Why We Hack

My computer overlooking Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, with a picture from the unMonastery as the desktop background.
My computer overlooking Plaza San Francisco in Quito, Ecuador, with a picture from the unMonastery as the desktop background.

From Wisdom Hackers (The Pigeonhole, 2014)

We are all hackers now, apparently—or are trying to be. Guilty as charged. I am writing these words, as I write most things, not with a pen and paper, or on a commercial word processor, but on Emacs, a terminal-based text editor first developed in the 1970s for that early generation of free-software hackers. I had to hack it, so to speak, with a few crude lines of scripting code in order that it would properly serve my purposes as a writer. And it does so extremely well, with only simple text files, an integrated interpreter for the Markdown markup language, and as many split screens as I want. Even as a writer, I too can be a hacker.

Signs for the National Day of Civic Hacking, posted at the [freespace] hackerspace in San Francisco.
Signs for the National Day of Civic Hacking, posted at the [freespace] hackerspace in San Francisco.
Thus it seems fitting that when a group of restless and ambitious souls of this generation raise our burning questions to the altar of wisdom together, we should do so under the rubric of hacking. One way or another, each of us has probably been hacking somehow already—maybe as squatters hacking empty real estate, or as NGO workers hacking backward public policies, or as management consultants hacking bloated companies. To hack is to approach a problem as an outsider, to be unconfined by custom or decorum, to find whatever back doors might lead the way to a solution. To hack is to seek simplicity, elegance, and coherence, but also to display one’s non-attachment with gratuitous lulz. Wisdom is not normally a feature of the hacker’s arsenal (as its conservatism can present a hindrance to cleverness), but evidently some of us have come to sense that even this generation of hackers will need to pick up some wisdom along the way—and that, as we do, there will be need for hacking.

It is not immediately self-evident why we should want or need to be hackers in the first place. Which is to say: Why should we always need to use a back door? Why, that is, are the policies always backward and the companies always bloated? Why can’t the zillion-dollar software conglomerates convince me to give up Emacs? Just as during the Cold War’s stalemate between superpowers people dreamed up comic-book superheroes, the present longing for the guise of the hacker must be for a reason. The hacker archetype appears both in the mythology that celebrates the dominant high-tech class and as the spectre of a subculture lurking in the dark, threatening to unsettle everything. Ours is a generation, it seems, obsessed with the back door.

For me this line of questioning began in 2011, the year of leaderless uprisings, starting with Tunis and Cairo and ending with police raids on Occupy camps and a civil war in Syria. I followed these happenings as much as I could. I happened to be the first reporter allowed to cover the planning meetings that led to Occupy Wall Street, and I stayed close to those early organisers as their protest became a global media fixation, then long after the fixation passed. Through them, and their sudden and surprising success, I tried to obtain some grasp of the spirit of 2011. It was elusive enough that it couldn’t be organised in some simple list of demands, but also intuitive enough that protesters around the world, in hugely different kinds of societies, found themselves saying and doing a lot of the same things.

Wherever these uprisings appeared, they tried to practice a radically participatory and egalitarian kind of democracy drawing a stark contrast with the false democracies they opposed. In their encampments, protesters managed their kitchens and libraries in the ancient manner of the commons—through the relationships among those who use those resources, rather than by either a state or a market. Many reporters in the United States thought it strange that Occupy activists refused to identify a single leader or spokesperson, forgetting that when Mohamed ElBaradei tried to play that role in Tahrir, the Egyptians wouldn’t stand for it either.

The revolutionary outbreaks of 2011 tended to share other features as well. Especially in Western Europe and the United States, there was a notable absence of the language of nationalism of attempting to reclaim some interrupted national destiny. Encampments in various countries ordered pizzas for each other, shared words of encouragement and held meetings online and in NGO-funded summits. They repudiated borders and considered themselves citizens of their own globe-spanning networks. Rather than the sovereigns that earlier revolutions succeed or failed in beheading, they debated tirelessly about the means of reigning in the far more elusive sovereignty of capital.

I keep coming back to the slogan of Spain’s 15M movement, ¡Democracia Real YA! as having uncanny explanatory power, from Tahrir Square to Zuccotti Park. Whether under Mubarak or Obama young people have grown up in a society where they were always told it was a democracy, despite repeated and undeniable signals that it was not: police brutality as a fact of life (whether by secret police or militarised regular ones), an unrelenting state of exception (whether by Emergency Law or the War on Terror), and corruption (whether by outright graft or above-ground campaign financing). Of particular significance were the revelations made possible by Chelsea Manning and WikiLeaks, which laid bare with vast annals of mundane bureaucracy what everyone already knew—that governments are saying one thing to us and another thing to themselves and their corporate friends. Protesters clamored for transparency in governments and privacy for individuals. Around the world, the mask of the amorphous hacktivist collective Anonymous became a symbol of the uprisings, a Robin Hood of digital spoils.

