an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552-5112





An Interview with McKenzie Wark


McKenzie Wark


Nicholas Ruiz III







NRIII: What led you to write A Hacker Manifesto?


MW: I emigrated to the United States in August 2000, and by November George W. Bush was president. It didn’t take long to figure out that this was not politics as usual, but a token of an underlying shift in the political economy. A lot of people were rushing into the immediate questions in American political culture. Not being an American, there wasn’t much I could say about that. So I decided to take a step back, and to take it as an opportunity to rethink political theory, with an eye on the present conjuncture, but the other on experimenting with how to redeploy certain key categories – class, representation, vector, production, property – and so on.


NRIII: What is the anatomy of “the hack”?


MW: The other context for A Hacker Manifesto was the dotcom bubble and bust. Most transformative technologies experienced these kinds of speculative booms – railways, trans-Atlantic cable, telegraph, radio. But they were still transformative. So one of the key concepts I wanted to grapple with was ‘information’. If one talks about ‘discourse’ one only talks to others in the humanities, but talk about ‘information;’ and you can have conversations right across the spectrum of knowledge. Where does new information come from? From what I would call the ‘hack’. It doesn’t matter if you are a programmer, a philosopher, a musician, a bio-chemist, if you produce new information, that’s a hack. I want to expand the meaning of the word beyond a narrow, specialized field. Because I think that all kinds of new information production are now rendered equivalent by the regime of intellectual property. The market makes what we all do equivalent.


NRIII: Where is the hack’s agency?  Online?


MW: The internet is just part of the picture. Another concept I want to think some more about is the ‘digital’. How is the production of the digital, particularly in mid-20th century computer technologies, connected to the creation of new forms of labor and to the capture of information by a regime of so-called intellectual property as a private property right? That’s the question. At one and the same time a new technics and a new form of labor arise which makes possible the formation of a new class, what I call the hacker class, producers of new information. That information is caught in the net of a new kind of property that makes it a private property right. Sure, patents and copyrights go back a long way, but ‘intellectual property’ is quite new. It dates from around the same time as the formation of the digital.


NRIII: If information wants to be free, how do we release it? What are the political consequences of free information?


MW: Well, the first thing to establish is that “information wants to be free but is everywhere in chains.” I take seriously the ontological claim of the first half of this statement, popularized by Stewart Brand, John Perry Barlow and the cyber-libertarians. Information, particularly since the formation of the digital, can escape from any given materiality. Information has to be materially embodied. It has no ideal essence outside of its embodiment. But its relation to its materiality becomes increasingly abstract. It can escape any particular materiality, but not materiality.


What’s happening is that information is escaping all the time. File sharing is the new social movement. People spontaneously produce the commons every time they forward documents or make mix-tapes of mp3s for each other. It’s a radical expansion of the gift economy, with all of the procedures of prestige and mutual recognition that the gift always entails, but on a more abstract plane.


But this tendency confronts its opposite, which is the desire of a corporate world for which ‘intellectual property’ is its only real asset to stuff information back into a relation of identity with some material substrate. They don’t want you ripping their precious dvds or making cheap copies of their brand name drugs. I see this as a class conflict. The new ruling class – I call it the vectoralist class – is determined to thwart the radical ontological freedom of information and trap it in its identity as a material thing, assigned to the identity of a discrete owner. Against this, the hacker class can either side with the people and their collective re-appropriation of information as being in common, or they – we – can sell the products of our labor for some slither of value to the vectoralist class, which owns the means of production, the means of realizing the value of what we make.


NRIII: Is postmodern media polity an ossified edifice; can it be hacked?


MW: I think more and more that one has to go around it, produce a new commons, which in turn shifts the underlying assumptions of the media polity. That’s what the conservatives did, by the way. They paid handsomely to produce a parallel ‘public sphere’ of think tanks and talking heads. We have to adopt the same strategy but different tactics. Create a new commons, based on freeing information from the commodity form. In part to win at the old game of representative politics, but in part to create a new politics altogether.


NRIII: Vectoralists, Hackers, Producers, Rulers, etc.—why classes? Why do they exist? In other words, is it, perhaps, the natural selection of the Code (genetic); its legacies then being manifested as global Capital, as a currency of the Code; or do the classes arise out of material conditions (Marx)?  What’s your perspective on the origin of the class?


MW: Central to the question of class is the category of property. Class is no mystery. It’s a simple relation of possession or non-possession of the means of production. If you don’t own the means of production, you work for those who do, and you will receive less than the value of what you produce in return, and you will have no control over the production process in which you are obliged to labor. Hence farmers confront a pastoralist class, which owns land and extracts rents from farmers. That’s the class struggle in most of the world. And hence workers confront capitalists who extract profits from their ownership of industry and pay workers in wages. So for example there are 80 million industrial workers in China now. If there are two axes of class conflict in the world then why not posit a third? Hackers produce new information, but do not own the means of realizing the value of what they produce. We have to sell our labor to a vectoralist class, which owns the means of realizing the value of new information.


NRIII: Can there be a freedom of the commodity form—a freedom for purchase?


MW: It’s hard to beat the mixed economy for material things subject to scarcity. So for material commodities, a market plus non-market forms of distribution where markets fail. This is why policy can get very boring – it’s just a question of figuring out the allocation of resources. But information is different. It partially escapes from the laws of scarcity. Its material form doesn’t, but its material substrate is relatively cheap. You can take a movie that supposedly cost a hundred million dollars and burn it on a dv disc for a handful of pennies. That’s the exciting part. There really can be an information commons. There already is an information commons. The vectoralist class is frantically trying to stuff the genie back in the bottle, with punitive laws, with restrictive technologies. But there is what I would call a latent class-consciousness about information. The people think they make culture and knowledge, they think it belongs to them – and they want it back.


NRIII: How do we cultivate the omnilateral vector, in the name of free, egalitarian, Polity—and is that, ultimately, our destiny?


MW: It’s not a destiny but it is a possibility. I think “information wants to be free” describes a new possibility in history. But nothing guarantees it. It’s a question of working, modestly, sometimes quietly, on creating the information commons. It’s a question of poking a few holes in the idea of knowledge and culture as somebody’s property, of springing a few leaks. They exist already – the free software movement, wikipedia, creative commons. It is not and may never be a movement that looks like any previous social movement. It will be very dispersed, a network of networks. But it is already happening.


At the moment it’s a matter of outgrowing the ‘tactical media’ stage, of thinking about strategies, creating mini-institutions, of deepening the practice. But it is also a question of deepening the theory, of asking fundamental questions about concepts like class, property, information, and so on. Not for its own sake, but to see further into this space of possibility, where “information wants to be free.” A Hacker Manifesto is a modest contribution to this project.





an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 2, April 2005, ISSN 1552-5112