The week of August 9, 2015

Hacking our way to a better world

By Jesse Hicks

In The Misfit Economy, Alexa Clay and her co-author, Kyra Maya Phillips, examine underexplored areas of economic life. Their manifesto shows how hackers, terrorists, pirates, drug dealers, and other outcasts—both voluntary and not—make their living.

The answers aren’t always obvious: For example, Clay and Phillips detail how 18th century pirates may have evolved in response to the rigid hierarchies and exploitation of their legal counterparts, the merchant vessels. The pirates lived outside the law, sure, but while doing so they also established systems providing greater freedom to anyone who chose to join them. And while the trope of “10 things CEOs can learn from mob bosses” is an old one, Clay and Phillips suggest that there’s something worthwhile to be gleaned from their “misfits”—lessons not just in how to create more efficient, productive workplaces but also in how to make them more fulfilling and, possibly, humane.

Via phone from Berlin, Clay talked about how the hacker ethos can open up new spaces and new ideas, how LARPing might help us build a better Wall Street, and why the so-called sharing economy hasn’t freed us all from the tyranny of work.

Tell me a little bit about the concept of the book and what interested you about this material.

First off, the interest was just to really bring attention to different kinds of entrepreneurial behaviors and protagonists outside the usual stereotype of the Mark Zuckerberg-type of hoodie-wearing Silicon Valley entrepreneur; so wanting to look at people who were gang leaders or used to run drug businesses, or demonstrated an entrepreneurial mindset but created a hacker collective, not a startup business. Or someone who was a performance artist, but had to be incredibly scrappy in getting that art to market and finding ways of doing it.

So I think the real focus was to focus on people in fringes of the economy in many ways, but who often have a very entrepreneurial mindset.

Let’s talk about hacking as one of your key takeaways from the misfit economy. What’s  important about hackers and hacking?

I’ve had friends that were part of Anonymous, or growing up as a teenager, I had a friend who was a hacker who would steal credit card details from people and get things delivered to his parents’ house. So I think there was always that subculture that fascinated me, but then I also really became interested in the way that hacking, more as an ethos or a set of behaviors, was spilling over into mainstream culture.

So now, companies organize hackathons or people will talk about IKEA hacks or just the verb “hacking” has been—some would say co-opted, but in other ways, it’s mainstreamed to really apply to a lot of different behaviors. And I think people that interest me are not necessarily pure-play IT hackers, but people who are hacking systems; people that really have an intense knowledge of how particular systems are set up and are trying to enhance those systems and evolve those systems.

And so, that’s why for example, the story of Gary Slutkin—who went around trying to figure out how to completely re-engineer our approach to violence by treating it as an infectious disease—that’s why someone like him became really interesting to me. Or even the UX, the underground hacker collective in Paris that really created a different model of community.

“In a world where so many people have this commodified personality, this Facebook identity or this LinkedIn persona, UX is completely anonymous and underground.”

You mentioned hacking as an ethos, one permeating the mainstream now. You also mentioned in the book Steven Levy’s take on the hacker ethic. How do you think that hacker ethic is permeating, along with the simple use of the verb “to hack”?

I think it’s definitely there—I think one of the first premises of hacking is that you don’t need permission from anyone else to do something. And I think that’s incredibly inspiring: People are not just conforming within the workplace to a certain job description but are doing things because they want to do things or they want to see things get done. The underground collective UX, they’re able to do these incredible hacks both in terms of the Pantheon hack [sneaking into the Pantheon and, over a course of months, restoring a 19th century clock], but also in doing these underground movie nights. Even some of the provocateurs that we focus on, the Yes Men or La Barbe, they’re able to hack public space and even hack the media in ways that are really interesting.

And I think it all comes from a place of courage—a place where you’re less concerned with others’ expectations or what society thinks about a particular thing and are more guided by your own consciousness in certain ways. And I think you see that with some of the whistleblowers who have been hackers, with cases like Edward Snowden and stuff like that. But beyond just whistleblowing activity, I think it’s a spirit of provocation, really.

You brought up UX and their project to restore this clock in the Pantheon, and they did so with no permission whatsoever and through a long, involved process. Can you say a little bit about what exactly they did and how you think that fits the ethos of hacking?