Occupy activist with an Anonymous mask in Washington, D.C., in October 2011.
Occupy activist with an Anonymous mask in Washington, D.C., in October 2011.

Our official storytellers saw hackers everywhere. The U.S. news hailed Egyptian Google employee Wael Ghonim as the originator of Tahrir Square for having administered a Facebook page; in this way, the mass protests in a country with still fairly scant Internet access could be parsed by a society ever more owned an operated by software conglomerates. Maybe this was what Steve Jobs had meant all along when he called each sequential product Apple needed to sell revolutionary. Reporters similarly swarmed the tangled wires of Occupy Wall Street’s media centre. And it’s true that when Occupy spread across the United States, it did so my means of virality, through Facebook event pages, groups and secret groups, through tweets and videos and matching WordPress themes. When police cleared the physical encampments, however, those digital networks proved their ephemerality, and the movement dwindled, then disappeared.

In the protest camps of the United States, the unifying ambitions of hashtags and general assemblies and cries that we are the 99 percent soon disclosed what the 1970s feminists knew as a “tyranny of structurelessness.” Under the guise of a tech-mediated united front, the movement’s most prominent voices and leaders often tended to be white guys with expensive degrees. The working-class people of colour who had been hardest-hit by the financial crisis became few and far between, and the encampments could feel less like a poor people’s movement than a particularly grungy tech startup.

Upon inspecting the smouldering ruins of 2011’s movements, I suspect that one is bound to sniff the sulphur of tech culture. We listened to its myths too attentively, too credulously. We thought that virality could do the work of community—and for a while, when the squares were full and the cameras were watching, it seemed to. We thought that we knew how to organise ourselves horizontally; maybe some of us had practised it in teams at Internet companies, or in teams modelled on those. But we’d never learned how to do deep structure. In our startups, the venture capitalists that owned us had always quietly handled that stuff. Our direct democracy was an eloquent performance with no capacity to manage resources. In Occupy, attempts to distribute the hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations pouring in proved inevitably disastrous.

For 2011’s movements, the initial virality and the rhetoric of direct democracy turned out to mask a generation unprepared to deal with power—to wield it, or to confront it effectively. The young liberals in Tahrir may have created the Facebook pages, but it was the Muslim Brotherhood’s decades of dangerous person-to-person organising that won the country’s first fair elections. The Brotherhood was then massacred in a coup rigged by the military, which receives more than a billion dollars in annual aid from the United States. “The army and the people are one hand,” Egyptians had chanted in Tahrir. With similar historical irony, the same might have been chanted about the Internet.

Vlad Teichberg holds up a livestreaming computer during an early Occupy Wall Street march at the New York Stock Exchange.
Vlad Teichberg holds up a livestreaming computer during an early Occupy Wall Street march at the New York Stock Exchange.

2011 could have been a decisive turning point, a shift in how people around the world view the social contracts by which they allow themselves to be governed. It aspired, at least, to be a year like 1789, like 1848, like 1968—and it had similarly ambivalent outcomes. Since then, I’ve been trying to keep an eye out for what new social contracts those days of rage might have been pointing toward. I’m on the lookout for wisdom, but what I’m running into are hacks.

During the last days of 2013, I happened to be in Delhi when an outgrowth of India’s anti-corruption movement—the Aam Aadmi Party, meaning “common man”—assumed power in the regional government. It was a rapid and stunning upset—a monumental back-door hack, really. The leader was Arvind Kejriwal, a former tax official with an engineering degree who was always carefully dressed in street clothes. He fashioned himself an Internet-savvy Gandhi, preaching autonomy for the villages and class mobility for the legions of ambitious tech workers in the cities. The tech and the politics could seem interchangeable; an opinion column in the December 30 Hindustan Times, printed alongside articles assessing Kejriwal’s euphoric ascent, saw fit to use the occasion to call for “aam aadmi computing,” by which it meant more user-friendliness in corporate productivity software. Kejriwal himself, however, would resign from the Delhi government after just 49 days, unable to pass his stringent anti-corruption agenda. AAP’s only goal was to inject that code into the system, like a hacker rigging a database injection; it was unwilling to play ordinary, rough-and-tumble politics. In the subsequent national elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s brew of neoliberal economics and Hindu fundamentalism won out.

