Radical media, politics and culture.

Simson Garfinkel, "Hack License"

"Hack License"

Simson Garfinkel


A Hacker Manifesto

McKenzie Wark

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

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
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

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

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

Both Hacking Exposed, a mammoth three-author, 750-page book about to
be published in its fifth edition, and Hacking: The Art of
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

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

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

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
(2000). He is currently a doctoral candidate at MIT's Computer
Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.]