H A C K I N G
by McKenzie Wark
A hack touches the virtual; and transforms the actual. “To qualify as a hack, the feat must be imbued with innovation, style and technical virtuosity.”The terms hacking and hacker emerge in this sense in electrical engineering and computing. As these have been leading areas of creative production in a vectoral world, it is ﬁtting that these names come to represent a broader activity. The hacking of new vectors of information have indeed been the turning point in the emergence of a broader awareness of the creative production of abstraction.
Since it’s very emergence in computing circles, the hacker “ethic” has come up against the forces of commodiﬁed education and communication. As Himanen writes, hackers, who “want to realise their passions,” present “a general social challenge,” but the realisation of the value of this challenge “will take time, like all great cultural changes.”And more than time, for it is more than a cultural change. It will take struggle, for what the hacker calls into being in the world is a new world and a new being. Freeing the concept of the hacker from its particulars, understanding it abstractly , is the ﬁrst step in this struggle.
The apologists for the vectoral interest want to limit the semantic productivity of the term “hacker” to a mere criminality , precisely because they fear its more abstract and multiple potential—its class potential. Everywhere one hears rumours of the hacker as the new form of juvenile delinquent, or nihilist vandal, or servant of organised crime. Or, the hacker is presented as a mere harmless subculture, an obsessive garage pursuit with its restrictive styles of appearance and codes of conduct. Everywhere the desire to open the virtuality of information, to share data as a gift, to appropriate the vector for expression becomes the object of a moral panic, an excuse for surveillance, and the restriction of technical knowledge to the “proper authorities.” This is not the ﬁrst time that the productive classes have faced this ideological blackmail. The hacker now appears in the official organs of the ruling order along side its earlier archetypes, the organised worker, the rebellious farmer. The hacker is in excellent company.
The virtual is the true domain of the hacker. It is from the virtual that the hacker produce sever-new expressions of the actual. To the hacker, what is represented as being real is always partial, limited, perhaps even false. To the hacker there is always a surplus of possibility expressed in what is actual, the surplus of the virtual. This is the inexhaustible domain of what is real but not actual, what is not but which may become. The domain where, as Massumi says, “what can not be experienced can not but be felt.” To hack is to release the virtual into the actual, to express the difference of the real.
Any domain of nature may yield the virtual. By abstracting from nature, hacking produce the possibility of another nature, a second nature, a third nature, natures to inﬁnity, doubling and redoubling. Hacking discovers the nature of nature, its productive—and destructive—powers. It is in the nature of hacking to discover freely, to invent freely , to create and produce freely. But it is not in the nature of hacking itself to exploit the abstractions thus produced. This applies as much in physics as in sexuality, in biology as in politics, in computing as in art or philosophy. The nature of any and every domain may be hacked.
When the hack is represented in the abstraction of property rights, then information as property creates the hacker class as class. This intellectual property is a distinctive kind of property to land or capital, in that only a qualitatively new creation may lay claim to it. And yet, when captured by the representation of property, the hack becomes the equivalent of any other property, a commodiﬁed value. The vectoral class measures its net worth in the same currency as capitalists and pastorialists, making patents and copyrights equivalent to factories or ﬁelds.
Through the application of ever-new forms of abstraction, the hacker class produces the possibility of production, the possibility of making something of and with the world— and of living off the surplus produced by the application of abstraction to nature—to any nature. Abstraction, once it starts to be applied, may seem strange, “unnatural,” and may bring radical changes in its wake. If it persists, it soon becomes taken for granted. It becomes second nature. Through the production of new forms of abstraction, the hacker class produces the possibility of the future. Of course not every new abstraction yields a productive application to the world. In practice, few innovations ever do so. Yet it can rarely be known in advance which abstractions will mesh with nature in a productive way .
It is in the interests of hackers to be free to hack for hacking’s sake. The free and unlimited hacking of the new produces not just “the” future, but an inﬁnite possible array of futures, the future itself as virtuality. Every hack is an expression of the inexhaustible multiplicity of the future, of virtuality . Yet every hack, if it is to be realised as a form of property and as signed a value, must take the form not of an expression of multiplicity, but of a representation of something repeatable and reproducible. Property traps only one aspect of the hack, its representation and objectiﬁcation as property . It cannot capture the inﬁnite and unlimited virtuality from which the hack draws its potential.
Under the sanction of law , the hack becomes a ﬁnite property , and the hacker class emerges, as all classes emerge, out of a relation to a property form. As with land or capital as property forms, intellectual property enforces a relation of scarcity. It assigns a right to a property to an owner at the expense of non-owners, to a class of possessors at the expense of the dispossessed. “The philosophy of intellectual property reiﬁes economic rationalism as a natural human trait.”