Back in the Arab world, 2011’s endgame has become ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State. Hacking every bit of social media it can get its hands on, hacking medieval history, hacking nationalism—once again, a political force arose as if from nowhere. Of course it didn’t; the Islamic State is a potent blend of Al Qaeda’s guerrilla anti-colonialism and Tahrir Square’s utopian confidence, of Saudi-funded fundamentalism and hardened generals left over from Saddam’s secular regime. These disparate apps have been hacked together into one thanks to hashtags, an elusive leader, a black flag, and gruesome vigilantism.

We might ask ourselves what conditions make the Islamic State look like hope. Arbitrary borders in the sand left by departing colonisers make a medieval caliphate seem quite sensible in comparison. If you can’t have democracy, at least this is an honest totalitarianism. In videos online we see the black-clad men chanting in Arabic, Established, established! — a real caliphate, made by back-door means out of the backwaters of two countries. Watching them, I’m tempted to want a caliphate, too. Watching them I think back to the encampments of Occupy, the whispers about how the revolution had begun, how it wouldn’t be long now.

I reject the often-uttered claim that the 2011 movements lacked purpose, or reason, or demands. Their family resemblances, and the vital fecundity that enchanted them attest to the widely felt longing for a deeper, more real global democracy. But what they shared also had a hand in bringing them down. The allure of certain technological delusions, I believe, played a part in keeping the noble aspirations of that year from taking hold, from meaningfully confronting the powers that still pretend to rule the world. Those aspirations remain among us, though so do the delusions.

I wasn’t in San Francisco more than a few hours before I found myself in a breathless conversation about the next big thing. This was February of 2014, in the midst of a West Coast tour of talks supporting the book I’d written about the Occupy movement, Thank You, Anarchy. Before the event that night, I met up with an old friend, Joel Dietz, at a makeshift coffee shop set up by a group of anti-war military veterans. Joel’s straight, sandy hair fell most of the way down his face, parted in the middle, and his eyes had the same urgency as ever, as if they could swell into tears at any moment. In college, the main thing Joel and I had in common was having adopted Catholicism, now we shared something quite different—an interest in cryptocurrency. I was merely curious, but he was deeply involved.

Ben Vickers at work in the unMonastery.
Ben Vickers at work in the unMonastery.

Bitcoin flashed into existence in early 2009. It purported to be digital money of sorts, backed not by a government or a bank but by the computers of the users themselves. Across the network, cryptographic math keeps the ledger of transactions secure from tampering. The ledger is called a blockchain. Bitcoin’s pseudonymous inventor, Satoshi Nakamoto, presented it as an antidote to the corrupt financial system then in the process of a meltdown. I had heard whispers about it among people in Occupy from time to time, and am thus among those kicking themselves for not having bought some bitcoins before their value shot up to hundreds of dollars each. By 2014, people were realizing that the basic idea behind Bitcoin—a decentralised, secure blockchain—had way more applications than just money.

That afternoon, another friend of Joel’s joined us, Anthony D’Onofrio, a web developer and manufacturer of cannabis edibles. Anthony’s pregnant partner came too; she sat at a bit of a remove from us, absorbed in her smartphone. Joel and Anthony were fired up that day, hurriedly trying to make some snap decisions. Should they use the word “decentralised” or “distributed”? What did “autonomous” connote? And then they told me about Ethereum.

Two months earlier, a 19-year-old Russian-Canadian Bitcoin enthusiast named Vitalik Buterin had posted a white paper outlining an idea, and within weeks hundreds of geeks around the world were working on making it real. What Bitcoin was for currency, Ethereum would be for contracts. One could embed into its still-theoretical blockchain anything one could write in code: from a marriage contract, to a financial derivative, to the laws for a virtual country. These “smart contracts” would enforce themselves on the system, transferring funds from one account to another through its built-in currency, ether. The contracts could rely on human input, or not. They could operate in the economy without need for human intervention at all. It would be the ultimate disruption. And to the mind-set of a hacker, disruption is always a good thing.

This could amount, Joel and Anthony thought, to a whole new way of conceiving of society. For several months, Bitcoin theorists had been talking about DAOs—decentralised (or distributed, if you prefer) autonomous organizations. On top of that, Anthony said, you’d need DAIs—distributed autonomous individuals—and DSCs—distributed social contracts. Now I was interested. Images flashed before my mind as they talked: a blockchain-based afterlife for Occupy’s utopian encampments, virtual assemblies making decisions by consensus, opt-in prototypes for any imaginable politics. And then, also: dystopias of crypto-contracts, written in code that could invade every interaction in our lives.

“Something like Occupy is destined to fail,” Anthony explained to me. “Politics is not where the power lies.” You have to subvert the system, not protest it. You have to hack.

