Interview with McKenzie Wark
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Summary: These interviews were conducted as a part of the Contested Commons/ Trespassing Publics conference organized by Sarai: CSDS and the Alternative Law Forum in January 2005.
McKenzie Warkteaches media studies at the New School University in New York. He has published widely, online and in print, on the subjects of cyber culture, Internet theory and research and digital technologies.
SS: What does the term 'intellectual property' mean to you?
MW:'Intellectual property' is a fairly unfortunate term. It's something of an oxymoron, I think; it's a contradiction, an example of two things that don't go together. But it's passed into the discourse, it seems to me, as a way of reframing things like copyright and patent, which traditionally understood transactional. But when you begin talking about IP, it starts to become a sort of private property right, absolute, in perpetuity. As I understand it, 'IPtalk' really starts to dominate in the 1960s, when there's a shift away from the old negotiated right paradigm to a kind of private rights/private property paradigm.
SS: You seem to suggest that when this happens, when private rights and the property rights paradigm become the dominant way in which intellectual and cultural material and practices come to be governed, then new hierarchies of possession and dispossession are set in motion. Could you elaborate on this?
MW: Well, to modify a famous line: "Information wants to be free, but is everywhere in chains." It seems to me that there's a unique, even ontological characteristic that information has. It can escape from scarcity. Information is always embodied in materiality, but this embodiment is not limited to a particular materiality. It can be copied, with little lost, from one materiality to another. So on the one hand we've produced this new capacity, this new possibility of escaping from scarcity; on the other hand, we keep trying to stuff it into the old commodity form, to trap it in
particular materiality, so that it can be bought and sold. So to me, it's one way of framing the contradiction about time: that finally we can escape the fetish about the commodity form, in this one particular domain, that of information. But more and more legal, technical and economic forces are mounting to prevent that from occurring.
SS: If we were to escape from the commodity form, what would be the consequences for creative and intellectual work in general, and would there be consequences insofar as the 'material' economy is concerned?
MW: I think there's an immediate consequence in opening a space for free productivity, for self-valorisation, as the Italians say. I think that world of free productivity has always been a latent promise, this utopian idea of "from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs". The one domain where this can actually be realised is information, precisely because you could free it. Having been freed, it has the potential to transform the rest of the material economy: the economies of agriculture and manufacturing that don't disappear just because information has these new qualities. The freeing of information doesn't wish away necessities, but it might transform the ways in which necessities can be met. And I just don't buy Slavoj Zizek's argument that this desire for free productivity is a false one. That's the point at which he capitulates to the reigning ideology of our times, what Margaret Thatcher summed up as "there is no alternative". The striking thing about information is that the new technologies reveal the ontological promise of information, that it is the one domain free from the necessity of scarcity. Indeed, it promises the scarcity of necessity.
SS: At the end of your recent book AHacker Manifesto, you say, "When even the air melts into airwaves, where all that is profane is packaged as if it were profundity, the possibility yet emerges to hack into mere appearances and make off with them. There are other worlds and they are this one." Clearly, when you say "There are other worlds and they are this one," you're not deferring the process of locating 'other worlds' and alternatives to the way things are onto some perpetually postponed future. You seem to indicate that this business of creating an alternative is happening right now. Can you tell us some more about this?
MW: I stole a bit from the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who says, "Another world is possible, and it's this one." That's one translation. I changed it a little bit. And it might also be a little bit like Derrida talking about a sort of messianic promise, but it's not the future: it's the gap between what language says is possible, and what is actual - that the space for an ethics, or for critical thinking, and then for
practice, is in that perpetual gap which can never be closed; between what we can think and what we can do.
SS: When you talk of this movement to 'actualise' this possibility, you invoke the figure of the hacker. For most of us, the hacker implies the computer programmer who liberates information, but for you, it seems to embrace a far more inclusive and capacious domain, or even domains of cultural and intellectual practice? Can you tell us who, or which kind of people, in your opinion, embody the hacker ethic'?
MW:I really respect programmers who conceive an ethics in what they do. I really respect Richard Stallman and the free software movement, and just the everyday creativity of the programmers that I've known. I think this is a kind of leading transformative intellectual labour of our time. But I wanted to conceive of a larger notion of intellectual productivity, modelled after this leading form in our time. So, with regard to anybody who produces new information that can be trapped in the form of intellectual property, I call that person a hacker.
MW: So I think we have to get out of our little, narrow, specialised, even mutually hostile ways of thinking about what we do. Musicians don't really talk to writers, who don't talk to programmers, who don't talk to scientists and we have to get away from that, and say, "Well, look, the commodification of our work makes all of what we do equivalent. X amount of my words are worth Y amount of your research results, Z amount of your lab experiments, and so on." In a sense, what we do as 'hackers' is all made equivalent by the market, so why don't we think about our common interest in relation to that? This is why I wanted to expand the word 'hacker' a bit more broadly. But it's also a way of saying 'farmer-worker-hacker'; it's a way of saying, "Here are the three kinds of productive work in the world, can you align them in some way?" They're different, yet they could form alliances; there are common interests that we could seek transnationally, of what I call the 'productive classes' - farmers, workers, hackers. We are culturally all different, but in relation to property, the market, the commodity, we all work for someone else. We have that in common.
SS: You said in your presentation that we needed to look at histories of globalisation, a long history by which the world is recreated. Does that allow us a certain advantage, also, of saying that we are not afraid of globalisation, that we can reconstitute it?
MW: I think I've been trying to make being an Australian productive, which is that is its sort of in between north and south, east and west. Its a privileged locus to speak from in some ways, but not in others. It struck me that you can see it as a sort of a hinge. I really do think there is a totality; that history does connect us all together. But I think the action is shifting, and that history is being made in what used to be the periphery. History is being made in places like China, India, South America. The centre has shifted, and one needs to try and think that. So, centre-periphery isn't fixed and stable for all time; maybe sometimes you've got to see those shifts in operation. In some ways, Bangalore is more metropolitan than Clarksdale, Mississippi, which is in the third world even though it's in the US. Centre-periphery has got very mixed up. One can't generalise about national aggregates much at all. One has to look for how those relations thread it together; one has to think that core-periphery is dynamic, mobile, continually being made. The world is not being equalised; it's being divided, but in spatially new and different ways.