FW: information wants to be free

Apologies for cross posting. Interesting text; info is material.



Message: 1
Date: Sat, 08 Jan 2005 10:21:10 +0530
From: Danny Butt <[email protected]>
Subject: [Reader-list] FW: Ken Wark's sarai paper - Information wants
to be free (but is everywhere in chains)
To: Sarai <[email protected]>
Message-ID: <BE056496.1ED02%[email protected]>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset="US-ASCII"

Ken's paper, delivered at the Sarai conference, is below at his request. I'm
not sure how this relates to all the other versions of this manifesto that
exist out there! I wish the dialogue afterward was included, as excellent
points were raised by Nick Dyer-Witheford and Rosemary Coombe, among others.

—— Forwarded Message
From: Ken Wark <[email protected]>
Date: Fri, 07 Jan 2005 23:39:54 -0500
Subject: sarai paper

could you please forward this to the
sarai-reader list? I'd like people to have
access to the full text as i had to skip
a lot in the presentation. thnx k

Information wants to be free
(but is everywhere in chains)

McKenzie Wark
[email protected]

01. Information is a strange thing, as
theologically subtle as the commodity was
to Marx. It has a peculiar ontological
property. Information is never immaterial.
Information cannot not be embodied. It has
no existence outside of the material. It is not
an ideal or a ghost or a spirit. (Although it
may give rise to these as mystifications*)
And yet information's relation to the
material is radically contingent. This
contingency is only now starting to be fully
realized. The coming of the digital is the
realization, in every sense of the word, of
the arbitrary relation between information
and its materiality.

02. Everyday life confirms this. I could
make you a copy of this presentation, and
the information in it, or rather the potential
for information in it, would then be on a cd
in your possession. And yet, it would still
be right here, on my hard drive. Now isn't
that strange? My possession of information
does not deprive you of it. Whatever
information is, it escapes the bounds of any
particular materiality. Information can
escape from scarcity. That is its unique
ontological promise, now fully realizable in
the digital.

03. Information has then at least one very
strange property. It can escape scarcity.
And it is this property that makes it very
troubling for that other kind of property –
private property – which is all about the
maintenance of scarcity. Information is what
economists call a 'non-rivalrous resource' –
a term that is clearly an oxymoron.
Information poses not only an intellectual
challenge but an historical challenge to
economic thought. The challenge is not only
to think what else it could be, but to
practice the production and reproduction of
information otherwise.

04. Now, I am not a lawyer or a historian,
so I hope you will pardon me for trying to
cut through the complexities to try to
produce the concept. If the point is not only
to interpret the world but to change it, then
there's a role for, shall we say, an artificial
clarity. I am not going to explore the actual
world of intellectual property exhaustively.
I am trying to move on from the actual to
the possible.

05. The new ontological properties that
information introduces into the world bring
forth, as a reaction, new kinds of property
relation in the legal sense – what we now
call 'intellectual property' – another
oxymoron. As I would understand it,
intellectual property grows out of, but is
distinct from, patents, copyrights and
trademarks. Intellectual property is the
tendency to turn this socially negotiable
rights into private property rights. The
enormous ramping-up of intellectual
property talk results from the contradiction
between the newly realized potential of
information to escape from scarcity and
those with an interest in stuffing it back into
the limits that scarcity and the commodity
would impose.

06. The ontological property form of
information is as socially produced, as its
legal property form. The question is how
and why these two senses of 'property'
have come into conflict. The question is
why, if "information wants to be free" in
the ontological sense, it is "everywhere in
chains", in the legal sense. Coming from the
Marxist tradition, I can't help but see the
law as superstructural, as reactive, and
most particularly as a terrain upon which
class interests negotiate. In particular, I am
interested in law as a terrain where
successive ruling class interests manage the
transition from one mode of production to
another. This might sound rather 'vulgar',
but perhaps in this case it is the reality of
the situation that is vulgar, not the theory.

