McKenzie Wark | Digital Labor and the Anthropocene
McKenzie Wark is author of A Hacker Manifesto, The Spectacle of Disintegration, the forthcoming I’m Very Into You – a correspondence with the late Kathy Acker – and Molecular Red, among other books. The following transcript is taken from a recent talk delivered at the Digital Labor conference presented by The New School.
I want to start with the proposition that in a place like New York City, we live in the over-developed world. Somehow we overshot some point of transformation. A transformation that didn’t happen, perhaps couldn’t happen. But in having failed to take that exit, we end up in some state of over-development. In the over-developed world, the commodity economy is feeding on itself, cannibalizing itself.
There is of course an under-developed world, sometimes in intimate proximity to the over-developed one. You can find it even here in New York City. One can critique the orientalism of the fact that Willets Point, Queens is known among New Yorkers as ‘little Calcutta’, but it really is a place without paved roads, running water, and with mostly off the books, illegal or precarious jobs.
But you can forget that under-developed world exists if you live in the bubble of the over-developed world. Some of us don’t have to do the manual version of precarious labor, at least. But there is a sense in which some characteristics of that labor have actually found their way into the over-developed world as well.
Viewed from inside the bubble of New York, the paradox of digital labor these days is the way that tech enables the over-development of under-development. Technologies are shaped by the struggle over their form. It was not given from an essence that the digital would end up as control over labor rather than control by labor. But in the current stage of conflict and negotiation, the over-development of under-development seems to me to describe a tendency for labor.
In any case, labor isn’t the only class struggling in and against the digital. I still think there is a difference between being a worker and being a hacker. I think of hacker as a class category: there is a hacker class. Hackers are those whose efforts are commodifed in the form of intellectual property. What they make can be turned into copyrights, patents or trademarks.
The hacker class is distinguished by a few qualities. It usually means working with information, but not in a routine way. It is different from white-collar labor. It is about producing new arrangements of information rather than ‘filling in the forms.’
As such, it can be a bit hard to make routine. New things just don’t appear on time. Not if they are really new. There’s a kind of ‘innovation’ that is actually quite close to routine, and the hacker class does that too. It’s the new ad campaign, the new wrinkle on the old technical process, the new song or app or screenplay. But the big qualitative leaps are much harder to subordinate to the reified, routinized forms of labor.
The ruling class of our time, what I call the vectoral class, needs both these kinds of hack. The vectoral class needs the almost-routine innovation. The existing commodity cycles demand it. As our attention fades and boredom looms, there has to be some just slightly new iteration of the old properties: some new show, new app, new drug, new device.
What is interesting at the moment are the strategies being deployed to spread the cost and lower the risk of this routine innovation. This is what I think start-up culture is all about. It spreads and privatizes the risk while providing privileged access to innovation that is starting to prove its value to the vectoral class, whose ‘business model’ is to own, control, flip, litigate, and – if absolutely necessary – even build out new kinds of intellectual property.
The other kind of hack, the really transformative ones, are another matter. To some extent the vectoral class does not really want these, no matter what the ruling ideology says about disruption. Having your life disrupted is for little people. The vectoral class doesn’t like surprises. Its goal is to come as close enough to a monopoly in something to extract rent from it.
The kind of mode of production we appear to be entering is one that I don’t think is quite capitalism as classically described. This is not capitalism, this is something worse. I see the vectoral class as the emerging ruling class of our time, whose power rests on attempting to command the whole production process by owning and controlling information. In the over-developed world, an information infrastructure, a kind of third nature, now commands the old manufacturing and distribution infrastructure, or second nature, which in turn commands the resources of this planet, which is how nature now appears to us.
The command strategies of the vectoral class rely on the accumulation of stocks, flows and vectors of information. The vectoral class turns information as raw material into property, and as property into asymmetry, inequality and control. It extracts a rent from privatized information, held as monopoly, while minimizing or displacing risk.