Marc Schneider at work in the unMonastery.
Marc Schneider at work in the unMonastery.

After that meeting, I’d become fixated. I spent hours and hours catching up on Bitcoin and its endless variants. The disembodied blockchain started appearing in my dreams. I called up Vitalik Buterin and dropped in on cryptocurrency meetups in New York. I talked with Susanne Tarkowski Tempelhof, a Swedish warzone contractor and socialite who was developing BitNation, a cryptocurrency-based replacement for states. I went to a Bitcoin conference at Midtown’s Javits Center, where I could notice the pidgin of metaphors that had formed between the libertarian geeks and finance bros.

For a community built around a series of mostly unrealised possibilities, they were particularly insistent on using the language of physicality, of nature, of real-world physics. They described their subculture as a space and the sum of its projects as an ecosystem. They talked about virtual wallets, miners, and ledgers, as if those words would soon no longer be needed for referring to physical leather, workers, or files. The most unsettling tendency, to me, was the way they revelled in the prospect of doing away with the friction of existing systems—by which they claimed to mean forms of inefficiency or corruption. But it started sounding to me like friction was really a euphemism for people, with all our wants and needs and irrationalities that might get in the way of the smooth functioning of systems. What actual good would come from dispatching this friction seemed to go without saying, for the question was hardly ever raised. What was good for the systems was presumed to be, simply, good.

In a Reddit discussion of an early article I wrote on Ethereum, Vitalik Buterin explained:

Lately I have become much more comfortable with the idea of computer-controlled systems for one simple reason: our world is already computer controlled. The computer in question is the universe with its laws of physics and humans provide the inputs to this great multisig by manipulating their body parts.

Every nerve firing is an interface with a machine—that is, an opportunity to hack. We are and always have been machines hacking against machines. There’s nothing intrusive about computers finding their way into every nook and cranny of our lives because in fact they are already there. May the best hacker win.

By the end of the summer, Anthony D’Onofrio’s daughter was born, and he was working on a startup that would enable anyone to have their own cryptocurrency; he envisioned a world of deeper relationships and altruism when we each have a stake in the increased valuation of our friends’ personal money system. Joel had raised more than a million dollars for his own startup, Swarm, the first cryptocurrency-based crowdfunding platform, promising to democratise investment banking. Ethereum, still in development, sold nearly $20 million worth of ether, which was not yet quite capable of doing anything.

During the middle months of 2014, in search of social contracts, I found myself retracing Joel’s steps, though without any particular intention of doing so. In Paris I went to a conference organised by OuiShare, a European sharing-economy network that he had been part of early on; by this point, its members seemed split between those who’d become fabulously rich through venture capital and those who hadn’t. Next I was in Berlin, another of Joel’s haunts, where at a large computer conference I Gregorian-chanted in a faux liturgy led by the Amish Futurist, then met with the hacktivist Dymitri Kleiner whose concept of “venture communism” had piqued my interest. From there I flew to the ancient town of Matera, Italy, whose oldest neighborhood, the Sassi, is a maze of caves built into cascading hillsides. It had recently become home to the unMonastery, a commune of hackers from around Europe who took the medieval Rule of St. Benedict as an inspiration for a secular, open-source abbey. Joel had been there the previous autumn to help get the experiment started. Techies, it seemed, were turning to religious tropes—the Amish, the monasteries—to remake their computer-universe in a more tolerable image.

The door to the unMonastery in Matera, Italy.
The door to the unMonastery in Matera, Italy.

The idea behind the unMonastery was this: Find a place with unmet needs and unused space to lend a building to a group of young hackers. Live together cheaply, build open-source infrastructure for the commons. Repeat until it becomes a network. Monasteries ushered civilization through the Dark Ages; perhaps unMonasteries, sparing the dogma and self-flagellation, could lead a way through the Great Recession. The governing class of Matera, a spectacular and ancient town with little to offer its youth, took the bait and provided a section of caves in the Sassi. The unMonastery promised, and would only sort of deliver, hacks like online transit tools, irrigation solutions, and tech training for kids.

The dozen or so unMonks in Matera when I arrived talked about the unMonastery, still in its first months, as at the beginning of a 200-year history. It didn’t seem like so much to ask in a city that had been around for thousands. While planning ahead for centuries, though, the unMonks practiced the one-step-at-a-time philosophy of Agile software development; if there wasn’t enough food in the refrigerator for dinner, or nobody came to a coding class they offered, they reminded each other, “Everything’s a prototype.” Another entry for their Book of Mistakes.

