Home' Technology Review : March 2005 Contents TECHNOLOGY REVIEW march 2005
Recent books struggle to deﬁne
hacking and its economic and
BY SIMSON GARFINKEL
As cultural critic and New School University professor
McKenzie Wark sees things, today’s battles over copy -
rights, trademarks, and patents are simply the next phase
in the age-old battle between the productive classes and the r ul -
ing classes that strive to turn those producers into subjects. But
whereas Marx and Engels saw the battle of capitalist society as
being between two social classes—the proletariat and the bour -
geoisie—Wark sees one between two newly emergent classes: the
hackers and a new group that Wark has added to the lexicon of
the academy: the “vectoralist class.”
Wark’s opus A Hacker Manifesto brings together England’s
Enclosure Movement, Das Kapital, and the corporate ownership
of information—a process that Duke University law professor
James Boyle called “the Second Enclosure Movement”—to cre -
ate a uni�ed theory of domination, struggle, and freedom. Hack -
ing is not a product of the computer age, writes Wark, but an
ancient rite in which abstractions are created and information is
transformed. The very creation of private property was a hack,
he argues—a legal hack—and like many other hacks, once this ab -
straction was created, it was taken over by the ruling class and
used as a tool of subjugation.
So who are these vectoralists? They are the people who control
the vectors by which information �ows throughout our society.
Information wants to be free, Wark writes, quoting (without at -
tribution) one of the best-known hacker aphorisms. But by block -
ing the free vectors and charging for use of the others, vectoralists
extract value from practically every human endeavor.
There is no denying that vectoralist organizations exist: by
charging for the distribution of newspapers or Web pages, such
organizations collect money whenever we inform ourselves. By
charging for the distribution of music, they collect money o� the
expression of human culture.
Yes, today many Web pages and songs can be accessed over
the Internet for free. But others cannot be. The essence of the
successful vectoralist, writes Wark, is in this person’s ability to
rework laws and technology so that some vectors can �ourish
while other vectors—the free ones—are systematically eliminated.
But does Wark have it right? By calling his little red book A
Hacker Manifesto , Wark hopes to remind us of Marx and Mao.
Does this concept of “vector” have what it takes to start a social
movement? Are we on the cusp of a Hacker Rebellion?
The Communists of the 1840s had more or less settled on the
ground rules of their ideology—the communal ownership of
property and social payments based on need—by the time Marx
and Engels wrote their infamous tract. By contrast, many indi -
viduals who identify themselves as hackers today are sure to �nd
Wark’s description circumscribed and incomplete.
When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1980s, hackers
were �rst and foremost people who perpetrated stunts. It was a
group of hackers that managed to bury a self-in�ating weather
balloon near the 50-yard line at the 1982 Har vard–Yale game;
two years later, Caltech hackers took over the electronic score -
board at the Rose Bowl and displayed their own messages. (An -
other group had hacked the Rose Bowl 21 years before, rewriting
the instr uctions left on 2,232 stadium seats so that Washington
fans raising �ip-cards for their half-time show unknowingly
spelled out “Caltech.”)
Hackers were also spelunkers of MIT’s tunnels, basements,
and heating and ventilation systems. These hackers could pick
locks, scale walls, and practically climb up moonbeams to reach
the roofs of the Institute’s tallest buildings.
By the late 1980s, the media had seized on the word hacker—
not to describe a prankster, but as a person who breaks into com -
puters and takes joyrides on electronics networks. These hackers
cracked computer systems, changed school grades, and trans -
ferred millions of dollars out of bank accounts before getting
caught by the feds and sent to the pen.
Finally, there were the kind of hackers MIT professor Joseph
Weizenbaum had previously called “compulsive programmers.”
These gods of software saw the H-word as their badge of honor.
Incensed by the hacker stereotype portrayed in the media, these
geeky mathlings and compiler-types fought back against this pe -
jorative use of their word—going so far as to write in The New
Hacker’s Dictionary that the use of “hacker” to describe “mali -
cious meddler” had been “deprecated” (hacker lingo meaning
“made obsolete”). I remember interviewing one of these com -
puter scientists in 1989 for the Christian Science Monitor : the re-
searcher threatened to terminate the interview if I used the word
“hacker” to describe someone who engaged in criminal activity.
Although the researcher and others like him were largely suc -
cessful in reclaiming their beloved bit of jargon, they were never
able to fully disassociate the word from its negative connotations.
Today, the word “hacker” is widely accepted to have two mean -
ings. One reason, of course, is that malicious meddlers continue
to call themselves hackers.
Both Hacking Exposed, a mammoth three-author, 750-page
book about to be published in its �fth edition, and Hacking: The
Art of Exploitation seem to suggest that use of the word to de -
scribe someone with criminal intent is alive and well. There are
very much two kinds of hackers: “white-hat hackers,” who follow
the programmer ethic and help people to secure their computers,
and “black-hat hackers,” who actually do the dirty business. The
fact that it is the black hats who create the market demand for the
white hats is something that most white hats fail to mention. Also
overlooked is the fact that many who wear white hats today once
wore black hats in their distant or not-so-distant past.
The idealized hackers for whom Wark has written his mani -
festo also routinely engage in criminal activity—by violating the
vectorial establishment’s laws of intellectual property. Vectorial -
ists are not the only victims of these crimes. And Wark’s hackers
are the kind of people who would use peer-to-peer networks to let
a million of their closest friends download Hollywood’s latest
movies before they are released in theaters—a prime example of
hacker power to defeat the evils of vectorial oppression. On the
Links Archive February 2005 April 2005 Navigation Previous Page Next Page