For some hackers, hacking means just one thing: writing really awesome software and ensuring everyone can access, benefit from, and modify it. Where did this idea come from and why is it so important?
Making software available for others to use is more than just altruism: getting shit to work is hard to do, and it sucks to reinvent the wheel. So when someone else has solved a problem—and made that solution available to everyone –then you can go on to solve a different problem on top of that, and together we all ride this amazing tide of collective work.
That was one idea anyway, that led many in the 1980s, most famously Richard Stallman, to create not just great software, but legal licenses to match, a Free Software Foundation to promote it, and an ideology of software freedom that has touched everything from autonomist Marxists in southern Europe to the open plan wastelands of Facebook and Google.
As the twentieth century came to a close, free software was a heretical challenge to the pieties of intellectual property. It shocked many and enlightened many. Free Software inspired people to modulate and transform it: open access to scientific work, new licenses for free culture, art, and education. It created a basis for the “commons” and for a debate that matters far beyond software, even as software now matters to everything we do.
Today, the original spirit of free software lurks in the shadows, while out in the light “open source” hackers have driven platform capitalism to dizzying heights by making available massive amounts of software for every conceivable purpose: internet plumbing, Unix operating systems, programming and scripting languages, frameworks and stacks of every sort, tools and toolkits, environments and testers, etc.. The software workshop of today is an infinite toy store as a result—or some might say, an infinite junkyard none of us can ever escape.