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As cultural critic and New School University professor McKenzie Wark sees things, today’s battles over copyrights, trademarks, and patents are simply the next phase in the age-old battle between the productive classes and the ruling classes that strive to turn those producers into subjects. But whereas Marx and Engels saw the battle of capitalist society as being between two social classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie – Wark sees one between two newly emergent classes: the hackers and a new group that Wark has added to the lexicon of the academy: the “vectoralist class.”

Wark’s opus A Hacker Manifesto brings together England’s Enclosure Movement, Das Kapital, and the corporate ownership of information – a process that Duke University law professor James Boyle called “the Second Enclosure Movement” – to create a unified theory of domination, struggle, and freedom. Hacking is not a product of the computer age, writes Wark, but an ancient rite in which abstractions are created and information is transformed. The very creation of private property was a hack, he argues – a legal hack – and like many other hacks, once this abstraction was created, it was taken over by the ruling class and used as a tool of subjugation.

So who are these vectoralists? They are the people who control the vectors by which information flows throughout our society. Information wants to be free, Wark writes, quoting (without attribution) one of the best-known hacker aphorisms. But by blocking the free vectors and charging for use of the others, vectoralists extract value from practically every human endeavor.

There is no denying that vectoralist organizations exist: by charging for the distribution of newspapers or Web pages, such organizations collect money whenever we inform ourselves. By charging for the distribution of music, they collect money off the expression of human culture.

Yes, today many Web pages and songs can be accessed over the Internet for free. But others cannot be. The essence of the successful vectoralist, writes Wark, is in this person’s ability to rework laws and technology so that some vectors can flourish while other vectors – the free ones – are systematically eliminated.

But does Wark have it right? By calling his little red book A Hacker Manifesto, Wark hopes to remind us of Marx and Mao. Does this concept of “vector” have what it takes to start a social movement? Are we on the cusp of a Hacker Rebellion?

The Communists of the 1840s had more or less settled on the ground rules of their ideology – the communal ownership of property and social payments based on need – by the time Marx and Engels wrote their infamous tract. By contrast, many individuals who identify themselves as hackers today are sure to find Wark’s description circumscribed and incomplete. 

When I was an undergraduate at MIT in the 1980s, hackers were first and foremost people who perpetrated stunts. It was a group of hackers that managed to bury a self-inflating weather balloon near the 50-yard line at the 1982 Harvard–Yale game; two years later, Caltech hackers took over the electronic scoreboard at the Rose Bowl and displayed their own messages. (Another group had hacked the Rose Bowl 21 years before, rewriting the instructions left on 2,232 stadium seats so that Washington fans raising flip-cards for their half-time show unknowingly spelled out “Caltech.”)

Hackers were also spelunkers of MIT’s tunnels, basements, and heating and ventilation systems. These hackers could pick locks, scale walls, and practically climb up moonbeams to reach the roofs of the Institute’s tallest buildings.

By the late 1980s, the media had seized on the word hacker – not to describe a prankster, but as a person who breaks into computers and takes joyrides on electronics networks. These hackers cracked computer systems, changed school grades, and transferred millions of dollars out of bank accounts before getting caught by the feds and sent to the pen.

Finally, there were the kind of hackers  MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum had previously called “compulsive programmers.” These gods of software saw the H-word as their badge of honor. Incensed by the hacker stereotype portrayed in the media, these geeky mathlings and compiler-types fought back against this pejorative use of their word – going so far as to write in The New Hacker’s Dictionary that the use of “hacker” to describe “malicious meddler” had been “deprecated” (hacker lingo meaning “made obsolete”). I remember interviewing one of these computer scientists in 1989 for the Christian Science Monitor: the researcher threatened to terminate the interview if I used the word “hacker” to describe someone who engaged in criminal activity.

Although the researcher and others like him were largely successful in reclaiming their beloved bit of jargon, they were never able to fully disassociate the word from its negative connotations. Today, the word “hacker” is widely accepted to have two meanings. One reason, of course, is that malicious meddlers continue to call themselves hackers.

Both Hacking Exposed, a mammoth three-author, 750-page book about to be published in its fifth edition, and Hacking: The Art of Exploitation seem to suggest that use of the word to describe someone with criminal intent is alive and well. There are very much two kinds of hackers: “white-hat hackers,” who follow the programmer ethic and help people to secure their computers, and “black-hat hackers,” who actually do the dirty business. The fact that it is the black hats who create the market demand for the white hats is something that most white hats fail to mention. Also overlooked is the fact that many who wear white hats today once wore black hats in their distant or not-so-distant past.

The idealized hackers for whom Wark has written his manifesto also routinely engage in criminal activity – by violating the vectorial establishment’s laws of intellectual property. Vectorialists are not the only victims of these crimes. And Wark’s hackers are the kind of people who would use peer-to-peer networks to let a million of their closest friends download Hollywood’s latest movies before they are released in theaters – a prime example of hacker power to defeat the evils of vectorial oppression. On the other hand, hackers also rent time on other networks in order to send out billions of spam messages hawking the latest in penis enlargement. When it comes to the hacker pastime of criminal computer trespass, Wark is silent.

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