Work notebooks: Against Hackerism, pt. 1

This article is part of a series which will hopefully lead to the creation of an open article about technological dissemination and the narrative that surrounds how it’s understood and performed in the western world. The articles can be read independently from one another or as a collective whole.

Prerequisite readings:

The Californian Ideology

The word “hacker” has been employed by so many people and movements that it is now devoid of meaning. While its origins as a term initially began as a way to define a small group of tech enthusiasts, it slowly evolved to identify a subculture which then grew into a constellation of political movements. Nowadays, the term “hacker” has trickled onwards into mainstream startup culture. It has become a term used by technical employees and business people to identify themselves with an image of success in line with the Californian Ideology. The entrepreneurial effort is then portrayed as a challenge against the status quo, the common sense and the boundaries that constrained their competitors (the “box” the hacker can think outside of). Hackerism became an element of marketing competition.

Nowadays the term is used in mainstream media mostly to identify security hackers or misused to identify professional or non-professional crackers. The term has been appropriated by many and diverse actors in the technological, social and political landscape to the point where the understanding of the word has to deal with apparently irreconcilable contradictions . What does a “growth hacker” (basically a business strategist without a suit) have to do with an hacktivist trying to bring neoliberal capitalism to its demise by attacking banks or by developing a messaging app? Are they kin to a Chinese security expert trying to disrupt the infrastructure of some American company?

“NO!” shouts the hacktivist: “I'm the only one entitled to this word, because being a hacker means to be against the system”. The developer at a startup would nonchalantly answer: “Brother, I'm also against the system. My company is trying to disrupt the market of shower filters. For too long this niche has been dominated by a cartel of old capitalists that never tried to improve their products”. The Chinese hacker wouldn't participate in the discussion at all because he doesn't marry in any of these ideologies and he just inherited a label from the Western discourse while trying to earn a salary.

There are many categories which self-identify as hackers but the goal of this article is to talk about a specific subset of them that we will now try to define. Some might call them “hacktivist”, but it's still too broad of a term. We are concerned with those hackers that perceive themselves as politically active, politically conscious and leaning towards progressive positions which are intended simply as promoting an expansion of natural or artificial rights to a broader spectrum of people. Among these, we consider only those that work actively to analyze and probe existing techno/social systems and artifacts or to develop new ones. We exclude from this discussion those whom are not politicized and those whom are leaning towards reactionary, pro-capitalist and racist positions. We also exclude all those political crackers (individuals and collectives) that in the last few decades attacked corporate and governmental systems to extract and publish sensitive information that they believed belonged to the public space, such as Phineas Fisher.

The hackerist perspective

The “Hacker Identity”, I argue, is a powerful source of motivation. It is a catalyst for the construction of technology outside the mainstream pipelines of technological development. I also want to argue that this identity comes attached with a heavy ideological and practical baggage that ultimately hinders the contribution given by “hacked technology” to the liberation of people and improvement of their material, psychological and spiritual conditions, an achievement that a specific subset of hackers would like to claim as a justification for their activities.

Let’s define the “hackerist perspective”:

The hackerist perspective is an attempt to alter technology for political reasons by repurposing technological artifacts without concerning oneself with altering the process that produced said technology.

Follows as a corollary: The process and the systems that produce technologies are questioned, attacked, controlled but never repurposed.

The hackerist perspective is by this definition anti-political, because redefining processes and systems requires political work towards consensus, regardless of the scale. A given way of using a technology is encoded by the social structure that employs it. Such coded usage cannot be then embedded into the technological artifact without first paving the path on a social level. The hackerist perspective cannot encompass such complexity: to retain meaning for the efforts made by the hackerist multitude, it resorts to flip the myths of the Californian Ideology upside down. Where the Silicon Valley imbues its technology with saving powers, the hacker sees a Dark God of Control. New, pure, moral techno-Gods created by the hacker will liberate the humans from the oppression of the old, tainted, evil techno-demons created by the corporation.

Narrowing down the action to the technical level and erasing the social and ideological implications of said operation is the only allowed option after embracing a worldview that prescribes the struggle for freedom as a clash of technical capabilities. A machista confrontation of individual or collective intellects rather than a fluid struggle of human communities and bodies against the capital.

The hackerist perspective in the real world

How does the hackerist perspective influence the world around us? How does it influence the Tech counter-cultural community? How does it influences the artifacts that are produced? Is it just an empty category or a category useful to escape ideological cages?

Being a liquid identity and lacking clear structure and organization, the “hacker community” is hard to narrow down to a specific set of people, goals and projects so we must proceed with nuanced categories.

Let's start from a fact: a huge number of activists around the world are concerned with resisting the negative impact of technology on our lives and to limit the ever-increasing power of the corporate world over societies, individuals, organic masses and spaces all over the world. A good part of them would identify themselves as hackers or hacktivists. To this multitude of perspectives, judged as a single entity, can be attributed successes or failures in the many goals that seems to drive them.

