Linus Walleij:
Burning Cars and Hacking Homepages
script for SIME speech

I made this script for my appearance at SIME. The highlights were the punchline "Marx was right..." and a question afterwards when I was asked about the book I wrote (Copyright Does Not Exist) I said I gave the book that title only to draw attention to it actually (which resulted in severe amusement among the audience) as it is a book about hacker culture. But I also added the comment that "as I am an anarchist I actually believe intellectual property is theft". Which made some guys look confused or nervous, while others just had a second laugh. The audience was about 80% businessmen, management experts, advertising & promotion people etc, so these words from me were probably quite hard to swallow.

Overall I got the impression of people very eager building something really cool. However -- I wonder if all those people were aware of the fact that there is a top on the S-curve, that they are all mortals, so that they are all going to die and be eaten by worms, and that the same goes for this wonderful market they are busy creating. Maybe I'm just all gloomy about that narrow focus and unconstrained optimism. Or I'm just jealous.

Well I'm very glad to be here and I'm very glad to have all of you here. I have a written script as my English is not too good. And I am going to talk about burning cars and hacking homepages in the postmodern society.

In early March this year, a young man burt out a number of cars in my hometown. The last car he devastated belonged to the family of a close friend of mine. He finished the renegade by setting fire to a local legendary car restaurant.

I knew this man. I've met him in the past, he had kind eyes, and a little smile often used to run across his face. Though he socialized with the so-called low layers of society, which he was born into and thus socially predestined for, I remember I felt strong sympathy for him.

So here I am, at Sime, doing this speech in front of all of you, while he's probably in prison by now. Life is truly weird. Do you think I hate him, or look at him with disgust, for this "uncivilized" behaviour? Dead wrong. My sympathy is always with the firestarters, the keen instigators. I really appreciate it when people do something about their situation, be it destructive or not. I imagine I could read his mind when he carried out these arsons -- "that'll show you not to underestimate me, not to believe you got me subdued, here you have it all back!"

You may ask why people do things like that. Why they attack the people around them, their symbols and their society. You may ask why a young man want to hack into the CIA webspace and alter it. I do have answers. But first: capitalism.

The late history of human societies is often divided into phases, all of which are of course extreme generalizations. You don't realize you belonged to one before you miss it, and you don't realize a new one was coming before you're already in the middle of it. Fredric Jameson outlined three such phases of the capitalist society. They have been further developed by e.g. Donna Haraway.

Those three phases are: realism, modernism and postmodernism. The labels are napped out of art history. The phase of realism, in this case, corresponds to the traditional commercial or early capitalism with its national character and small enterprises. The phase of modernism is the imperialistic phase, beginning with the colonization of Africa and America and culminating in the Cold and Gulf wars. A characteristic of this phase is the phenomena of huge monopolies. Our time, the postindustrial or postmodern condition, is then typically multinational in character. Capital has now broken free from the national state completely, and is beginning a life of it's own, sort of floating above the national institutions.

Somehow this phase happened to synchronize with another change we all know of. That is of course the shift from industrial to virtual production. Companies in the postmodern world produce less and less matter, but more and more software. Gone is the time of steel, railways and cars. Now is the time for tiny chips of silicon and bit trading.

We are all aware of the fact that we are devoured by the information society and the postmodern capitalist production scheme. Statistics tells us that industrial production shows a falling tendency, while so-called symbol management, handling of information flows and data transport, is increasing. In a few years from now, the foundation of wealth in Sweden may be high technology companies like Ericsson, Astra or Pharmacia / Upjohn while the car industry, which up to now has provided a basis for the Swedish economy, is marginalized.

However those companies are not Swedish anymore. They are multinational giants of the kind I mentioned earlier, and the only way to have them stay with you is to provide them some nice living conditions. This means that the national state is subdued by multinational capital. Marx was right: capital always seize power.

So that is our world. But how about the firestarters i only just mentioned? Why are they appearing right here, right now, in our time?

The key to understanding this, is the process of knowledge inflation, which is also the reason to why you see me speaking here to today. The ideas that explains this phenomena is often associated with Ernst Jünger and his preussian anarchists.

