FM Interviews
First Monday


FM Interviews: McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark

McKenzie Wark teaches media and cultural studies at the New School University in New York City. His most recent book is A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004). For many years he was an active participant in the nettime listserve, and also on fibreculture, syndicate, and a few other experiments in "collaborative filtering." A Hacker Manifesto grows out of that experience, and attempts to provide a theory to go with the practice of creating and sharing free knowledge in a digital gift economy. He is the author of a number of other books, including Dispositions (Salt Books, 2002) and Virtual Geography (Indiana University Press, 1994) and was a co–editor of the nettime anthology Readme! (Autonomedia).

This interview was conducted with First Monday’s Chief Editor Ed Valauskas, stimulated in part by A Hacker Manifesto.

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First Monday (FM): In A Hacker Manifesto you write "Education is slavery. Education enchains the mind and makes it a resource for class power." If that is true, then as a professor at the New School University, should I really identify you as an "enslaver"? How do you envision your role as an "educator"?

McKenzie Wark (MW): I draw a distinction between education and knowledge. Knowledge is the practice of creating relatively stable islands of useful or interesting information, and it’s my belief that these should be available for everybody, and that everybody can work on creating and refining them.

Education is the term I use for turning the practice of knowledge into something that can be administered and commodified. I argue that turning knowledge into education by making it a product is a bad idea. It makes a process into a thing.

Of course, as a teacher in a private college I’m living the contradiction. Students are always caught between buying school as a product and experiencing the pleasures of the free creation of knowledge.

The New School, where I work, was founded by John Dewey (among others), who were very much alive to this tension, I think. The New School started as adult education in New York’s East village. Another part of its story is the University in Exile, which saved Hannah Arendt and many others from the Nazis. So I’ve landed in an institution that is all about thinking and working in this tension between the process of knowledge as free creation and external powers of market and state that distort it in their own own image.

FM: There are repeated references in A Hacker Manifesto to "crypto–Marxists." In one your footnotes you call Marx a "crypto–Marxist." Can you explain "crypto–Marxism"? Is A Hacker Manifesto a crypto–Marxist work? If so, are true hackers "crypto–Marxists"?

MW: I’m always very ambivalent about the legacy of Marx, but where else can you go to find a rich intellectual tradition that is critical, that is wholistic, and that is historical? So I use this term crypto–Marxist, which I think has the image of a kind of secret code.

One can take Marx as the source–code for a kind of "ruthless criticism of all that exists," as he put it. But of course you have to turn this critical code against Marxists as well. I think the interesting writers who try to take on the whole world are doing this — using Marx against himself. Guy Debord, Felix Guattari, or Toni Negri for example. I use them in the book too. And of course I try to turn them against themselves as well.

One can take Marx as the source–code for a kind of "ruthless criticism of all that exists," as he put it. But of course you have to turn this critical code against Marxists as well.

I wanted to find a way of writing that took its distance from consensus reality in a critical way, but I didn’t want it to be about "resistance" to the emerging neo–liberal world order, where all information is privatized. I wanted an affirmative book that offered a new kind of social imagination. I think it’s useful to be able to imagine the world otherwise. Readers may not like my particular alternative world, but I hope the book can lead you toward your own acts of speculative thought.

FM: Gisle Hannemyr wrote in First Monday in an essay entitled "Technology and Pleasure: Considering Hacking Constructive" [1] the following:

"The emergence of hackers as an identifiable group coincides closely in time with the introduction of various Taylorist methods in software development. Many of the most skilled programmers resented what was happening to their trade. One of the things that characterized the early hackers, was their almost wholesale rejection of Taylorist principles and practices, and their continued insistence that computer work was an art and a craft and that quality and excellence in computer work had to be rooted in artistic expression and craftsmanship and not in regulations."

Would you agree?

MW: Yes, that’s well said, I think. If you take the long view, the commodity economy passes through three stages. The first commodifies land, and hence agriculture. The second commodifies capital, and hence manufacturing. The third stage is the commodification of information, and hence the so–called "new economy." Each phase is what I would call a development of abstraction in the world. Each involves a new property form — landed property, capital, and so–called "intellectual property."

Each stage is an enclosure of the commons in favor of a private property right. Intellectual property grows out of patent, trademark, and copyright but changes them from a kind of social compromise to a private property right.