07. As Derrida suggests, there are many
'spirits of Marx', all heterogeneous to each
other. There is a French Marx, a German
Marx, and very definitely an Indian Marx.
He mutates and adapts to specific historical
environments. The Marx whose spirit I
want to channel I think of as an English
Marx. This is the Marx who is a reader of
Locke, Hume and Mill. This is the Marx
who studied the Parliamentary Blue Books
on conditions in the factories. And indeed it
might be the Marx who wrote articles for
the Tribune on the destruction of the
Indian cotton industry by British imperial
design. It is the Marx, in short, whose
project is a critique of political economy, and
for whom property is a central category of

08. There is a very ahistorical notion of
capitalism about these days. For Deleuze
and Guattari, for example, it has always
existed as what the socius or the state
resists. But I think it useful to conceive
instead of three stages of commodity
production, each hinging on a more abstract
construction of the private property form.
Marx is already aware, as a reader of
Ricardo, that commodity production has
two rival forms even in his own times. First
there is its agricultural form, based on
turning land into a form of private
property. Then there is its industrial form –
antagonistic to the first – based on the
construction of capital as a more fungible,
mutable – abstract – form of private

09. If there have already been two stages
to commodity production, why not a third -
- antagonistic to the first and second? I
think what we have now is not 'late
capitalism' or 'information capitalism' or
capitalism 'globalized', but the emergence of
a whole new historical stage of commodity
production, based on transforming
information into a private property right.
Intellectual property emerges – and quite
recently – as a new and more abstract form
of property, with which to control the
production process. What we have now –
and I hesitate to use this term – is a 'post
capitalism', but one that has very definitely
not abolished the question of class.

10. The transformation of land into private
property gave rise to a class relation,
between what I would call farmers and
pastoralists. Pastoralists own land and
extract rent from farmers, who must pay
rent in case out of the proceeds of the sale
of their crops. This is a wholly different
relation than that which held between lords
and peasants, which involved local
traditional rights, payment in kind and so
forth. This is analytically (if not always
historically) the first stage in the commodity

11. The second stage is the stage of capital,
in which workers find themselves
dispossessed of all but their labor power,
and confront a class of capitalists who own
the means of production. As Kalecki says, in
capitalism, "workers spend what they get
and capitalists get what they spend";
wages, on the one hand, and profits, on the
other. And as Ricardo and Marx were well
aware, capitalists struggled against
pastoralists as much as they struggled
against workers. The historic victory of
capitalists over pastoralists was not
guaranteed, but was certainly aided by the
fact that capital is a more abstract property

12. In our time the privatization of
information gives rise to a new class
relation, based on a third moment of
abstracting the property form. On the one
hand, intellectual property produces what I
call a hacker class, the class of those who
produce new information. They may be
chemists or musicians, programmers or
philosophers. It doesn't matter what place
one occupies in the intellectual division of
labor when all of what we produce is
rendered equivalent by the regime of
intellectual property. On the other hand,
there is what I call a vectoralist class, which
owns the means of realizing the value of
intellectual property. This includes not just
the 'culture industries' but also the drug
companies, agribuisiness, and indeed any
line of business dominated by the
management of a portfolio of trademarks,
patents and copyrights.

13. Where the capitalist class found it useful
for information to remain relatively free, in
the interests of the expansion of production
and consumption as a whole, the vectoralist
class insists in the enforcement of strict
private property rights over information.
One might gauge the relative strengths of
these rival ruling classes by looking at the
state of intellectual property law. One might
gauge the preponderance of capitalist and
vectoralist interest within a given firm by
looking at its policies on the technical and
legal enforcement of intellectual property
law. One might gauge the place in the
development process of a particular country
by the way it responds to the demands
from the overdeveloped world for the
enforcement of international agreements on
these 'rights'. In short: by extending the
logic of class analysis, one can show how,
far from being relegated to the dustbin of
history, class is alive and well in our times,
even if in forms we have hardly begun to

14. We can account for the obsession with
enforcing intellectual property law in class
terms. It is in the interests of an emerging
ruling class. We can account then for the
ideologies of information as property also.
James Boyle suggests that there is a tension
between the idea of maximizing the
'efficiency' of the economy as a whole and
producing 'incentives' for information
creators/owners. To put it crudely, the
shift from the former to the latter is the
shift from capitalist to vectoralist thinking
about the place of information in the
economy, from peripheral to central. But
what is striking is that despite legal and
ideological coercion, information still wants
to be free. Its legal properties clash with its
ontological properties. So on the one hand,
we see increasingly vigorous attempts to
outlaw the free sharing of information; and
on the other, we see the persistence of file
sharing and piracy. How can we account
for this tension?

