Courting Vectoralists: An Interview with McKenzie Wark on the 10 Year Anniversary of "A Hacker Manifesto"

Melissa Gregg interviews McKenzie Wark

Courting Vectoralists: An Interview with McKenzie Wark on the 10 Year Anniversary of "A Hacker Manifesto"

December 17th, 2013 reset - +

 TEN YEARS HAVE PASSED since the publication of McKenzie Wark’s A Hacker Manifesto. Wark argued then that the dynamics of class had shifted and that the model of the factory was insufficient for understanding a knowledge economy. Rather than capitalists versus proletarians, the central antagonism was between hackers — the sources of innovation, knowledge, and abstraction — and vectoralists, the ruling class that sought to appropriate and commoditize these goods. If information wanted to be free, vectoralists were determined to make it pay. Intellectual property was the complex that made creativity a commodity.

Wark’s little red book redrew the battle lines for property, labor, and power in a digital age. It synthesized cultural studies, philosophy, and net criticism to reconceive production and profit, nature and education, state and global politics. A Hacker Manifesto’s interest in non-representational politics complemented other books of its time, for example, Michael Hardt and Tony Negri’s theory of the multitude outlined in Empire. From a different angle, the book’s global outlook shared sympathies with the work of Giorgio Agamben and Etienne Balibar in the sense that it provided resources for activists seeking to understand the racial panics raised by the Iraq War. But A Hacker Manifesto stood apart from its contemporaries due to its focus on the materiality of information. Long before the tech industry caught on to “big data,” Wark’s theory of the vector isolated the distinct form of capitalist accumulation that would define the coming decade. 

Today, Wark’s book doubles as a record of lively debates fought out on listserves like nettime and fibreculture, when the space of the digital was alive with critical possibilities. These lists built alliances between European, Antipodean, and North American thinkers with their fertile mix of critical theory, media art, anti-capitalism, and anarchism. Their histories are yet to be fully documented. If “a hacker history knows only the present tense,” returning to the politics of this period can help us understand what has changed in the course of ten years. We can begin to chart the process by which the hacker has become hegemonic. This interview with Wark took place by email following a discussion of these issues in New York.


Melissa Gregg: Let’s start with the term “hacking.” Since The Hacker Manifesto, we’ve seen a lot of change in the technology sector. Self-identified hackers are billionaires, and hackathons are becoming a major site for civic and industry innovation. How does the rise of social media inform the theory and politics of hacking as it is practiced today? When the “hack” becomes the founding ethic for one of the world’s biggest media companies — Facebook — what work is the term performing?

McKenzie Wark: “To hack” has always been an ambivalent term — that’s what I like about it. There have been good and bad sides to it for a long time. The attempt to rename the criminal side “cracking” never really took. The bad guy in the PBS children’s show Cyberchase is called Hacker, but, of course, he’s the most interesting character, as bad guys always are. 

There’s some other slippage going on now too. On one side, the guys in suits want to think they are “hackers”, as in creators of new spaces of possibility. So there’s a slippage from the hacker being the one doing the hacking to being the one making money off it. On the other side, there is some opening up at the bottom of the term, as something everyone can participate in, if not in a virtuoso fashion. There’s some leakage of the language of hacking into thinking about all kinds of creation, re-purposing, garage projects, and so on. Which might have to do with “hacking” being one of the few images we have of what the new kinds of labor might be now. 

MG: To use a computing term, are we “overloading” the word hack? Are we asking it to do too much, and too varied, work? Do we need a new term or set of terms, and if so what might those terms be?

MW: Well, it’s the overloaded terms one might want to look at, to see what kinds of social forces are overloading them. Yes, “hack” slides all over the place, as any such term will do if you don’t think of it more abstractly, as a node in quite specific social relations. To me, a hacker is someone who turns information — of any kind — into intellectual property. Hence, programmers can be hackers, but so too can scientists, artists, writers, designers, and so on. It’s about how these disparate kinds of concrete activity end up in the same abstract form — as “intellectual property.”

And so hacking is on the one side all these qualitative, collaborative, differential kinds of activity on information; but on the other side, it’s just a few kinds of property — copyrights, trademarks, patents, trade secrets, trade dress — that companies end up owning and trading and suing each other over.

Of course, few hackers end up owning the rights to what they produce. They become part of the vectoral class. But apart from a lucky few, they end up working for someone else. From the point of view of the property question, it’s not all that complicated. But the cultural layer around that is dense and contradictory, as any cultural layer is, and not least because part of its job is to obscure the property relation.