Each stage produces a class who own the means of production in the form of private property, and a class dispossessed of what it produces in the first place. Thus we get farmers versus landlords, workers versus capitalists, and as I would put it, a new level of class conflict, between hackers and what I call vectoralists — those who own intellectual property and the vectors which are the means of realizing its value.

So while writers, programmers, biologists, or musicians tend to see themselves as separate cultures with specialized ways of thinking, I think there is an over–arching class interest there as well. An interest in preserving the autonomy of the way we labor that farmers and workers have already lost.

I see the formation of a hacker sensibility and ethic as an expression of this new level of conflict over the enclosure of the commons and the subordination of free productivity to the commodity form. So I see Gisle Hannemyr’s story as part of a bigger picture. Intellectual property makes all kinds of creativity equivalent in the eyes of the marketplace. So x amount of your patents are worth y amount of my copyrights.

So while writers, programmers, biologists, or musicians tend to see themselves as separate cultures with specialized ways of thinking, I think there is an over–arching class interest there as well. An interest in preserving the autonomy of the way we labor that farmers and workers have already lost. We are the new front line in a very long struggle.

FM: You wrote in A Hacker Manifesto "Information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains." I am sure that this remark would not appeal to delegates to the World Intellectual Property Organization in Geneva. Do you see the efforts of the Creative Commons (http://creativecommons.org/) as a step in the right direction?

MW: Yes, I support Creative Commons, but I would place myself on the left flank of that project. Which I hope may be helpful to Creative Commons. What they propose is quite reasonable and moderate compared to my quasi–utopian thinking about a generalized gift economy for all information!

It was instructive to see how the U.S. Supreme Court responded to Professor Lessig’s brief about the constitutional limits to copyright. He seems to think that the courts can act as a neutral arbiter in the interests of the common good. I take the view that the courts represent the ruling interests.

And those ruling interests are changing. The capitalist ruling class was not so concerned with turning information into an absolute property right, as it was incidental to their interests. So research, education, and culture could be left to the state and managed in the interests of the economy as a whole.

But the emerging vectoralist class is not interested in the power of the machine, in manufacturing. It’s quite happy to outsource all that to a mass of competitive bidders in the developing world. It controls the production process by controlling information as property — and demands more and more that the state police this right.

We have to put the politics back into thinking about the information economy.

I think we need to confront this emerging power with a range of tactics, of which Creative Commons is one, the Free Software movement is another. The struggle over generic drugs, particularly for the developing world is yet another front. Tools for free knowledge and communication sharing — nettime, First Monday — that’s also part of it.

Another part is the rampant file swapping that ordinary people have initiated. I think that’s a whole social movement. And just as it took the threat of communism to get social democracy, I think it will take the threat of a radical experiment in free information to arrive at some negotiated settlement of a "commons."

So while Creative Commons might be a model of the goal, it is one tactic among many.

And so: "information wants to be free" (Stewart Brand) ... "but is everywhere in chains" (Jean–Jacques Rousseau). We have to put the politics back into thinking about the information economy.

FM: Ignacio Ramonet wrote a few years ago in le Monde diplomatique [2]:

"...we are witnessing a strange spectacle: the growing power of planetary business giants, against which the traditional countervailing powers (governments, parties, trade unions, etc.) seem increasingly impotent. the main phenomenon of our age, globalisation, is in no sense under the control of governments. Faced with these giant corporations, that state is losing more and more of its perogatives. The question is can we, as citizens, really turn a blind eye to this new–style global coup d’état?"

Do hackers and their activities represent a response to these "planetary business giants"? Will hackers be "impotent" eventually in this struggle, if indeed there is a struggle?

MW: The commodity economy was always "global" or rather "globalizing" in tendency. That’s not so new. "Globalism" only seems new if you grew up in a Europe or America where the state provided some cover for its internal population even as it aided and abetted exploitation abroad. But if you grew up on the periphery, as I did, you have a different perspective.

There are qualitative differences, however, in how the commodity economy works in different stages. I think there’s a real, slow motion revolution that spills out from the invention of the telegraph and culminates in the so–called "new economy." The telegraph, or what I call telesthesia — perception at a distance — makes information move faster than people or things. You can produce a kind of doubling of the world. You create a space of information in which to manage and direct the movement of things.

From the telegraph to the telephone to television to today’s emerging digital media vectors, what gets produced is a "third nature." The built environment, with its roads and buildings, its factories and farms is a second nature, a transformation of nature by collective labor into something more habitable. But this second nature produces its own internal contradictions. And so a third nature arises through which to try and resolve those contradictions. Each is a more abstract phase of development than the last.

