When the hacker ethic meets old ideas about brand

Jonathan MathewsPublic

Organizational identity in an age of global collaboration

The hacker ethic says we should value solving problems more than preserving institutions. But what happens to organizational identity when we do that?

Open organizations apply principles from open source software development more broadly. Existing organizations find the open approach appealing because it promises gains in productivity and efficiency—but openness may have farther-reaching consequences than we anticipate or intend.

One influential set of open principles comes from Steven Levy’s book about the early history of the computing revolution, Hackers. Levy lays out what he calls “the Hacker Ethic,” and it begins with “the Hands-On Imperative”:

In a perfect hacker world, anyone pissed off enough to open up a control box near a traffic light and take it apart to make it work better should be perfectly welcome to make the attempt.

Open source fulfils this vision for a significant facet of our society: software. While some obstacles remain—writing software requires a computer connected to the internet, not to mention time and ability—the barrier of restricted ownership is gone. Open source software is owned by no-one and everyone. We have released our code into the commons.

What might happen if we do the same with our organizations?

Open ownership

We’re exploring a new understanding of ownership at Gratipay, a startup that helps companies pay for open source software. Yes, we have a binary distinction between our legal owners and non-owners (Gratipay is a worker-owned cooperative, itself a form of workplace democracy). But we prefer to emphasize “ownership” in the broader sense of feeling personally invested in our company—something each individual determines for themselves, resulting in a spectrum of ownership rather than a simple binary.

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