MG: Where does the maker movement fit in relation to hacking’s histories and politics? How do the branded interests served by this trend (e.g. Make Magazine, 3D printing companies, tech manufacturers) reconfigure the battles for power and property outlined in The Hacker Manifesto

MW: If we take hacking in the cultural sense to be something that emerges out of MIT and similar environments in the middle of the twentieth century, then there’s a certain poetic logic to reconnecting it to everyday, hobbyist kinds of tinkering, which after all was one of its origin stories — the MIT model railways club. Something of the ethos of hacking as another kind of labor, one with some degrees of freedom, which creates its own internal codes of use value, seems to have leaked out into maker culture. The hacker, whether as a professional coder doing her day job, or running a hackspace on the weekend, is someone who one can imagine as still having some shred of a utopian practice. Being good at making something good, within the limits of time and materials. 

But I think what happened in the ten years since I wrote A Hacker Manifesto is that we won the battle and lost the war. We won certain affordances for the gift, for social creation, for use value, within the commodification of information. But what I call the vectoral class, the class which owns and controls the mode of information, regrouped around a more abstracted kind of control. So, OK, we can play with our data, but they control the metadata. And it’s based on unequal exchange. We get these little smidgens of data, but we give up more than we get. Surplus data as “business model” rather than surplus value. 

MG: This reminds me of an early line from the manifesto: “We do not own what we produce — it owns us.” I think this is the way many people are starting to feel about data. How does the data economy — surely the ultimate form of power enjoyed by the vectoral class today — extend or challenge the model of property in your book?

MW: Yes, people are still not comfortable with the idea that information is now supposed to be somebody else’s private property. We still think of it as a relation, rather than a thing. Those of us who produce it know this from our everyday experience: a fact or a thought or a feeling emerges out of some activity of relation. That it might then become a thing that someone else, who was not even a part of that activity, owns at our expense… we’re not very happy about that.

It’s even more confusing in that for the most part those who end up owning the product of our intellectual efforts are not all that interested in us anyway. The data is of interest in aggregate, or the users are of interest in aggregate. We and our data are owned for the purposes of selling us on to advertisers or other clients who might make use of that aggregate data. People see the “privacy” side, but they are even more disturbed I think by the opposite: the indifference side. Nobody really cares about your weird sex thing on the internet, other than as a way to sell you products related to your weird sex thing.

Of course, this will start to change if big data moves into the workplace more, and we’re all to be monitored every which way for performance and abilities. Then we’re even more owned, or “pwned” as the gamers say, by data which we ourselves produce, as a power over and against us.

MG: In my own thinking, I’ve been experimenting with more organic metaphors, like “data sweat,” to think about the difference it makes when we aren’t fully in control of the data we are generating for companies. It seems we need a more nuanced idea of ownership, not to mention privacy, when it comes to our data rights. Notions of secretion and prophylactics are more useful.

MW: I like the corporeal but not subjective tone of “data sweat”! In the minds of advertisers we’re sort of like the dumb terminals from which data are to be extracted without our consent or knowledge. All the intelligence about making sense of that data is on the other side. We have no part in it. And it sort of works. Might be more fun though if people could split their identities, keeping separate accounts for their various selves, and could also have a hand in crafting their own avatars. It might actually work even better from a business point of view if people had that autonomy to actually be who they want, rather than be coerced into unequal data exchange. We could have a whole other way of digital life.

The lack of honesty about where “big data” comes from means that it’s mostly data about what machines do, not what people do. That’s why I think it might be more interesting to move to a system where humans can intentionally craft what data they share. Even shape it aesthetically, to be a certain avatar in a certain place and another one somewhere else. More like World of Warcraft than Facebook. Then the aggregate data gathered might be less “true” about what a machine did, but more “true” about what a person wanted. We still have this old-fashioned theory of knowledge that if it’s recorded from a machine it’s true.

MG: Are today’s hackerspaces incubators for new politics or new businesses? Does the current generation of hackers see any difference?

MW: They are both, of course. There’s a certain ambivalence. I certainly meet people who are gung-ho about their first start-up. But about their second? Their third? It seems like the music business back in its heyday. Only it’s start-ups, rather than bands, doing most of the work and taking most of the actual risk. 

But then there are people who really think that how stuff is made, and knowing how it is made, is a kind of power. I don’t know if it’s politics, exactly. It’s more about the powers of labor, or something like it. That there is a certain power in teaching what we know, and not just about how to hack technology, but also the social and cultural hacking that goes with it. Of learning how to collaborate, for example. It’s about the ethos of a class with one foot in business and one in something else.

MG: How does the notion of the gift economy stand up to present conditions, specifically in the context of new kinds of activism around free labor, internships, and student debt following the Occupy movement? Does the hackathon/app jam model of labor actually work to indenture young hackers through the mythology of the gift?