And as history pursues this strategy of abstraction, it becomes more and more dependent on hackers — creators of new forms of abstraction — to push further and further towards a third nature of information flow that maps and monitors and transforms the world.

The thing about information is that it really does want to be free. It knows no "natural" scarcity.

Third nature has utopian possibilities, but it could end up being subordinated to merely reproducing and expanding the commodity economy. This would be the attempt to solve the contradictions of the commodity economy by making more of the same. or, it could be a step towards new forms of organization in which information plays a new role.

The thing about information is that it really does want to be free. It knows no "natural" scarcity. It can escape the commodity economy, at least in part. That’s where hacking — in every sense of the word — has a unique role to play. It’s creating the possibility that something — even if it is only information — can be freed from scarcity and hence from the commodity economy.

FM: Rafal Rohozinski, in his "Mapping Russian Cyberspace" [3], remarked that to understand the Internet in Russia one needs to understand its social and historical context. With your interpretation of hackers, you provide a social and historical perspective, different from other previous attempts in its breadth. Are we facing a general lack of understanding of these social and historical contexts for the Internet, computing, and those involved deeply in technology?

The challenge is to think the coming of the digital — computing broadly conceived — as revolutionary.

MW: I’d be the first to admit that I know very little about hackers (in the narrow sense here) in Russia. We need to excavate and share those histories, so we’re aware of both our commonalities and our differences. My book is all about breadth. I try to cram the whole world and hundreds of years into maybe 200 pages. It’s a book that does not shy away from thinking history whole. So inevitably, I’ve left things out, or understood things from my very particular Australian–American point of view.

The challenge is to think the coming of the digital — computing broadly conceived — as revolutionary. But to think it as not just a technology, but a whole social transformation, and to pay attention to its uneven development, and to local cultural specificities.

One way to go is to deal only with the local and get it really right. There’s a role for that kind of specialized scholarship. But I think there is also a role for trying to synthesize that work into a worldview.

A good work of scholarship is going to strongly true about a limited world. A good work of theory is going to be slightly true about a very big chunk of the world. In A Hacker Manifesto I’m trying to do the latter. Readers can choose to measure it against their local experience however they want. Like any good theory it is refutable. I just hope it would be a productive contribution to knowledge even if people refuted everything in it. Maybe that’s a way to create a better worldview.

FM: Hans Christian von Baeyer’s recent book Information: The New Language of Science (Harvard University Press, 2004) reminded me how many physicists were (and are) hackers at heart, if we take your definition of hacker in its most holistic sense. For example, Schrödinger in his famous 1935 paper [4], wrote:

"Maximal knowledge of a total system does not necessarily include total knowledge of all its parts, not even when these are fully separated from each other."

We may never approach "maximal knowledge" of the entire contents of the Internet, with some eight billion Web pages in existence, or an average of 1.25 Web pages per person on the planet. Or will we?

Life is too short for long books.

MW: No, I don’t think knowledge can ever be adequate to what it describes, nor should even try to be. That would be to assume an endpoint to knowledge, which would be something out of Borges, a complete doubling of the world. I think knowledge — in any field — is about rarifying clouds of unreliable information down to a few stable islands.

My interest is in praxis — in the relationship of knowledge to action. I wrote A Hacker Manifesto as a synethsis of everything I’ve learned about the free creation and sharing of knowledge, from some 10 years of trying to practice it in various digital gift economies on the Internet. So it doesn’t try to "cover" everything. Knowledge for me is subtractive. It’s about what you leave out. It’s about compressing it down to the smallest file size that is still useful. Life is too short for long books.

FM: In the Manifesto you wrote:

"Where once, as Marx wrote, ‘religion is the opium of the people,’ now OpiumTM is the religion of the people."

John McDermott wrote in the New York Review of Books [5]:

"If religion was formerly the opiate of the masses, then surely technology is the opiate of the educated public today, or at least its favorite authors. No other single subject is so universally invested with high hopes for the improvement of mankind generally and of Americans in particular."

So if technology is the opiate, what role do hackers play for the "masses"?

MW: There is certainly a fetishizing of technology as both demon and saviour. But the first mistake in trying to think about technology as something separate, as a thing. Then we worry about how it invades the borders of the body — as if it wasn't always–already in there — or how it can be a miracle cure. One has to think the praxis, the process, by which the human and non–human are woven together and are really indistinguishable. I hardly ever notice that parts of my teeth are inanimate matter put there by my dentist, but that’s technology.

