If there is one thing the open-source movement has been trying to combat, it is the Bush Administration's characterisation of it as communist. Open-source - software whose source code is published for anyone to inspect, modify and redistribute - is, their argument goes, just like the scientific process that has fuelled Western progress all these years.
It is a good argument to make to businesses you want to sell services to, especially American industry.
Now, along comes McKenzie Wark to offer a Marxist critique of intellectual property that suggests the opposite. Wark, who teaches media and cultural studies at the New School and formerly taught at Macquarie University in Australia, self-identifies with hackers, choosing to include in "the hacker class" anyone who creates intellectual property. "Hackers," he writes, "program the hardware, software and wetware." Computer hackers themselves might dispute his usage, even if they applaud his not identifying "hacker" with "computer criminal", as is commonly done. In their world, "hacker" is a term of honour you hope other hackers will apply to you.
A Hacker Manifesto explores themes familiar from the past five years of intellectual property wars. A handful of megacorporate interests (whom Wark calls "the vectoralist class") exploit both consumers and producers of ideas by controlling the means of production. The copyright and patent laws have progressively been changed, either by being rewritten or by being abused, to benefit those corporate owners, thereby creating an artificial scarcity that can be used to create greater profits for those same owners.
File-sharing is a class war, not merely a clash of technologies or generations.
Viewing the intellectual property wars as a class struggle in which hackers are compared to farm workers is interesting, but it is not entirely fair.
Certainly, many journalists and software coders own nothing of what they create. The fact that to do this work, which they increasingly do not own, they are usually highly educated at no small expense, is presumably what leads Wark to call education a "prison". (He does not say whether his own classes qualify as jail time or not.) It is doubly ironic that to understand many of his book's references - Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille and other academics - you would need to be, if not expensively educated, at least extremely well read.
The big frustration is the language Wark uses. Given that hackers themselves often write clearly and eloquently on these topics, it is hard to understand why Wark chooses a style that seems to be deliberately obfuscatory. His views on the subject are clearer in interviews than he is in this book.
If you want to understand these topics in depth, you would be better served by reading his sources directly - Richard Stallman, Lawrence Lessig - and also some folks he does not mention - Eric S. Raymond, Pamela Samuelson, Jessica Litman. All of them manage to write about how megacorporations are trying to lock up all the known universe of ideas without ever once making you wonder what on earth "vectoralist" means.
Wendy M. Grossman is a freelance technology writer.
A Hacker Manifesto
Author - McKenzie Wark
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 208
Price - £14.95
ISBN - 0 674 01543 6