MW: I think this conflates a few things. The vectoral class is very keen on a model where we all work for them for free. We’re supposed to tag and star and like and comment so they can harvest the attention and the data from our machines and sell it to advertisers. It’s a way of extracting surplus information. We get data, but only they get metadata.

That’s not the same thing as a gift economy. Now, there’s always a feedback loop between gift and commodity. One can never really replace the other. But we created ways of making the gift economy abstract, such as peer-to-peer sharing over networks with total strangers. And as a counter-move, the vectoral class found ways of extracting value from that energy, from that commons. So we won the battle then lost the war. 

The partition between gift and economy moved, first toward gift, then back toward commodity. I think it’s no accident that the kind of repetition and stasis we see at the moment — all rhetoric to the contrary — is partly the result of this enervation of the vital forces of the gift. 

MG: You’re talking about online labor in most of those examples, or what Ian Bogost recently termed hyperemployment. That’s one way of understanding free labor — and it certainly needs better terminology. But I’m curious about how hackers themselves are inheriting the worst kind of career training from other “creative” industries, in which hours of unpaid and unrewarded work are donated to build collateral for a jackpot, winner-takes-all economy. Isn’t the glorification of what Andrew Ross calls “sacrificial labor” central to the hacker ethic, and part of the struggle that students face as they seek jobs today?  

MW: If we are talking about the overdeveloped world, of Europe, the United States, and Japan, these are economies in a state of prolonged stasis. There’s not much going on apart from rent-gouging a few more pennies and transferring them upwards. So there’s a whole generation for which there just aren’t a lot of real jobs. Of course, we should all be working like mad to transition to a post-carbon economy, but we’re not. It’s just one bubble after another. It’s the most embarrassingly underperforming ruling class in centuries.

We’re all supposed to blame ourselves for this failure and to worship at the shrine of some pitiful handful of “success” stories. And, of course, we’re supposed to work harder. But for what? At what? The root of all this is a mode of production that is not making a transition, that is spinning its wheels. So all kinds of labor start to get worse, since there’s nothing for it but to squeeze harder on people who work. Everyone who works for a living is caught up in this nonsense, but everyone who works is also capable of imagining another way of life.

MG: Politically, who are the inheritors of the hacker ethic? Occupy and Anonymous, or Code for America?

MW: I never thought it had a universal “ethic.” Hacking has all kinds of ethical and unethical behaviors. But all of them get captured by the same kind of private property form. What holds thinking back is this pointing over and over to only the “bad” hackers or the “good” ones without seeing the whole process by which information is turned into property.

This is even true of the politics. We all rush to judgment about whether Occupy or Anonymous were good or bad things without understanding first how they are phenomena only made possible by a certain kind of “vector,” i.e., a certain kind of relational technology. In terms of how space works, or how media work, Occupy and Anonymous are very different, but they are both exploits that work the affordances of twenty-first century infrastructure.

Here in what the Situationists usefully called the “over-developed world,” there is both an emerging politics of that infrastructure, and also a kind of realist-reformist making-do. For example, the idea that “everyone should learn to code.” At its worst, it’s part of adjusting expectations downwards: learn to code, design an app, and if you are lucky you will get rich — but you probably won’t. On the other hand, that there is a bit of debate about democratizing access to knowledges about technology — now that has potential. What if we didn’t teach everyone code, but we taught everyone more of the logic that underlies all such digital systems and also gave everyone access to knowledge about how hardware and infrastructure really work? And in a way that is both abstract and practical, about systems and power, but also about how to “hack” your own life? That seems more promising.

MG: I’ve been studying life hacking for the past few years. This explains why. It’s a means to observe how people are carving out their own tailored modes of attention, of concentration, even care, that aren’t provided by traditional skillsets and philosophies. A way of disassembling the forms of productive subjectivity peddled in state-based education. But what do you take from the idea of life hacking?  

MW: The missing piece often seems to be the idea that life hacking is a shared effort. It’s usually about the individual, when that individualism is part of the problem. Life hacking is a group activity, a question of our species-being. The hard part seems to be to scale it up a bit. To life hack a bit more cooperatively. This doesn’t mean fleeing for the commune or trying to build utopia. The hacking ethos is a bit more pragmatic than that. But can we transfer 21st-century work skills into organizing outside of work better? Once you step out of the lab or the studio it’s like the 19th century out there. These rather quaint ways of running the social. Some might have inherent strengths. I’m not advocating the throwing overboard of several generations-worth of democratic procedure. But rather questioning why we got stuck with what was state of the art in another century.