Documentation is the basic act of piety in any open-source project. Before an algorithm can be copied, tweaked, and adapted, it must be radically transparent. Monks expose themselves to God through prayer; the unMonks tracked their lives on the Internet. They posted records of what they took in and consumed, the money they spent and the arguments they had. A little Raspberry Pi computer ran a program called Open Energy Monitor that analyzed their power usage, day-by-day and room-by-room. Documentation can trump eve failure, because others can later fork the code, adjust it, and try again.

The unMonastery's Raspberry Pi computer running Open Energy Monitor.
The unMonastery’s Raspberry Pi computer running Open Energy Monitor.

The unMonks themselves had come from an array of trajectories, many passing through the winds of 2011. Ben Vickers, the 27-year-old unAbbot who wore nothing but black, had been part of London’s squat scene. Maria Byck was a filmmaker I’d known in Occupy Wall Street. Elf Pavlik had been living for five years without touching money or government IDs. Bembo Davies, a Canadian-turned-Norwegian widower and grandfather, was the house chronicler. He wasn’t much with computers, but he took it upon himself to hack my meta-narrative with cryptic utterances.

For instance, Davies informed me that the 200-year history of the unMonastery was always expected to include a Great Schism. The only question was whether it had happened yet. It only took me a few days in town for me to realise that it most definitely had, and that the hackers were themselves being hacked.

Ksenia Serova was there the night the unMonastery concept was born—at the end of a 2012 conference in Strasbourg, under the shadow of a church. She spoke with a deep, dead-serious voice, in bursts of precise English with a Russian accent. Growing up in Soviet Moscow, she said she was taught to take apart an AK-47 in school at age nine. She worked a while for her parents—“capitalist pigs,” she called them—lived in squats, and spent a lot of her grown-up life in France and Sweden. She smoked a large metallic electronic cigarette that glowed neon blue, and she talked the talk of network analysis. At the unMonastery’s pre-launch event in late 2013, Serova met David Bovill, and they decided from the outset that they’d be the heretics. Any monastery needs some.

Bovill was older and greyer, a programmer from London who fondly recollected his past failures in medical research, start-ups, various kinds of intentional communities. “For most of my life I’ve been trying to figure out how groups of people can work together on projects without money,” he said. To this end he had been tinkering with experiments in cryptocurrencies, liquid law, and liquid democracy. He referred to any kind of problem, whether digital or social, as a “bug.”

His latest project was a peer-to-peer education platform called Viral Academy. For a while he was fixated on writing an app built around hexagons because, he said, the number six has special powers for making ideas spread. Just as monasteries have often been home to schools, a network facilitating free education seemed like a good project for an unMonastery.

Ksenia Serova.
Ksenia Serova.

Serova arrived in Matera first, without formally applying or being accepted, and Bovill, who had been accepted, followed. There was no clear consensus on whether there existed a rule against couples in the unMonastery’s shared bedrooms—or any rules at all—but Ben Vickers was against it. Bovill refers to this as the Sex Scandal. “I would love to be in a project where everyone was having sex with each other, but people can’t handle it,” Vickers contended. “When you’re doing a prototype it’s okay to say you’re not going to deal with certain problems for the moment.” Yet Bovill and Serova persisted in living as a couple.

Others at the unMonastery told me they tried working on projects with the pair, but they didn’t seem to follow through on things. Or do dishes. From Serova’s perspective, she’d been cornered—“bullied by bitches.” The breaking point came when Bovill’s teenage son arrived in Matera, raising the prospect that he would sneak yet another person into the house. There was a meeting, and Vickers went ballistic. They had to go. They couchsurfed, then moved to a bed-and-breakfast in town. David’s profile on the Viral Academy when I was there described him as “Monk in Exile.”

Monastic orders have always grappled with the give-and-take between solitude and community, isolation and immersion. With their exile, Serova and Bovill became less like Benedictine monks than like Franciscan mendicants, adrift in the urban environment. They made new friends in town—going to parties, taking Bovill’s son to kung fu classes. They schemed with his teacher about building an app. It seemed to them that the unMonastery should have been structured the mendicant way all along. They complained about the “open fascists” at the unMonastery, obsessed with transparency at the expense of privacy, and about consensus-type democracy. Serova had learned while living in squats that, when everyone has to agree, “you just end up with something boring as shit.”

They were both headstrong and voluble, and interruption seemed to be their primary mode of communication. But as heretics generally are, deep down they were true believers.

“The unMonastery project is completely fucking dear to me,” Bovill said. Serova planned to help start a new unMonastery in Sweden.

