How political is hacking?

This is a reponse to Jonathan Zittrain‘s critique, related to his latest book on the Future of the Internet, which claims that hackers are too unpolitical and unreactive to the threats to the internet.

Biella of the Interprete blog wants to set the record straight, claiming that hackers are indeed political and have proven to be so multiple times:

Geeks not only designed the Internet, an indisputably revolutionary medium, but also implemented, and continue to maintain it, and then in their copious spare time, also engage in fighting back the political, legal and corporate encroachment which threatens to limit the very revolutionary nature of the Internet (as Chris Kelty’s new book on Free Software argues). If these acts by geeks are not enough political action, then maybe the development of not just one, but multiple entirely open and free alternatives to the only two proprietary operating systems that exist today might be a political act that would satisfy? Many would agree that even simply using a free operating system is a political act. It would be better to claim that individuals, lawyers and other political actors are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet, rather than imploring the already overtaxed geeks to set aside everything that they are already doing to do something even more.

It also seems that when it comes to political questions related to the Internet, net neutrality being the hot topic now, or fighting restrictive and problematic laws like the DMCA, one of the only groups of people (outside of lawyers and librarians) to actually understand and dissect the fine print (and geeks actually are pretty attuned to and like to dissect the fine legal print), to protest these unsavory laws, and to support the organizations who are doing something about it (like the EFF), are geeks and hackers. While many geeks are not necessarily keen on conceptualizing their labor in traditional political terms, or aligning their technical projects with a political affiliation, and yes would rather just be writing good code, they do fight for their productive freedom and this productive freedom just happens to relate to most questions and concerns related to an open, accessible, and tweakable Internet, built by the geeks, lest we forget.”

This view is echoed by both Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter who argue that Jonathan’s understanding of politics is too narrow:

But if you think of work as political, if you think of making choices about how to work as a political, if you think affecting how technology impacts us is political, and so on, then hackers are up to their necks in politics and a profusion of political principles can be read off their activity. Then what hackers seem to be doing is politics through and through, very explicitly and straightforwardly. From this perspective, a hacker who claims to be just coding, and doesn’t want to be bothered by the political impact of his choices is just revealing another political preference (to be honest, whenever someone says that , I just read it as “this doesn’t agree with my politics”). JZ might be thinking that hackers don’t do enough of the politics at the level of the larger entities around (though that’s wrong too, as many, many cases of hacker involvement in legal and policy battles do); he might be mistaking the chatter of hacker communities as just that, chatter, while its actually the working out of issues germane to an intensely politicized group; and he might not be paying attention to the fact that technology-labor is a political beast, and its most passionate residents and citizens are hackers, and what they do, and how they choose to do it, is first and foremost, a political choice. Listen closely to the conversation of hackers – every single statement highlights an ideological perspective. There’s plenty of politics being done out there; you just have to have the right kind of measuring instruments to detect it.”

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