McKenzie Wark: To the Vector the Spoils

February 13th, 2003 | Category: Interviews

Ken WarkWhen venturing into new territory without a proper map, McKenzie Wark is the kind of guy you want to have around. His intuition in such cases provides a beacon to the next viable vantage point.

Wark’s intuition has shown up in his books, Virtual Geography (Indiana University Press, 1994), The Virtual Republic (Allen & Unwin, 1998), Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace (Pluto Press, 1999), and Dispositions (Salt Publishing, 2002), among others. He was a co-editor of the Nettime anthology Readme! (Autonomedia, 1999) and, with Brad Miller, co-produced the multimedia work Planet of Noise. In addition, he has written for such publications as the late Australian cyberculture magazine 21C, the rabble-rousing, subversive website Disinformation, the recent CTRL [SPACE] anthology (MIT Press, 2002), and countless other cracks and crevices of print and cyberspace. He is also a professor at the State University of New York.

Regardless of where you find his work, McKenzie Wark will direct you to that next place from which to see.

Roy Christopher: Let’s get our terms aligned first: How do you define the term “hacker”? Do you include artists, software developers, and other so-called “knowledge workers”?

McKenzie Wark: I think everyone who actually creates “intellectual property” could consider themselves part of the same class — the hacker class — and as having convergent interests. So, yes, that could include programmers, musicians, writers, and also engineers, chemists — all sorts of people who are culturally distinct. What we have in common is that we have to sell the products of our intellectual labor to corporations who have a monopoly on realizing its value. We invent the idea, but they control the means of production. The laws that used to protect us — copyright and patent — have been subtly changing over the course of the last few decades to protect corporate owners of existing “intellectual property,” not individual creators of new ideas. And so I wrote “A Hacker Manifesto” to dramatize this emergent conflict.

RC: I like the idea that the information world doesn’t have an equivalent to the physical world’s second law of thermodynamics, and that this idea represents true freedom. Is there a danger of this auspicious outlook failing?

MW: The commodity economy runs on scarcity. It’s all about making the wealth produced by labor the exclusive, private property of the few. At the moment it’s hard to argue for the socialization of wealth. Some part of it needs to be social, or things just won’t function at all. Every civilized society recognizes the need for socialized health and pensions.

But when we come to information, there’s no need for it to be privatized. Economists call information a “nonrivalrous resource.” Which is an oxymoron. Basically it is an admission that information need not be subject to the laws of scarcity at all. My possession of some information does not deprive you of it. The cost of making a copy is being reduced all the time.

So the one place where we can still entertain the idea of a release from scarcity is the world of information. It could have a quite different economy, or a non-economy. It is by legal artifice, the repressive force of the police and cultural re-engineering, that we are being persuaded of the necessity of a purely private economy of information, where Mickey Mouse is somebody’s fiefdom in perpetuity, where nothing ever comes back to the public domain. I think we have to fight that.

But where Lawrence Lessig and others see this as a fight to get the law to recognize the common sense of a public domain, I think it is much more than that. We are up against a new and powerful class interest, which profits by the commodification of information rather than the manufacture of things. We have to resist this new interest with technical and cultural means, as well as through legal challenges.

RC: The idea of education as slavery seems to be becoming more and more prevalent in intellectual circles. What do you think should be done about the education problem?

MW: So-called critical theory in the universities becomes merely hypocritical theory if it doesn’t deal with the fact that education is now part of the problem, not part of the solution. Education is about creating scarcity. Here in the United States we have the least democratic, most aristocratic education system in the (over)developed world. It is all about rationing prestige. It has nothing to do with seeking knowledge.

Knowledge too has to be released from scarcity and hierarchy. Forcing people to submit to twenty years of mental enslavement — all their childhood and young adult life — just to secure a reasonable standard of living is a status quo that needs to be challenged.

RC: With information as commodity and media/communication as architecture, where should the hacker seek to gain/maintain power and/or control?

MW: Firstly, it’s a question of realizing that all intellectual creators are “hackers.” It is about realizing a common interest that has nothing to do with choices of identity, culture, or taste. A class interest, in short.

Secondly, it’s about realizing that our class interest confronts another class, one I call the vectoralist class. The vectoralist class controls the means of realizing the value of what we create. They control the vectors along which new information moves. A broadcasting network is a vector, but so too is a drug company. New information could be in the form of a digital file or a little pink pill. The form doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the class interest of the vectoralists lies in making ideas a form of exclusive, perpetual, and global private property.

Thirdly, it’s a matter of tactics. One can mount legal challenges to the enclosure of information in ever more restrictive intellectual property law. One can mount political challenges in uniting the various branches of the hacker class. Or one can mount a cultural challenge by showing that the interests of the public are not served by the exclusive control of information by a handful of corporations. And, of course, there is the technological strategy of creating new tools for sharing information freely. But really, it’s a question of getting all of these tactics to work together, to create a strategy, perhaps even an alternative logistics in which information is free.

RC: While reading Virtual Geography, I couldn’t help but feel a weird sense of amnesia. I remembered all of the media events therein, but only as vague blips on the radar. How do we interject the idea of memory into the mediasphere?

MW: As Guy Debord used to argue, the triumph of the spectacle is in the defeat of history and the installation of “spectacular time,” which is purely cyclical. We no longer have history, we have fashion. Of course, history always crashes the party, but it appears as something inexplicable — the nightmare of 9/11 video footage on endless replay, defying explanation

The temptation in media criticism, especially in America, is to claim a higher access to truth. All media is false, but one’s personal experience of identity is somehow authentic. Politics is atomized into subjective feeling and turned into a species of moral judgment. This creates that peculiarly American pseudo-leftist language that is really about moral authority, a kind of weird mutant Puritanism.

An alternative is to take the great events that cross the media vector and freeze the frame. Look closely at the decisive images. Wind the tape backwards, looking for patterns. Play the whole thing in fast-forward to look at the rhythm of the edits. In other words, we can discover history within the media image, without making claims to an external, superior grasp on truth. Through the classic Burroughsian techniques of cut up, play back, repetition, we can produce our own knowledge of media as history, history as mediation.

RC: Is there anything else you’re working on that you’d like to bring up here?

MW: I’m increasingly interested in the dual character of the vectoral empire. It has its engines of privatized information, but it also has its engine of vectoralizing military power. We are truly in the age of “infowar.” Of course, real people die, killed by real bombs, but information over where those people are, how to target them with bombs — that’s the new face of warfare. The new warfare is a suspected terrorist in Yemen being assassinated by a remote-controlled drone. It’s the infrastructure of Serbia being jammed with strategically placed bombing that shuts down all command and control.

Now, the two faces of empire are closely linked in that they both run on the same vectoral technologies. There is a military-entertainment complex that turns civilian and military space alike into a game space for the calculation of moves, governed by arbitrary but nevertheless effective rules. We are in the middle of a great game, the goal of which is to subordinate history to reason. Not to Hegel’s historical reason, but the logic of the game. And anyone who won’t play by the rules is to be contained (Kim Jong II) or eliminated (Saddam).

To the vector the spoils.

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