First of all, one of the interesting things about hacker communities is how they create different forms of organizations. So within the group Anonymous, for example, that group is entirely leaderless. There’s no one person who’s determining what that group undertakes in the world. And so, anyone can initiate an action and others can join it. And there’s a real decentralized and voluntary spirit to that, and the same is true of UX. It’s not a command-and-control system. You definitely have people that will rotate through different specializations, but you also have that commitment to leaderlessness.

Within the group La Barbe, the feminist activist group, I think the hacking principle there around decentralization is really pronounced; no one person is the spokeswoman for that organization. And so, whenever the media calls, you’re always introduced to someone else. So that, I think, is something that’s really interesting with UX as well. It’s a different person that you’re speaking to each time.

And also, there’s an anonymous identity. I think in a world where so many people have this commodified personality, this Facebook identity or this LinkedIn persona, UX is completely anonymous and underground. And people have their day jobs, their aboveground responsibilities, but then they also have a different world that they can enter into that still has a feeling of being something with higher values—to restore the forgotten artifacts of French civilization, or to trespass, to go into spaces where many are too afraid to go. And I think that gives people freedom and autonomy.

So I think, in a lot of ways, the hacker’s instinct is a result of this feeling of being encroached upon. We’re so often controlled by the instincts of huge multinational companies or by the instincts of government—and what I love about UX is they were doing something that was in the public good’s interest. But they didn’t abide by any of the rules; they really valued their own autonomy. And I think that was something that really inspired me and speaks to that ethic.

“So if you want the financial system to look differently, how would you create a LARP around that, to experience what that could be?”

It also feels like you can bring together a lot of different kinds of behavior under this umbrella of “hacking.” So we’ve had whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning probably falling under that. We have people who are hacking IKEA and saying, “I made this no longer look like an IKEA dresser”that’s an IKEA hack. And then you have, as you already mentioned, Slutkin’s work on violence. He’s doing something more like hacking our conceptions of violence and reprogramming them once he understands them.

So I’m wondering, how do we bring all of these behaviors together? How do we understand them as all part of “hacking?”

It’s basically not waiting for permission; just in each of these cases, this is someone who’s gone about and tried to do something different in the world. It’s also, in each of those instances, people who really understand the system. I mean, maybe less in the IKEA hack—it’s simpler because you’re working with furniture—but both in the case of some of the whistleblower hacks, and with Gary Slutkin, he spent five years understanding and researching how we go about treating violence and diagnosing violence in this country.

And that knowledge was instrumental in the type of approach that he designed. And I think similarly, talking more and more, we need hackers to engage and not only have they been questioning some of the surveillance systems that are being created, but they are the ones who know how those systems are operating, and they are the ones who have the ability to transform them, because they know them so intimately.

In both of those instances, it’s about really diving deep into a particular issue or field and being able to create that kind of change. There’s a kind of revolutionary spirit to both. You have to care less about what other people think. Often, you have more of an underdog kind of identity.

Gary Slutkin even is viewed by some within the establishment, by the traditional police force or even by the mayor’s offices in certain cities, as doing something that’s disruptive and that threatens the status quo, and that can be scary. And I think similarly, a lot of anonymous hackers or whistleblower hackers are doing something equally disruptive that’s challenging established and incumbent power systems. And I think they would actually have a lot of respect for one another.

One of the more surprising examples in your chapter on hacking is 18th century pirates, and you contrast them with merchant vessels, which were run in a very hierarchical, disciplinary, almost authoritarian way, and that meant that pretty much everyone on the ship was being exploited in some way. And in contrast with that, the pirates set up a much more communal environment and are much more willing to spread the wealth around and allow everyone into decision-making processes.

So I think one of the points you make is that challenging systems and asking for more radical transparency within those systems is one way that the hacker ethos is both long-standing and maybe becoming even more mainstream these days.

The pirate culture example is really interesting and also connects with people today that are trying to find ways of hacking cultures. I’m doing a bit of research around LARPing—live-action role-playing—and people that are using that gaming genre, which is not just nerds running around in the woods with swords anymore, but is really a way of prototyping emerging kinds of cultures.