15. This is the nexus where one might
reinvent a kind of critical theory. A critical
theory is one that thinks in terms not only
of the actual but also of the virtual, the
'possible' in the most material sense. Where
this critical theory might begin is by saying
that perhaps what this tension over
information signifies is that we have finally
found the point where we can escape from
material scarcity, and from all economies of
scarcity. Perhaps we have found the one
domain in which we could realize a certain
'utopian' promise: "to each according to
their needs; from each according to their
abilities." That is what I believe. And I
don't think I am alone. There is, as Marcel
Mauss observed a long time ago, a latent
class instinct that all the products of science
and culture really ought to belong to the
people as something held in common,
indeed as what is what is common. The
public is not trespassing. It does not
recognize the new enclosures of
information within private property as

16. File sharing is a social movement, in all
but name. It rarely announces itself as a
social movement, but then I don't think that
is uncommon. Likewise, I think that the
'trespassing instinct', if you will pardon the
phrase, has been alive and well and
resisting commodification for centuries.
Only now it may finally have found an ally
in the digital means for reproducing
information, so that one's possession of it
can be the possession of all. The technicity
that makes possible the abstraction of
information from its material substrate is
not only calling into being something that
can be captured by regimes of economic
value or legal jurisdiction, but something
that can escape them.

17. Which brings us finally to the hacker
class. If there is a tresspassing instinct that
is alive and well among the people, will the
producers of information as property side
with that people, or with the vectoralist
class? That is the question for our times.
This is what is at stake in the struggle
between the principle that "information
wants to be free", and all that ideological
talk about 'incentives' versus 'efficiencies'
and other attempts to deny the radical
ontological nature of information itself. The
hacker class has a choice to make. Either it
sides with the vectoralist class, or it realizes
that intellectual property does not protect
producers of information, it protects
owners of information. And who – in the
long run – comes to own information?
Those who own the means of production,
the means of realizing its value. The
ideological move is to blur this distinction
between producer and owner, when in
reality the hacker, like the worker or the
farmer, has to sell the product of her labor
to those who own the means of realizing its

18. As those of us from the periphery
know: commodification has always been
global. Globalization is nothing new –
except perhaps to those in the
overdeveloped world who have started to
feel the effects of it only lately, with the
breakdown of the Fordist or corporatist
state and its attendant Keynsian class
compromise between capital and labor. But
I think that the rise of the vectoralist class
gives us a handle on the form that the
globalization of the commodity form took in
the late 20th century.

19. It is the vectoralist class that produces
the means of establishing a global division
of labor. It develops the vectoral
production process, where information is
separated from its material embodiment,
thus allowing the materiality of production
to be spatially separated from the
information that governs its form. And so
we end up with a new global division of
labor, in which the old capitalist firms of the
overdeveloped world mutate into
vectoralist firms by shedding their
productive capacity. Manufacturing
becomes the specialty of the
underdeveloped world; the overdeveloped
world manages the brands, husbands the
patents and enforces the copyrights.
Unequal exchange is no longer between a
capitalist economy in the north and a
pastoralist economy in the south; it is
between a vectoralist economy in the north
and a capitalist economy in the south. But
the vectoral goes one better: it scrambles
the once relatively homogenous economic
spaces within various nation states. One can
find the underdeveloped world now in
Mississippi, and the overdeveloped world
in Bangalore.

