Blog Post

From Late Capitalism to Early Something Else

This post is the second installment of a six-part essay. Read the full essay here.

 

"Information wants to be free, but is everywhere in chains." That is the central proposition I tried to argue in A Hacker Manifesto (2004). The development of the forces of production took a qualitatively different turn when information became digital. Information turned out to have some strange properties. It is not immaterial, and yet its relation to any given material substrate can become arbitrary. The cost of copying it becomes very low. What Debord and the Situationists called détournement, the copying and correcting of information, becomes a social movement in all but name. Information wants to be free.

But it is in chains. There was a mutation in the means of securing class power through private property. Property became more abstract. It passed through privatizing land, then the mechanical means of production, and now the digital means of production, in the various forms of intellectual property. A new ruling class was trying to assert its control over the entire value production process by controlling information rather than the physics of the production process directly. I called them the vectoral class: their power is in securing the vector along which information moves as both command and feedback.

The commodification of information produces not only a new possessing class but a new kind of dispossession. Information is alienated from its direct producers—what I called the hacker class. Unlike the worker, the hacker does not produce more of the same, but produces what is qualitatively different. Whether in the sciences, the arts, engineering, design, or even Marxist theory, the hacker class produces what Bateson called "the difference that makes a difference"—information.

In the early 2000s most of the world was still occupied with agricultural labor, and industrial labor was if anything expanding, particularly with the manufacturing boom in China. It was more a question of how the vectoral class was trying to control the production of value as a kind of third layer of domination, over and above agriculture and manufacturing. There is a struggle, among other things, between different kinds of ruling class, vectoralist and capitalist.

There seemed to me clear evidence of a struggle over who controlled information. At the time, I thought the struggle to free information from privatization was a strategy that challenged vectoral power. And it did. But the hacker class, and the social movement beyond it to free information, won the battle but lost the war. The vectoral class regrouped on higher ground. New "business models" emerged which actually depended on information being free, but which captured and commodifed the metadata about it. That is pretty much were we are now.

I had noticed another aspect in A Hacker Manifesto, although I had not adequately stressed it: what I called the infoprole, but which others covered with the term precarity. It was becoming clear that vectoral power could extract information directly from everyday life, and not just from labor. The infoprole was giving up information in exchange for nothing. The vectoral class could even exploit nonlabor.

Take a look at the top Fortune 500 companies, and it is clear that in one way or another they are now mostly in the information business, with the actual mechanics of making things being increasingly subcontracted, or based on short-term leasing and contractual obligations. The oil companies are in the information-prospecting business. The car companies make most of their money in finance. The big box stores are logistics companies. The drug companies are patent farms. The big retailers all sell the same cheaply made crap but carefully manage their intangible brands. Big finance is in the information asymmetry business. All this is before you even get to the tech sector.

I also argued in A Hacker Manifesto that the state would increasingly be oriented to policing information as well as physical entities, for example by data surveillance. Its job would be to control the relation between signs and referents. This would oblige forms of counter-power to be a bit more oblique about themselves, to refuse identity, to hide in plain sight. Politics would be about connecting the spaces of everyday life to this increasingly abstract terrain of information. I had the border-hackers and floodnet as the avant-garde examples to go on. Occupy and Anonymous would later encounter and work creatively with this doubled terrain.

The problem with commodifying information is that it is hard to insist on its value when it is free. Whole new gift economies of unprecedented kinds had emerged, and threatened to escape the enclosure of commodified information. This is why I thought it interesting to look at games. My interest in the then-emergent cultural form of games had been much enriched by meeting the game culture avant-garde via some of its leading exponents, including Eric Zimmerman, Katie Salen, and later Class Wargames and the Radical Software Group.

Gamer Theory (2007) is not really about computer games, or not only. It is about how the whole of everyday life starts to seem game-like. It was a critique in advance of what would later be called "game-ification." Everyday life increasingly appears as a zero-sum contest. One’s job, one’s dating habits, one’s consumption patterns all come to have, in a rather unclear and imperfect way, some of the qualities of games. They all become subject to the pursuit of trophies of no inherent value, which one is taught to want simply because others are also told they want them.

This was before the era of the cellphone as platform for an endless market in "apps," which could double the space of the city with a grid of data, making over the whole of everyday life as a game board, but it was after the era of GPS and global logistics, in which all the resources of the planet could be valued, bought, sold, and committed to production processes, as if the whole thing were a giant Monopoly board. Gamer Theory was about the whole world becoming a gamespace, one enabled by the information vector, controlled by a vectoral ruling class.

If there is an art form that best captures this twenty-first century situation, it is the computer game. In Gamer Theory, I made the somewhat counter-intuitive argument that a good game is something like a neoliberal utopia. It is where the promises of the vectoral class are actually kept. In a game, there really is a "level playing field," where winners really do get the trophy on their merits. If there is a critical leverage to be had from games as a media, it is that the world is an imperfect copy of the game, not the other way around.

Gamer Theory looks at the ways games model a range of subjectivities not through their content but through their form. Here I was extending those formal analyses of the novel and cinema that were part of the Marxist tradition from Lukács to Laura Mulvey. I was interested, for example, in repetitive, ahistorical time, which can be started over. Or in the phenomenology of targeting, in which games train a capacity to detect a hard border between friend and foe—something all too evident in the "GamerGate" controversies of 2014.

In short, A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory took the avant-gardes of the ‘90s to be experimental practices which, in their clash with emerging forms of commodification and class power, revealed something of its contours. Then, by digging through the archive of Marxist theories-past, it might be possible to build on those experiences and produce the concept of the historical situation they revealed.

Already in A Hacker Manifesto, I saw modern history as a process of increasing abstraction (not unlike what Bernard Stiegler calls grammatization). There I stressed how the alienation of the world from itself through the commodification of information opened a rift between the world as physical layer and the world as information layer.

In Gamer Theory, I took this up via a study of the game SimEarth. The "realistic" mode of that game models climate change. Within the game, there is a more or less accurate model of climate, but the game has to run on a computer, and the computer draws energy. The model is at odds with the vector that makes it possible to exist at all.

Those two books were, in short, already about what is now more commonly called the Anthropocene, that historical situation where the combined effects of vectoral power on the physical infrastructure layer of commodification undermine its very conditions of existence. But from where in the Marxist tradition could one draw the resources to think about a situation that is on the one hand about more and more abstract forms of the commodification of information, and on the other about more and more concrete problems of destabilized earth systems? To answer that, I felt I had to turn back to the archive, and proceed in a more academic manner rather than an avant-garde one.

McKenzie Wark's picture
McKenzie Wark is Professor of Culture and Media at The New School. He is the author, most recently, of The Spectacle of Disintegration (Verso 2013). His book Molecular Red is out in April 2015.