On a windy day in mid-May, gusts blew through the unMonastery’s first-floor caves, blowing from the walls various coloured sticky notes and hand-drawn posters that looked like they’d been made in heady meetings of excitement, promise and hope. They were schedules, sets of principles, slogans to remember, lists of things to do. A maxim for the doctrine of do-ocracy, for instance: “Who does the work calls the shots.” These relics remained on the floor for a day or more, apparently provoking insufficient motivation to pick them up.

Bembo Davies.
Bembo Davies.

In the early weeks, there had been a kind of monastic routine at the unMonastery. At specified times the group would sit in circles to share feelings and discuss concerns. A flying drone had once captured footage of the theatrical morning exercises that Bembo Davies orchestrated. But by May, the circles and the exercises were on indefinite hiatus. After the 7 o’clock wake-up bell rang half an hour late one morning, Davies groaned on the way to the shower in his underwear, “We’re sliding into a prehistoric condition.”

By this point the unMonastery’s communications had become a jungle of platforms, many of them proprietary, with few clear lines between inward and outward: the public Edgeryders website, public Trello boards, a closed Google Group and open folders full of Google Docs. On the Edgeryders website in particular, Bovill trolled the contradictions in the private-public process by which the next round of unMonks was being chosen—first demanding less democracy, then more. He targeted Maria Byck in particular, since she was the one who had taken it upon herself to ensure that there was a formal process in the first place. Offline, Serova laid into Byck one night, cruel and expressionless, over a crowded dinner table.

The self-contradictions were at least familiar. All over again, it was the stuff I’d seen in the camps of 2011—the impossibility of good order, the anxiety around the very possibility of rules, the gruesome hari-kari that results. The kindly and clever hackers hack each other into withered bits because hacking is what they know how to do. Still the unMonks would catch themselves being seduced by the beauty and antiquity and residents of Matera, which came as a troubling reminder of realities might someday hold them accountable.

On one of my last nights in town, Serova and Bovill and their crew came over with the kung fu teacher and a plastic jug full of wine. Later on came one of Matera’s better known citizens, a reggae-singer-turned-rapper who performs as Bobo Sind. He recorded a song for the kung fu studio’s new crowd-funding video. “From the belly of the heart—” he cried at the start of the track, the only English part of it, with a rapid-fire voice at once precise, desperate, and hoarse. The belly was Matera, whose name comes from the Latin for mother.

“Before man, there was the Sassi,” Bobo Sind told me afterward. “Here, with the Internet, we are still in the caves. In the Sassi, we are a living museum.”

Bobo Sind recording in the unMonastery.
Bobo Sind recording in the unMonastery.

My travels next took me to Ecuador, where I was to meet another person Joel had known during his sojourn hacking in Europe, a freelance futurist named Michel Bauwens. Bauwens was involved in another kind of highly ambitious endeavour that I needed to see for myself: an attempt to hack the economy of a country.

The scheme turned out to be the invention of a handful of hacktivists from Spain who had been part of the 15M movement’s encampments in 2011. They’d convinced a ministry of the Ecuadorian government to fund a process by which they’d develop open-knowledge policies for the country; rather than relying on natural-resource exploitation, perhaps Ecuador could compete by sharing knowledge more openly and freely than anyplace else, leapfrogging from the Third World to the digital world. The organisers drew jointly on language from Ecuador’s constitution, global tech culture, and Quechua-speaking natives.

“We will all meet in Quito for a ‘crater-like summit,’” their website said. “We will ascend the sides of the volcano together in order to go down to the crater and work.” Alongside those words was a picture of Quilotoa, a caldera in the Ecuadorian Andes where a blue-green lake has accumulated in the hole left by a cataclysmic eruption seven hundred years ago, nestled in the volcano’s two-mile-wide rim. The project was called FLOK Society—free, libre, open knowledge. Its main event, a conference in late May, was being referred to as a summit, but the nod to Quilotoa’s crater was a way of saying this wasn’t the usual elite policy meeting. Geeks, activists, and bureaucrats from around Ecuador and around the world would climb the metaphorical volcano from all sides and practice democracy in the middle.

The Spaniards chose Bauwens, as a widely respected and well-connected figure in the global open-culture scene, to lead the project’s research group. It was a chance for him to spell out the world’s first nation-sized proposal for transitioning to a commons-based social contract. “This is not really a top-down project, not really a bottom-up project—it’s a sideways hack,” he told me as he was getting started in late 2013. “It’s taking advantage of a historic opportunity to do something innovative and transformative in Ecuador.” But by the time I met him in the gaudy apartment he was renting in Quito, a few days before the summit began, he looked exhausted from infighting with the Spaniards and wresting his staff’s salaries from the government. “It’s going to be a much harder fight than I anticipated,” he said.