One strategy is to socialize the risk of the real hack. This is probably why public universities and publicly funded research still exist. The tax-payer can take the risk on the really basic research. The university research park model is now set up to carefully modulate access to information about anything that might make a valuable property.
Another strategy is what one might call auto-disruption. Learning from the mistakes of the old capitalist firms of the industrial eras, this model takes the hacker practice in-house. Firms with existing rent-extraction revenue flows become hoarders of potentially monetizable intellectual property, or the people who look like they could produce it. This is to be deployed only when it disrupts somebody else’s business more than one’s own.
So that’s the vectoral class. The problem with belonging to the hacker class in a world the vectoral class rules are these: firstly, certain modest forms of the hack now fall into an outsourced, ‘casualized’, even amateur kind of economy. Certain competences became widespread that there is no way to extract value from them as skills. Certain models of distributed or algorithm-based path-seeking turn out to work as well as hiring the top talent to pick a path for you.
Secondly, more higher-order hack abilities might still command their own price in the market, and one might even end up owning a piece of whatever one produces. But it becomes less and less likely that you get to own it all. One becomes at best a minor share-holder in one’s own brain.
Of course the situation with the worker is even worse than the hacker. The commodification of the life-world eats into the old cultures of solidarity and equality. Everything becomes game-like, a win-lose proposition. The world of third nature, that Borgesian data map that exactly covers its territory, is quite literally programmed to be anti-social.
In daily life there can be a continuum of experience between being a worker and a hacker. They are not absolute categories from the point of view of experience. One can pass from one to the other. Both can be precarious ways to make a living. The white male ‘bro-grammer’ is not the only kind of hacker, just as the blue collar hard-hat is not the only kind of worker.
For worker and hacker alike, the dominant affects are those of envy and jealousy, and covetousness. One is supposed to hate those with just a bit more than you, while at the same time loving those with much, much more. Those with a bit more must be undeserving; those who own everything apparently do so with unquestionable right.
For worker and hacker alike, there is a struggle to achieve some kind of class consciousness, and a social consciousness even beyond that, against the atomizing affect of the time. I just don’t think it is quite the same class consciousness.
For labor, it is always a matter of solidarity and equality. For the hacker, class consciousness is always modulated by the desire for difference, for distinction, for recognition by one’s real peers. It is a sensibility that can be captured by the bourgeois individualism propagated by the vectoral class, but it is not the same thing. Winning the stock-option lottery is not the same thing as the respect of one’s peers. Nor does it translate into any agency in giving form to the world.
It may not come as any surprise that the world this work and these hacks are building is one that cannot last. One might as well say already that this is already a civilization that does not exist. The material conditions that afford it are eroding already. Whether we are adding to the world some quantity of labor or some quality of hack, it is as if we were just building more sandcastles while the tide comes in.
This is the meaning of the Anthropocene: that the futures of the human and material worlds are now totally entwined. Just as Nietzsche declared that God is dead, now we know that ecology is dead. There is no longer a homeostatic cycle that can be put right just by withdrawing. There is no environment that forms a neutral background to working and hacking.
Just as the category of ‘man’ collapses once there is no God, so too the category of the social collapses when there is no environment. The material world is laced with traces of the human, and the human turns out to be made of nothing much besides displaced flows of this or that element or molecule.
The dogma that ‘reality is socially constructed’ turns out not so much to be wrong as to be meaningless. What all the workers and hackers of the world are building is more and more of the same impossible, nonexistent world. We are building third nature as the hyperreal.
Two tasks present themselves, then. The first is to think the worker and hacker as distinct classes but which have a common project. The second is to think that common project as building a different world. Can this infrastructure we keep building out, this second and third nature, actually be the platform for building another one? Can it be hacked?
It is a dizzying prospect. This is why I turn to the work of Alexander Bogdanov, because he thought it could be done. Sometimes it is good to have ancestors, even if they are funny uncles and queer aunts rather than the patriarchs. Bogdanov was Lenin’s rival for the leadership of the Bolshevik party. Shunted aside by about 1910, he turned to two projects, which went by the names of tektology and proletkult.