So if you want the financial system to look different, how would you create a LARP around that, to experience what that could be? If you want to design a more communitarian type of society, what does that feel like to live in? You can basically use LARP as a way of living out some of these different scenarios. I think even that can increasingly be a way that we can come to hack cultures in the same way that pirates created this fringe culture that was running more alternative and egalitarian principles than merchant ships.

Let me zoom out a little bit and just talk about the book more generally and your concept of the misfit economy. How does hacking fit into your larger idea about the misfit economy, and what exactly is that idea?

The Misfit Economy, in a lot of ways, is basically a manifesto for people to really embrace their own inner misfit, their rogue or their counter-cultural personality. I think if you look at historic forms of capitalism and factory work, it was really about a command-and-control system, where you put on a uniform and you check into the workplace, and you leave your values and your quirks and everything that makes you, you—you check that at the door. And that’s a really anonymous type of environment.

“I think everyone’s realizing that the freelance economy, the sharing economy movement, all these things that are emerging are not as utopian as they are cracked up to be.”

And so, the misfit economy looks at the ways in which we can bring greater degrees of authenticity and originality into economic life, and really think about shaping cultures very differently. No one has a job for life anymore in the traditional sense. Increasingly, there’s this growth of the freelance economy. I think it’s really looking at ways in which—if the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of formalization and centralized structure and centralized authority and command-and-control systems—it’s how do we move to greater informality and improvisation, and how do we bring more of ourselves into the things that we do?

We could, in one sense, frame that as bringing more of ourselves into economic life in a more authentic and fulfilling way. But it also might end up just simply becoming allowing precariousness to exist under the banner of, “Everybody’s a freelancer now,” in a way that maybe is an acquiescence or a resignation to a certain way of economic life. Was that something that you were thinking about as well?

Yes. I guess I would want to understand, what for you would be precarious about it?

In the misfit economy framework, you have things like hustle, and hack, and copy—part of the reason I think these are considered misfit economic approaches or they’re outside the mainstream, is that we’ve built a system that doesn’t actively or doesn’t vocally embrace those as ways to succeed or to even just make a living. So they seem to be coping mechanisms as much as new ways of dealing with economic reality. I know a lot of freelancers who are hustling and working all the time and still feel anxiety about the precariousness of their economic situation. In some ways, they might feel more fulfilled, but they also feel like they’re hustling all the time—and that’s exhausting.

So I’m just curious if there was a tension for you when you were thinking about people who had moved into more informal economies that are almost by definition—because of their informality, they can be more precarious?

I think what we’ve seen with the sharing economy movement, or what’s happened with Uber and how it’s taking care of their workers—or rather, not. I think for a lot of people, being forced into the informal economy does provide a more precarious existence, and certainly among the drug dealers that we spoke to, hustling is a way of life because you’re born into poverty, and that’s not ideal.

But our system is really breaking in so many different ways, and transforming how it’s being organized. And even later this month, I’m going to this hackathon for people who are meeting from the old-labor movement and union-organizing scene, to be in conversation with emerging tech-for-good startups that are trying to build some of these solutions for, “Well, how can we build cooperative models for freedom?”

Around the time in the financial crisis I thought that we were going to have this massive turn toward alternative types of economies, towards new economic models. And rather than have that, we really just had a system that sort of bandaged itself up and kept the incumbent power systems and bailed out a lot of these institutions. And that came at the expense, in many ways, of a more populist type of economy.

So right now, everyone’s realizing that the freelance economy, the sharing economy movement, all these things that are emerging are not as utopian as they’re cracked up to be. And I guess the question is, “Well, how do we reprogram these systems and design solutions and different types of models for these systems, rather than just try and propagate old types of industries, whose business models are rapidly dying out anyway?” Does that makes sense?

Yes. One thing that you brought up in the hacking section of the book is Mark Zuckerberg saying, “It’s better to have something done than have it be perfect.” (I’m paraphrasing.) So maybe that seems like what we’re in the middle of doing right now: iterating our way through to whatever the next economy is going to look like.

I think that’s exactly right. I don’t think the misfit economy is a blueprint for a new economy. I would have loved if it had been, but I think it’s really a set of skills for an economy in transition, which is where we’re at right now.

Photo via Alexa Clay