20. This process is complex and
contradictory. The paradox of our times is
that both the privatization of information,
and the expansion of an informal commons,
are happening at the same time. What might
give us hope is the very fragility of the
vectoralist position, which runs counter to
the ontological properties of information
itself, and can only protect its interests by a
massive ramping up of the level of legal
coercion. Where land lends itself to 'natural
monopoly' and the extraction of rents, this
gets harder and harder as property
becomes more and more abstract. And now
we arrive at the very brittle monopolies of
the vectoral economy. The very means of
producing and reproducing information
that it creates are the forces of its own

21. There is an alternative model to both
the absolute commodification of information
and its piracy. (Piracy, after all, is merely
the reversal of Proudhon's dictum
"property is theft" – it makes theft
property.) The alternative is the gift
economy. As John Frow has argued, rather
than the gift being a pure, ideal and
harmonious state existing prior to the
commodity, it is the commodity's necessary
double. But I think that the coming of the
digital opens up a new possibility for the
gift to distance itself from the commodity.
What one can create, on the internet, for
example, is the abstract gift relation. If the
traditional gift always involved a giver and
a receiver who are known to each other,
who obligate each other, the abstract gift
involves no such particular obligation. When
one gives information within the networks,
the obligation one invokes is something
common, not something particular. One
invokes the gift as something abstract.

22. This seems to me to point towards an
ethics – a hacker ethics – and also a hacker
politics. If critical theory is to resist
becoming merely hypocritical theory, it has
to engage with its own means of
production and distribution. A hacker
politics is one of participating in, and
endeavoring to create, both technically and
culturally, abstract gift relations, within
which information can not only want to be
free, but can become free. Rather than
advocate for the public against the private,
it seems to me that information is a point
that offers at least two other possibilities. In
the spirit of Derrida, one might deconstruct
it; in the spirit of Deleuze, one might escape
it. One might approach what Nick Dyer-
Witheford calls "a new commonwealth of
species being." But as Marx says in the
Manifesto – the forces for change in any
social movement are those who ask "the
property question."

McKenzie Wark ~~~~~~~A Hacker Manifesto

—— End of Forwarded Message


reader-list mailing list
[email protected]

End of reader-list Digest, Vol 18, Issue 8

—— End of Forwarded Message


, Rob Myers

Thanks for this! I'm waiting for a copy of 'The Hacker manifesto' in
the mail…

My standard response to the quote "information wants to be free" is
"OK, give me your credit card details then". :-)

Money is information. I think Neal Stevenson's recent work touches on

The programmers I work with who have a ridiculous fear of unionizing
nonetheless liked the idea of asynchronously optimizing the flow of
information through the network they operate within. Or striking to get
a pay rise as it used to be known. :-)

Do be wary of historical materialism's fetishism of physical objects
and its resulting need for the nonphysical to be physical in order to
be tractable (I say this in spite of my love of HM art criticism).
Images and other historical but meta-physical occurrences cause
difficulty for HM critiques, and can distort theory around them.

- Rob.

On 9 Jan 2005, at 07:38, Christina McPhee wrote:

> Apologies for cross posting. Interesting text; info is material.

, Patrick Simons

Hi Christina, Rob

Re Rob's waryness of historical materialisms materialising tendencies…. Everybodys at it!


Rob Myers wrote:

> Thanks for this! I'm waiting for a copy of 'The Hacker manifesto' in
> the mail…
> My standard response to the quote "information wants to be free" is
> "OK, give me your credit card details then". :-)
> Money is information. I think Neal Stevenson's recent work touches on
> this.
> The programmers I work with who have a ridiculous fear of unionizing
> nonetheless liked the idea of asynchronously optimizing the flow of
> information through the network they operate within. Or striking to
> get
> a pay rise as it used to be known. :-)
> Do be wary of historical materialism's fetishism of physical objects
> and its resulting need for the nonphysical to be physical in order to
> be tractable (I say this in spite of my love of HM art criticism).
> Images and other historical but meta-physical occurrences cause
> difficulty for HM critiques, and can distort theory around them.
> - Rob.
> On 9 Jan 2005, at 07:38, Christina McPhee wrote:
> > Apologies for cross posting. Interesting text; info is material.