An updated assessment of the ‘hacking the state’ strategy

An assessment of Toni Prug’s project by Patrice Riemens, written in May 2010:

“In my original idea, hacking the state was quite simply about motivating people to acquire the necessary knowledge of the ways – both open and covert – the state is functioning and apply this knowledge to make, or even force, the state to work for the benefit of the people and not for its own institutional sake. And in our times, the broad diffusion of information technology tools and of Internet access has considerably enhanced the opportunities to do just that. In this regard, I was greatly inspired by my experience as member of the Dutch ‘We do not trust voting computers’ action group (WVSCN) [2]. This collective of computer hackers and legal activists managed to scuttle the hitherto near-universal use of voting computers in local and national elections in the Netherlands [3]. Even though WVSCN was a very unique citizen action group in terms of professional membership and financial resources, it seemed to provide an inspiring example of how to carry out a successful ‘hack’ on the status quo, even if the initial odds are not looking good at all .

But as I embarked into a search for this sort of initiatives, especially in the United Kingdom, I quickly encountered numerous manifestations of something I found puzzling at first, and then rather disquieting: a reverse phenomenon to ‘hack the state’, namely “the state (is)hacking Us”. this happens when the state, or rather one of its variegated agencies, makes use of exactly the same approaches and technologies to ‘plug into’ the citizenry, and extract the information it needs for ‘good governance’ (and fostering a positive attitude to the same in the process…).

I realized at that that stage that the whole idea of hacking the state (and its opposite) cannot be explained and understood without reference to the general context of the political evolution of society in the past 30 years. Whereas IT and the Internet have greatly facilitated the gathering, exchange , and use of information, the nature of polity and politics itself had enormously changed. Political scientists have subsumed this evolution under the moniker ‘the crisis of representation’.

‘The crisis of representation’, at least in my view, can basically be described as a state of mutual distrust that has arisen in the past 30 years between people and politics – that is between the governing and the governed – where the people feel their interests are no longer the primary preoccupation of the government, and politicians in their turn feel that they do not longer ‘understand’ the governed – in case they have not entirely lost touch with them (see my second interim residency reports in appendix 3 for more on the subject).

The crisis of representation has many aspects and consequences, but the one that is particularly relevant to us here is that it constrained or even closed altogether the traditional channels of communication between the governing and the governed. Where unions, political parties, and the media either lost the trust of the public, or did no longer cater to its interests, administrative authorities looked for new strategies to obtain that input from the public they desperately need for governance to work. New participative mechanisms and instruments were pressed into service, many of them based on IT applications, and these are often nearly indistinguishable from ‘hacking the state’ endeavors.

In fact, while mapping out all the initiatives that aimed at enhancing participation of the citizenship in the realm of politics, I came to the conclusion that there was something of a continuum covering both ‘Hack the State’ and ‘The State (is) Hacking Us’ projects (‘HtS’ and ‘tSHU’ respectively), and that it was sometimes difficult to distinguish the one from the other. That is even more so when their set up actually enabled one thing while officially being geared to the other.

The cases of ‘Rewired State’ and ‘’, for instance, are exemplary in this regard: both have been started and are owned by Her Majesty’s government for its own purpose, yet both enable HtS activities, one by making public, yet not easily available, data accessible ( while the other provides opportunity to learn a lot about the inner workings of the government machinery [9]. Another noticeable aspect of all these initiatives is their lack of ambition, which is probably deliberate. None were aiming at any, let alone a radical, change in the power relationship between citizens and government – they are all about plugging the gap that had been caused by the disintegration of the classical consultative structures which used to be provided by unions, political parties, and other class or social categories-based establishments.

Before going on, another feature that should, in my opinion, be prominently taken into account in our analysis, is the current economic and financial crisis, one which has resulted in the further reduction of the ‘window to the future’ – that is the period of time ahead of which political courses and decision making can be formulated with an acceptable degree of credibility. Neo-liberal capitalism, now running amuck, has relentlessly narrowed it from years to months to weeks – and now any given situation can change dramatically within days, or less, see the ups and downs of the European currency.

Together with the above this leads me to a third,and ebven more disquieting layer of ‘state hacks’: those concerning what in Turkey and Indonesia has come to be defined as “the Deep State”, where the core and crux of state powers (or that of the ‘ruling class’) resides.

