Text originally commissioned by steirischer herbst and Florian Malzacher for the edited volume Truth is Concrete - A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics (Sternberg Press, 2014), a collection of 99 short entries written by artists and theorists ‘mapping the broad field of engaged art and artistic activism in our times’.
Hacking is a practice of disruption of communication systems and information flows, their re-purposing against their intended or legal use. When discussing technology we tend to perceive it as an enabler. Tools that help us master the world around us at ever smaller expense of energy. Frequently still, but less so, we think of technology as war machines, surveillance machines, propaganda machines.
But technology is linked at a more fundamental level to the social domination. That is, to that most fundamental of forms of contemporary domination that is the domination of social life by capital. Since the onset of capitalism, the development of technology was driven predominantly - but not exclusively - by the laws of intracapitalist competition: by the pressure to expand demand and increase the productivity. Particularly technology as a means of production is a form of domination - that of capital over labor. It is fundamentally the ingenuity and productivity of collective living labor that has accumulated over time, assumed the form of the machines and that now confronts the labor in an alienated form: as the productive coercion that extracts - ‘vampire-like’, as Marx called it - the living energy from it in order to keep accumulating.
Returning now to the contemporary communication technologies and their attendant configurations of domination, subordination and social control that are the targets of hacking. A technology is never merely technological: it is a confluence of engineering, market, law and social norms. All of these can be mobilized to sustain a form of domination and a domination by technology. Take the example of the development of internet. The internet has emerged outside of the domain of capitalist competition. It was created as an effort by the US military at the height of Cold War to create a distributed communication system with no central hub - a system that could sustain the attack and outage of a part of the network. And it has continued being developed by the academia, providing the broadest possible participation with the least degree of centralized control. It’s a typical bastard brainchild of the military-academic complex: robust and open.
In the early 90s the internet has massified, stirring the old hope that finally we get a two-directional public medium, where everyone will be able to speak to the broadest public. And twenty years later that potential has indeed materialized. Almost everybody can participate. But this democratic participation is relative - it perfectly reflects the separation between the economic freedoms and political freedoms that the capitalist domination wants to sustain. While we have the absolute freedom to debate, we have no means to engage into the transformation of the economic order. The internet has thus become the epitome of that paradox of equal inequality: capitalist democracy.
And it has also become a typical capitalist technology. While it feels like the same old hyperlinked and distributed communication network, it’s now much more centralized, controlled by a handful of service providers and dominated by commercialized content. Large corporations, many of whom have erstwhile controlled the old media landscape, now control large segments of the internet infrastructure. They have transformed it into a system where monitoring of user behavior has become the instrument to sell advertisements to the users and sell users as a commodity to advertisers, while at the same time allowing the easy aggregation and surveillance of all electronic communication to the security services. Network topology of internet nowadays is more a hub than a mash. And legal protections of copyright and patents serve to sustain the monopoly power of those companies, their capacity to protect their control over the exchange of information and the development of technology from the innovations and interventions that might disrupt their monopoly power.
We have now come the full round to understand what defines the emancipatory in the practice of hacking. First, it means disrupting the control of capital over the development of technology, creating the uses of technology that escape economic interests of technology companies and transform it into truly people’s technology that might allow them, in a second step, to escape the social control in their effort to transform the existing social relations. Two hacks are here exemplary: Richard Stallman’s GNU General Public License – a copyright license that suspends the private property and commodification in software; and Phil Zimmermann’s Pretty Good Privacy - an encryption algorithm that prevents anyone to read the communication for whom it is not intended to.
Second, it means using technology to break the economic and legal power that sustains the domination of capital over social life. Exemplary here are the hacks performed by the late Aaron Swartz, a hacker and political activist who has taken his own life in January of 2013, two days after the US justice decided to take him to court for his JSTOR hack, with the prospect of up to 35 years in jail. His setting free of metadata from the Library of Congress, of legal documents from the PACER repository, and what looks as an attempt to liberate all the scientific articles in JSTOR repository, were all attempts to circumvent the economic barriers and controls of access provided by copyright that had little to do with the authors, but everything to do with the capacity of monopoly capital to exclude from access to fundamental social goods such as science and law, and to protect its market power.
The circumstances of Swartz’s tragic death indicate, however, that the copyright oligopolies will not back down under the brave acts of hacking. We cannot find technological solutions to social problems, nor engineer our way out of social domination. Without a political struggle hacks won’t stick. And that is a double requirement that Aaron Swartz, a political activist himself, was aware of in his all too short life of hacking: without disobedience, antagonism and organizing the struggle for a transformation of social and political cannot be occasioned - without a transformation of social and political order all prowess, fighting spirit and ingenuity is lost.