Reviews

A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark

Vince Carducci

By mashing up Romantic idealism with historical materialism and looping in some samples of cyberpunk futurism to boot, Wark offers a glimpse of potential new worlds.


A Hacker Manifesto

Publisher: Harvard University Press
Length: 160
Price: $21.95 (US)
Author: McKenzie Wark
UK publication date: 2004-10
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Private information is practically the source of every large modern fortune.
-- Oscar Wilde

Like the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new book by media theorist McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, has two beginnings. And like Charlie Kaufman's screenplay, the first one is where we initially enter the narrative, but the second is where the story actually starts.

The text of A Hacker Manifesto begins with the sentence, "A double spooks the world, the double of abstraction." It's an obvious take off on the opening line of the Communist Manifesto in which Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously proclaim: "A specter is haunting Europe -- the specter of Communism." But the "first cause" of A Hacker Manifesto is uttered about a third of the way through the book with Wark's textual mashup of dot-com libertarianism and the writing of 18th-century Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau: "Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains." With this declaration, Wark establishes the rationale for revolutionary change in the Information Age.

Information, in Wark's estimation, reveals the contradictions of contemporary modes of production, distribution and consumption, which impose unnecessary deprivation on the world to maintain unequal social relations. For Wark, the term "information economy" is an oxymoron. Economics is built on the idea of scarcity; it seeks to understand how human beings allocate limited resources to satisfy unlimited demands. But information isn't scarce; it's all around and it's cheap. (It's been said that if the cost of owning and operating an automobile had fallen at the same rate since the Second World War as the cost of processing and storing information, it would be cheaper to abandon a Rolls-Royce at the curb than to put a dime in the parking meter.)

But more than that, information is "nonrivalrous": my possession of it doesn't deprive you of having it, too. In the old world order, if I keep the last available analog vinyl copy of The Velvet Underground and Nico all to myself it means that you're prevented from having access to it, thereby creating competition between you and me. But now if I download the digital file from say Kazaa, it's still there for you and for that matter for anyone else who wants it.

The denial of the brave new and improved world of post-scarcity is the work of what Wark terms the "vectoralist" class (so named for their control over vectors, i.e., the various pathways and networks over which information flows). Their primary tool for maintaining control is intellectual property, the legal apparatus of copyrights, trademarks and patents used to separate the producer class from the fruits of their labor. The chief vectoralist is certainly Bill Gates, the world's richest man according to Forbes, whose 1976 "Open Letter to Hobbyists" declared jihad on anyone using Microsoft computer programs without paying royalties. But major corporations like The Walt Disney Company, Merck and Monsanto are also in on the scam.

The producers are hackers, who Wark defines as artists, scientists, philosophers, musicians, etc., as well as the computer geeks from whom the name originally derives. They're creators, the ones who bring new ideas into the world and who are now being united for the first time under the lingua franca of the binary digit. "To hack is to differ," Wark writes, at its most basic the process of distinguishing what is from what might be. Hacking therefore begins with abstraction, the construction of previously unrealized relationships and distinctions between thoughts and things.

Among the most far-reaching hacks, in fact of world-historical importance, is the creation of private property, the abstracting of physical space that transforms the natural landscape into real estate. (In fact, the legal description of a piece of real property is called an "abstract.") The hack of land, i.e., the abstracting of labor time needed to convert its produce into surplus value, is the paid wage. The latest hack is the abstraction of labor power into information, tapping into not only the physical output of producers but also their very consciousness.

Each of these hacks sets up new relationships of power: The property hack divides society into feudal lord (what Wark terms the "pastoralist") and farmer; the wage hack creates capitalist and worker; information sets up the dialectic of vectoralist and hacker. The informed reader will recognize a hack of the three apparatuses of capture (land, labor and language) of French poststructuralists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in Wark's historical argument. And in the footnotes (a separate section at the end titled "Writings"), Wark carries on a polemic with the two theorists as he does with many of his other sources.

Unfortunately, the fate of these world-historical hacks thus far is the commodization of their core idea, the transformation of creative expression into representations, i.e., products, which can be bought and sold. The antidote to the commodity relation is the gift, in Wark's view. The commodity is anonymous, exchange governed by cold-blooded rationality. The gift on the other hand is personal, creating relationships of obligation and reciprocity. Anthropologists find gift economies only in cultures of material abundance. And nothing is more abundant in today's world than information.

But ruling elites have sought to monopolize access to information from the beginning of recorded time. Harold Innis and his student Marshall McLuhan describe how throughout history royals, priests and bureaucrats successively used carved stone, incised clay tablets, handwritten papyrus, parchment and paper, and print and electronic media as methods of control through communication. Typeset printing was crucial in the rise of the European nation-state starting in the 15th century. However, media developments also have unintended effects: The appearance of the Bible in vernacular languages, the first mass-produced commodities, set off the Protestant Reformation with the radical idea that individuals should read and interpret God's Word for themselves. And the same literacy that allows workers to read Holy Scripture also makes it possible for them to read the Communist Manifesto.

Wark's Manifesto is itself a kind of hack. It consists of word collages, puns, mashups and rewritings of numerous previously published texts. Lacking pagination, the book is laid out in numbered paragraphs, following the structure of Guy Debord's 1967 Situationist tract Society of the Spectacle, an acknowledged predecessor. (Wark's references to Debord's classic are to the Black and Red edition, not the later, more accurate and authorized English translation published by Zone, no doubt because the former renounces any claims to copyright.)

Wark declares his text to be in the "crypto-Marxist" tradition, which includes Walter Benjamin, Debord, Deleuze and Guattari and a host of other visionary theorists. It takes Marx as "source-code," something to be hacked and made more efficient. (To be sure, Marx's own axioms of private property and alienated labor as the roots of capitalist exploitation are themselves hacked from Rousseau's "Second Discourse" on the origins of inequality among humankind.) In true hacker style, the text of A Hacker Manifesto has been revised and re-written time and again, having appeared in different forms on various listservs and webzines over the years. This iteration is organized alphabetically by keyword and its prose is tuned tight as a drum. (That's no guarantee it's the final version, of course.)

A Hacker Manifesto has its shortcomings. Some of the word play is just a little too twee (for example, "not the workers of the world united but the workings of the world untied"). And the term vectoralist, besides being opaque and unwieldy, implies a distinction between the new ruling order and the bourgeois class of traditional Marxist analysis that may be not only unwarranted, but perhaps even counterproductive. (A better effort is English sociologist Leslie Sklair's appellation the "transnational capitalist class" to describe the emerging set of relations in which national allegiances are withering away under mounting pressures of globalization.) Naming hackers the new revolutionary class also seems overstated. We'll need to do more than swap MP3s peer-to-peer and rip the latest Farrelly Brothers flick to bring transnational capital to its knees.

But as a visionary text, a piece of aesthetic theory, a hack in Wark's own sense, A Hacker Manifesto is exemplary. By mashing up Romantic idealism with historical materialism and looping in some samples of cyberpunk futurism to boot, Wark offers a glimpse of potential new worlds.

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