August 6, 2009

Sorry, this email is not so clever

Category: Academic,Geek,Hackers,Humor — Biella @ 9:18 am

Over the years it has been interesting to see the ethical ping pong between Ubuntu and Debian. Most recently a new issue has bubbled up having to do with the timing of the Debian release and the extent to which it was going to align with its cousin (as I like to think of Ubuntu). Mr Shuttleworth has finally emerged from his silence and penned down some thoughts, which I found pretty thoughtful.

I wish I could write about the debate in my book but I am already way over the word count (not a surprise).There are many many fascinating things about this multi-year debate but the one I find particularly interesting has to do with unwritten codes of conduct. The terms of the GPL allow Mr Shuttleworth to take Debian code and not do anything in return. Informal etiquette, of course speaks differently, mandating that if you take, you should make a reasonable effort to give back. Over the years, Debian and Ubuntu have been learning just how to manage this relationship and of course key players who have a foot in both projects, have had a hand in making this more of a reality.

While the content of this email won’t make it into the book, I do think that one particular line will and it is the line where where Mark actually apologizes for not being witty!

“Apologies in advance if this mail is lengthy and not particularly witty!”

One of my chapters is on wit, humor, and pleasure unearthing the ways you can read both the formal and poetic properties of hacking through humor and wit. When I started my research, one of the most surprising things was the sheer abundance of humor in the hacker habitat, which I describe in the following terms:

In the middle of some complicated technical discussion at a conference or over dinner, hackers will freely pepper their conversation with a series of clever quips. While joking is a very common convention used by speakers during public talks to break the proverbial ice (at least in the American context), during a hacker conference it is not simply speakers who joke; audience members will not hesitate to interrupt the speaker for the sake of humor, an occurrence that I have come to believe never offends and is actually expected and celebrated. In other words, humor is much more prevalent in their social sphere than most other vocational groups, with perhaps the exception of comedians.

As such, after mere weeks of fieldwork, it became undeniably apparent to me that humor is the privileged medium by which hackers express their cultural affection for cleverness and pleasure and became a way for me to take hold of the affective stance of pleasure, which is otherwise so difficult to capture analytically. Humor, to put it simply, is pleasure and play made socially material/tangible. Further, since hacker humor is also so often about technical matters, it works as the cultural glue that binds hackers together in a social collective…

Though a very small and passing detail, Mark’s apology, nonetheless signals the important of wit and hopefully I can find a seamless way to integrate it into the book, even if I can’t address the larger issues raised in the email, which again, are pretty interesting and deserve more attention.


  1. I will admit that the times I’ve interrupted a presentation with a joke are the times when I’ve thought I know where the presentation is going. Please excuse my arrogance — it’s the same thing when I watch a stand-up comic: I can see the jokes coming and want to be ahead of the comic.


    Comment by k3ninho — August 6, 2009 @ 10:52 am

  2. I rather like the interruptions. I have wanted to follow in the footsteps at various academic conferences but have had to hold back.

    Comment by Biella — August 6, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

  3. Sorry, can’t think of a witty comment/response.

    Comment by Joseph Reagle — August 6, 2009 @ 12:36 pm

  4. …Quoting you. Thanks! :-}

    Comment by Gunnar — August 6, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

  5. Joe, I tried to think of something clever myself and failed!

    Gunnar: you don’t need me to prove you are funny :-) )) What is the quote for?

    Comment by Biella — August 6, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

  6. I was certainly taken aback by the “no humor” preface when I read it, signaling that he would be ‘out of character’ — not wearing his ‘hacker hat’ while speaking, trying to set a different tone to his words. I supposed it is because he is not seen as a hacker alone, but someone who is straddling the divide between ‘CEO of Canonical’ and ‘SABDFL’.

    Comment by Kevin Mark — August 7, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

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