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Hacker activism

April 18, 2016

(This post is a slightly-tweaked version of a talk I gave as a respondant to Gabriella Coleman’s recent talk at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m grateful to DCC for inviting me, and to Biella Coleman for provoking these ideas.)

There is something both over and under-determined about the word “hacker.” On the one hand, “hacker” has come to encompass a broad sweep of practices far beyond those most narrowly associated with an entity like Anonymous, a collective that leverages computing technology to engage in pranks and protests, memes and civil disobedience. Hacking also encompasses (with varying degrees of earnestness) DIY home repair, highly-commercialized software maintenance and non-code-based trickery and mischief on any number of platforms, from newspaper comment forums to Amazon reviews. Even in this brief cataloging, hacking bears the weight of a diverse range of references. On the other hand, and perhaps a key cause of the aforementioned definitional blurriness, hacking defies concrete conceptual confinement, a vague, residual category of practices, mostly those practices that actively resist the very stability required for classification.

A number of internet and media studies scholars have made important contributions that both draw from and clarify this ambiguity, recuperating the political capacity of hacker praxis (not unlike Heller-Roazen’s work on pirates), reorienting previously dominant stereotypes of hackers as loaner, criminals and/or perverts. Starting from the premise that hacker communities can do important political work, I’m interested in using community as a lens for imagining what hackers have done and might do in terms of activist projects. In particular, I want to set up a comparison between the political actions of hackers and that of in-person direct action.  Hacking is (or can be) deeply political.  But in what ways is it activist?

To be precise in my accounting of politics and power, I’ll rely (as I so often do) on De Certeau.  de Certeau’s core question in Practice of Everyday Life centered on understanding how people maintain a sense of self in the midst of larger cultural institutions, which he viewed as forces that wear down and homogenize individuality. de Certeau referred to the ways that dominant cultural and political institutions operate as strategies, meaning the actions undertaken in the course of cultural productions as well as political endeavors. Tactics, in contrast, refer to the individual shortcuts, improvisations and workarounds that individuals use to make everyday life easier or more joyous. Tactics are politics of the weak, strategies are politics of the strong.

There is another de Certeauian concept, the perruque, that bears relevance here.  Translated directly as wig, the perruque is a moment of stealing work time and resources for play – de Certeau gives the example of a secretary who writes a love letter while on the job, a woodworker who uses his tools to build a toy for his child rather than a cabinet for his boss. The perruque is a diversion, in both senses of the word – diverting resources intended for one thing (work) deployed for another (play), and a source of diversion as pleasure, in the process of making as well as the artifact itself.  Hacking can be another form of perruque making – as when a software engineer uses her company’s resources and skills to fork a Linux development into a new thread that better meets her individual needs, or the needs of a group that matters to her. By looking at hackers as wig makers, we see the same tendencies of play, humor, skill, improvisation. And we also see a way of thinking about politics.

Kranzberg’s law applies to hacking as much as any other technology – hacking is neither good nor bad, nor is it neutral. Not every hack is politically motivated or politically efficacious, or even (as I noted above) necessarily related to digital technologies. I am not a computer hacker although I not infrequently hack other things.  I hack dairy-laden recipes to make them vegan, I hack other people’s syllabuses to make them suit a class I want to teach.  I am in these and other ways familiar with the pleasure of taking one set of rules and reworking them in unintended ways.  These hacks are only mildly or incidentally political. Even in a narrower sense of hacking as code and software, not all hacking is political – sometimes it is almost entirely a means of play or teasing or killing time; narrower still, not even all of Anonymous’ projects sit easily in a political frame.

Let me circle back to what it means to think of hackers as a community before turning to communities of activism. Anonymous is, on a broad level at least, a community of practice, in that they share a set of technical skills. Indeed, Coleman has argued that it’s a pragmatic approach to political action that binds Anonymous more effectively than a strict sense of political affiliation or ideology. This is something of a twist on the organizing mantra “politics over personality” – a means of mitigating tension (aka activist drama) between people who share the same political views but might find each other’s personalities overbearing or distasteful.   For Coleman, ideology (as in politics with a capital P) is subverted for the cause of a project.

Initially this formulation seemed to me to be a very de-politicized form of politics – what separates street-based direct action from loitering or harassment is, after all, ideology.  But then I began thinking about having spent time recently in DC with Democracy Spring, a bipartisan campaign finance reform movement committed to mass civil disobedience. The movement was notable for its broad coalitional appeal – anarchists as well as conservatives view lobbying as a weakening force against democracy – what primarily bound us together was a belief in methods of how, technically, to petition the government for a redress of grievances. A shared belief in a narrow band of political ideology was necessary but not sufficient for membership in the community that sat in on Capitol Hill – also required was a commitment to a particular practice of protest.

De Certeau thinks of tactics as belonging to the weak and strategies to the strong, but a more robust accounting of power and practice recognizes that tactics are equally available to the strong, just as strategies are to the weak. Indeed, the entire history of Taylorist interventions in the workplace could be retold from a perspective of tactics and strategies.  As Taylor obsessively noted the time-saving tips and tricks of factory workers, he developed a rigid set of instructions for day-to-day operations of labor and production. In demanding best practices, this institutionalized mandate strips individuality from a worker’s craft, enfolding the tactical into the strategic.