Michel Bauwens in his apartment in Quito, Ecuador.
Michel Bauwens in his apartment in Quito, Ecuador.

Bauwens, 56 at the time, had a knack for seeking out potent knowledge. He grew up in Belgium as the only child of two orphan parents. As a young teenager, he was a convinced Trotskyite, rooting for the Viet Cong and Che Guevara. In his twenties he worked for the United States Information Agency in Brussels, and later made his way into business riding the wave of the early Internet. His seeking started to take a more metaphysical turn as well; he experimented with various Californian spiritualties, and then Asian ones. He waded into Western esoteric sects like Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry. He became a follower of New Age theorist Ken Wilber’s Integral philosophy, a synthesis of all these traditions and more.

Bauwens found himself a top executive at Belgacom, Belgium’s largest telecommunications company; his specialty was trend-watching, turning the jargon and novelty of the emerging tech world into money-making strategies. And then, in 2002, he’d had enough. He quit, and moved with his second wife to her family’s home in Thailand.

“Capitalism is a paradoxical system, where even the ruling class has a crappy life,” he said, remembering that period. “It’s not producing happiness.”

For two years in Thailand Bauwens read history. He studied the fall of Rome and the rise of feudalism—a “phase transition,” as he puts it. It was an age when the previous civilization was in crisis, and he concluded that what led the way forward was a shift in the primary modes of production. The Roman slave system transformed into an interplay of peasantry, guilds, and free cities. Networks of monasteries spread innovations across Europe, helping to sow the seeds of the new order.

In the Internet Bauwens sees a crisis of comparable scale for industrial civilization, and also the germ of what could come next. Rather than liberating us, the Internet economy has become dominated by what he calls “netarchical capitalism,” in which the surplus value created by peer producers gets swallowed up by powerful corporations. “This is a fundamentally parasitical model,” Bauwens believes. “People at the bottom had better take care that the new social contract is better than the old one.” Rather than around corporate platforms, he believes every aspect of the economy should revolve around a democratic, cooperatively managed commons—a Wikipedia not an Encarta, a Linux not a Mac OS.

Bauwens’ life’s work itself takes the form of a commons. The bulk of his oeuvre lives on the collaborative wiki that constitutes the website of his Foundation for Peer-to-Peer Alternatives—the P2P Foundation, for short. He tends to talk about his vision in the royal (or communal) “we,” speaking not just for himself but for a movement in formation. He borrows a lot of the terms he relies on from others, then slyly fits them into a grander scheme than the originators envisioned. Put another way: “I steal from everyone.” Nevertheless, one is hard-pressed to locate his enemies; rather than criticising others, he tends to figure out a place for them somewhere in his system—in this, Bauwens remains true to the omnivorous spirit of Ken Wilber’s Integral theory, though he became disenchanted with Wilber’s emphasis on the individual over the collective, the spiritual over the material. Bauwens had been leaning back toward the central dogma of old Europe’s religion, incarnation, and wanted to incarnate this integration in Ecuador.

The summit’s opening event included some bold pronouncements. “This is not just an abstract dream,” puffed Guillaume Long, Ecuador’s dashing minister of knowledge and human talent. “Many of the things we talk about these days will become a reality.” Rather than tax havens, added Rina Pazos, an equally fashionable subsecretary with an even longer title, “we need to establish havens of open and common knowledge.”

A session of the Cumbre del Buen Conocer in Quito, with Michel Bauwens, second from right.
A session of the Cumbre del Buen Conocer in Quito, with Michel Bauwens, second from right.

By the end of three days, the fourteen working groups had amassed a variety of proposals, some more concrete than others: the downfall of copyright laws, open textbooks and free software in schools, open government data, new licenses for indigenous knowledge, community seed banks, a decentralized university. But there were no promises. Throughout, participants whispered to me their doubts that the national government would take any of this seriously. Bauwens watched it all unfold, already resigned.

Over the course of his life, Plato made several journeys from Athens to Syracuse, in Sicily, with the hope of making it a model of the kind of society he described in his Republic. The rulers there, however, fell far short of being the philosopher-kings he needed; he returned home to retire and compose a more cynical kind of political theory.

If not quite so discouraged, Bauwens was a bit adrift after the summit ended. It at least led him to question the usefulness of his earlier metaphor. “We have to abandon the idea that we can hack a country,” Bauwens told me just before I left Ecuador. “A country and its people are not an executable program.”

I flew home and wrote articles about these stories and haggled with editors. I was also about to turn thirty and had a wedding to prepare for. Right after that was a gigantic march against climate change in New York, and networks formed during Occupy Wall Street reappeared to help organise it. I watched the speculation about Ethereum bounce around in tweets. The price of Bitcoin plummeted.

