First Monday

FM Reviews

McKenzie Wark.
A Hacker Manifesto.
Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2004.
cloth, unpaged (350 entries), ISBN 0–674–01543–6, US$21.95.
Harvard University Press:

McKenzie Wark. A Hacker Manifesto.

Neo vs. Mr. Anderson

In A Hacker Manifesto McKenzie Wark, Professor of Cultural and Media Studies at Lang College, New School University, attempts to analyze the commodification of information (information as property, or "intellectual property") as the next (last?) stage in the relationship between the owning and producing classes. He offers a Marxist/crypto–Marxist interpretation of the history of property, and then proposes the idea that the current form of property ownership and production is of signal importance in that it offers the best chance to escape the prison of property (as well as other false creations) as a naturalized concept. Wark succeeds to both a lesser and greater degree.

Wark does a fine job of tracing the standard Marxist interpretation of the history of property. The overthrow of feudalism led to the creation of a landowning class who suppressed the land workers (farmers) and attempted always to gain control of more and more land; this is the Pastoralist class. The Pastoralist class so thoroughly oppresses many of the farmers that they are forced to look elsewhere for work. This new labor pool — the workers — is subsequently put to use (abused) by the nascent class which owns the means of production based not on land but on manufacturing and technology: the Capitalist class. And finally (here is where Wark sets off on his own path), the ruling class moves beyond false but materially based property (land, raw materials, factories, etc.) into the realm of virtual property (I use the more commonly accepted sense of "virtual" here rather than Wark’s more encompassing definition of all property being virtual). This new ruling class — the Vectoralists — seeks to commodify and control the new property — information.

What is central to this history of property for Wark is that in each new manifestation, property becomes less tied to reality and more abstract. Regardless of its imposition of false realities on Nature, no one can deny that the Pastoralist class controlled something real: land. And, while business and economic concepts such as finance are more or less ethereal, raw material and factories are real, physical objects. The property of the new ruling class, however, is virtual in that it isn’t limited by real or false scarcity. Information can be sold or gifted without the seller or giver losing "possession" of the information. Information is infinitely reproducible and hence cannot be used up.

Wark plays fast and loose with the word hacker ... He has hackers hack new concepts, hack things to bits, and even hack hacking.

"What about Hackers?" you might be asking. It is here that Wark runs into some problems. I began the book expecting him to discuss hackers and hacking in the traditionally accepted settings of computers and computer programming. Instead, Wark defines hackers as those who "create the possibility of new things entering the world" (004). A hacker could be a computer programmer, a writer, or a singer, to name but three examples. A hack, therefore, is the creation of something new or the creation of the possibility of something new. These new things need not be "great things, or even good things, but new things" (004). As such, the concept of property itself is a hack, with the commodification of information the slyest hack of all (176).

Wark plays fast and loose with the word hacker, sometimes to the detriment of the book. He has hackers hack new concepts, hack things to bits (088), and even hack hacking (196). This wordplay becomes tiring at the least, downright obfuscatory at the worst. As in all theoretical writing, it sometimes seems as if theorists can never entirely resist the temptation to talk the talk only to those rarified few who can walk the walk.

There is another quality of the book worthy of mention. Wark has a refreshing and unusual willingness to criticize the work of others. Too often in academia, scholars tiptoe around criticisms they have of their fellows. After all, the author you excoriate today might be the reviewer of your book tomorrow. Wark has no problem pointing out what he perceives as the misinterpretations or outright mistakes of other theorists and historians, regardless of their prestige (see, for example, notes to Entries 069, 072, and 254).

Wark’s is a deceptively slim volume. What it might lack in physical heft it more than makes up for in intellectual weight.

In conclusion, Wark’s is a deceptively slim volume. What it might lack in physical heft it more than makes up for in intellectual weight. This mental depth is both the book’s strength and its weakness. While he offers much that is interesting and thought–provoking, a great deal of other potentially fruitful concepts are buried under dense verbiage and/or loose conceptualization. At times Wark seems on the edge of losing control of his ideas and language, if not having lost it altogether. This tension can perhaps best be exemplified by the headings chosen by whoever cataloged the Manifesto for the Library of Congress. The selected headings include: Digital Divide, Computer Hackers, Social Conflict, Intellectual Property, Information Technology — Social aspects, and Computers and Civilization. While there is no doubt that Wark addresses some of these concepts in detail, others are dealt with tangentially at best, if not absent entirely.

While I often times enjoyed reading A Hacker Manifesto, and even laughed out loud at some of Wark’s more droll comments.

"Talk of an end to information as property makes lawyers and liberals nervous." [254]

I can only give the work a partial recommendation. It certainly does not belong in the canon of books by or about hackers (see Himanen (The hacker ethic. New York: Random House, 2001), Levy (Hackers. New York: Penguin, 2001), Sterling (The hacker crackdown. New York: Bantam Books, 1992), Thomas (Hacker culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), et al.). Nor does it fit entirely within the body of Marxist works. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Easy classification or cataloging is, I suspect, anathema to Wark. — Rob Vega, User Services Librarian, Valparaiso University End of Review

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