Here, I mean “hacker” in the sense of “hackerspace” or “hacking on a new idea,” not in the sense of an offensive corporate or military espionage. Hacker (sub)culture as it emerged in the 80’s and blossomed in the 90’s in places like Silicon Valley and MIT and Bell Labs.
Hacker culture is inherently American. Hackers generally care about open source software and open platforms. Hackers are ruthlessly entrepreneurial – if they have a problem, the build a solution, and then share it with the world. Hackers are self-taught and self-made. Hackers have little regard for rules, if they believe their work is adding to the world. Hackers crack jokes in professional settings (and very American jokes, usually), which isn’t a universal phenomenon.
Speaking of open source software, the first few generations of open software that proliferates the Internet were built by Americans, for Americans. This is significant, because product design spreads culture. Here’s an incomplete off-top-of-mind list of things about common open source software that derives from uniquely American or English traits:
- Most command-line utilities have syntax of the form
tool-name [verb] [noun] [verb] [noun]which fits well with many Indo-European languages, but certainly not all human languages.
- The first 127 characters of the Unicode character set – the ASCII character set – only contain letters standard in English. No accents or diacritics, no characters, just the 26 Latin alphabetic letters. What’s worse, the ASCII contains
$, the dollar sign. The dollar sign! ASCII contains no other unit of currency. Does your library or programming language use
$commonly because it’s an easy symbol on the keyboard? Congratulations, you’ve just forced international programmers to go buy an Americanized keyboard layout to adopt your language or tool, or be annoyed constantly.
- The venerable monospace teletype terminal, which every programmer still uses today, is designed for an alphabetic language and character set, which is a startlingly small minority of human languages. Terminals start breaking in all kinds of interesting ways when used with non-Latin, non-Cyrillic scripts.
- Programming languages' use of quotes, single-quotes, exclamation points, ampersands, and other symbols all carry from English conventions. Many languages don’t use double-quotes to quote literal statements, or use the ampersand. Some languages don’t have the backslash (
\) on the default keyboard layout. Most programming languages are built in the U.S., and are designed for American keyboard layouts.
- The venerable teletype terminal does not understand right-to-left languages, or renders it comically incorrectly. Right-to-left languages are spoken by a lot of people in the world!
I’ll stop here, but you get the idea. Many of these problems are related to lack of proper internationalization in the first generation of software. But this also makes me wonder what kinds of problems I’m not able to see as an American because I’m so used to it, where other people may find jarring discrepancies between how they work and how the software they need to use for work behave.
Hacker culture also has its problems. It’s sometimes individualistic to a fault, asks for a kind of strange sexist nerd-macho energy to be taken seriously, and plays loose and fast with rules (“move fast and break things”). It’s a relic of the time and place where hacker culture sprung up – college campuses and the Bay Area in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.
All this taken together, I think hacker culture, despite all it’s added to the world, is accidentally exporting American culture, values, ideologies, and language in ways that deserve more scrutiny. If we do want to use software as a way to export American values to the world, we should do it when we feel it is right, not sort-of-accidentally just because some very smart nerds in the dawn of the Internet all lived in the States.
But I wonder if the Internet would be a better place if its underlying software components were designed from the ground-up with global diversity and inclusion in mind. I think that would be an alternate history I’d love to have lived.
Next: Investing in experiences: the calculus of gap years