I think of Bogdanov’s tektology as a project of worker and hacker self-organization that would use the qualitative medium of language rather than the quantitative one of exchange as the means for conveying forms, ideas, diagrams, from one design problem to another. Could there be an art of sharing what works? Could a hack that derives from one design problem be floated speculatively as a possible form or guide for another? Bogdanov’s tektology is like a philosophical Github.
I think of Bogdanov’s proletkult as a project of autonomous worker and hacker cultural production. Bogdanov had a positive, rather than a negative theory of ideology. We all need an affect, a story, a structure of feeling that is really motivating and connecting. Can we be moved and joined by something other than envy, greed, spite, rage or the other click-bait of the game-ifed, commodifed, hyperreal world? Can there be other worldviews and worldviews of the others?
In a way tektology is the work and proletkult the play aspects of building an actual world, in the gaps and fissures of this unreal one that surrounds us. The keynote for Bogdanov was that this had to be a cooperative and collaborative project, based on the worldview of the hacker and worker. This would be a different worldview to both those of authoritarianism and exchange.
We have to think how things work without assuming there is someone or something in charge, a final God-like arbiter, even if it is the hyper-chaos God of the speculative realists. And we also have to think how things work without imagining there’s just a bunch of atomized monads, competing with each other, where the ideal order is magically self-organizing and emergent.
We need another worldview, one drawn out of what is left of the actually collaborative and collective and common practices via which the world is actually built and run, a worldview of solidarity and the gift. A worldview that works as a low theory extracted from worker and hacker practices, rather than a high theory trying to legislate about them from above.
It is not hard to see here what infuriated Lenin about Bogdanov. For Bogdanov, both proletkult and tektology are experimental practices, of prototyping ideas and things, trying them out, modifying them. There’s no correct and controlling über-theory, as there is in different ways in Lenin or Lukacs. There is more of a hacker ethos here, rather than that of the authoritarian worldview one still finds in a Lenin or a Lukacs or in parody form in Zizek, where those in command of the correct dialectical materialist worldview are beyond question.
In Bogdanov’s worldview, there is no master-discourse that controls all the others. There is a continuum of practices, from the natural sciences, through engineering and design, to culture and art. The science and design part is mostly covered by the idea of a tektology; the culture and art part by proletkult. But they overlap, and both matter.
Bogdanov’s openness to the natural sciences, engineering and design are, I think, very contemporary. We only know about things like climate change — and other signs of the Anthropocene — because of the natural sciences. Without the very extensive global knowledge hack that is climate science, we would literally not know what the hell is going on around us. Why these droughts? These floods? These weird changes in the ranges of species, or their sudden extinctions or population booms? None of it would make sense.
Neither Heidegger nor Adorno have anything to say about any of this. But curiously, Bogdanov almost figured out global climate change for himself, between 1908 and 1920. He understood something about the carbon cycle. He understood the need to think social labor as acting on and in and with and against nature, producing a second nature and even a third. He understood the need to build an infrastructure that could adapt to changes in its interactions with its conditions of existence.
Lenin conducted a vigorous campaign to excommunicate Bogdanov, one which the Marxist tradition has strikingly never really revisited or attempted to reverse. This is among other things a great injustice. Bogdanov’s kind of experimental, open-ended Marxism, which neither tries to dominate, ignore, or subordinate itself to the natural sciences, became something of a rarity. His closest contemporary analog is, I think, Donna Haraway. Or so I argue in Molecular Red.
The Anthropocene calls not so much for new ways of thinking as for new ways of practicing knowledge. When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. And it is likely to get weird — in this lifetime, or the next. That’s why I think we could start working now, not on theory of the Anthropocene, but theory for the Anthropocene. One could do worse, I think, than imagine and practice again something like a tektology and a proletkult – a tektology for hackers, a proletkult for cyborgs. Let’s build a world, and live in it.