The hacker label is, as Foucault might say, a “dubious unity.” The single phrase can barely contain its constituent multitude. Even if every single person that self-identified as a hacker had a stable definition, the media would warp, expand, and misunderstand the definition to include all sorts of other identities, tactics, and personas. We cannot know what is in the hearts and minds of every person that feels an allegiance to the hacker brand but this past week’s Ashley Madison hack, where deeply private information was leaked supposedly in the name of consumer protection, forces a conversation about the politics of hacking. Are hackers fundamentally conservative if not in intention, then in deed?
Such a question requires a working definition of hackers. One that, at the very least, identifies who and what is a hacker and hacking respectively. I can’t think of a better source to turn to than Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy because not only is it a book-length meditation on what it means to call yourself a hacker, but her own work is deeply enmeshed in the boundary policing of hackerdom itself. This merits a fairly long block quote taken from her chapter on LuzSec, but this quote speaks mainly to her initial interaction with the information security community. It starts on page 256 if you want read around this quote, which I recommend:
Hacking they [members of the information security (InfoSec) community] would tell me, is digital trespass: breaking into a system, owning it hard, doing what you want with it. I had recently published my book on free software “hackers,” Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, and it seemed that these InfoSec word warriors thought I had a narrow understanding of the term, one that omitted their world. But, my understanding of the term is much more nuanced than they realized. My definition includes free software programmers, people who make things, and also people who compromise systems—but that doesn’t mean they have to all be talked about at the same time. My first book was narrowly focused.
Interestingly, while each microcommunity claims the moniker “hacker,” some always refute the attempts of other microcommunities to claim the term. So when InfoSec people started yelling at me that free software “hackers” weren’t “hackers,” I wasn’t surprised.
Policing of the term “hacker” could be read as a kind of proxy war over what hackers should do. That is, should the gravitational pull of the desirable (to some) hacker brand be used in service of communitarians dedicated to building free software or should it be a banner for libertarian free speech warriors (and everything in between)? For the purposes of this essay I’m going to focus on the assortment of people and ideas that orbit a Guy Fawkes mask. That is, those people who hack to break, “own hard”, and trespass.
In light of this definition and many qualifications we should be asking three questions to determine hackers’ political ambitions: What sorts of systems are generally broken by hackers? To what ends are they broken? What arises from the broken code? In the AH case, hackers were upset that the service was full of fake female profiles and that it charged $19.99 to deactivate accounts. There also seems to be a certain kind of desire to see cheaters exposed. Past high-profile hacks include the Sony leak that was done in protest of poor security surrounding users’ account information, and the Stratfor hack that mainly served as retribution for years of corporate espionage.
The motivation for the Ashley Madison hack seems, at best, confused and contradictory. If your stated aim is the well-being of consumers, then threatening to expose their information seems like a bad bargaining chip. Its like threatening Shell oil by holding a gun to the head of a polar bear. The same could be said about the Sony hack and, at first, the blowback said just as much. Here is part of Coleman’s recounting of the immediate aftermath:
Very quickly, the operation went south. DDoSing Sony’s PlayStation Network (PSN) did not earn Anonymous any new friends, only the ire of gamers who foamed with vitriol at being deprived of their source of distraction. Amidst the DDoSing, a splinter group calling itself “SonyRecon” formed to dox Sony executives. This move proved controversial among Anonymous activists and their broader support network.
Spurred by the operation’s immediate unpopularity, Anonymous released the following statement: “We realized that targeting the PSN is not a good idea. We have therefore temporarily suspended our action until a method is found that will not severely impact Sony’s customers.” They hoped that this would put out the fire.
