His intervention at the closing conference of Transmediale left a bit hungry for more. For Makery, McKenzie Wark, the author of ‘A Hacker Manifesto’ and ‘Gamer Theory’, tells us more on his hacktivist theory for the anthropocene.
Back to New York from Transmediale, the european gathering of the hacktivist culture we already told you a bit here, McKenzie Wark, the author of A Hacker Manifesto and Gamer Theory and of the upcoming Molecular Red, theory for the Anthropocene, tells us more on his lecture mixing game theory, post-marxism and hacker ethics.
The Festival and your conference entered in an interesting dialog with the situation in Greece : the new Finance minister Yanis Varoufakis is also a specialist of game theory. What does that inspire to you?
I don’t really know anything at all about Greece. At Transmediale I caught up with Ned Rossiter, who gave me a copy of Logistical Worlds: Infrastructure, Software, Labour which is a study of the port infrastructure in Greece and the logistical control of moving containers about. Part of the story has to do with a new port basically controlled by a Chinese state company which is a major node in the flow of Chinese-made goods into Europe. They run their port on different software to the older part of the container terminal, so when containers have to be moved between the two, its done with old-fashioned paperwork! There’s other fascinating stuff in this publication, for instance about the difference between the old port’s unionized labor, and the new one, where workers have no protection, and are summoned to work at 3 hours notice with a text message. Rossiter and his colleagues have done some exemplary research here into the logistical systems that really govern the world, to the extent that all the products that satisfy social needs now pass through them.
So while I wish the new government in Greece the best of luck, I wonder where power really is now. Maybe a lot of it is now built into things like the software that runs a container port, which can be ‘process mined’ to produce ever more refined logistical procedures for moving machines and goods about, and to which labor is very much a marginalized appendage.
In Berlin, Anna Lascari and Ilias Marmaras who were presenting the serious game Cargonauts gave some insights on the last events in Greece. Varoufakis was really investigated by media. His nomination illustrates well your idea that game theory is more and more used in the world economy.
I have not read Varoufakis’ work. But I am interested in the fact that, as I understand it, he was a consultant to Valve about in-game economies. Apparently he kept a blog, but I didn’t read it. But maybe one could use his elevation into the political class as emblematic of how game-like finance has become. I think there’s two theories here. One is that finance is a rentier class who extract rent from a monopoly position and are prone to speculative excesses. The other is the thesis of Yann Moulier Boutang and others which is basically that in the overdeveloped world, economies are so cooperative and social that nobody really knows how to value economic activities anymore, so the whole thing is a sort of crowd-sourced confidence game, betting on which companies (or indeed states) can leverage the social, cooperative, non-labor of players to best advantage. Well, if you wanted to model something like that, and experiment with it, in-game economies would be a perfect laboratory!
I was getting bored with all this critical theory that is just minor variations on the themes and literatures established by the new left by the 1970s. It seems to me there are diminishing returns to rehashing the old themes of Lukacs and Adorno, or Benjamin and Althusser. And that’s theory at its best! Often now it is just fashionable noise for the art world. So I went looking for some new ancestors.
Not the least thing interesting about Bogdanov is that he had an inkling about climate change, and as early as the first decade of the twentieth century. He tried to expand Marxist thought into an open ended, open minded practice of thinking across the nature–society divide. His tektology is I think less a theory than a practice, of how theory can have a communicative role finding metaphors and images that work in one field and which be proposed to other fields of labor and knowledge production for testing. He seemed to me to be offering a model for a collaborative, non-hierarchical way of working on problems that are at one and the same time technical, cultural, political and that call for mixed methods of work. I think we’re going to need that kind of flexible, collaborative approach to knowledge in the anthropocene.
There’s an interesting question, which Bogdanov had already posed one hundred years ago, of whether there could be other information systems besides exchange value for managing social production. Cybersyn looks like an attempt to build something Bogdanov had already imagined in his novel Red Star. Perhaps part of the problem with capitalism is that both in theory and practice it acts as if there’s only one kind of information that matters–exchange value, and all production has to be subordinated to maximizing it. Well, we now have the technology to produce information of quite other kinds which might modify the criteria according to which production is governed.
This was what I was gesturing towards in my talk at Transmediale: towards an information theory of value, and the regulation of the production of use value by more than just the exchange value regime, or even replacing it entirely. It is clear that exchange value as a goal for all production is essentially now a destructive system undermining the conditions of life. So the question of the hour might be: what is another infrastructure for another life? In that respect I am partly in agreement with some of the accelerationists, but also partly not. Sometimes I think they understand what the agenda is for critical thought in the twenty-first century, and sometimes I think they’re just off-topic.
In your conference you mentionned the work of John Desmond Bernal and Joseph Needham, both red scientists and cold war peace activists. Bernal was director of the World Council for Peace and Needham was in the first scientific team at creation of UNESCO, together with people like Julian Huxley and Frank Malina. Needham became the author of the influential work Science and Civilisation in China. Huxley was biologist and later coined the term “transhumanism”, he was also the brother of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World. Malina was the first director of Jet Propulsion Laboratory before being chased by the FBI for being communist and later founded with Needham the art-science Leonardo magazine. How do you think we can learn from them in 2015?
Well, the original Accelerationist Manifesto was JD Bernal’s The World, The Flesh and the Devil of 1929. He was already thinking about a posthuman species for extending life into space. While in some ways very dated, in some other ways Bernal is still way ahead of us. Bernal was a horrible Stalinist, and Needham was rather too uncritical of Maoist China, to which he was a great and important friend in the West. So I would not want to defend everything about the legacy of the ‘science and society’ movement of which they were a part.
