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Hack License

Recent books struggle to define hacking and its economic and social legitimacy.

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.

Freedom versus Free Beer
Absent as well is any reference to hardware hacking – or, indeed, any reference to hardware at all. To Wark, hacking is about bits, not atoms. The power of Big Vector is its ability to control information networks like the telegraph and the Internet, not transportation networks like FedEx. The intellectual property that Wark is concerned about is the property of abstraction: movies, programs, drugs. It’s information that “wants to be free.” Wark comes down pretty hard on the patenting of genetic information, but presumably the patents that apply to the design of piston engines or wind turbines are another matter entirely.

Hacker philosophers such as Richard Stallman and Lawrence Lessig frequently play up the fact that information can be given away without being relinquished. It is this fundamental fact that makes information different from other goods, they argue. It is why the old rules of property should not apply in the digital domain.

Stallman wrote in 1985, “the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it.” Stallman continues, “Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way. I cannot in good conscience sign a nondisclosure agreement or a software license agreement.”

Stallman, more than anyone else, is rightfully credited with kicking off what we now know as the “open source movement” – which he calls “Free Software.” That’s “free” as in “freedom,” not as in “free beer,” Stallman is quick to point out. The culture of sharing software was in danger of dying out in the early 1980s when Stallman started the GNU Project and wrote “The GNU Manifesto.”

GNU stands for GNU’s Not Unix – an all too clever recursive hacker acronym. The original goal of the project was to create a free version of the Unix operating system. But Stallman worked hard to extend the consciousness of programmers beyond mere lines of code and into the world of politics – specifically the politics of intellectual property. He staged a hacker protest at the headquarters of Lotus when that company tried to enforce copyright restrictions on user interfaces. He wrote and spoke, rallying against copyright restrictions and software patents.

Like “the Party” in 1984 and real-live Communists in China, Stallman promotes his ideology in part by rewriting everyday speech. He went so far as to publish an official list of “Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding” – words like “commercial,” “consumer,” “content,” “creator,” “open,” and “intellectual property.” For example, he writes, instead of using the phrase “copyright protection,” one should instead use “copyright restrictions,” as in the sentence: “Congress recently extended the term of copyright restrictions by 20 years.”

These tactics turned off supporters and were put to good use as counterpropaganda by his detractors – such as a software executive who once accused Stallman of being a Communist because of his collectivist software ideology. The emergence of the term “open source” amounted to a slap in Stallman’s face: after all, it was a direct attempt to separate the mechanism of Free Software from Stallman’s barefoot politics of free love, his vehement attacks on the beliefs and conduct of the Republican party, and his vigorous defense of personal freedom.

Using Wark’s framework, this all makes a kind of sense. Stallman is not opposed to big business and capitalism: he is opposed to big vector and the vectoralist agenda of creating a body of intellectual property law that eliminates the possibility of alternatives. Anyone committed to freedom must be opposed to the vectoralist class, because it profits through control.

From this Wark-Stallman view that intellectual property is really just a self-enriching tool evolves the conclusion that the world of computers would be better off without the majority of patents, copyrights, trademarks, and other legal means for restricting intellectual property. 

Lessig, meanwhile, takes these mechanisms of restriction in a different direction. In The Future of Ideas he argues that a combination of legal and technical restrictions are fencing off our cultural heritage. In the not-so-distant future, perhaps, the very phrase “free expression” will become an oxymoron, as any self-respecting expression will necessarily have to pay licensing fees for numerous ideas, phrases, images, and even thoughts from well-funded copyright holders.

Lessig failed in his attempt to fight the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act in the U.S. Supreme Court – the act that will keep Mickey Mouse out of the public domain for another 20 years. But despite this serious setback, Lessig has succeeded in convincing thousands of professionals to put their signatures on  his so-called “Creative Commons” licenses, which allow colleagues and other professionals to freely cite from and reprint one another’s work, and even make derivative works.

Hardware Hacks
The problem here is that sharing may work for software, but it doesn’t work for hardware. Moore’s Law has driven much of the computer revolution, but it requires that companies like Intel spend more and more money each year to create the next generation of superfast chips. Take away Intel’s copyright and patent protection, and knock-off companies would create clone Intel processors for a fraction of the cost. These chips would be dramatically cheaper than Intel’s, and Intel would not have the money to create the next generation of still-faster devices. Moore’s Law depends upon vectoral control.

Wark’s opus doesn’t just ignore hardware – it ignores hardware hacking, the tradition of modifying circuits and computers to do things that the original designers never intended. Hardware hackers are pros at both adding new features and removing arbitrary restrictions – like the region codes on DVD players that won’t let European DVDs play in U.S. players. Yet increasingly, hardware is where the action is. Books such as Hacking the Xbox: An Introduction to Reverse Engineering are exposing secrets to the masses that once were strictly the province of MIT and Caltech midnight seminars. Hardware hackers are largely motivated by exactly the same antivectoralist tendencies as the hackers creating file-sharing networks: the desire to get around restrictions that have been artificially imposed upon their beloved technology. Hackers are people who use technical means to break restrictive rules and, as a result, create new possibilities. They are agents of disruptive change, no matter whether they hack code, networks, video-game consoles or copyright. By failing to address hardware and its hackers, Wark’s work once again falls short of its title.

And what of information yearning to be free? The quotation comes from Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth Catalog, speaking at the first Hacker’s Conference back in 1984. According to a transcript of the conference printed in Brand’s May 1985 issue, the full quotation was: “On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.”

If I might be so bold as to reëngineer Brand’s quotation while looking through Wark’s glasses, it’s the hackers who want information to be free, and it’s the vectoralists who want information to be expensive. Having known and admired Stallman for more than 20 years, I’ve long understood the concept of the hacker. Wark’s contribution in his misnamed volume is the identification of the hacker’s enemy, the vectoral class. It is a battle, I fear, that we cannot win. But it is one that must be fought.

Simson Garfinkel is a researcher in the field of computer security. He is the author of Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century (2000). He is currently a doctoral candidate at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

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