The overall balance of the hackerist struggle is deeply negative. Today, the hacker multitude is incapable of producing pervasive alternatives, producing viable and accessible solutions, and ultimately counter-attacking the continuous invasion of Big Tech of the public and private spaces. Like most of the post-'68 left, hackers are content with resisting the onslaught, slowing down the forces of capitalism operating at a level that is not reached by the forces of the Resistance. The result is the creation of small spaces of safety which get harder and harder to defend, requiring increasingly larger efforts to be maintained.

Let’s take private and secure communication over the Internet as an example. The multitude created many viable and usable solutions in the last few years to allow most tech-savvy people to exchange text and files in a relatively safe way without having to invest too much time in configuring their systems. While this result is highly effective in protecting members of the multitude and other actors like journalists, whistleblowers and political dissidents, it seems to be unable to be generalized to the masses. Probably most hackers would say that this was not even a goal to begin with. The pattern of prefigurative localism collapsing into self-referential systems of value is the same that can be easily found in many niches of the political left.

The inability to generalize and scale their solutions (with the exception of a few Free Software programs and some hardware designs like Arduino) seems to be a common pattern in all the “technological confrontations” that the multitude engages in. A change that is restricted to an élite chaste of tech-savvy people is neither lasting nor impactful change. Reproducing their individual independence from Big Tech over and over is not a fight for the liberation of humanity. In the same way, work on philosophical theory that fails to produce results in the real world is nothing more than a masturbatory act performed by an entitled middle class of academics, artists and cultural workers. The parallelism between these two worlds, the hacker multitude and the left-wing cultural and political multitude is uncanny, even though the two forms of functional immobility come from very different roots.

The hackerist perspective is enough to explain this limitation: there's just so much you can achieve by concerning yourself exclusively with operating on a technical level. On top of this, there seems to be a sequence of trending technical solutions to which hackers attribute liberating power: free software, decentralized solutions, federated solutions, encryption, client-side computation for data ownership and so on.

These days federated solutions seem to be trendy, with lot of hope put into Mastodon, a federated clone of Twitter that replicates the UI/UX of a software designed to extract data from users and make them engage in a rapid, toxic, and confrontational way to maximize engagement and attention. Most of these design choices seem to go unchallenged. But it's not much of an issue since most instances are populated either by LGBTQ+ communities, left-wing activists or hacker/tech-savvy people. And also fascists: neo-nazis, white supremacists, right-wing libertarians and so on. Since they are not allowed to organize on commercial platforms, they make use of every technology that can give them independence from the control systems of liberal societies. A scenario for which Mastodon seems to have no effective countermeasure, and a consequence which wasn't envisioned beforehand. As usual, the creator of the technology won't be held responsible for the outcomes of providing a tool to Nazis. On top of this, there are serious doubts that the federated nature of the social is actually delivering a distribution of power among many stakeholders: the relevant instances are just a few and the distribution is, so far, extremely skewed.

The hackerist perspective vs the holistic perspective: Mastodon vs FairBnB

Mastodon represents a good case study of the naiveté of the hackerist perspective. To understand why the hackerist perspective is problematic, I think it's useful to point at another case of software aimed at liberation that seem to approach the problem from a deeply different perspective: FairBnB.

FairBnB is an attempt at creating a non-exploitative alternative to AirBnB. It does so by employing a more fair business model, investing in local communities, respecting data ownership and trying to build a worker/user run platform as a cooperative effort. Being a new and still not open platform, a judgement on the outcome is not possible but that's not why this is interesting to us.

Mastodon and FairBnB lie at opposite ends of the spectrum of technological liberation. While Mastodon begins its endeavour with a technical question, FairBnB begins with a political and social question. “Can we make Twitter federated to liberate its users?” vs. “Can we liberate cities from the harm brought by mass tourism?”. Once we answer to the second question, giving it a technological embodiment is relatively easy. The converse though is not true: once we have a technological artifact like Mastodon thrown out into the world, it is impossible to shape its politics. A deep political reflection on the liberating power of Mastodon would probably invalidate all the efforts made so far: such an approach would never be employed by the lead developer and the community.

It is no accident that these two software artifacts differ so greatly in intent and implementation: they come from very different communities with contrasting ideologies. Mastodon, being an exemplification of the hackerist perspective, puts its trust in the liberating power of the technology itself as we have discussed before. In contrast, FairBnB comes from a more traditional analysis of power dynamics in local and global economics, a critique of platform capitalism and a desire for communal services, all of which are characteristic traits of a leftist environment that is still struggling with its relationship with digital technology. Nonetheless, the idea that technological repurposing can be employed as a weapon against the Capital is growing stronger and stronger among said leftists: FairBnB is one among examples of this renewed alliance betwen the Left and Technology.

End of part 1. Part 2 containing a pars construens will follow.