Professionalism/Pekka Himanen and The Hacker Ethic

Pekka Himanen provides a new perspective on professional ethics in the Information Age. According to Himanen, modern computing has illuminated a new kind of professional. The hacker embraces seven values: passion, freedom, social worth, openness, activity, caring, and creativity. The hacker ethic is conventionally associated with the technology industry. Computer hackers easily distribute software and emphasize collaboration. However, the hacker ethic applies to more than just computer hackers; professionals in other industries can be hackers, too.

Pekka HimanenEdit

Pekka Himanen, author of The Hacker Ethic

Pekka Himanen researches the Information Age and investigates the culture of creativity surrounding modern computing professionals. At age 20, Himanen obtained a PhD in Theoretical Philosophy from the University of Helsinki.[1] Since then, he has held positions as a visiting professor and scholar at UC Berkeley, Oxford University, and other schools in Europe and the U.S.[1] Himanen’s work characterizes the spirit of informationalism—the period ushered in by computers at the turn of the 21st century—as well as dignified life—the features of existence that society should develop further.

Himanen published The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age in 2001, and it has become his most famous work; others have translated it into 16 languages. The Hacker Ethic directly counters Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). Instead of treating work as a duty, hackers see work as a way of life. In this context, 'hacker' refers not to people who manipulate or break into computer systems, but rather to those who apply their expertise to solve novel problems.

The Hacker EthicEdit


Linus Torvalds, developer of the Linux kernel, exemplifies passion and openness

Passion drives hackers to pursue excellence in their work. Himanen describes passion as “the dedication to an activity that is intrinsically interesting, inspiring, and joyous” (p. 6). Pursuit of one's passions is energizing, but may not be easy. Paradise is not a life doing nothing; interesting activities challenge the hacker. Hackers seek eudaimonia.

Linus Torvalds embodies passion with his work on the Linux operating system.[2] In describing his work, Torvalds said: "Linux has very much been a hobby (but a serious one: the best type)."[3] Software developer Eric Raymond said of the Unix hackers' philosophy:

"To do the Unix philosophy right, you have to be loyal to excellence. You have to believe that software is a craft worth all the intelligence and passion you can muster… You need to care. You need to play. You need to be willing to explore" (p. 5-6).

Passion applies to others besides technologists. Himanen cites Plato as a passionate academic. Plato said philosophy is “like light flashing forth when a fire is kindled, it is born in the soul and straightway nourishes itself” (p. 6).


Freedom describes hackers’ self-determined organization of their time. The Protestant Ethic clearly distinguishes work and play. It delegates work to the weekdays (i.e. Friday) and leisure to the weekends (i.e. Sunday). However, recent technology has optimized people's usage of time to the extent that they regiment both work and leisure time. In Himanen’s terms, the "Fridayization of Sunday" has left workers without space to enjoy anything for its intrinsic value.

Hackers subvert this trend with the "Sundayization of Friday"—they optimize time to allow for playfulness. This optimization "should lead to a life for human beings that is less machinelike—less optimized and routine" (p. 33). In the technology industry, flextime is increasingly popular. Himanen explains that in the hacker version of flextime, "work, family, friends, hobbies, [etc], are combined less rigidly, so that work is not always in the center of the map." (p 33). He compares flextime to Plato’s notion of skhole, the ability to organize one's time oneself.

Social WorthEdit

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, demonstrates social worth

Peer recognition and meaningful work motivate hackers. Under the Protestant Ethic, people work as a means to an end of making profit; hackers work as the end itself. They find their passions before investigating how to make them financially feasible. To hackers, "recognition within a community that shares their passion is more important and more deeply satisfying than money" (p. 51).

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, followed his passion for making computers. After hearing the social goals of academics at Berkeley and Stanford, Wozniak "decided then and there to help them reach those goals by designing a computer that was affordable."[4] "My goal was not money or power," he said. Community, not income, motivated Wozniak to build computers.


