Hack Theory

I’m researching the free software and open source “movements” and I’m a long way from feeling like I’ve got a real handle on the different currents running in it. But I just forced myself through McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto [version 4.0] . I discovered the subsol website from which it came too, where the editor, Joanne Richardson, just published a new collection called “Anarchitexts” (from Autonomedia ). The book is really interesting, bursting with interviews, short excerpts and texts from a really wide range of participants in the movements she characterizes as “digital resistance.” The same version 4 of the Hacker Manifesto appears as the concluding piece in the book, and I even saw it at Modern Times as a self-important hard back from Harvard University Press.

Wark’s manifesto is really problematic. I wanted to like it, and was ready to give it a lot of slack, but frankly, it’s hilarious. If you ever wanted to find a pretentious self-proclaimed manifesto that relies on a dense thicket of meaningless verbiage to make itself sound important (and I know you have!), here it is. If it’s so bad, you may ask, why am I bothering to review it at all? I guess because it struck me as typical (though I don’t think there’s anything else out there quite like it precisely) of the kind of deep intellectual confusion that permeates Internet “philosophy” and was given a major boost by the dotcom bubble. I really don’t think anyone would give this the time of day if it wasn’t that so many people bought in” to varying degrees” to the self-importance claimed by the producers of the “New Economy.” And Wark’s odd take on it includes, almost in spite of himself, a few pointed declarations that will probably fool some people into thinking that he is actually coherent underneath all the techno-gibberish.

It’s too long to take it all on here on the blog, but a few examples will suffice. First of all, he has a typical sociological understanding of the word “˜class'” like most people these days. Going well beyond the usual capitalist class vs. the working class, Wark uses several new class labels whose reference I did not know: the pastoralist class (which, after stealing the commons from the peasant class, was supplanted by the capitalist class); or the vectoralist class (“the emergent ruling class of our time,” to whom the “hacker class” must sell their “capacity for abstraction.”).

As soon as you start reading the Hacker Manifesto, you are swamped with vagueness and confusion. Immediately Wark tells us that the world is “spooked” by the “double of abstraction,” which all contending classes revere yet fear”¦ except the “hacker class.” What could this mean? Not much I’d say. He conflates a range of activities, from computer programming to writing poetry, making music, doing math, or colouring, into the one label of “hacking,” and the unifying truth of these activities is that the people doing them “create the possibility of new things entering the world.” How is this different from work and workers? As I fought my way through this turgid screed, I kept noticing how easy it would be to replace his new-fangled vocabulary with the old-fangled vocabulary of the Communist Movement, 2nd or 3rd International, take your pick! Here’s another one that can easily be re-done with red flags flying:

(from #26): “”¦The hacker class seeks the liberation of the vector from the reign of the commodity, but not to set it indiscriminately free. Rather, to subject it to collective and democratic development. The hacker class can release the virtuality of the vector only in principle. It is up to an alliance of all the productive classes to turn that potential to actuality, to organize themselves subjectively, and use the available vectors for a collective and subjective becoming.”

It’s several days since I started on this. Obviously my blog is suffering a lack of attention! From me at least! I have the Hacker Manifesto sitting in front of me, full of highlighted phrases and whole sections, marked up with scribbled rants and rebuttals. There’s really too much to write it all up here.

What I like about Wark’s effort is his discussion about the gift economy, and that he tries to connect it to his “new subject,” i.e. the Hacker Class:

“20. Private property arose in opposition not only to feudal property, but also to traditional forms of the gift economy, which were a fetter to the increased productivity of the commodity economy. Qualitative gift exchange was superseded by quantified, monetised exchange.”

I think this, like so many passages in this Manifesto, is a gross oversimplification. It’s problematic to annex the word “˜exchange’ to “˜gift’ in my opinion. And discussing it abstractly like this misses the enormous social debt that follows in the wake of many gifts, sometimes heavier in social arenas that make no effort to equalize or measure the value of the original gift. Lewis Hyde’s The Gift is a much more thorough-going analysis of the emancipatory and often contradictory nature of gifts in different cultures. Nuruddin Farah’s Gifts is a fictional portrayal of the cycle of debt and guilt that is barely obscured by the concept of the gift. Anyway, back to Wark:

“21. The hacker class has a close affinity with the gift economy. The hacker struggles to produce a subjectivity that is qualitative and singular, in part through the act of the hack itself. The gift, as a qualitative exchange between singular parties allows each party to be recognized as a singular producer, as a subject of production, rather than as a commodified and quantified object. . . The gift of information need not give rise to conflict over information as property, for information need not suffer the artifice of scarcity once freed from commodification.”