Bauwens sent me occasional updates on his progress: he was reaching out to the new Internet-savvy political parties emerging in Europe and had crafted an alliance with an association of cooperatives in Spain. He attended more ordinary kinds of conferences and set off on another speaking tour. Old-fashioned stuff—more wisdom, maybe, and less hacking.

This journey should close with Edward Snowden. No hero of this generation of hackers better exemplifies the ethic than he—a man at once of the establishment and of the underground, a true believer whose doctrine is the letter of the Constitution and the proofs underlying public-key cryptography.

After returning to New York I heard Snowden speak from exile in Russia at HOPE X, the tenth Hackers on Planet Earth conference. On stage and in person, dwarfed by Snowden’s video projection overhead, was Daniel Ellsberg, perpetrator of the Pentagon Papers leak that helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam War. In their dialogue, I think, there was some further glimpse of what has happened to us.

“Technology enables dissent,” Snowden postulated at the start. He pointed out that technology played the decisive part in Ellsberg’s 1971 leak—the technology of the photocopier. But Ellsberg himself didn’t focus on that part of the story. “I have less optimism about technology than you have,” he said.

The word Ellsberg used again and again was risk. He meant human risk, human choice. He spoke of the sense of solidarity he felt with Wikileaker Chelsea Manning, and with Snowden, when he saw the risks to comfort and safety they were each willing to take for the truth. What motivated Ellsberg to take his own risk, by his account, was less the liberation of information or the enforcement of the Constitution than the hope of bringing about the end of what he saw as a horrendous moral evil: the Vietnam War. He had a goal, not just a method or an algorithm.

Snowden claimed Ellsberg as an influence, and Ellsberg found common cause with his inheritors today. He made a lengthy and passionate speech denouncing the ongoing evils of the U.S. security regime, and calling on more people in the intelligence services to take risks and speak out. “A lot of blood has flowed because people bit their tongues or swallowed their whistles,” he cried.

When the floor turned to Snowden after that, he fell quiet at first. “I’m still politically pretty moderate,” he began by saying. (He’d earlier described his political philosophy as “almost Stallman-esque,” referring to the anti-copyright, free-software advocate Richard Stallman.) He stressed that he doesn’t blame fellow intelligence contractors who haven’t followed his lead; rather, he put the burden on the hundreds of hackers in the room to create tools that will make whistleblowing easier and safer. “Encode our rights into the protocols you write,” he stressed. Whereas Ellsberg spoke of resistance as a matter of moral urgency and personal choice, Snowden saw it as an engineering challenge.

Maybe the difference between these two is a matter of personalities, or of life circumstances. But it is also a matter of generations. In a more thoroughly computerized society, information politics can seem to pass for politics as a whole, and it becomes harder for us to notice the importance of human agency—including our own.

Near the end of the conversation, Snowden lost his train of thought. “I have a really short working memory,” he said, and attributed the lapse, at least half-joking, to “a lifetime of memes and lolcats.”

“What can I say? I’m a child of the Internet.”

Occupy activists at work during a meeting at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, early 2012.
Occupy activists at work during a meeting at Judson Memorial Church in New York City, early 2012.

However as much we believe in the utility of computerized solutions for all things, this is still a world of people—a world of power and politics. Whatever new social contracts are emerging, they will assuredly still be social. The way things are going, and the way I hear folks talking, it’s the meatspace side of things that in the end I think is actually worth fighting for: the people, the planet, the time that we have to live our lives. It’s the stuff that’s easy to ignore when we let the boundaries of the digital circumscribe our reality, when hacking is our only theory of change.

Yet we come by our hacking honestly. This is a generation of hackers because we sense that we aren’t being allowed in the front door. Most of us have never had the feeling that our supposed democracies are really listening; we spend our lives working for organizations that gobble up the value we produce for those at the top. We have to hack to get by. Maybe we can at least hack computers better than whoever is in charge—though that is increasingly doubtful. We become so used to hacking our way into the back door that we forget about the front door altogether.

I don’t want to hack forever. Hacking is surely helpful sometimes, to mix things up, to break through an impasse, to get out of a rut. But if it’s all we do we’ll wind up with no chance to consider what we’re hacking for in the first place. What I really want is to make the front door open more widely—to a society where democracy actually means democracy and technology does its part to help, where we can spend less time hacking and hustling and more time getting better at being human. Tech won’t do this for us, because it can’t. Only we can. Hacking isn’t an end in itself; wisdom is.

This essay borrows and remixes reporting that originally appeared in Al Jazeera America, Hemispheres, openDemocracy, The Nation, and Waging Nonviolence.