“State-based” education comes in for a lot of criticism, but by any objective measure it still works very well. If American children had food, had parents who weren’t working all the time, and lived in households free from unnecessary levels of anxiety and violence, then they would do as well as those kids in Finland, whose socialist education clearly outperforms our starve ’em and beat ’em approach. So I don’t see life hacking as antithetical to education. It’s more the extension of it into everyday practices. Ironically, it’s the so-called “reforms” that are backward looking. What could be more 19th century than a “charter school”? We built state systems because of the miserable failure of that basic model back in Dickensian times.

MG: I would have thought Occupy came closest to The Hacker Manifesto description of a “politics of the unrepresentable”: a politics that aims for “the refusal of representation itself, not the politics of refusing this or that representation.” The other obvious candidate is queer politics — it would be good to hear more talk about gender hacking! You were a significant commentator on Occupy during its peak. Do you have thoughts on its success now? And do you see signs for optimism in this kind of atopian politics in other spheres? In other locations? 

MW: Actually, Anonymous seems closer to a “politics of the unrepresentable,” but Occupy also participates in a process of finding forms for articulating a grievance. The legitimacy of the ruling class used to rest on making life better for everyone. The current one has failed at this task. So it wants to redefine the task downwards. Occupy was a calling to account. We could all be working hard at satisfying work and living pretty well rebuilding the whole mode of production on a low carbon basis. Why aren’t we? It’s not about optimism. It’s just realism. That’s what needs to be done, and if our leaders won’t lead, then there’s a calling to account.

I just reviewed Béatriz Préciado’s book Testo Junkie, which is a great account of what s/he even calls “gender hacking.” S/he took testosterone for a year and not only documented it but conceptualized it. If all our bodies are now running on an operating system made up of synthetic hormones and mood regulators, then let’s just admit there is no “natural” body and get on with a politics of cooperatively hacking the privatization of fresh-tech by the pharmaceutical industries and others. I gestured in A Hacker Manifesto very glancingly to that whole dimension, but Préciado really fleshes it out — so to speak. So yes, there are queer or even post-queer practices that are really key here.

MG: It seems as if what happened over the past decade was a split between a hacker politics which refused representation, as we just discussed, and a more engineering-oriented, or what Evgeny Morozov would call “solutionist” approach to political problem solving. The latter is what we are seeing in the rise of civic hackathons, which accept the state (and corporate capitalism) as a site for renovation, for patchwork, for adhocism. Do you see it this way? Is this what you expected 10 years ago?  

MW: You know, there was one great power that was run by engineers and that thought as engineers do. That was the Soviet Union. Many of its top post-Stalin leaders were engineers. “Solutionism” was what they did best. It sort of worked for a while. One can be a bit skeptical of some versions of this tinkering mentality. Those upon whom the current mode of production has poured riches garnished with power always seem to think it must be basically an OK system.

But it is surely a vulnerable one. Food security has to be one of the big issues here. The food production system is vulnerable to climate change, which means likely shortages and price spikes. It’s usually hunger that drives people to demand fundamental change — and often in extremely unhelpful ways. If one looks beyond our “safe European homes” then the future political landscape is more likely about food security, water, and so on. Not that these things aren’t caught up in vectoral power. Investment is following predictive models which assess risk and “opportunity” based on big data and so forth.

I’m always a bit ambivalent about Morozov’s writing. He keeps pointing to the vectoral class and saying “these are not our friends.” Well, some of us have known that for ten years or more. It’s part of the one-sided approach to thinking about technology. Point to the bad part only, as if there aren’t struggles internal to tech. It feeds an obsolete imaginary that thinks there’s an outside to technology, that it’s just a “bad option.” There is no outside. I also think you have to be a bit of a realist at times about what has potential for a future and what doesn’t. If our choice for a ruling class is between Google or the Koch brothers, I choose Google over those assholes. Google’s tech is about commodifying the planet through unequal exchange of data, but it may have other affordances. Whereas all you can say about a business built on coal-fired power plants is that it has no future at all.

I think the possibilities for new futures come not from resisting but from accelerating technical development even under present conditions. There’s no way back; we can only go forward, difficult though that may be. That was what I argued in A Hacker Manifesto ten years ago. The situation has changed over that period. Then we could be datapunks; now, we have to be metapunks. The zone of conflict moved to a more abstract level, from data to metadata. But what endures is the challenge of meshing cultural and technical kinds of hacking to create and recreate the possibility that there can be a world.


Melissa Gregg is a Principal Engineer in User Experience Research within Intel Labs and Principal Investigator for the Intel Science and Technology Center for Social Computing.