Thursday, May 01, 2008

Plenty of politics out there

Biella Coleman has an interesting post at her blog that resists the notion (recently floated by Jonathan Zittrain) that hackers are not political enough. First off, I’m not sure why anyone would think this, though it might seem tempting if one falls for the trap of actually believing those folks who say things like “technology is just technique, man” or “I don’t care about politics, I just wanna code” or “the best technology will just win out” and so forth. But Biella’s post is directed at remarks made by Jonathan Zittrain and my suspicion is that what is to blame is a particular understanding of the word “politics”. In this understanding, “politics” is a very particular sort of activity, which takes place in very particular ways in particular arenas. Politics in this understanding is a fairly organized activity that takes place in well-known recognized channels, and is always easily recognizable as such. So, someone voting or signing petitions or writing policy is definitely doing politics but if you are simply buying things or talking in cafes or organizing a local farmer’s market, then you aren’t doing anything political. From this point of view, the FOSS movement just looks like a bunch of hackers who want to hack on the code of whatever it is they are using, and so, all they are doing is computer stuff – just messing around with technology and if its political impacts are noted, then that is some sort of incidental activity. Politics enters this picture just because the politics of the “external world” impinges on what these folks would most want to be doing with their time. But if you think of work as political, if you think of making choices about how to work as a political, if you think affecting how technology impacts us is political, and so on, then hackers are up to their necks in politics and a profusion of political principles can be read off their activity. Then what hackers seem to be doing is politics through and through, very explicitly and straightforwardly. From this perspective, a hacker who claims to be just coding, and doesn’t want to be bothered by the political impact of his choices is just revealing another political preference (to be honest, whenever someone says that , I just read it as “this doesn’t agree with my politics”). JZ might be thinking that hackers don’t do enough of the politics at the level of the larger entities around (though that’s wrong too, as many, many cases of hacker involvement in legal and policy battles do); he might be mistaking the chatter of hacker communities as just that, chatter, while its actually the working out of issues germane to an intensely politicized group; and he might not be paying attention to the fact that technology-labor is a political beast, and its most passionate residents and citizens are hackers, and what they do, and how they choose to do it, is first and foremost, a political choice. Listen closely to the conversation of hackers – every single statement highlights an ideological perspective. There’s plenty of politics being done out there; you just have to have the right kind of measuring instruments to detect it.


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