Find Your Hacker Within

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 22.09.2020

About the culture and media scholar McKenzie Wark

Reading the texts of the RIBOCA2 Public Program participants all summer with enthusiasm and great satisfaction, I did however, feel that after this project I would want to refrain from using the phrase “neoliberal capitalism”, cited depressingly often and seemingly self-explanatory as the main cause of all modern forms of oppression and other global challenges, for a very long time. A very similar dislike of the uncritical repetition of this mantra was expressed, somewhat unexpectedly, by the next participant in this cycle: Australian-born but long-time New York-based professor of culture and media studies at The New School for Social Research, Mackenzie Wark (1961).

Firstly, to her, this phrase is simply "bad poetry" - another signifier on the signifier, while capitalism itself remains "eternal" and irrevocable in the minds of both its opponents and supporters. The uncritical and clichéd use of language masks the problem rather than reveals its extent, and reconciles one with the situation rather than mobilizes to solve it: "everything is bad, nothing more can be done". According to Wark, everything may be even worse, but for an accurate diagnosis, and to formulate the necessary response, another language is needed. She has spent her entire professional career in the search for such.

In 2004, Wark (then a theorist and publicist almost unknown outside Australia) came to America with a five-year-old manuscript in her pocket that no one had previously agreed to publish because of its "incomprehensible" form. Harvard University Publishing, on the other hand, responded immediately with no objections, suddenly making Wark an internationally renowned thinker and securing her a place in U.S. academia. A Hacker Manifesto is still the most popular work of the very prolific Wark, now officially published in 11 languages, excluding the pirated translations.

Wark herself calls it prose-poetry written in the mythologized "European" language. Its vocabulary largely consists of Latin origin concepts and both business language and Marxism jargon, which in turn makes it easily transferable to other European languages. Playing with both the Marx and Engels Manifesto and Guy Debord's The Society of the Spectacle styles (the study of the legacy of situationalist movement is also her enduring subject), Wark’s book finds market relation transformations that are blindingly obvious now, but hardly anyone talked about in the late 1990s when this work was actually written.

To describe today's situation, she introduces new class struggles, the "hacker" and "vectorialist" classes, which do not replace one binary opposition with another, but reveal a more complex mechanism for usurping power, accumulating property and exploiting it than is customary in the Marxist tradition. (Both concepts were inspired by the early Internet environment and the blogosphere in which the young media researcher was active at the time, and although Wark now often says that they sound a bit awkward in today's virtual reality, they are well established. She even uses them in last year's book Capital is Dead: Is This Something Worse?, in which the Manifesto ideas are reviewed and adjusted.)

“’Hackers use their knowledge and their wits to maintain their autonomy. Some take the money and run. (We must live with our compromises.) Some refuse to compromise. (We live as best we can.) All too often, those of us who take one of these paths resent those who take the other.”[1]

In feudal and capital societies, such autonomy, or informal life outside of productionl relations, was possible in traditional cultures and with leisure time pursuits. According to the Manifesto, hackers are those who create the possibility of another life outside the borders of the dominant system. The choice of that moniker is supported by the fact that the word 'hacker' in the language of the elite has as contemptuous a connotation as a runaway peasant or a rebellious worker in earlier forms of exploitation.  However, over time, in the texts of both Wark and her commentators, it has expanded in importance, and is now often attributed to a growing class of intellectual workers, often self-employed, without a guaranteed future job and with an equally volatile income, but who are the main creators of new abstractions (hence new forms of survival and other possible worlds).

In today's world, not only land and capital but also information has become property, and this has created a vectorialist class that controls the flow of information. It’s a class that does not produce anything itself, but owns brands, patents, copyrights, and information gathering, control, and logistics algorithms. Traditional capitalist-industrialists and even bankers for the vectorialist class are only subcontractors: Apple does not make phones, Google is neither a creator nor a repository of knowledge, but collects a lot of metadata about user interests and thus regulates access to information, while Facebook is actually a blank page where we voluntarily provide information about ourselves free of charge, and where it is processed and either sold onwards or back to us.

It is an even more brutal form of exploitation than the traditionally capitalist one, because if in the past we could practice some autonomy in our free time – free from the work whose fruits still do not belong to us - or in the form of undisclosed desires or informal detours, then now, we have also given these spheres of our lives over to the Internet, - fully controlled by vectorialists.

Aware of this situation, the first intuitive idea is to leave the Internet and rely only on offline communication and cooperation with other freaks like yourself in your close circle, but the second intuitive idea is that it’s not the most sensible solution. Firstly, it’s not your immediate surroundings, but specifically the virtual exchange of information and knowledge that has made it possible to know that there are like-minded people out there somewhere.

Secondly, knowledge of what is happening in the world is a matter of survival, and it is also provided by all those who share their lives on social networks - both those who do it uncritically without thinking and those who are aware that everything they do, their whole search history can be turned into a commodity, become the property of vectorialists, or be used against themselves. Withdrawal does not seem to be a solution for Wark either. She sees possible resistance in ways to sabotage the system without being predictable, to experiment with fiction and self-representation, which doesn’t correspond to the ready-made notions of others, and which would thus not be subject to easy categorization for the convenience of algorithms.

McKenzie Wark's talk “Ficting and Facting” took place on September 24, 2020 as part of a series of online lectures and talks organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website

[1] A Hacker Manifesto [005]. Wark specifically divided the book into a series of “epigrams”, so that it would be free of any particular layout design or edition page numeration.

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