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Hacker Class Consciousness

This project exists to promote class consciousness among hackers. At the time of this writing, it consists only of this page. The aim of the project at this time is to articulate the reasons for and implications of hacker class consciousness. Patches welcome.

Because of their economic and social conditions, hackers have shared interests as a social class. This is due to hackers' special relationship to economic capital. Recent political events, such as the SOPA legislation, and observations of the tech industry show that these interests are under threat. Despite these threats, hackers have the power to protect and further their class interests, if they act collectively. The furthering of hacker class interests will (continue to) have a transformative effect on the structure of society.

Hacker class consciousness is the recognition by hackers of their shared interests as a class. This recognition can spur political organization and create transformative social change.

What is the hacker class?

What is the hacker class? McKenzie Wark has proposed its existence in A Hacker Manifesto (2004), in which he argues that private intellectual property leads to a class conflict between "vectorialists", who own IP, and the "hacker class" who produce it.

This theory has not caught on strongly among hackers. This is probably due to the thick Marxist jargon in the essay and the fact that hackers are often apolitical or libertarian and so not down with Marxist theory.

The purpose of this writing is to convince hackers that they (we) are, in fact, a social class with shared economic and political interests.

Who are the hackers in the first place? ESR's definitive How To Become a Hacker, starts by identifying a group of people (the hackers) and then explicates their attitude and reasons for being what they are. He provides this account of the origins of the term "hacker":

There is a community, a shared culture, of expert programmers and networking wizards that traces its history back through decades to the first time-sharing minicomputers and the earliest ARPAnet experiments. The members of this culture originated the term 'hacker'. Hackers built the Internet. Hackers made the Unix operating system what it is today. Hackers run Usenet. Hackers make the World Wide Web work. If you are part of this culture, if you have contributed to it and other people in it know who you are and call you a hacker, you're a hacker.

Broader definitions of "hacker" eminate from these origins. Hackerspaces that have emerged in many major cities support a wide range of activities well beyond "building the Internet". ESR acknowledges this expansive use of the term.

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music--actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them 'hackers' too -- and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in. But in the rest of this document we will focus on the skills and attitudes of software hackers, and the traditions of the shared culture that originated the term 'hacker'.

ESR then goes on to explain that basic hacking skills include programming, and that the way one gains status in hacking culture is by contributing to open source software.

This document will leave open the question of the inclusiveness of the hacker category. Following ESR, we will bootstrap our definition of hacker by declaring it to include at least those who "make the World Wide Web work" or participate in that culture by extending the functionality of the World Wide Web with open source software.

We will propose the shared economic interests of this core group of hackers, and define those that share those interests as the hacker class. (This leaves open the possibility of the inclusion of those that are not prototypical hackers within the hacker class.)

The hacker class has mobilized before without being conscious of itself as a class with shared interests. The FOSS and more generally copyleft movements have made considerable economic and social impact. However, these challenges have more often than not been about garnering recognition and removing superstition about open intellectual goods. The movements' adversaries have been by and large individual companies with monopoly power.

As the fruits of hacker labor spread throughout society, however, the forces confronting hackers are consolidating. Most notably, with the SOPA/PIPA legislative debacle the hacker class was threatened as a class through the threat of state power. In response, hackers need to recognize their shared interests and act collectively with their political interests in mind.

One way to understand the shared interests of the hacker class is by understanding their relationship to economic capital.

The Hacker Class's Relationship to Capital

material below is from previous draft, needs reworking

The argument that the Hacker Class has a special relationship with economic capital is simple. The hacker class is economically tied to open source software, open content, open data, open infrastructure, open hardware, and so on. What's interesting about all this stuff is that it is both on the one hand capital (a produced good that is used in the production of other goods and services) and also a public good (non-rival and non-excludable).

For Marx, the definition of capitalism is that it's a system of private ownership of capital. It follows that this stuff which hackers work on is disruptive of capitalism. It reverses the trend of capital accumulation: when one invests in this kind of capital, one enriches all of society instead of only the capitalist. It transforms competitive relationships (between workers and employers, or workers and each other) into collaborative ones (because workers and employers both have unalienated stake in the success of the project.)

Even if one rejects the Marxist interpretation, there is something economically new and special about this kind of capital. Try to figure this one out: despite FOSS being by now uncontroversially a backbone of the tech sector (through browsers, server software, libraries, tools, languages...) and open content a ripe source of consumer satisfaction, how does production of these open intellectual goods factor into GDP? Though considered an indicator of standard of living, open goods produced by unpaid labor are completely under the radar. And since the amount invested in this new open capital rarely reflects its social value (because of free rider effects), commercial and government investment in it is going to vastly unvalue its social effect.

Unfortunately, there's no good name for this kind of capital as far as I know, because both 'open capital' and 'public capital' have been taken. It's not emphasized much by the major advocacy groups support FOSS, as far as I know. The Open Source Initiative, trying to court mainstream business investment, is I'd guess eager to avoid any Marxist interpretation of their work, and the Free Software Foundation is all about deontological ethics, not economic concerns. But that doesn't make the arguments any less valid. With due respect to the 'open capital' people, who seem to have an interesting idea I can't claim to understand, I'm going to clumsily call this new stuff I'm talking about open intellectual capital or OIC.

OIC has won its place in the market, as the efforts of the Open Source Initiative have succeeded in making it compatible with business-as-usual. Businesses and governments have a certain justified agnosticism now about proprietary vs. open software. They just need the right tool for the job, with the best product offering around it. At the moment, with many open source companies struggling to get brand recognition and proprietary companies dealing with the upset, this is a clear message everybody can get behind and a comfortable detente.

However, I believe it is correct only to a first order of approximation. There are several points on which the economics of OIC versus closed intellectual capital are leading to political tension.

The most prominent is the most clouded, since it implicates the related issue of piracy. Since at least the Grokster debacle (see the Creative Commons amicus brief), its been known that the proliferation of Creative Commons works (and, I'd argue, other OIC) is enabled by the same technical infrastructure that enables music, video, and software piracy. This is, as far as I can tell, just a physical fact, since the closedness of intellectual property is just a legal construct. So however illegitimate piracy may be, the interests of intellectual property and OIC are in conflict over the infrastructure.

As we've seen with SOPA/PIPA, the owners of traditional capital (much of which is tied up in IP) have no problem using their political clout to break that technical infrastructure on which OIC depends for its spread. This is a direct threat to the livelihoods of hackers, and (as I've mentioned above) is ample reason for our political organization as a class.

Another other more subtle but I think ultimately more important point of economic and political tension is in the labor market itself. While it will sound vs. Zed Shaw


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TODO: Determine license for project.


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You can also clone the project with Git by running:

$ git clone git://