved hacker Richard Stallman started the GNU software project in 1983 and founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985. Their manifesto outlines this belief that software should be “free,” not as in beer, but as it is in the phrase “free speech.”

The Free Software Movement promotes open source software. This just means you can see the code, and modify it or share it with others. The focus is put on creating better software rather than restricting access for the sake of greed. The biggest name in open software, is the operating system GNU/Linux. Linux is also easier to hack, gives the user more control, and has better security and privacy…all because the hackers who coded it value freedom, privacy and security. You may think that few people use Linux, because most home computer users run corporate software (like Microsoft). However, the very people who design their machines, build their software, and run their websites use open source free software instead (like GNU/Linux). It’s because of the open source movement that there are so many free (as in beer) programs available, no strings attached.

The people who make open source software are building complex data structures and giving them away, just for the love of creating code and the belief that it should be free. This free software is behind many advances in the technology gap, such as the One Laptop Per Child program. Open source programs like GIMP and Audacity further bridge the economic gap by allowing free entry into previously expensive skills like photo and audio editing. This has been critical to the rise of independent media. While some anarcho-primitivists may oppose the use of technology, they must admit that strides taken to make computers free and accessible to all break down socio-economic barriers.


Coders believe things function better when there’s no central authority. Who rules the Internet? No one and everyone. Governments all over the world are trying to pass legislation to control this perfectly open space, or give that control to corporations (e.g. CISPA, SOPA). And it is the hackers who are fighting these changes, both within and outside the system. Anonymous is an example of a group of hackers who fight corporate control by any means necessary (yes, they’re pranksters about it, which is the hacker way).

Hackers: Against All Authority

Another tenet of hacker culture is a general mistrust of authority. It’s only natural that a subculture in favor of sharing, decentralization and transparency would be opposed to beauracracies and authoritative systems.

Hackers don’t respect the labels of authority. This culture built on playful competition prefers people prove their skills. Perhaps this is because so many of the suits they’ve been required to answer to, be it from college funding boards or hiring managers, know *nothing about the languages of code.

Moreover, it’s those same authority figures who continually strive to profit off of the endeavors of software coders. At every turn the hacker runs afoul of those who would take their art and profit from it. The Luddites may think of coding as a boring and analytical practice. But to hackers, writing code is an art, not a science. The very languages that software is written in have evolved to reflect the culture and humor of those who invented it. I do not exaggerate when I say that great code is appreciated much the same way as a beautiful painting or poem. But unlike a sonnet, these codes are inextricably linked to everything from phones to hospital equipment to weapons systems.

*The Jargon File, a repository of hacker phrases, refers to suits as the “worst of all in hackish vocabulary.” It also says in that same introduction, “Hackers, as a rule, love wordplay and are conscious and inventive in their use of language. These traits seem to be common in young children, but the conformity-enforcing machine we are pleased to call an educational system bludgeons them out of most of us before adolescence.”