Hacking as critique: In and against

A selected literature review

As I mentioned in my first post of this series, most histories of Hacking begin at MIT in 1961 and make only cursory mention of anything prior to this date. I am interested in what the institutional, political and social conditions were, which gave birth to hacking at that particular time and place. Why MIT? Why 1961? In this series of posts (notes for a journal article), I am focusing on the role of ‘the university’ (i.e. institutionalised academia) in the development of hacker culture. Previously, I suggested that we can take Richard Stallman’s departure from MIT in 1984 as the moment hacker culture became independent from its academic origins and so for two decades, hackers were very much (although not exclusively), part of academic culture and dependent on and subject to the conditions of their institutions. In my last post, I focused on the commercialisation of scientific research and the gradual trend, over many decades, of US universities to valorise their research activity often at the encouragement of government funding agencies. This process took place over a long period as academics and their institutions shifted from an ethos of “communism” or the “communal character of science” (Merton, 1973) to a more entrepreneurial approach to science (Etzkowitz 1998, 2000a, 2000b, 2001, 2002, 2003).

Periods in history do not have clean start and end dates. The conditions which gave rise to moments like the arrival at MIT of the PDP-1 computer (1961) or the departure of Richard Stallman (1984) are, in my view, more important than the mythic “heroes” and “wizards” and “real programmers” if we want to understand why movements and sub-cultures came to exist, why they may have died, and how we can ensure their longevity. Rosenzweig, (1998) provides a useful review of four different approaches to writing the history of the Internet: biographic, bureaucratic, ideological, and social, arguing that

the full story will only be told with a fully contextualised social and cultural history. The rise of the Net needs to be rooted in the 1960s – in both the “closed world” or the Cold War and the open and decentralised world of the antiwar movement and the counterculture. Understanding these dual origins enables us to better understand current controversies over whether the Internet will be “open” or “closed” – over whether the New will foster democratic dialogue or centralised hierarchy, community of capitalism, or some mixture of both (Rosenzweig, 1998, 1531).

Although writing about the history of the Internet and not specifically about hacker culture, the same point can still be made. In my first post, I listed a number of books and articles which discuss hackers and hacking in different ways. Here, I reflect on five of them.

Stephen Levy’s (1984) Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution takes the biographical approach. It is the classic text on hackers and the the only attempt to develop a coherent (albeit brief) history. Its weakness is that it is a journalistic account of those ‘heroes’, making only cursory mention of the institutional, economic and political conditions they were working in. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating account of the motivations of the individuals involved and includes an epilogue which describes the events surrounding the commercialisation of the AI Lab’s Lisp Machines and consequently Stallman’s departure from MIT.

Himanen’s (2001) The Hacker Ethic takes a sociological approach, examining the work of hackers and their values in light of the Protestant work ethic. It is a useful attempt to develop Levy’s chapter on the Hacker Ethic and makes a clear connection between hacker cultures and scientific research culture within academia. However, his description of that academic culture remains inadequate and draws on Merton’s idealised account of the ‘scientific ethos’, which I mentioned in my previous post. As I have already discussed, the outcomes of scientific research have been the objects of proprietary control (patents and licensing), property (copyright) and valorisation since the early twentieth century in the USA. It is the achievement of hackers like Richard Stallman, who subverted these controls with the development of the General Public License, that distinguishes hackers from the scientific culture they grew out of and more recently is forcing the scientific community to re-evaluate the value of “the communal character of science”, as can be seen in the growth of the Open Access movement and recent ‘Science as an open enterprise‘ report.

Tim Jordan’s 2008 book, Hacking, is a short, general introduction to hacker and cracker culture and provides an insightful and useful discussion around hacking and technological determinism. Like Himanen, Tim Jordan is also a sociologist and presents a positive account of hacking as a social and political project. The weakness of Jordan’s book is that is draws largely on literature written by hackers themselves and as such presents them as heroic “warriors” and “hacktivists”, in the same tradition as Levy and Himanen. What makes Jordan’s book particularly valuable is his argument that “hacking both refutes and demands technological determinism”. That is, hackers both promote the idea of technological determinism and provide a critique of that view.

To me, this suggests that hackers work both in and against a society that appears to be determined by technology but provide an example of how that often overwhelming feeling can be challenged and subverted. From this position, hacker culture can be seen as one of the most successful counter-culture movements in recent history, yet one which continues to struggle within a liberal, capitalist world view, dominated by money/value, property and the legal system.

In a similar way, E. Gabriella Coleman’s book, Coding Freedom. The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (2012) is especially useful in identifying hackers and hacking as a liberal critique of liberalism. Coleman’s book is an anthropological study of hackers, in particular the free software hackers of the Debian Linux/GNU operating system and points towards a methodological approach of examining hacker culture and other counter-cultures that are ‘in and against’ a dominant discourse. One particular instrument that hackers employ is Stallman’s ‘copyleft‘ GPL license, which uses the existing law of copyright against itself. Similarly, Creative Commons and the Free Culture movement extend this approach beyond the software domain to all cultural artefacts. By examining the hacker culture in this way, we can reveal its limits and the opportunities that the movement presents within liberal capitalist society.

Johan Soderberg’s (2008) Hacking Capitalism is a study of hacking as a political project. In the first chapter, Soderberg offers a ‘background of the hacker movement’ but only briefly mentions the ‘pre-history’ which I am concerned with. He rightly mentions the development of the telephone infrastructure, Norbert Wiener’s theory of Cybernetics and its application in war-time funded research projects, which would eventually go on to develop the Internet. He also identifies the anti-war and appropriate technologies movements as examples of how  personal computing grew out of 1960s counter-culture (Turner and Markoff provide full accounts of this). However, much of Soderberg’s book is an examination of hacking using the categories of Marx’s critique of political economy (class, value, labour, commodities, etc.). In doing so, it is the only book-length study of hacking which attempts to methodologically examine hacking from the point of view of a critique of liberalism, rather than starting from a naturalised liberal understanding of categories such as property, work, production and exchange. For this reason, it is an important book (in need of a good editor!).

This very brief survey of five key books about hacker culture demonstrates that Rosenzweig’s remark about histories of the Internet can equally be applied to hacking. Taken together, they reveal that in addition to the substantive body of biographical, social and institutional history, the history of hacking can be approached methodologically in two critically different ways: The first (embodied in Levy and Himanen’s books) offers a view of hacker culture from a liberal perspective. Despite being mischievous, playful and meritocratic it’s ethic is grounded in laissez-faire liberal ideals of property, markets and freedom. The conclusion to Jordan’s book offers a methodological bridge to that which Coleman develops more broadly and Soderberg develops more fully. That is, a study of hacker culture can reveal to us an immanent critique of liberal capitalism: it is a culture that is both in and against; it is complicit but points to a way out through the development of intellectual and practical tools such as Copyleft and the sharing and co-production of open source software. The development of this more critical approach to the study of hackers and hacking is overdue and should result in a much stronger defence of free software and hacker culture as it is increasingly incorporated and subsumed into neo-liberal policy and methods of valorisation.

My next post in this series will be about hackers and war.