This last point always appeals to me when I peruse free software polemics, but I am mystified that the proponents of such arguments don’t make the obvious connection between information and the rest of the material world that is artificially scarce due to its commodification. Food, shelter, clothing, water, energy, health services all are available on our little planet in great abundance. Often they are produced under absurd conditions which degrades their quality and sometimes their availability; always they are distributed inequitably under the constraints of property and commodification.

The Hacker Manifesto makes extremely grandiose claims for a vague group of people that gets labeled the Hacker Class, claims that might be as well applied to anyone who is subjectively engaged with their work, regardless of the specific nature of that work. But the conundrum faced by all creative workers is faced too by the hacker, and Wark surprisingly states it rather clearly after dozens of paragraphs claiming a transcendent wisdom and power for his new subject:

“37. To the extent that the hack embodies itself in the form of property, it gives the hacker class interests quite different from other classes, be they exploiting or exploited classes. The interest of the hacker class lies first and foremost in a free circulation of information, this being the necessary condition for the renewed statement of the hack. But the hacker class as class also has an interest in the representation of the hack as property, as something from which a source of income may be derived that gives the hacker some independence from the ruling classes.”

Whew! Isn’t that the age-old predicament wherein the artist wants to freely pursue her own artistic impulses, but once an art work is created, to sell it for the maximum price in the market to finance further works? What then is so transcendent or far-sighted about this particular fraction of the working class? This radically invalidates the whole notion that this so-called hacker class is different from any other creative worker. And if they aren’t any different, why do they get a whole manifesto? Could it be because there’s a whole buzz that surrounds computers and programming and that the workers in the field like thinking they’re special?

Wark makes a crazy hash of his concepts of information, vector, hacker, class, and even property. I find myself worried that if I like some of his sentences for specific reasons, that my own reasoning is suspect since he is so clearly a crackpot when it comes to overall coherence or even just consistent use of concepts. Well, I guess I can claim the small intellectual rewards I can find, since I took the time to slog through the whole thing.

Better Treatment of Similar Topic

A piece called “Gift and Free Software” on The Commoner by Matthias Studer I found much more coherent and illuminating. In his introduction he says, “we will try to explain what free software is, but also to illustrate certain dynamics which regulate this community. We will see that this daring bet, the bet on free cooperation, is based on a particular culture and ethic, and on a culture of gift exchange.”

Turns out he is referring to hackers too. But his description of the folks deserving of this label is considerably more prosaic than Wark’s. “The hacker is an enthusiast, devoured by curiosity, ready to spend hours to solve a problem” actually seeing it more as a challenge than a problem”¦ One can very well be a hacker in philosophy or astronomy, for being a hacker is mainly a question of attitude.”

“Hackers generally touch no salary for participating in projects”¦ Effectively, the great majority of hackers come from industrialized countries. They tend to be from the middle (or even upper) classes, although they don’t necessarily have diplomas, many of them being self-taught. . . Hackers can be right wing as well as left. However, by their practices, by their way of conceiving their relation to work, they seem to place themselves in a non-capitalist perspective.

“One of the motivations of hackers is pleasure, the pleasure of programming, programming as hobby.” But as Studer cites, other open source proponents have pointed out that the amusement of being a hacker is “an amusement that demands a lot of effort.” (Eric S. Raymond) or that hacking is about “Pleasure with a capital P, the Pleasure that gives meaning to life.” (Linus Torvalds). This kind of pleasurable work is opposed to the old work ethic that sees work as its own end, not working to live, but living to work”¦. “among hackers”¦ the notion of work changes, it is no longer toil, but work as passion, self-realization.”

I’m sure this is what MacKenzie Wark was trying to get at in his Manifesto. I’d even guess that it is his own pleasure in thinking about these issues that got him worked into such a lather that he could pen the grandiose and overblown Hacker Manifesto, mixing and matching neo-Marxist jargon with the breathless joy that derives from feeling connected to a broad collective effort, freely shared. Studer cites Bruno Lemaine and Bruno Decrocq’s having coined the notion for the hacker culture “I give, therefore I am.”

Radical efforts to imagine a world beyond capitalism obviously have a lot of allies and co-religionists among self-proclaimed hackers and the free software “community.” Studer, appearing in one of the better online radical journals, clearly understands that as he wraps up his look at the topic:

“”¦ the model of free software can be extended to other similar domains having the same properties of immaterial goods. There are already free music, free films and free texts. The lesson to be learned is above all political: let’s be political hackers. . .

I’ll try to revisit this thread in a new post soon, bringing in some smart writings from Franco Berardi Bifo and Tiziana Terranova, both Italians (wouldn’t you know?).

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