Friday, July 13, 2012

Hacker Ethos, or Silicon Valley as America 2.0

We launched our first Chez JJ hacker house as an itinerant version of the intentional community of our friends at Rainbow Mansion, but our recent media exposure illustrates the need for us to serve as ambassadors of hacker culture. (Cross-posted in the Chez JJ Blog.)

We hackers live in a post-industrial society. Silicon Valley is to the rest of the U.S. and the industrialized world, what the industrialized world is to the developing world. If the San Francisco Bay Area were a nation, we would rank 3rd among countries (IMF) in per capita GDP and 22nd among countries in total GDP. The per capita GDP of the Bay Area ($68,100 in 2009) is 40% higher than the national average.* Taking superlinear scaling into account, San Francisco is the most exceptional large city, in being productive, creative, and safe. It may be relevant to note that our economy functions in a fundamentally different way. Specifically, technology is unlike traditional industries in that the per unit production costs are negligible, and the focus is on knowledge, creation, and the creative process. In this context, collaboration and interconnectivity of humans in our network has a profound effect on our productivity and rate of innovation. We are here to facilitate the exchange of ideas, decrease the social distance between people, and share our core cultural values.

Silicon Valley means freedom from social norms.

Virtually all of us came to Silicon Valley from somewhere else, motivated by the amazing opportunities here and our inability to belong elsewhere. Often, geeks choose to be in Silicon Valley because it means we are free to be geeks. In conventional society, there exist a set of social norms, which function as rules for social interaction. This form of interaction works if and only if everyone conforms to the same set of social norms, which are rarely if ever explicity discussed during interaction, and vary widely between geographical regions. In hacker culture, the only rule is the complete absence of social norms, and attempts to enforce conventional social norms are likely to be met with a blank stare. After all, like immigration to the U.S., migration to Silicon Valley is largely a process of self-selection: for ambition, risk tolerance, and raw competence. And in this case, also an escape from the social obligation to conform to conventional society, an escape to intellectual freedom whose notable absence elsewhere can be redescribed as an intellectual tax on innovation.

It is not that geeks, in particular, lack social skills, but that a different order emerges from not obeying conventional rules. It is, for instance, perfectly acceptable to not speak if one does not have something interesting to impart, and perfectly acceptable, and encouraged, to delve into great technical detail if one does have interesting content to impart. For example, even within Silicon Valley, the proportion of geeks to "normal" people has interesting emergent properties as illustrated by a comparison of SHDH to other Silicon Valley parties. In a predominantly geek setting, the epsilonically small proportion of "normal" people are the ones who appear to be awkward. Your race, nationality, gender, orientation, clothing choice, and car/bike matter about as much as your social skill in interfacing with "normal" people, which is to say, not at all. Unless interfacing with "normal" people is what you were hired to do, in which case, it is a valuable skill in our community. And it is valuable insofar as it impacts what we care about intensely: creating value. Making stuff. Specifically, making awesome stuff.

Silicon Valley is egalitarian.

In Silicon Valley, you are not defined by what you consume, but by what you create. The goal is to create something of value, and perhaps capture some of that value. The structure of a post-industrial economy creates cultural values that assigns different worth to different forms of wealth from the industrialized economy, specifically, that knowledge is the most important form of wealth worth attaining. In conventional society, people often using status symbols as a means of expression (e.g., flashy cars, social exclusivity), a secondary indicator often to signal the result of material success, much like the energetically expensive feathers of a peacock. Although Silicon Valley has secondary indicators, they tend to either be tools of the trade or indicate the ability to create. This has an interesting effect, because conventional social signaling can be redescribed as a nontrivial tax on development and social mobility, since energy and resources that could otherwise have been deployed for capital development is spent on peacocking.

Silicon Valley's flat hierarchical social structure can seem shockingly egalitarian to a new visitor. The low power distance index of Silicon Valley can be, in part, attributed to its high degree of social mobility per unit time. It is fairly easy to underestimate how far you have come when you have the same team, and the same office, and most things look the same. In essence, social inclusiveness, not exclusivity, is our modus operandi. This openness of mind is incredibly important for the emergence of radical and potentially counterintuitive ideas, which could sound silly or insane at a first pass. Truth is, the cost of false positives is relatively low, but a false negative (that is, ignoring a crazy new project) among tinkerers, inventors, and pioneers would be a grave tragedy to humanity and its productive potential. It is thus worthwhile and rational to keep an open mind, to reduce the energy of activation required to fully entertain an idea before passing judgement. The necessary corrollary is that one will inevitably spend time and energy considering that which is doomed to failure, but we deem that acceptable.

Silicon Valley runs on trust.

The Valley is a small and densely interconnected place, where it is commonly accepted behavior to help other people with no expectation of getting anything in return, and to generally be good. Culturally, we are simply operating at a higher level of trust, openness, and productivity. In the developed world, you have the reasonable expectation that you will not be murdered or coerced into warfare on your way back from collecting firewood. In Silicon Valley, you have the reasonable expectation that a colorfully painted unlocked bike you parked outside your building will still be there outside your building when you leave. If you know who your friends are, you can make a handshake agreement with friends regarding work and equity in a new enterprise, and delay incorporating until necessary for other reasons. Imagine a place where the gift economy can persist and proliferate outside of Burning Man.

The more attention and energy a society dedicates towards being defensive and secretive, the less open and receptive to new ideas it will be. Being walled down by security procedures reduces the amount of innovation in that society, and its ability to create anything of value. One could redescribe the lack of openness and trust in conventional society as yet another tax on innovation. There is immense value in openness, trust, and acceptance in a culture, and like many other problems solved in Silicon Valley every day, the problem of being excellent to each other is solvable by information flow. The potential public knowledge of reneging on an agreement, or otherwise behaving like a jerk, will have an effect on people's behavior. We find that our way works, and hope our post-industrial code of behavior inspire others outside the Valley to progress in our direction.

Final Thoughts

We find immense value in living in an egalitarian, trusting society, free from social norms, much of which can be redescribed as lifting a tax on innovation, development, and social mobility. The Hacker Ethos does not conceptualize work as a commodity to be exchanged in a 9-5 paradigm, but an obsession and a way of life. We are just as optimistic about the spread of our values to the rest of the industrialized world as we are about the spread of industrialized world values to the developing world. It is entirely possible that the culture of Silicon Valley emerged because of the historical dominance of the tech industry, as an emergent phenomenon from the default mode of interaction between individuals in the sciences and technology. We hope that by embracing science, technology, and reason, the rest of the industrialized world will come to understand and share our core values. This understanding and acceptance, I believe, will come through increased exposure to our kind.

Thus, in this blog, we will be showcasing a series of posts on our housemates (past and present), their stories, and the awesome projects they're working on. Stay tuned.

* Calculations of Silicon Valley GDP:

US GDP 2010: 14,620,000M
US per capita GDP: 48,387 (IMF)
California GSP 2010: 1,936,400 M
California per capita GSP: 51,914
Gross Bay Area Production: 487,000M (2009)
Bay Area Population: 7.15M (2010 census)
Bay Area per capita product: 487B / 7.15M = 68,111.89
(slight mixing of years due to census sampling rate)
68,111.89 / 48,387 ~= 1.4

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