“The hacker community needs more mutual support, empathy, and forgiveness. The cattiness and paranoia serves no one but those with the most resilient egos.”
This quote was sent to me just five days ago by an old friend. The conversation we were having was one of reconciliation, and I had half-jokingly blamed being part of the hacker community as the reason why I can be so abrasive sometimes. But there was no humour in what she answered. That quote was exactly true.
There are sometimes a couple of blog posts, a couple of discussions on some social, behavioural issues we may have in hacker culture.
But there haven’t been discussions as to why young hackers, especially those striving towards new methods of sociopolitical change, are killing themselves. And there was no discussion as to whether the hacker community itself might have something to do with it.
I cannot speak for Aaron Swartz. I knew Aaron only briefly and distantly. But Aaron Swartz wasn’t the first. There were other suicides: Ilya Zhitomirskiy, the co-founder of Diaspora. Len Sassaman, the renowned cryptographer. They are united with Aaron Swartz via their goals, their methods, their drive and their youth.
The hacker community is plagued, and our plague is a plague of ruthlessness, of a lack of mutual reinforcement. A plague of keeping up appearances. A plague that has managed to convince us that seeing people and their efforts in black and white is alright. A plague that makes us believe that personal attacks are valid against hackers, programmers and entrepreneurs we don’t agree with, that defamation and harassment are valid weapons when our online personas are attacked, when there’s a project we don’t like or that we feel somehow threatens us. And the harassment can be ugly. It can be pervasive, as if those committing it see their target as part of a video game that they just know they can beat. It can involve race, sex, and intense gas-lighting and demoralization. It’s a plague that makes us all busy in regular part-time, making each other feel like failures. Criticize ideas, not people.
Hackers are unique in that for some, federal subpoenas are a fact of daily life. Handling zero-days that can bankrupt corporations may happen weekly, amongst many other surreal, Hollywood scenario problems.
On top of this, the community is not supportive, but jealous. Not empathetic, but insecure. Not forgiving, but spiteful. Hackers, all together facing the same surreal problems that alienate them permanently from the rest of natural society, find themselves stuck in a bubble of self-destruction and self-deprecation. This is what drives young hackers to kill themselves. This may not have been what drove Aaron Swartz specifically, but it is a contributing factor and a serious problem in our community.
Criticize ideas, not people. Stop it with all the lip service. Public discourse of the most difficult issues has largely only been elevating the jealousy, insecurity and spite. Endless discussions without any reconciliation as our community so slowly falls apart.