Authenticity and appropriation

I know I’m not a hacker, I don’t describe myself that way and I know its not what I do. I may indulge in hacks of both programming and other kinds but hacks do not make the hacker.

“Hack” and its derivatives are very popular though. “Hackdays”, prototypes getting described as “hacks”, and people self-identifying as “hackers”. Learning something in 24 hours is old hat now, why not just “hack” it instead.

This kind of wholesale appropriation of sub-culture is nothing new. Look at punk, hip-hop or skateboarding. In a way this theft of technologist’s jargon is a backhanded complement, a validation of its worth and validity.

Appropriation brings with it the question of authenticity. Authenticity brings with it the whole field of identity politics. It is a cascade of events that brings us to point where arguments erupt as to who is capable of determining who is truly a “hacker”.

Until recently I didn’t feel this argument has effected me very much. Since I have an instinct for people who meet the archetype of the hacker (by trade) and I don’t seek the title for myself it has felt like a fight I don’t have a dog in.

The latest wave of hacker appropriation renders a useful concept useless. As a good post-modernist I don’t weep for the hacker. The thing about all appropriated sub-cultures is that if they are going to thrive they are going to evolve; change, renew and protect themselves. Witness the rise of the “brogrammer” as way of delineating those inside and outside the tent.

However when I hear the accusation that authenticity in technology is a matter of white male privilege rather than an attempt for a community to express and recognise an identity, I think we have an argument that seems to serve no-one very well.

I’m not saying that technology communities aren’t sexist or male-dominated. They self-evidently are. Unlike a lot of communities, though, technology is something where a meritocracy can function. While meritocracies are clearly shaped by peer pressure and conventional wisdom the simple fact is that a programmer is going to evaluate the utility of a piece of code entirely on how well it serves their own needs and not the gender of the person who wrote it. In fact in an internet world of handles and shared code the real identity of the person you collaborate with is often unknown to you, an irrelevance.

“Good code” is a cultural artefact, shaped by the constitution of the community. Useful code is not.

Appropriating hacking may seem a good idea. But when you do it, dismissing criticism of the authenticity of the result is self-defeating. Anything appropriated is devalued.

Attempting to liberate or seize control of the language of technologists might seem a good idea in the name of a diverse community. But anything done without consent will result in resistance.

Let’s tackle sexism and exclusion by all means, particularly in user groups and conferences where identity is concrete.

But let’s not think that cultural politics can substitute for code contributed to and valued by the community. Let the work speak for the individual, let’s value utility, humility and modesty more than any one disputed signifier.