Just to recap: It is okay to destroy something that lots of people pay for and rely on to entertain themselves, and it is okay to release sensitive information about millions of people, but doxxing millionaires is “controversial.” This is not an isolated case either. Even the Stratfor hack, which was an undeniably anti-corporate act (which incluided stealing emails, donating to the Manning support fund with stolen corporate credit cards, and replacing the company’s website with a manifesto about communal living brought about through armed insurrection) never treated the executives of Stratfor the way they might treat a kid that owned a Playstation. Unless a CEO says something brash about Anonymous itself (as was the case with HBGary Federal) hackers seem to hit customers hard, but treat executives about as harshly as a retiree writing an angry letter about sub-par cable programming.
There’s no doubt that the operations that lead to security breaches at corporate espionage firms like Stratfor and HBGary Federal required bravery, skill, and contained within them a revolutionary spirt. But for all of the ostensible machismo and trickster joviality, there is an underlying respect for the security state. If any motivation (outside of “the lulz” which is more of a means than an end when you think about it) can be attributed to hackers it is the following: more and better security, deference to millionaires, and the sacrifice of immoral people for the future common good. That sounds an awful lot like Republicans.
To be really clear here: even if every person that has ever called themselves a hacker hated millionaires and believed in a borderless utopia, the effects of their actions produce a more battle-hardened police state. Of course many hackers would say that security is to meant to keep the government and corporations out of the business of individual citizens and the release of sensitive information would happen anyway given the poor security measures they are protesting in the first place. Such defenses actually brings to light another conservative attribute: the fear of a looming and malignant outsider waiting to prey on hapless victims who don’t seem to appreciate how hard it is to keep everyone safe.
How does the hacker, despite frequently stated anti-authoritarian leanings, end up fighting for things like traditional marriage arrangements and national security? The easy answer is that many hackers are, in fact, socially conservative libertarians who actually harbor animosity for adulterers regardless of reason or context. This might very well explain some hackers but what about the avowed anarchists? What about the people who work in solidarity with Kurdish social ecologists or Tunisian fighting for free elections? How are these people unwittingly acting in a conservative way?
Back in April I wrote “Instead of handing over our trust to organizations like professional associations, governments, or corporations, hackers would have us move that trust to algorithms, protocols, and block chains.“ I argued that the rationalization for encryption and automation –humans cannot be trusted so we must replace them with code—is no different than progressive era activists’ insistence that essential services like municipal government should be depoliticized and turned over to professionals and bureaucrats instead of elected politicians. Bureaucracy, like code, is supposed to act predictably and equally for everyone. The technologist’s solutions are no different that the reforms that gave us city management experts. (Perhaps this is why hackers secretly love CEOs, because they are at once both the very top management expert and the person that totally owned the system. The fact that they are now the system, is the only reason why the CEO’s business must be hacked at.)
This brings up a fundamental paradox: the hacker and the bureaucrat are polar opposites in terms of means –the former is trickster incarnate while the latter plots along as predictably as humanly possible– but they advocate for similar solutions to difficult problems. Even though the bureaucrat seeks and fosters smooth operation of a system, and hackers are motivated by a goal and are animated by chaotic destruction, they both share a fundamental distrust of humans as political entities. Hackers may embody the opposite of bureaucracy, but they ultimately desire the same thing as bureaucrats: technologies that obviate trust.
In the final chapter of Utopia of Rules David Graeber concludes that we all secretly love bureaucracy because it promises stability and predictability in an otherwise uncertain world. That while play can be creative and generative, we know it can also be destructive and disruptive. We cannot build complex systems like universal healthcare administration or nuclear missile launch systems atop ever-shifting human desire. Instead we have to make bureaucracies as Weber described them: hierarchical organizations with written rules staffed by trained (but ultimately and imminently replaceable) professionals. Bureaucracies date back to Mesopotamia but remain the least worst organizational solution we’ve come up with thus far for tackling big projects. And while it has let us accomplish a great deal, bureaucracies are still incredibly alienating, frustrating, and boring for everyone that interacts with them. The perfectly-functioning bureaucracy has never existed. Incompetence, nepotism, and all sorts of human foibles (and values) get in the way of true and complete bureaucratic predictability. It is no surprise then, that political actors get lots of traction by hating on bureaucracy.
