Book of the Week: Hacking Capitalism. Part Two: Hacking as a labour movement

Book: Johan Söderberg. Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) Movement. Routledge, 2007

We continue our presentation with an excerpt on the topic of “Hacking and Capitalism”, which stresses the continuation between the hackers and the labour movement.

Johan Soderbergh:

“The skirmishes between the hacker movement and corporations and governments have deeper roots than is shown by the confrontations over treacherous code, hostile legislations, and public smear campaigns. More fundamental is that the norms and aspirations motivating people to be hackers are at odds with at least some aspects of capitalism. The central claim of this book is that the hacker movement is part of a much broader undercurrent revolting against the boredom of commodified labour and needs satisfaction. These sentiments, however, can be made to cut in two ways. In business literature, managers are often advised to encourage a ‘hacker spirit’ among their employees. Dennis Hayes gives a good account of how such a hacker spirit among engineers in Silicon Valley educes them to work harder without asking for anything in return. While he acknowledges the autonomy that software engineers enjoy, he doubts that any serious political agenda can arise from it. “Capital and modern technology apparently have seduced the computer builder with rare privilege: a genuine excitement that transcends the divide between work and leisure that has ruptured most industrialized civilizations. […] When computer-building becomes an essential creative and emotional outlet, any politics larger than those governing access to work and tools seem distant concerns” Dennis Hayes’ doubts are very justified, though his observations are limited to in-house programmers. The demand for ‘access to tools’ becomes political dynamite once it is articulated outside the wage relation, i.e. by people who are denied access to the tools. When the ‘hacker spirit’ sticks among workers with no foothold in the creative business, the spirit warps into a ‘refusal of work’.

The ranks of these people by far outnumber those of the professionals in the media and information sector. And even among the lucky few who enjoy stimulating jobs, many of them will in due time find themselves deprived of their privileges. Programmers are being thrown into the lower tier of the labour market since the computer industry is maturing. Occupations that recently were felt as gratifying, such as writing software code, are becoming as routinised as any other field of activity that has fallen under the spell of exchange value. Ironically, the deployment of computer technology has been decisive in degrading work elsewhere in the economy. The growth of the software sector, which is providing exciting new jobs for computer programmers, rests in no small part on the usefulness of software as a means for deskilling the workforce in other sectors. This connection is laid bare when we consider the role of the first computer engineers employed by the industry. These programmers worked in the same company and side-by-side with the blue-collar workers who were subjected to computerisation. David Noble has documented how the embryo of computer software: templates, hole cards, recordable tapes, and numerical control (N/C), was deployed in heavy industry exactly for the purpose of intensifying the techniques of Taylorism. “By making possible the separation of conception from execution, of programming from machine operation, N/C appeared to allow for the complete removal of decision-making and judgement from the shop floor.

Such ‘mental’ parts of the production process could now be monopolized by managers, engineers, and programmers, and concentrated in the office”. Crucial to this strategy was to keep the workers ‘in the dark’ about the source code. In the same breath as N/C technology was designed to lock workers out, workers were held in contempt for being too simple-minded for programming tasks. Nonetheless, supervisors attested that workers learned on their own to read the program language backwards. It was useful for them to know the program in order to anticipate the next move by the machine, and to foretell malfunctions and possible accidents. Workers were not meant to have this knowledge though. The routine was that upon discovering a bug, the worker had to report it to an engineer. It was a cumbersome and frustrating procedure to both the worker and the programmer. Instead of following the correct procedures, workers often showed ingenuity in fixing bugs by themselves. Such initiatives by workers were beneficial to the bottomline of the firm. In order to take full advantage of the N/C technology it had to be opened up to allow feedback loops from the workers back into the work process. But managers had embraced the technology for exactly the opposite purpose. The machinery had been devised to regulate the performance of workers and to force a higher work pace upon them. With insight into how the machinery and the software functioned, workers also knew how to use the technology to their own advantage. They could now alter the instructions of the machinery and reduce its speed. This practice spread spontaneously yet rapidly in factory districts and was occasionally discovered and documented by supervisors. Managers fought back by trying to make the clockwork of the machinery impregnable and incomprehensible. Antagonism between capital and labour was contested on code level and ‘access to tools’ was the name of the game.