Hackers embrace an open information model and understand that collective knowledge and innovations increase when everyone has equal access to information. In the Net Academy, students learn by "becoming researching learners" and their discoveries "permanently enrich all other learners" (p. 78). For hackers, work is not only socially (and possibly materially) enriching, but also intellectually enriching for their peers. This model mimics the Platonic Academy, where students began their own starting points to learning.

Linus Torvalds demonstrated openness during the development of Linux. In 1991, Torvalds elicited online users' help to develop Linux when he posted to the "comp.os.minix" newsgroup. Twenty-five years later, more than 10,000 developers have contributed to the Linux kernel (the core process of the operating system).[5]

Copyleft logo, a mirror image of the traditional copyright one.

Richard Stallman’s GNU Project takes openness to its logical extreme. The GNU General Public License (GPL) dictates access to and reuse of all software in the project.[6]. Users can freely run, share, and modify any work covered by the GPL. The GPL is a so-called viral or copyleft license, where derivative works must maintain the same license. Such licenses ensure that developers cannot profit off of free and open-source software (FOSS) projects such as GNU.


Hackers value freedom of expression, privacy, and self-activity. Freedom of expression enables individuals to actively participate in society by letting them share different viewpoints. Surveillance encourages people to live a certain way. Himanen says privacy "secures one’s activity in creating a personal lifestyle" (p. 106). Hackers do not passively receive information; they actively pursue their passions. While the Protestant work ethic encourages passive amusement, the hacker ethic promotes self-activity in leisure activities.


Caring describes hackers' attitude towards others, particularly the exploited and marginalized. In the prologue to The Hacker Ethic, Linus Torvalds details three basic human motivations—survival, social life, and entertainment—and asserts that human progression entails transition from the former to the latter (p. xiv). Caring tries to move humanity past the "survival mentality" and into a more dignified existence (p. 141).

Mitch Kapor, the founder of Lotus, created a foundation for promoting tech careers for underrepresented demographic groups.[7]Sandy Lerner, a co-founder of Cisco donates to animal welfare charities.[8] "Caring" actions can coexist with "social worth" ones. However, underlying motivations distinguish "social worth" actions—those that fit within a community—from "caring" ones—those that enhance the community itself.


Creativity—"the imaginative use of one’s own abilities, the surprising continuous surpassing of oneself, and the giving to the world of a genuinely valuable new contribution"—encompasses all components of the hacker ethic (p. 141). Himanen claims that this value is paramount; professionals who honor it are "true heroes" who embrace hackerism in the fullest sense of the word (p 141).

The hacker ethic provides a lens through which people can analyze professionals. A person can embody some or all values of the hacker ethic. To better organize the seven values of the hacker ethic, Himanen defines three sub-ethics. The work ethic spans freedom and passion, the money ethic spans social worth and openness, and the network ethic spans activity and caring (p. 140). Creativity is present in all three sub-ethics.

Case StudiesEdit

Jonas SalkEdit

Newspaper headlines about Salk's polio vaccine

Jonas Salk, the medical researcher who discovered the initial polio vaccine, fits key components of the hacker ethic. In 1952, the number of polio outbreaks reached an all-time high. The public desperately sought a way to fight polio.[9] When Salk discovered the polio vaccine, he decided not to patent it. During an episode of CBS's See It Now, Edward R. Murrow asked Salk who owned the patent on the vaccine. "Well, the people I would say," replied Salk. "There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"[10]

Critics point out that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis found the vaccine unpatentable at that time.[11] However, many people think Salk would have still refused the patent. Salk pursued medical research as his passion and cared about helping those with polio. To him, openness and social worth far outweighed the financial gains of a patent. Upon receiving the Congressional Medal for Distinguished Civilian Achievement, Salk felt "that the greatest reward for doing is the opportunity to do more."[12] He worked on the polio vaccine not as a means to an end, but as an end itself.


Street art by Banksy in Brick Lane, East End

Banksy, a notorious street artist, exemplifies the hacker ethic. Banksy has a passion for street art. Of his early career, he said "as soon as I cut my first stencil I could feel the power there." [13] He travels the world and makes art on his own time. Banksy paints art on public street corners where it inspires new artists daily.