The right, Graeber argues, came up with a critique of bureaucracy early on, and have benefited greatly. They peg public organizations as bureaucratic and private entitles as dynamic problem-solvers even though private firms are just as bureaucratic as governments. This has let them create bureaucracies with impunity: an ever-increasing military-industrial complex and oligarchic state wrapped in the glitzy paper of dynamism. The left, he argues, has yet to come up with an equally rhetorically effective critique of bureaucracy. I disagree. Hacking has risen as the heir-apparent for people that are as critical of corporations as they are of governments. The problem is that while the rhetoric is provocative, hackers are still as bureaucracy-loving as the Progressive Era reformists mentioned above. There may be a fix though.
The hacker critique of bureaucracy is simple: states and corporations are greedy and careless and you have to threaten them with destruction in order for them to behave. Ultimately we should replace bureaucracies –that try to make humans emulate robots– with actual robots and algorithms that will be invented through the creative destruction of existing institutions. It is a tantalizing argument, but right now it fails in practice because (and here I go back to agreeing with Graeber) it is still far too easy and cheap to exploit workers. All the free software created (and allowed to be used by corporations) by volunteer labor, cannot overcome the power corporations and states wield in steering R&D money towards profit-seeking behavior. When you attack a company for not safe-guarding sensitive information, the result is more security, not less possibility of theft. Or even better, a world where theft is unnecessary because everyone has what they need.
The hacker, for all its drawbacks, is still a helpful post-capitalist imaginary. That imaginary is instructive of a desirable future, as all utopian thinking is, but in the present historical moment the behavior of the hacker has conservative and authoritarian results. This happens in spite of all of the grandiose claims to libertarianism and trickster unpredictability because underlying all their actions is a deep-seated distrust of humans’ ability to work together at a grand scale. This cynicism manifests in a willingness to expose people engaging in all sorts of non-monogamous relationships and a desire to go even further than than early champions of bureaucracy by inventing things that obviate trust rather than require it.
Perhaps then, the way to bring practice in line with rhetoric is to (counter-intuitively) expand the common definition of hacker. The hacker imaginary should include, as my fellow editor Jenny Davis argued last week, social movements like Black Lives Matter. Davis argues that such a redefinition will also require a move away from anonymity and towards speaking from a situated identity:
Because of this insistence upon centrality, Black Lives Matter refuses to be Anonymous. They do not disrupt the system quietly. The hack is their presence. The hack is their voices. The hack is their faces. It’s not about discourse or even policy, but an insistence upon visibility; a refusal to remain unseen.
This shift in tactics from invisibility to obvious visibility does two things. First, as Davis notes, it forces power centers who otherwise benefit from quiet dominance to admit and show the violence that is quietly wielded every day. Such blatant violence and and often does push otherwise “moderate” people to adopt an antagonistic stance against oppression. Second, it breaks something fundamental that bureaucracies need to function properly: standardized objects. By refusing to act anonymously –and thus uniformly— BLM hackers make it difficult for bureaucracies to continue doing their work. By refusing to treat people (like Bernie Sanders) as equals at the moment of protest, they display how they have been treated historical as less-than equals.
More than anything, the hacker has to pick a side. He or she has to come into the light of politics and, instead of hiding in the shadows of unmarked categories, be an ostentatious and confusing thing willing to make alliances with people based on their living histories, rather than rallying around a single bad apple worthy of defacement. Hackers have long benefited from propaganda by the deed: winning adherents by acting as if their political agenda was already hegemonic. That should continue but with more clarity and resolution. Future hackers would do well to put aside masks, trust-less encryption technologies, and unpredictability, and instead act ostentatiously, with no regard for boundaries, and do so predictably and repeatedly until something breaks. That something, with enough tenacity and time, could very well be capitalism.