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25 June 2015

Hacker Culture and Innovation: How to Make everything Easier

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Paul Graham, the founder of Hacker News, likes to say that Yahoo could have been Google, but did not manage it because it did not know how to maintain a hacker culture: innovation from bottom up. Graham stresses that the hacker culture must be applied to all businesses, regardless of whether they are technology-based or not. Mac Andreessen, co-founder of Netscape and of Mosaic, stated in an article written in August 2011 in The Wall Street Journal that the software industry is conquering the world because the technology needed to transform industries through software now works globally, and because programming tools favor industries capable of operating in much larger markets, without need of major infrastructure and human resources investment.

The origins of the hacker concept

He cites as examples a large proportion of financial services, automobile and agriculture value chains. In the scarcely four years that have passed since Andreessen wrote this article, platforms like Uber and Airbnb have irrupted with force in such traditional sectors as transport and hotels. Its appearance, in addition to upsetting the rules of the game for the players involved, has shown up the lack of coordination between regulators and economic and social reality. These software pioneers called themselves hackers, because they called any solution that improved their relationship with computers a “hack”. They acted in a way that was outside all academic orthodoxy. They wove knowledge networks to share what they learned and they defended free access to tools and to the knowledge generated. So the original meaning of the word hacker is far from “a computing pirate”, as defined in Spain by the Spanish Royal Academy (RAE). An initiative has gathered thousands of signatures to convince the academicians of the need to include other definitions. Thus, while the first hackers at MIT invented and reinvented unceasingly, J.C.R. Licklider, one of the first internet pioneers, wrote in the same campus of the infinite possibilities of a network of connected computers. It was 1961, still eight years before Arpanet, the precursor of the internet, would bring these youngsters to reinvent themselves as an international tribe, as Eric J. Raymond wrote.

Hacker culture

Hacker culture began to emerge. Their way of working in as a community and sharing knowledge contributed to the design of the network’s architecture and its collective intelligence. Their technological innovations created the bases of the digital economy and of the collaborative economy. Their work method also laid the foundations for the Maker movement, for social innovation and for other social movements that adopted the network as their organizational model. The 15-M movement and the Arab spring uprisings are inspired by them.

Clayton Christensen, author of the book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, written in 1997, coined the theory of disruptive innovation, stating that disruption is produced by the power of technology to transform sophisticated products into other simpler, more accessible ones. This Business professor at Harvard University argues that new products, being more affordable and less complex, exert a great transforming power on the markets.

The passion of the hacker in these restless minds forms part of the foundations of nearly all the technology industries and is behind many of the disruptive innovations that are transforming an infinity of business models, such as in music, banking, computing, marketing, culture and transport. We could call it the passion to make what was difficult easy.

Covadonga Fernández

Journalist at Canal de Isabel II

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