Interview: On Hacking, Decentralization, Power, Digital Democracy

A few excerpts from an interview at Dichtung Digital: Journal für Kunst und Kultur digitaler Medien, with questions asked by Roberto Simanowski.

My least favorite digital neologism is “hacker.” The word has so many meanings, and yet it is routinely used as if its meaning was unambiguous. Wikipedia has dozens of pages devoted to the word, and yet many authors, including scholars of the topic, write as if these ambiguities are epiphenomenal or unimportant. Thus the two most common meanings of the word—“someone who breaks into computer systems,” on the one hand, is by far the most widely-understood across society, and “skilled, possibly self-taught, computer user” on the other, is favored to some extent within digital circles—are in certain ways in conflict with each other and in certain ways overlap. They do not need to be seen as “the same word.” Yet so much writing about “hackers” somehow assumes that these meanings (and others) must be examined together because they have been lumped by someone or other under a single label.
Today, “hackers” are bizarrely celebrated as both libertarian and leftist political agitators, “outsiders” who “get the system” better than the rest of us do, and consummate insiders. My view is that this terminological blurring has served to destabilize Left politics, by assimilating a great deal of what would otherwise be resistant political energy to the supposedly “political” cause of hackers, whose politics are at the same time beyond specification and “beyond” Left-Right politics.


The Internet was never a bastion of communism, not without a kind of thoroughgoing establishment of foundations which it never had, and certainly not once the restrictions on commercial use were lifted. At some level I think some kind of public accountability for central mechanisms like search is absolutely imperative, though what forms these can take are not at all clear to me, since exposing parts of the search algorithm almost necessarily makes gaming search engines that much easier, and gaming seems to me a significant problem already. Computerization is always going to promote centralization even as it promotes decentralization – often in one and the same motion. Advocates of decentralization are often almost completely blind to this, directly suggesting that single central platforms such as Facebook, Wikipedia, Twitter and Google “decentralize” as if this somehow disables the centralization they so obviously entail.


Derrida encourages us to use the term “reason” in place of this more expansive notion of “rationality,” pointing out how frequently in contemporary discourse and across many languages we use the word “reasonable” to mean something different from “rational.” I argue in my book that the regime of computation today encourages the narrow view of rationality – that human reason is all calculation – and that is discourages the broader view, that reason includes other principles and practices in addition to calculation and logic. I believe some versions of “modernity” tilt toward one, and some tilt toward the other. Projects to quantify the social – including Klout scores, the quantified self, and many other aspects of social and predictive media – advertise the notion that calculation is everything. I think we have very serious reasons, even from Enlightenment and modernist thinkers, to believe this is wrong, and that historically, regimes that have bought into this view have typically not been favorable to a politics of egalitarianism and concerns with broad issues of social equality. My hope is that the pendulum is swinging very far toward the calculation pole, but that eventually it will swing back toward the broader view of rationality, recognizing that there are dangers and fallacies inherent in any attempt to thoroughly quantify the social.

The complete interview is available here.


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