‘Hacking the State’ and ‘the State Hacks Us’ are narratives that can, with some dose of creativity, be constructed as ‘thesis’ and ‘anti-thesis’, asking to be resolved in some sort of constructive (or at least satisfyingly descriptive) ‘synthesis’. This alas, is not to be, at least not in my opinion. And the reason lies in the discreet but defining presence of the ‘deep state’ in the background of every political situation, at whatever scale.

What is common to both ‘Hack the State’ and ‘the State Hacks Us’ is that face of politics known as governance, with other words the everyday, mundane business of government. It refers to the role of the state in making society ‘work’ on a very practical and material basis. Upholding the rule of law (in common matters), ensuring the functioning of public services, maintaining a democratic and benevolent (or at least neutral) dispensation between the governing and the governed. It does include areas of conflict, sometimes violent, as well as negotiations, compromises, and settlements, not all unilateral. And to a large extent, possession and exercise of power is surely involved. It is in this realm that the game of ‘hacking’, ‘us’ ‘them’, and ‘them’ us’, is played out.

But ‘governance’ is not, in last instance, what real political power is about, and where it is situated. ‘the State Hacks Us’ initiatives have the – default rather than intended – characteristic to request participation, pick up – or if you wish, exploit/ plunder – ideas and invite involvement – without of course sharing decision-making power. Yet all this finds place within fairly well-known and predictable parameters: matters of public services, planning, maybe some local political issues. The ‘Deep State’ is about unpredictability, especially in times of crisis – whether it has caused it or not [10].

Can the ‘Deep State’ be ‘hacked’? Shortly after I completed my residence with Access Space, Wikileaks caused a major upheaval in the media by broadcasting a video of the shooting incident involving US Army helicopter over Baghdad in 2007, where a Reuter journalist and a number of civilians were killed, apparently in cold blood (“Collateral Murder”). The outrage was enormous, and Wikileaks’ extensive hoard of hitherto secret, ‘leaked’ documents, received much publicity. It was inferred that the power that be were henceforth no longer immune to the exposure of their dirty laundry. This sentiment was further enhanced by Iceland’s Wikileaks inspired and supported ‘Modern Media’ initiative (still in progress to become a data haven for confidential information and threatened sources (see IMMI’s site ) It now looked as if the carapace of the state, even in its ‘deep’ … state, could be prized open.

But does Wikileaks – and apparented approaches – represent an effective strategy of ‘hacking the (deep) state’? To a certain extent for sure, as openness and publicity is the enemy of arbitrary power. But to a certain extent only, because of the somewhat ‘Spy vs Spy’ nature of such exercises. Wikileaks itself suffers from a lack of transparency and hence accountability – it (f)actually rejects both – besides being handicapped by its small size, elitist constituency, and financial shakiness.

But then how should the ‘deep state’ be tackled? To me, it appears to be extremely difficult to offer a solution that would not include a wholesale and revolutionary overhaul of the full concept of state power itself.

Piecemeal improvements, obtained through what was our first area of concern and research, ‘Hacking the State’ in its simple form, remains certainly feasible in the meantime, and is likely to be rewarding. It should be conducted in a diligent, continuous, and broad-based participative manner. Many movements act in this fashion, sometimes bypassing altogether the concept and the issues of governance as understood by political bureaucrats and managers. They should wholeheartedly be joined and supported!”

1 Comment An updated assessment of the ‘hacking the state’ strategy

  1. AvatarPoor Richard

    I wonder if we can’t look at historical cases of gradual transitions from monarchy to democracy to find an example of hacking the deep state. I’m no student of English political history, but my impression is that power ebbed from the monarchy in proportion to the increasing diversity and complexity of industry and commerce. As networks of new relationships and dependencies developed at the growing periphery of the economy, the monarchy was gradually isolated within a dwindling set of legacy roles, relationships and activities.

    Perhaps one doesn’t hack the deep state directly or precipitously, but one hacks at the tips of the roots and branches and slowly works inward.

    A population or group that is mutually codependent with an authoritarian or parental state might begin to draw down the power of the state in proportion to the agency, capability, and initiative that they assume (diplomatically, of course) for themselves.

    Self-reliance or agency has two roots: 1) self provisioning and 2) self protection. The latter should probably avoid assuming either too defensive or confrontational a form, consisting instead of a proactive consolidation of capacity and strength through reciprocal relationships and inter-dependencies.

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