But there was an important moment in the 1930s struggle against fascism when scientists were also very advanced theorists, and were asking hard questions about the role of science in the making of a better world, but also about how the experience of the collaborative adventure within the lab was being perverted by militarism and big business, and how fascist irrationalism was attacking the whole scientific enterprise.
The science studies of the late twentieth century revived some of these lines of thought but in a less political way, and with a certain amnesia about people like Bernal and Needham (or in France, Frédéric Joliot-Curie). I think that this era is like the 1930s in that there are direct attacks again on the scientific enterprise, now by climate change denialists.
So while one might still have a critical attitude to science, one has to frame that in the context of total support for the goals and methods of science and solidarity in resistance to these attacks. But I think the philosophically-inclined lost the ability to think about science, either by adopting the neo-Nazi perspectives of Heidegger, or persisting in attempts to legislate for the sciences, as in the case of Althusser. There is also once again a kind of hyper-rationalist aestheticising of nature that privileges mathematics over actual science, via Badiou and Meillassoux. Well, that’s interesting bed-time reading, but not helpful for the larger task of collaboration between different kinds of knowledge workers, on an equal footing, confronting the real tasks of the anthropocene.
“And so the test for thought these days is whether it can grasp what is really on the agenda, or whether it insists on its own pet interests. Whatever their faults, people like Bernal and Needham knew what was at stake in their age.” McKenzie Wark
It seems like there is to dig in the relations between science and communism, like in bolchevik cosmism or bio-cosmism who were aiming at abolition of death, colonization of the universe, and the resurrection of the dead. Bogdanov was obsessed with the idea that blood transfusion could extend life. Can we this as a root to the transhumanism that is advocated at the Singularity University in Silicon Valley?
There’s a weird mystical-technical side to Russian culture, that became a strand in Soviet culture. The cosmists really did want to resurrect the dead, restore them to collective memory, take command of the planet and conquer the stars. And they thought Russians had a special mission to do it, being the people who sit at the juncture of east and west. Various shards of that ideological complex end up in all sorts of places in Soviet times.
I actually don’t think Bogdanov was all that connected to it. His approach to science was pre-modern. He did not understand experimental method. And he was driven by more by a socialist idea: would it be possible to socialize the tissues of the body? He took the notion of the ‘blood of the people’ literally, not as a metaphor but as something to be actually shared. He thought blood transmitted both energy and information between tissues of a body, and that this ‘cooperation’ could be extended between bodies. On one level, this is nuts. On another, it actually came true in modern medical science. We do take tissues from one body and culture them, or transplant them. We don’t exchange blood but we store and transfuse it. He was a non-scientific precursor to the socialization of the tissues of the body. He anticipates a certain biopolitics. I think its the opposite of the Singularity people, who are mostly about the immortality of the individual.
You said at the conference something like “hacking is just work, it doesn’t make you a hacker”, could you say us more?
Its about being ambitious about what one might do but modest about what one actually does. People who make things sometimes get a bit vain about the achievement, thinking they did it all on their own, whereas nowadays there is a vast infrastructure that one depends on, and extensive libraries of solutions to problems from which one borrows.
“I think the hacker ethos is not about how great you are, but rather about seeking recognition for a contribution to the common task of making the world work.” McKenzie Wark
I was just reading about Nicolai Tesla, whose story is a sort of moral lesson for would-be hackers. When Marconi demonstrated wireless for the first time, Tesla said Marconi’s achievement included seventeen Tesla patents, which was probably true. Everyone’s work on electricity and wireless builds on each other. But later Tesla got a bit carried away with being the solitary genius, and kept announcing that he had solutions to problems when he didn’t. Even if it takes a bit of showmanship of the Tesla style, the real work of building the world is always a vast collaboration.
What do you think of the warnings of people like Elon Musk or Bill Gates on Artificial Intelligence?
It is a translation into the language of the Frankenstein myth of what is really a social, political, economic and technical set of issues. We’re supposed to be worried about the machine taking over from the human. Well, that ship has sailed!
“As Donna Haraway so eloquently put it thirty years ago, we are all cyborgs, we are all assemblages of flesh and metal and information and plastics and pharmaceuticals and so on. Its possible the human never even existed as such in the first place.” McKenzie Wark
Our hands were shaped over the long haul of evolution by the tools they held. We have also been multi-species for a long time now. We co-evolved with rice and wheat and maize, with dogs and cows, and so forth. So re-stating the old myth of the human being taken over by the non-human is not at all helpful.
The question to ask is always to do which humans benefit most from this configuration of the cyborg. As for Elon Musk, the rise and fall of Nicolai Tesla might well be an instructive story for him! As for Bill Gates, everyone who gets lucky thinks they are a genius. But nothing guarantees that Microsoft will be eternally lucky in its attempts to monopolize technological vectors.
At the end of the year takes place in Paris the world climate conference COP21. It is supposed to finally work… Any thoughts about it? Next may for instance, French philosopher Bruno Latour and his students in political art at Science Po are organising a “theatre of negocations“, at théâtre des Amandiers, a big event to discuss how to make work such a conference… or make it fail… With architect Benjamin Foerster-Baldenius from Raum Labor collective (scenographers at Transmediale), who have a great experience at thinking and building temporary camps, the project is based on Latour method around controversies. Would you come to France?
I have my differences with Latour’s orientation, but really one of the things that matter at the moment is to not frame arguments as to whose method is better in an academic way, but rather to see what piece of the puzzle each method can help solve and how to combine them. So in short, a pragmatic, hacker ethic about how to organize knowledge and practice. And of course Latour has a distinguished body of work and certain leverage, so he is an important figure, and it matters that he is centrally working on climate change and related questions. One has to judge intellectuals thesedays by whether they can distinguish what the real agenda for thought is.
And yes, I would come!