Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

Hackers vs. Academics: who is responsible for progress?

Many years ago, I interviewed for a job at a nearby college. One of the professors started talking about how they were working to take the “hacker spirit” out of the students. At the time, I had not yet realized that most professors never build anything themselves. I had not realized that they are too busy managing others, filling out grant applications and so forth. I can be a very naive person.

So I objected rather strongly. I think that the hacker spirit is what drives our progress. Much of our schooling is indeed designed to take the “hacker spirit” out of students, and that’s a problem. We try to make students look more like academics, when we should encourage their hacker spirit.

  • Academics are great at self-promotion. They build a lasting “high status” aura.

Hackers who try the same strategies often fail. In the open-source community, you can argue until you are blue in the face that you are a giant… but people are still going to ask you for the code. Whoever produces the code first wins.

  • Academics are usually not interested in building a new technical process. Such novelties often bring about a limited and fragile gain of status. Indeed, new techniques can be dismissed or ignored for many years, and the credit can be taken over by others. Theoretical constructs, theorems, theories, models, puzzles, “deeper understanding”… that’s how you achieve a high status! And the world is a very complex place, there is an endless sea of ideas, problems, theories… so it is easy make room for yourself, you do not have to solve real (and dirty) problems.

Hackers can only win by building new technical processes. If you are not hacking, you are not a hacker. The hacker wants to get something done. And once its done, it is either cool or not… there is no need to debate endlessly about it… one can move on.

  • Successful academics are mostly people who have found ways to get others to work for them. That is the primary purpose of research grants: hire more helping hands.

Successful hackers certainly attract helping hands, but you are still only as good as your hacking skills.

  • Academics succeed mostly by their mastery of communication. They are able to aptly draw attention to themselves and their accomplishments. They know how to “appear” modest when in truth, their whole objective is self-promotion.

Hackers let their work speak for themselves. In fact, it is not rare that it is exceedingly difficult to find out who built such or such tool.

Often, pessimists point out to the large sums that have been invested in a cure for cancer, and what little results we got. You mean that all these government grants that were given to self-aggrandizing professors did not produce many new practical techniques? Why am I not surprised!

Meanwhile, people narrow down our progress to information technology. Information technology is somehow special… progress is easier there somehow. Why is that? So you give a little bit of freedom to people who have the hacker spirit and you get giant leaps forward… Why might that be?

Could it be that the hacker spirit is really want is responsible for our progress? My theory is that if you want to cure cancer or Alzheimer’s, or if you want nuclear fusion, or bases on Mars… you need the hackers. You need people who are not primarily focused on looking good by self-promotion… you need people who thrive when they solve hard practical problems… you need people who only want to be recognized for what they have accomplished, not for what they say…

And what makes me optimistic about the future is that the hackers are mostly winning. They are never on the news. They do not run for office. They do not have great YouTube channels. They do not run government laboratories. But they are slowing winning the cultural war.

You know how you could impress my boys? Hack Minecraft. Build an Android app. Make augmented reality work. Have a YouTube channel where you explain cool hacks.

And you know how my boys know that their teachers are not to be taken too seriously? Because they can’t fix a network connection or hack around the school firewall.

And I think that what is driving this cultural war are companies like Google. Google simply cannot help but promote the hacker spirit. And they are ubiquitous. Companies like Google are pursuing a giant cultural hack on the whole world.

And once it is done, academics will take the credit.