McKenzie Wark

Game Over?
McKenzie Wark interviewed by Julianne Gola and Yukiko Bowman

Opposed to the current popularity of polite consensus, McKenzie Wark relent lessly advocates taking a critical stance. Challenging commonly accepted histo rical ‘truths’, Wark argues for an alternative conceptualization of our society where attention about the future is paid not to grand transformations but to a ‘winding down’ of civilization. Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto (Harvard University Press, 2004) and a professor of culture and media at The New School.

Yukiko Bowman: In the 60s, one of the major transformations in the workplace was the new significance of cooperation and communication. Today, within a networked society, what is the role of these kinds of interactions?

McKenzie Wark: Today people are much more interested in very light but often dense forms of social interaction. The power of weak ties has come into the foreground. Instead of creatingdeep, long-term relationships, you create short-term, subtle and extended forms of collective action. For example, the idea of the 'gift' is one of the great rhetorics of the 60s, which has been co-opted in interesting ways, like in file sharing. On torrent services you're thrown off if you don't contribute – reciprocation is built into the software.

‘Play’ got co-opted in a different way; play and creativity, imagined in the 60s to be countercultural, are now absolutely central to the production of the commodity economy. Jimi Hendrix was fired from soul bands because he wouldn't wear a suit. Now, you get fired if you wear one. Even in an office job, it's compulsory to be creative. The great ideological turn now is that you've got to be an 'innovator’!

I’m interested in pushing people to think conceptually as a collective practice, which is more about method than it is about content. It’s not about the individual’s knowledge, but rather the ability to talkto everybody and structure a respectful dialogue.

But there's also a role for the counter-intuitive – critical thought, which is a form of unexpected negation. We have good procedures and tools for consensus knowledge, like Wikipedia, and we have good tools for knowledge produced by argument, like the Anglo-Saxon legal procedure, or even blogs. But we don'thave spaces, practices or media tools for encouraging critical thinking – which is by definition always outside the consensus. It's not a dialogue between two positions; it's a third position in relation to that dialogue.

YB: But there’s such an incentive to working within the consensus. As you suggest in GAM3R 7H3ORY, you also need to play into these kinds of mainstream values in order to advance your career. Is this unique to recent history? Or is it simply expressing itself differently now?

MW: It's become widespread and acceptable to announce that that's how you operate. When Al Gore was candidate for president, he and George Bush were asked what their favorite books were. Bush said the Bible, which is a killer answer. But no one paid attention to Al Gore's favorite book, which was The Red and the Black by Stendhal. The Red and the Black is about a provincial go-getter who manipulates everything to get ahead, and gets executed as a result. That's Al Gore's favorite book?! That's even more disturbing than the Bush answer! Well, maybe no one reads anymore, but in any case, no one stopped to think about it.

Julianne Gola: What is the difference between competition in the game of reality versus in the virtual game?

MW: Experience of everyday life is game-like, but the games in the real world never seem very fair, and the rules are never clear, and someone always seems to be gaming the system. In virtual game space, the promise of neo-liberal utopia is actually kept. These worlds are rule-based and have an end condition, in that you either win or lose. They approach pure competition on a level playing field. You fire up your gaming console, and you're exactly the same as anybody else. What's controversial about massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMPORGs) is that they seem to reintroduce real-world cheating into a space that used to be pure. The things called ‘cheats’ in traditional video games were really just different rule sets, so to use them is not truly cheating.

JG: You’ve suggested that this kind of approach – changing the rule sets while maintaining a different attitude about winning – constitutes an entire class, what you term 'the hacker class'. Can you speak a bit about the hacker class?  Are designers positioned in this class?

MW: Well, to talk about a hacker class is to talk about people whose relation to property is really ambiguous and complicated; we're producers of a commodity, but we don't really get to own it, or we only get to own part of it. In Hacker Manifesto, I wanted to make the case for non-ownership. The real politics of information has to do with microscopic struggles over the benefits of information as property. So yes, designers often count.

I want to draw attention to class, and to a particularkind of underlying tension. It has nothing to do with identity whatsoever, so it's not intelligible in our language since the 60s when identity became a collective obsession. Historically, class location is determined by whether you possess property or not. It's that simple. So when the nature of property changes, and becomes more intangible, how is class location played out?

For example, what do Sergey Brin and Steve Jobs actually own and control, other than the boards of their companies? Some of it is real and physical – Google, for example, owns incredibly vast and sophisticated bits of real estate in the form of server farms. But there are also immaterial assets. To what extent is the ownership of this so-called ‘intellectual property’the determining factor now?

YB: What happens to intellectual property with the advent of programmable molecular technologies, in which the material and the informational become flattened into one product?

MW: Right now there is a relative autonomy of information from the material that supports it. But it's possible that achieving power in the commodity economy by controlling information was a temporary phenomenon – that much more sophisticated materialities embedded with information will soon arise. I was just reading a story about a company that is very close to making economically viable fuel cells, and there's a fantastic quote from the CEO, who says, ‘We're doing what Silicon Valley hasn't done for a long time: we're making stuff’’.

YB: Some would argue that the problems we've created will be solved by greater technological capacity in the future. What is your response to this?

MW: The destruction of surplus resources has reached a planetary scale. Maybe we're producing the whole planet as a chemical work of art. I've been thinking lately about a line from Walter Benjamin: ‘the work is the death mask of its conception’. We're producing a dead thing, but through it we're being permanently transformed – set on a new chemical path, which is determined by things we can’t even see, at the molecular level.

So how do you create a politics of the intangible, or the invisible? The molecular scale might be the great challenge to our future. You can't see it, you can't feel it, you can't touch it, but it will kill you – or kill your great-grandchildren. You'll probably still have kids, but tell your kids not to have kids. The party might be over.

We're not going to go on forever. And we haven't really thought about that. It becomes hysterical, fueling these populist movements and military adventurism. You know, the Romans clearly thought about how it all winds down. Even the Brits thought about an endgame. We haven't thought about designing the endgame.