The dream of managers to build away workers’ discontent through black-box technologies has continuously been frustrated by hacking. Computerisation has not eradicated workers’ resistance but displaced it, from the execution stage to the conception stage. When more and more people are assigned to conceptualise rather than execute work processes, capital must economise this labour force too. The same tight regime is imposed on engineers and programmers as has previously been, with their help, forced upon blue-collar workers. At this point, however, Taylorism runs into its own limits. There is no easy way to deprive ‘knowledge workers’ of knowledge and still have them working. One unexpected outcome from the mechanisation of the office is that the opportunities for hacking and sabotage abounds. The fact that these attacks are charged with labour discontent almost always goes unreported. Managers are anxious not to inspire other employees to work the same deed. With these reflections in the back of the mind, Andrew Ross insists that the perspective on hacking must be broadened. The media image of hackers as apolitical, juvenile pranksters belittles the issues at stake: “While only a small number of computer users would categorize themselves as ‘hackers,’ there are defensible reasons for extending the restricted definition of hacking down and across the case hierarchy of systems analysts, designers, programmers, and operators to include all high-tech workers—no matter how inexpert—who can interrupt, upset, and redirect the smooth flow of structured communications that dictates their position in the social networks of exchange and determines the pace of their work schedules.”

Employees crashing the computer systems of their employers gives a clear indication of that hacking can be an act of labour resistance. How does this observation reflect upon hacking done by students, unemployed, and sparetimers, in other words, hacking unrelated to the workplace? After all, both the self-image and the stereotype of the hacker portray someone positioned outside and against the profession. The conflict over surplus labour that characterises the antagonism between labour and capital at the workplace has little explanatory power in the computer underground. Hackers volunteer to write software applications. They are more likely to be happy about spending an extra hour in front of the computer than trying to sneak a shortcut. As far as money is concerned, many hackers couldn’t care less if a corporation profits from a project that they have contributed to. From the perspective of a trade unionist, amateurs labouring for free are nothing short of alarming. The unsuspecting hacker is ripe for exploitation, and what’s more, while working away he is weakening the bargain position of employed programmers too. What hackers do care about, mainly free access to information, seems peripheral in comparison to social, labour, and environmental concerns. The glaring ignorance towards labour issues in the hacker movement has convinced Alan Liu to write off cyber-politics as subcultural ‘bad attitude’. He charges that the demands for free information are individualistic, consumerist and entrepreneurial. Alan Liu is mistaken because he portrays information in the same way as ‘content providers’ do, as merely a consumer product. From this perspective, the hacker’s wish to have information for free appears like just another angry customer demanding more value for his money.

If we acknowledge that information also is a means of production, it becomes clear that the demand for free information is the same thing as ‘access to tools’. With free licenses the tools to write software code are made accessible to everyone, thus they are free as in free from knowledge monopolies, white-collar professionals, and corporate hierarchies. Hacking undermines the technical division of” labour that is pivotal to Taylorism. Furthermore, the failure of hackers to mention labour issues is consistent with the fact that their politics is the politics of ‘zero work’. At first it might sound odd, but the statement above is consistent with the extreme motivation and discipline of many hackers when they develop software code. The radicalism of the FOSS development model springs exactly from the distance it places between ‘doing’ and the wage relation. Hackers are contributing to radical social change because they prevent the labour market from being the sole determinant over the allocation of programming recourses in society. As a consequence, the economic rationality and instrumentality of technological development can not be taken for granted anymore, at least not in the computer sector. The model for developing technology invented by hackers is guided by the most non-instrumental of human activities: the play-drive. Software code is not the end-purpose of hacking but rather an excess flowing from the playful form of life that hackers are choosing for themselves. Hackers may or may not be conscious about and motivated by the wider political implications from promoting access to computer tools. Linus Torvalds, for instance, has repeatedly proven his political innocence in rows with the Free Software Foundation. Nonetheless, he made the key decision to license the Linux kernel under a free license. The demand for free information is not grounded in ideological convictions as much as in the fact that the public space that hackers draw from can be sustained only if software technology stays open and accessible. It is the form of life of hackers that command resistance. Their commitment to sustaining the FOSS community is in conflict with at least some priorities of capital, though, admittedly, it also plays into the hands of capital in other respects. Would it not be fair to object that with corporations making millions of dollars out of FOSS applications, the liberating potential of hacking has been lost? In that case we must also say that the struggle of waged employees is non-existent since corporations make millions of dollars out of them. The fact that the hacker movement has partially been recuperated by capital does not falsify hacking as a radical praxis, unless we badly want to think so. The hacker movement is in continuation with more than two hundred years of labour struggle.”

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