On the Unity of Cultural and Technological Hackers

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McKenzie Wark:

Almost never is the "technical a real object of inquiry. It is something fallen, quotidian, not an object to be thought. Its something about which to direct only a hermeneutic suspicion. The mode in which the most general sphere of action is understood is either as culture or politics. Technology has no margin of interest; politics and culture do.

On closer inspection this seems quite fantastic. Isn’t culture the domain of the culture industry? Isn’t politics the domain of administered domination? Oh, its not that culture or politics that is invested with value. Its an imaginary, other culture or politics. The good kind! One that looks like, well, intellectual labor. Self-reflective modernist culture, for example, or a political party under an intellectual rather than affective leadership.

But notice how the political or cultural can be domain with a utopian side, whereas technology is to be denied this affordance at every turn. Its only cyber-libertarians of the right who find a utopian margin in tech. For leftists, it must be elsewhere. This is why it was such a scandal for Bernard Stiegler to suggest that technology is a ‘pharmakon’, an undecidable cure/poison. (I made a related argument in Gamer Theory). So we are enjoined to have a cultural imagination or a political imagination, but not what Anne Balsamo calls a technological imagination. Culture and politics, apparently, are on the left; technology (and economy) on the right.

The absurdity of this is readily apparent. OK, so the right wing technological imagination of the techno-libertarians rules out a left wing one. Then would not the presence of right wing cultural and political imaginations rule out the left there too? For surely these exist and are powerful forces. The right has its humanist workers too, after all. They too substitute things from their immediate labor process for the texture of the whole. And what they see there is either binding authority or free individual agents. The ‘benevolence’ of the clergy or the ‘self-made’ petit-bourgeois are their models of the universe. And sometimes, it turns out – ours as well.

If we can acknowledge that technical workers are not just drones, in every sense of the word, but thinking, feeling, ethically challenged beings like ourselves, then how can our labors for a better world combine with theirs? Its interesting how, on both sides, very similar movements have sprung up.

On ‘our’ side, it’s the return of the teach-in, the various free universities, open access blogospheric autonomous discourse. Everyone involved in this thinks there’s problems with how knowledge and labor are organized, and are in a small way doing something about it.

But wait: on the tech side, the same thing is happening! It’s the hackspaces. There are technical workers too who know the current organization of knowledge and labor is broken, and want to build something else. What if we could have more of a dialog between these movements?

Of course, there are hackspaces and hackspaces. Some are genuine attempts to create a little base of shared technical knowledge. Some are just adjuncts to the start-up racket. But before we humanists start throwing stones at start-up culture, let’s take a look at our own rather sordid economy. We’re in a sort of prestige management system, a vast hierarchy of art and education institutions, where everyone is trying to get a toe-hold, and if lucky enough to get that, to trade up through the ranks.

And on both sides, labor confronts the same precarity. The start-up world is just another kind of adjunct labor, paid in lottery tickets rather than wages. People caught up in it can be as invested or cynical or pragmatic as people in the humanist’s quaint old feudal racket. The real problem, if we could get over our fetishes about how special our kind of expertise is, will be how to create solidarity between secure and precarious workers. The system is built, on both sides, to drive us apart.

I see the free universities and hackspaces as spontaneous versions of Bogdanov’s idea of a proletkult, but in a twenty-first century form. How would we start to organize ourselves, to the extent that we can, on another basis, for another way of life. Rather than have endless pissing matches where each tries to claim the special, totalizing knowledge, rather than try for some grand synthesis of everything, perhaps we need a kind of practice of translating between them.

In some sense that is a humanist kind of task. This is why I have very little time for humanists whose speech just aggravates the divide. Its our job to translate! But the key to that is ‘listening.’ Not to mention ‘close reading’. Can we hear and see what our co-workers in other fields are thinking and feeling and doing? To speak about tech as a humanist requires this effort, this teasing out of nuance. Can we just concede that there’s no non-tech place from which to treat tech as an object of critique. We’re made of the stuff! As Donna Haraway said, we’re cyborgs. This too should be a given from all we have read and taught this last twenty years. Any self-other relation is bound to be complicated. Isn’t that lesson the reason we kept making students watch Bladerunner? And can we just start from the premise that any ‘critique of technology’ posted on the internet is inherently self-refuting, and move on?

One of the great themes of that earlier, culturalist version of social determinism was the idea of listening for who or what is being silenced. Can the subaltern speak? Can the cyborg speak? The silencing by erasure of critical, creative, leftist technologists is of a piece with this. If those voices are not part of the discussion then what exactly is this discussion? Why does David Golumbia mention the libertarian Eric Raymond but not the red diaper baby Richard Stallman? Can we not keep passing over in silence the struggles of Norbert Weiner, Mike Cooley, Stafford Beer and so many others, in and against the machine?

The work to be done then, is in part ethnographic. Let’s trace out the practices, modes of thought, emotional mappings, of different kinds of labor. Let’s – prima facie – do our informants the credit of assuming that they have their own ethical and political modes. But let’s go beyond the mapping of the incommensurate ways of working, and work on how they might collaborate to build another world.

This is where Bogdanov’s experimental practice might have a place. Can we experimentally transfer, not whole worldviews, but particular functional concepts, from one sphere of labor to another? In retrospect, it is perhaps what I tried to do in A Hacker Manifesto. What if we thought of all kind of activity that produces intellectual property as related – related, in actuality, by a property form that makes them exchangeable on the market? What if we thought of us humanists and cultural workers too as hackers? It was an experiment that didn’t really take. Humanist acadamics now want to see mostly the ‘bad’ side of hacking – as if hackers were not also well acquainted with the ‘bad’ side of academia! If it wasn’t so serious these shenanigans would make one laugh." (http://www.publicseminar.org/2013/12/against-social-determinism/)