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.