Does hacker culture export American values?

26 July 2020
26 Jul 2020

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.

This is not to mention the fact that software is built in American English. This is indisputable. The world’s software, even in authoritarian, anti-American or anti-Western regimes, is built on open-source software written in programming languages and tools that require the user to speak the American dialect of English. Want to use the Internet? The IETF (governing body for Internet protocol standards), the W3C (maintains the HTML and CSS specifications), TC39 (maintains JavaScript)… they all speak English. There is no geopolitical play here to decide on a nuanced lingua franca of the Internet. Speak the language of Corporate America, or go learn it and come back to participate.

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:

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.


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