When a society moves rapidly between two phases of mentality, such as the present shift from modernity to postmodernity, a lot of experience, which once was of great use, becomes totally useless. This happened to the grooms and horse drivers when the car took over the transport function, and more recently to typographers and compositors as desktop publishing made their elder knowledge of printing, using lead & plates, useless.

The result is, that among the people employed in several huge companies, authorities and other institutions, there are those who have grown up in a totally different world, and which are poorly adopted to this new state of society. They simply do not have the competence to work in this new production environment.

At the same time, we have have our archetypical hacker: a youngster that grew up in this digital mishmash society. He has what Mannheim calls a "fresh contact" with this new world. That means he doesn't have to "unlearn" or "relearn" something about this confusing state, but can simply adopt to it. There are no "contrasts" between his world and some ancient world that no longer exists.

Naturally he gets utterly pissed when people who are clearly disoriented and confused by the way things are, start commanding him, sort of dividing his world which they know nothing about, after their own lines of thought, saying "hey boy, this is one of the most confusing times mankind ever experienced, come let me keep you here under my wing, do this do that, don't hack, don't talk jive..." and so forth.

John Perry Barlow noticed some of these blind guides in his own backyard. There is a bunch of left-overs from the industrial society running around the Net, trying very hard to make it fit into the old worldview. Their favourite "Net reforms" includes censorship, commercialization, so-called "spamming" and exaggerated advocacy for intellectual property protection. The overall dogma of those left-overs is, that "if the world doesn't fit your world-view -- change the world". Thus the "declaration of independence of cyberspace".

However our archetypical hacker cannot do that kind of intellectual counter-attacks. His conflict with the old society will most probably be in the area of what I'd like to call "virtual territory": the building-up of proprietary areas of cyberspace. The hacker has his own, very postmodern view of virtual territory. The central idea is that of hands-on, exploring and curiosity. Hacker history contains very little of destructive acts. This is not a new thing: hackers have a history dating back to the late 60's, and before them there was a similar spirit among the radio amateurs.

However, when the usually silent hacker finds his interests circumscribed, he might run counter-attacks. These are usually as irrational and unorganized as the hack of the CIA homepage (for which I was myself blamed by stupid media geeks), or the attack by radio enthusiast Captain Midnight on the satellite channel Home Box Office in 1987. In this case a running movie was interrupted by the message "Good Evening HBO from Captain Midnight. $12.95 a month? No Way! (Show-time/Movie Channel, Beware!)" as the channel considered scrabling their broadcasts. This incident occured long before the Internet breakthrough, but the pattern is the same.

I guess that is the same mechanism that got my old acquintance out in the night, burning cars. The psychology of sabotage is indeed odd. Altering some few kilobytes of ASCII-text or throwing a cigarette lighter into the backseat of an empty car is sort of related. Often the effect of what you do is reverse: it won't help you much. However I do understand why you would want to do such a thing. I do sympathize. But I still do not think it's the way to go.

(The actual speech ended here, as it took more time reading than I had expected. If you want to read the bit I didn't read to the SIME audience, please go on. This last part is about the media.)

Before I end this tiny introduction, I just want to add in a few comments about the media.

I told you just a few seconds ago that the transition from the modern to the postmodern condition generates loss of experience values and knowledge hyperinflation, as happened to the typographers when confronted with desktop publishing. This loss of position and scale to measure your experience on, begets a need of authority. When you cannot trust your own experience, you turn to the authorities.

Media fill out that gap. This sort of explains the increased power of the media in the late 80's and early 90's. Media tells you what is on the agenda, what is hot and what is not. It tells you where to go. It is your servant, guide and God.

However many critics, notably Noam Chomsky, have pointed out the obvious fact that media is biased. What is reported is never neutral. Media is always subject to financee control. During the modern phase of capitalism it often ran the propaganda machine of the state, as that was in interest of their owners. Nowadays it usually runs it's own business, directing politicians and entire interest groups which are sensitive to public opinion. To put it in Chomsky's words, they are manufacturing consent, creating the state of mind among it's listeners and directing their actions.

Among the bunch of air-heads that tend to be seriously misadapted and confused about the postmodern condition there are unfortunately a lot of journalists. So we have a bunch of confused muckrakers trying to guide a confused population into this new era. My advice to them, to you all, is to listen to the firestarters and hackers. They kind of know the facts better.

Thank you.