Banksy does not seek money for his art. "I give away thousands of paintings for free," he said. "I don’t think it's possible to make art about world poverty and trouser all the cash." [13] To Banksy, the recognition of his work is payment enough. Banksy embodies caring through his donations to charity auctions. A single piece of his work can raise hundreds of thousands of dollars. [14]


Although some praise The Hacker Ethic as an insightful sociological analysis of hackers,[15] others criticize its validity and practicality. One critic calls Himanen’s historical analysis on Protestantism a "caricature" that fails to explain what actually makes monks and historic Protestants tick.[16] Many Protestant groups (e.g. Calvinism, Methodism) exist, yet Himanen makes no distinction between them. He treats his ethic as the standard when computing innovators actually pursue a variety of material, social, and intellectual interests.[17] A Microsoft developer notes the practical necessity of profit not only to motivate workers but also to direct capital flows and keep score.[18] Himanen’s endorsement of the open software movement fails to admit how the capitalist feedback loop effectively finances the tangible costs of software production, ownership, and usage.

Critics claim the book lacks applications to the rest of society. Himanen fails to address whether hackerism applies to others besides intellectuals and the affluent.[17] He inadequately explains today’s consumer society. People embrace the Protestant work/play distinction and yield to false consciousness theory. Their enjoyment of passively received entertainment is superficial. Himanen’s attempt at generalizing FOSS projects to an "open-resource" social model for volunteering time or talent is no different than a "bulletin board at a community center."[19]


Himanen’s ideas about ethics contrast with Weber’s. Himanen argues that the Information Age has created a new form of professionalism. However, both philosophies stem from Ferdinand Tönnies’ 19th century work on the Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (community and society) social groups. While future work is needed to investigate the social context surrounding the hacker ethic, Himanen’s definition of professionalism still proves useful. The hacker ethic is another framework to analyze professional ethics. Other chapters in the casebook can apply the hacker ethic to view participants differently. A candidate professional may fit some or all of the seven key values.


  1. a b Himanen, P. (n.d.). Pekka Himanen - Curriculum vitae.
  2. Github. (n.d.) (torvalds) Linus Torvalds.
  3. Torvalds, L. (1992, January 29). Re: LINUX is obsolete [Personal communication with Andy Tanenbaum].
  4. Diaz, J. (2013, January 24). Woz on what's wrong with Kutcher's Steve Jobs movie (update 2). Gizmodo.
  5. The Linux Foundation. (n.d.) The Linux Foundation releases Linux development report [Press Release].
  6. Free Software Foundation. "GNU General Public License (Version 3)". 
  7. Kapor Center. (n.d.). Mission and philosophy.
  8. Inside Philanthropy. (n.d.). Sandy Lerner.
  9. PBS. (n.d.). People and discoveries: Jonas Salk.
  10. Murrow, E. (Producer) & Hewitt, D. (Director). (1955, April 12). The salk vaccine [Television series episode]. In E. Murrow (Producer), See it now. New York City, NY: CBS.
  11. Kinsella, S. (2006, June 22). Patent and penicillin.
  12. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. (1956, January 27). Dr. Salk honored with medal from Eisenhower. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.
  13. a b Ellsworth-Jones, W. (2013, February). The story behind Banksy. Smithsonian Magazine.
  14. Housing Works. (2013, October 31). Banksy - 'The banality of the banality of evil' .
  15. Penguin Random House. (n.d.). The hacker ethic: A radical approach to the philosophy of business.
  16. Edwards, M. (2001, April 11). Replacing the work ethic [Review of the book The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age by P. Himanen]. Christian Century, 118(12), 25-26.
  17. a b Qiu, J. (2004, April 1). Critical essays and reviews [Review of the book The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age by P. Himanen]. Journal of Communication Inquiry, 28(2), 171-174. doi:
  18. Simonyi, C. (2001, June). For passion or profit [Review of the book The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age by P. Himanen]. American Spectator, 34(5), 96-97.
  19. Johnson, S. (2001, March 4). Robin hoods of cyberspace [Review of the book The hacker ethic and the spirit of the information age by P. Himanen]. The New York Times.