By its very nature, the act of hacking overcomes the limits property imposes on it. New hacks supersede old hacks, and devalue them as property. The hack takes information that has been devalued into redundancy by repetition as communication, and produces new information out of it again. This gives the hacker class an interest in the free availability of information rather than in an exclusive right. The immaterial aspect of the nature of information means that the possession by one of information need not deprive another of it. The ﬁelds of research are of a different order of abstraction to agricultural ﬁelds. While exclusivity of property may be necessary with land, it makes no sense whatsoever in science, art, philosophy, cinema or music.
To the extent that the hack embodies itself in the form of property ,it does so in a quite peculiar way ,giving the hacker class as a 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 expression of the hack. But the hacker class as class also has a tactical 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. The hacker class opens the virtual into the historical when it hacks away to make the latter desire a mere particular of the former.
The very nature of the hack gives the hacker a crisis of identity . The hacker searches for a representation of what it is to be a hacker in the identities of other classes. Some see themselves as vectoralists, trading on the scarcity of their property . Some see themselves as workers, but as privileged ones in a hierarchy of wage earners. The hacker class produces itself as itself, but not for itself. It does not (yet) possess a consciousness of its consciousness. It is not aware of its own virtuality . Because of its inability—to date—to become a class for itself, fractions of the hacker class continually split off and come to identify their interests with those of other classes. Hackers run the risk, in particular, of being identiﬁed in the eyes of the working and farming classes with vectoralist interests, which seek to privatise information necessary for the productive and cultural lives of all classes.
To hack is to abstract. To abstract is to produce the plane upon which different things may enter into relation.It is also to produce the names and numbers, the locations and trajectories of those things. It is also to produce kinds of relations, and relations of relations, into which things may enter. Differentiation of functioning components arranged on a plane with as hared goal is the hacker achievement, whether in the technical, cultural, political, sexual or scientiﬁc realm. Having achieved creative and productive abstraction in so many other realms, the hacker class has yet to produce itself as its own abstraction. What is yet to be created, as an abstract, collective, afﬁrmative project is, as Ross says, “a hacker’s knowledge, capable of penetrating existing systems of rationality that might otherwise seem infallible; a hacker’s knowledge, capable of reskilling, and therefore rewriting, the cultural programs and reprogramming the social values that make room for new technologies; a hacker knowledge, capable also of generating new popular romances around the alternative uses of human ingenuity.”
The struggle of the hacker class is a struggle against itself as much as against other classes. It is in the nature of the hack that it must overcome the hack it identiﬁes as its precursor. A hack only has value in the eyes of the hacker as a qualitative development of a previous hack. Yet the hacker class brings this spirit also into its relation to itself. Each hacker sees the other as a rival, or a collaborator against another rival, not—yet—as a fellow member of the same class with a shared interest. This shared interest is so hard to grasp precisely because it is a shared interest in qualitative differentiation. The hacker class does not need unity in identity but seeks multiplicity in difference.
The hacker class produces distinctions as well as relations, and must struggle against distinctions of its own making in order to reconceive of itself as itself. Having produced itself as the very process of distinction, it has to distinguish between its competitive interest in the hack, and its collective interest in discovering a relation among hackers that expresses an open and ongoing future for its interests. Its competitive interest can be captured in the property form, but its collective interest cannot. The collective interest of the hacker class calls for a new form of class struggle.
This struggle must enlist the components of other classes that assist in the realisation of the hacker class for itself. Hackers have so often provided other classes with the means by which to realise themselves, as the “organic intellectuals” connected to particular class interests and formations. But having guided—and misguided—the working class as its intellectual “vanguard,” it is time for hackers to recognise that their interests are separate from those of the working class, but potentially in alliance. It is from the leading edge of the working class that hackers may yet learn to conceive of themselves as a class. If hackers teach workers how to hack, it is workers who teach hackers how to be a class, a class for itself and in it self. The hacker class becomes a class for it self not by adopting the identity of the working class but by differentiating itself from it.
The vectoral puts the over developed world directly in touch with the underdeveloped world, breaching the envelopes of states and communities, even those of the subject itself. The poorest farmers ﬁnd themselves struggling against not only the local pastoralist class, but against a vectoralist class hell bent on monopolising the information contained in seed stocks, or the curative properties of medicinal plants long known to traditional peoples. Farmers, workers and hackers confront in its different aspects the same struggle to free information from property, and from the vectoral class. The most challenging hack for our timeis to express this common experience of the world.
While not everyone is a hacker, everyone hacks. Touching the virtual is a common experience. If hacking breaches envelopes, then the great global hack is the movement of the dispossessed of the under developed world, under and over every border, following every vector toward the promise of the overdeveloped world. The vectors of communication scatter as confetti representations of commodiﬁed life around the world, drawing subjects to its objects, turning on vectors of migration on unprecedented scale. But what remains yet to be hacked is a new opening of expression for this movement, a new desire besides the calling of the representation of the object for its subjects, who will arrive, sooner or later, at boredom and disappointment. The vectoral world is being hacked to bits from the inside and the outside, calling for the combining of all efforts at abstracting desire from property and releasing the properties of abstracted desire.
McKenzie Wark, A Hacker Manifesto
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