To again turn to an activist example – riding with the monthly bike protest Critical Mass in the years in between the 2004 RNC and the emergence of Occupy in 2011, I sometimes wondered if we hadn’t been training the police in how to manage this particular form of protest. Although Critical Mass was intended as a regular demonstration supporting transportation alternatives, its very regularity produced the conditions of surveillance and control that facilitated the interruption of future bike protests, having instructed the strong in the tactics of the weak.

Converting tactics into strategies is another way of articulating the threat posed by Silicon Valley to hacker politics, identified by Coleman in a recent talk. This concern is both technical and cultural – subsuming hacker code into corporate products, as well as normalizing different behaviors and relationships to coding work that are antithetical to most hackers. The all-encompassing corporate campus, representing a takeover of space (about which Dan Greene has written compellingly) as well as time, poses a threat to hacker identity as much as practice, replacing the trickster with the brogrammer. Again, technical skills matter less here than one’s relationship to technology, as well as relationships to attendant tech-related institutions.

There’s another level of strategic homogenziation that bears mentioning. Just this week, the Washington Post revealed that the FBI paid a group of professional hackers to crack San Bernardino Syed Farook’s iPhone.  That these hacks have political import is not to be disputed, but these are not politics in an activist sense, and certainly not in a sense of supporting privacy or open source software development.

And what about nationalist hacking?  For example, the 2007 hacker attack on Estonia’s parliament, banks, ministries, newspapers and broadcasters, amid the country’s disagreement with Russia about the relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn, an elaborate Soviet-era grave marker.  Again, the political dimension is clear here, but not in a liberatory way.  These are moments when hacker tactics are subsumed by state-based strategies.  A community of practice where ideology is both highlighted (in its functional synonymy with the state) and suppressed (in terms of demonstrating any explicitly recognized hacker politics akin to those that emerge among a group like Anonymous).

My point here is not to pull us back into an alarmist association between hacking and danger, or a kneejerk evalutation of hackers as terrorists.  I am deeply appreciative of Coleman’s work to reorient and complicate hacker praxis through her sustained engagement with Anonymous as a community,  and I do not want to be lumped in with nor support easy mainstream narratives “slotting Anonymous in the role of raging hackers” (citing Coleman in Limn). But if we are to think about the political affordances of hacking, we must also assess politics that are to the detriment rather than facilitation of privacy and transparency.

Although hackers, like other activists, may set aside ideological divisions to pursue a common goal, not all ideology can be set aside.  As regularly as New York City hosts the Anarchist Book Fair (in fact taking place this past weekend!), the National Anarchist Party of America attempts to crash. The name is deliberately misleading – NAPA is a neo-Nazi white supremacist group.  What exactly the group hopes to gain by its annual migration to the ABF has always eluded me and I confess I’ve never summoned the courage to inquire myself.  But these divisions under what at least at first appears to be the same banner raises some important questions – how do we understand the political value and motivation when opposing groups leverage the same concept for wildly divergent means? What about when they leverage the same tools as means for different (sometimes wildly different) political ends? That technology can be diverted to serve different masters differently is not a novel claim, but these cases do open up threads for assessing community activism in the context of hackers.

We might return to Coleman’s arguments about the importance of humor in hacker communities  – it is difficult to find humor in the FBI outsourcing critical technical work to gray hats, and the humor in shutting down a country’s parliament out of nationalist sentiment is dark indeed. Retaining a sense of humor, play and pleasure is crucial for de Certeau’s notion of the perruque as a small protest against the confines of the workplace. The question is, does humor scale?  And does humor at the outset provide adequate ideological scaffolding over the course of a given hacker intervention?

When I think about the political work that hackers do, my first inclination is to turn to a theoriest like Ranciere, for whom the inscrutable is the ideal form of protest.  In this model, the only meaningful form of civil disobedience is not dialogue but rather to produce illegibility that challenges the very systems of meaning undergirding hegemonic structures of order and perception. Although I find Ranciere useful, I do not always find him hopeful. Can hacker activism create a dialogue in the way imagined by Roger Silverstone, who in turn uses Hannah Arendt’s philosophies of hospitality and dialogue?  For Silverstone, media platforms play a crucial role in the thriving of democratic publics – in a sense, hackers potentially reshape these platforms, or alternatively produce interventions that can themselves be a form of dialogue. It is in this sense that I hold out the most hope for the activist capacity of hackers.

I suspect we will always need hacking as a practice, if only as a relational category that contrasts with mainstream, corporate, highly institutionalized practices of software development. Of course, this latter category is by no means a-political; to produce code in the service of a corporate entity is to enter into (however blithely) a capitalist contract of wages, labor and markets. Whether driven by humor or politics, incidental mischief or a commitment to democracy, hacking produces an alternative socio-technical narrative, asking (and even joking about) “how things could be otherwise?”

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