I think we have to change the discourse a bit, and lock onto the commodification of technology, the exploitation of technology as ways of making money rather than as ways of building new possibilities for being human. That’s why I write that "OpiumTM is the religion of the people," refering to a line of designer perfume. Commodification is no longer about things, it’s about signs. The material aspect of the commodity is being hollowed out. Now it’s just a support for the brand.

Commodification is no longer about things, it’s about signs.

Technology is being used just as a means of propping up the brand and its "sign–value" as Jean Baudrillard once called it. It’s an attempt to create scarcity artificially, by trying to get us to desire brands as special signs attached to rare objects, whether it’s the brand name drug or the brand name perfume or pants.

But hackers can also free information from any particular material form. That’s the genius of digital technology. It provides a platform where information has an arbitrary relation to the material. You could copy this interview onto your hard disk and 999 times out of 1000 you will have exactly the same thing. That’s a tremendously liberating potential. It can free information from scarcity — were it not for a commodity system that keeps trying to stuff it back into material things by legal or technical means. You can be damned sure the next generation DVDs will be much harder to rip than the last, for example. and that’s a backward step, trapping information rather than freeing it.

FM: I made an earlier reference to the Web’s size with its eight billion pages. Richard Coyne, in his Technoromanticism (MIT Press, 1999), talked about the surreal experiences of searching for information. Like surrealists in Paris markets, we find objects on the Web that are "old fashioned, broken, useless, incomprehensible, even perverse." Some argue that the commodification of the Web would solve this "surrealism." Do you agree?

MW: Why would one want to solve it? It’s only a problem if your governing desire is for a closed and orderly world. You need that messy, fuzzy, blurry edge. It’s where change happens. The word "surreal" is useful — it refers to what is in addition, over and above the real. It’s another word for the virtual, for things that are real but not actual. Things that can be but at the moment aren’t.

I argue that the term "hackers," in the broad sense, includes anyone who is a custodian of the virtual, anyone who works on charting the virtual and bringing things into existence, ranging from science to poetry. I think all of us who try to live up to that goal have a shared sense that it is — or can be — a good thing.

The word "surreal" is useful — it refers to what is in addition, over and above the real. It’s another word for the virtual, for things that are real but not actual. Things that can be but at the moment aren’t.

And from that shared sense that it is good to create new things, I want to explore the politics of the conditions under which the new can be created. I don’t think that restricting the movement of information to the commodity form is that ideal situation. What we want from information is what exceeds its current embodiment in a particular commodity, and hence what we want is something that in some way goes beyond the commodity form.

FM: I see the manifesto in A Hacker Manifesto as a call for action. What action and by whom?

MW: A manifesto is firstly a way of cutting through a complex world and revealing its complexicty through that simple, polarizing gesture. A manifesto is addressed to a collective interest. It is addressed to "us" against "them." A Hacker Manifesto is introduced to producers of the new, whether in the arts or sciences, or somwhere in between.

Think beyond the property form. Imagine new worlds where information not only wants to be free, but is free.

It is against those who would profit by the new enclosure of information within the property form. I argue that strict intellectual property is not in the interests of creators. It is in the interests of those who own the means of realizing the value of what we do.

I don’t offer a program so much as an orientation: think about what you have as a common interest with other producers of information, and beyond that with other producers in general. Think beyond the property form. Imagine new worlds where information not only wants to be free, but is free. I think that’s a whole new horizon for thinking about what justice is, for what the just society could be. End of article

Notes

1. See http://www.firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_2/gisle/.

2. At http://mondediplo.com/1998/06/01leader.

3. http://unpan1.un.org/intradoc/groups/public/documents/UNTC/UNPAN015092.pdf.

4. E. Schrodinger, 1935. "Die gegenwartige Situation in der Quantenmechanik," Naturwissenschaftern, volume 23, pp. 807–812; pp. 823–823; and, pp. 844–849; English translation by John D. Trimmer in 1980 in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, volume 124, pp. 323–338.

5. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/11253.


Copyright © 2004, First Monday

Copyright © 2004, McKenzie Wark

FM Interviews: McKenzie Wark
First Monday, Volume 9, Number 12 - 6 December 2004
http://www.firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1199/1119





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