To the ordinary ear, the word “hacker” is hardly a complimentary one. It makes most people think of geeky teenage boys breaking into corporate and federal computers when they ought to be playing sports or chasing girls. It also conjures images of a new type of terrorist capable of wreaking international havoc with a few devastatingly well-placed keystrokes.

But these are popular misconceptions of the term, which any computer programmer will tell you really refers to people who just love to play with their machines. As Eric Raymond, a well-known hacker, defines it in his oft-cited Jargon File, a hacker is “a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.” Those other guys, the guys who give real hackers a bad name, are more properly known as “crackers.”

Pekka Himanen’s new book deals with the good kind of hacker. The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age aims to show how hacker culture is not only very different from cracker culture, but is, in fact, a culture with a great deal to teach anyone living and working in what is becoming known as the information age.

For Himanen, hacker culture exemplifies an alternative approach to modern life, one centered less on work than on play, less on grim discipline than dedicated passion, less on proprietary interests than on collaboration, less on profit than on free exchange. He thus takes his title from another entry in the Jargon File. According to Raymond, the “hacker ethic” is “the belief that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible.”

The basic ethos of hacker culture is to share information freely, including the eminently marketable software that results from this free intellectual exchange. So important, indeed, is the hacker ethic that it has been formalized. There are licensing procedures set up for it (Richard Stallman’s GPL, or General Public License, ensures that a piece of software can be freely shared and freely revised). There are websites dedicated to it, most notably the Free Software Foundation and the closely-related GNU Project. There are books on it, such as Stephen Levy’s Hackers and Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. And there are major developments growing out of it: The free Linux operating system is not only the largest collaborative project in the history of the world, but one of the most profitable tech ventures of all time. Linux, indeed, now poses a major challenge to Microsoft’s longtime domination of the PC operating system market.

This enormously productive and powerful ethic of work as passionate play, of collaboration as template for creation, and of free distribution of information interests Himanen as a model for meaningful living that might be generalized to society at large. Himanen’s thesis is that while the rise of the networked society does not in itself alter the core values of Western, capitalist culture, it does offer an opportunity to examine those values and to reshape them in ways that may make for a happier future.

Hence the other allusion within the book’s title: The Hacker Ethic and the Spirit of the Information Age not only conjures associations with the hacker culture it describes, but also references the definitive work on the culture it hopes to help reform, Max Weber’s 1904-05 classic, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. For Himanen, the hacker ethic provides a timely and viable alternative to the Protestant ethic that has dominated Western approaches to work and leisure for several centuries.

According to Weber, modern capitalism owes a great deal to Calvinism, whose doctrine of predestination decisively linked spiritual worthiness to worldly wealth (a sign that one is a member of God’s “elect”), and hence to rigorous, disciplined work (by which one would acquire the wealth that would signify one’s chosen status). Weber’s idea was that Protestant ideals of asceticism and secular vocation – a “calling” that elevated work to the level of spiritual expression – helped to produce the literally sacred work ethic that is so central to the success of modern economies.

According to Himanen, we are at present living in a world where the Protestant ethic has been thoroughly secularized. It is no longer tightly attached to a specific religious practice, but has instead become simply the way Westerners live, so much so that today we unthinkingly labor at leisure itself (we “work” on our tennis backhands, Himanen notes, and take classes to learn to relax).

Hackers, Himanen argues, have generated a new way of balancing work and life. For them as for their Puritan forbears, the two are absolutely continuous. But for the hacker, life is all about the joy of dedicated play rather than the grind of compulsory, if profitable, work. What hackers have done, in other words, is to use the transformative features of the network society – its unprecedented capacity for communication, its unprecedented capacity to make information and opinion freely accessible, its power to reorganize our use and experience of time – to form a new kind of culture.

As the title of Himanen’s book suggests, his work is written in response to Weber, and it seeks, on some level, to replace it as the definitive description of an age. These are ambitious aims, and hopeful ones. Where Weber sought to describe what was, Himanen seeks to describe what might be.

Himanen’s book aims to capture the hacker ethic, to explain it, to bring it before us as a lifestyle and a spirituality. It urges us to take note of opportunities presented to us by this remarkable culture, and it asks us to consider how we might each make that culture our own. Computer hackers are quick to point out that they are not the only hackers, that the true hacker is not finally someone who enjoys a particular relation to computers, but rather someone who enjoys a particular relation to problem-solving.

As Raymond explains, “The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music … you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art.” It is Himanen’s hope that his book will contribute to the spread of the hacker ethic into all areas of society (he is particularly eloquent on what it could offer academe). The hope is all the more inspiring for its idealism. It is, indeed, the hope of the citizen hacker who shares his unique social vision in order that we may all collaborate in its creation.