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Hacking in the University: Contesting the Valorisation of Academic Labour

Winn, Joss. “Hacking in the University: Contesting the Valorisation of Academic Labour.” triple-C 11.2 (2013): 486-503. Web. http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/494

p.1: In this article I argue for a different way of understanding the emergence of hacker culture. In doing so, I outline an account of ‘the university’ as an institution that provided the material and subsequent intellectual conditions that early hackers were drawn to and in which they worked. I argue that hacking was originally a form of academic labour that emerged out of the intensification and valorisation of scientific research within the institutional context of the university. The reproduction of hacking as a form of academic labour took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of unproductive, communal science to a more productive, entrepreneurial approach to the production of knowledge. A such, I view hacking as a peculiar, historically situated form of labour that arose out of the contradictions of the academy: vocation vs. profession; teaching vs. research; basic vs. applied research; research vs. development; private vs. public; war vs. peace; institutional autonomy vs. state dependence; scientific communalism vs. intellectual property. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.1: Although first recognisable among a small group of academics and students in the early 1960s, the appearance of hacking should not be seen as suddenly occurring among a pioneering group of individuals but rather as an outcome of historical conditions that took place over many decades as academics and their institutions shifted from an ideal of “communism” or the “communal character of science” (Merton 1973, 273) to a more entrepreneurial approach to science (Etzkowitz 2001, 2002). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.2: This dialectic between the ‘disinterested’, vocational and unproductive nature of academic work and its determinate form as productive paid work continues today, with some academics resisting the gradual influence of an ‘entrepreneurial university’ model, while others welcome it (Slaughter and Leslie 1997). As I will show, hackers and the first two decades of hacker culture are deeply embedded in this history and the institutional production of scientific knowledge. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.4: In the end, Soderberg’s rich account of hacking as an emergent form of “play struggle” is an account of hacking as an emancipatory form of work. His account offers a Marxist critique from the standpoint of labour/hackers as the revolutionary subject in capitalism, rather than elaborating on Marx’s own analysis of capital as the “automatic subject” (Marx 1976, 255) – a determinate logic of “self-valorising value”. (Postone 1993, 75-77). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.5: In short, capital remains dependent on the generalised mass of commodified labour (i.e. wage work) of the working class, which includes hackers, as a source of profit (‘surplus value’), yet through the innovative use of science and technology capital increasingly renders that labour superfluous i.e. a general crisis of under-employment, or stated another way, a ‘surplus population’ (Postone 1993, 34). A dialectical approach to understanding the implications of this fundamental contradiction of capital is thus a negative critique in that it identifies what is and therefore what is not but could be. (Postone 1993, 89) -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.5: To begin to unfold a history of hacking, in which Richard Stallman notably left the academy when confronted by the commercial enclosure of his work, we must understand at least four cumulative methods of valorisation within US higher education leading up to the early 1980s:

  • the provision of ‘land grants’;
  • the use of patents;
  • the massive injection of war-time funding;
  • and the development of venture capital.

-- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.5: By laying out this formative history, we can locate Stallman and other hackers within an institutional context that had been developing for many decades, and the development of techniques such as the General Public License (GPL) as a negative response against the conditions of their own formation. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.6: In capitalist societies, the university is a means of production. In this context, the ‘means of production’ refers to the university’s structural, technological and bureaucratic configuration for the production of knowledge. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.7: MIT was one of the first ‘land grant’ universities – institutions oriented towards science and technology and federally funded to “promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes”. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.7: Until the Land Grant universities of the late 19th century, there were no ‘research universities’ in the US and even academic staff dedicated to research were rare (Atkinson and Blanpied 2007). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.7: By the 1920s, these academics were acting as consultants to industry to the extent that there was tension among MIT staff, between those who felt it was their job to focus on teaching and the needs of students, and those who spent a significant portion of their time focusing on the needs of industry. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.8: In 1890, F. H. Stoddard, a New York University professor, wrote that the university “has ceased to be a cloister and has become a workshop” (quoted in Lucas 1004, 144). At MIT, 70 years later, that “workshop” for the production of knowledge had grown into a complex genealogy of research labs and projects from which hacker culture emerged as a particular, concrete form of academic labour. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.8: These land grant universities, such as MIT, then looked for ways to sustain and grow their institutions and the formalisation of consultancy to industry was one method. In addition to consultancy, in 1932 MIT created one of the first university patent policies. Faced with financial uncertainty, this represented a desire by the institution to produce further value from scientific research as was already taking place in industry. It also represented a systematic move towards defining the outcomes of university research as a legal form of property – ‘intellectual property’. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.8: Within the early pre-WWII debates around the use of patents by US universities, it was this moral argument of protecting a public good that led to patents being licensed widely and for low or no royalties. The few universities that began to apply for patents on their inventions at this time did so through the Research Corporation, rather than directly themselves, so as to publicly demonstrate the disinterested, communitarian nature of their research. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.9: Cottrell’s original vision of creating an independent charitable organisation that turned patent income into grants for further scientific work, had to meet the challenges of the Depression and the unpredictable nature of successfully exploiting research. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.9: During the 1970s, universities were also ‘cherry picking’ inventions to patent themselves, rather than the Research Corporation, in an effort to benefit from all of the potential revenue rather than a cut of it. This can be seen as a clear indication that earlier concerns about universities directly exploiting their research had been largely overcome, and that during the 1960s and 1970s, the institutional structures and skills within the larger research universities like MIT, had been put in place, partly with the assistance of the Research Corporation. MIT was at the avant-garde of valorising academic labour and provided a model for other universities to follow. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.9: An understanding of the role of patents in the valorisation process shows how the academy struggled both ethically and procedurally to fully assimilate a process by which research outcomes are converted into a direct source of value. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.10: The most significant achievement of the NDRC’s short history was the formation of the MIT Radiation Lab (‘Rad Lab’), which developed radar technology during the war. The Rad Lab (1940-45) was shut down at the end of the war, but became the model for future ‘labs’ at MIT and elsewhere, such that there is a significant ‘genealogy’ of labs (e.g. the AI Lab), projects (e.g. ‘Project MAC’) and people (like Richard Stallman) that can be traced back to the Rad Lab and the NDRC. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.10: Five universities became the main beneficiaries of this funding during the War: MIT, John Hopkins, Berkeley, Chicago and Columbia, resulting in a mass migration of scientists from universities across the country to work at one of these select centres of research. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.10: but also in the way that academic scientists developed much closer relationships with government and re-conceptualised the idea, practice and purpose of science -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.11: redefined the ‘social contract’ between scientists and government -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.11: So-called ‘labs’, like MIT’s Lincoln Lab were in fact large semi-autonomous organisations employing thousands of researchers and assistants. They became the model for later ‘science parks’ and spawned projects and research groups which then became independent ‘labs’ with staff of their own, such as the AI Lab. The University of Stanford learned from this model and it arguably led to the creation of Silicone Valley (Etzkowitz 2002; Gillmor 2004). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.11: what should be underlined is the extent to which the AI Lab, referred to by Stallman as the “Garden of Eden”, was the strategic outcome of institutional, government and commercial relationships stretching back to the NDRC, the Rad Lab and that “grab” for the development of weapons by “a small company of scientists and engineers”. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.11: As post-war economic conditions and government funding priorities shifted, institutions responded by re-aligning their focus all the while lobbying government and coaxing industry. Etzkowitz refers to this as the ‘triple helix’ of university-industry-government relations and evidence of a “second academic revolution”. Others have been more critical, referring to the “military-industrial-academic complex” (Giroux 2007), and “the “iron triangle” of “self perpetuating academic, industrial and military collaboration” (Edwards 1996, 47). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.12: As these critics have shown, there has always been a great deal of unease and at times dissent among students and staff at MIT and other universities which were recipients of large amounts of military funding. This opposition was most clearly made at MIT in the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS 1968). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.13: The American Research and Development Corporation, established in 1947, is regarded as the first venture capital firm and was “formed out of a coalition between two academic institutions” (Etzkowitz 2002, 90). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.13: This built on the argument put forward by Vannevar Bush that ‘basic research’ should be the basis for the country’s economic growth and both views were later constructed into a ‘linear model’ of innovation by “industrialists, consultants and business schools, seconded by economists” (Godin 2006, 640). This so-called linear process starting with basic research, which is then applied, developed and later taken into production remains a popular ideology today. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.13: ARD’s success marked the beginning of a venture capital industry that has its origins in the post-war university and a mission to see federally funded research exploited in the ‘endless frontier’ of scientific progress. It led to the development of a model that many other universities copied by providing “seed” capital investment to technology firms and the establishing of ‘startup’ funds within universities. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.14: Within a year of the two AI Lab spin-offs doing business, Stallman and Symbolics clashed over the sharing of code (he refers to this as the “software wars”). Having been deserted by his fellow hackers, Stallman had made efforts to ensure that everyone continued to benefit from Symbolics enhancements to the Lisp Machine code, regularly merging Symbolics code with MIT’s version which Greenblatt’s company used. Like other MIT customers, Symbolics licensed the Lisp Machine code from MIT and began to insist that their changes to the source code could not be redistributed beyond MIT, thereby cutting off Greenblatt’s Lisp Machines, Inc. and other MIT customers. Stallman’s efforts to keep the old AI Lab hacker community together through the sharing of distributed code came to an end. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.14: This systematic programme of funded research across a number of disciplines consequently increased the number of commercial opportunities (‘technology transfers’ in the jargon of linear model innovation), not least in the fields of electronics, engineering and the emerging discipline of computer science. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.14: Stallman has said that he and his colleagues did not object to the commercialisation of their work, but the instruments of this advancing entrepreneurialism (patents, copyright, licenses) were at odds with at least one of the long held “institutional imperatives” of scientific practice: “Communism” (Merton 1973). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.14: In a sincere but retrospectively naive way, Frederick Cottrell recognised this in 1912, when he established the Research Corporation as a charity and donated his patents so as to benefit public social welfare and provide philanthropic grants for further scientific work. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.14: Writing in 1973, Merton’s “communism” as a foundation of the scientific ethos seems both an ironic use of the term given that most scientific research in the US was being funded through the Cold War agencies, and removed from the reality of what was happening within institutions as they advanced ‘entrepreneurial science’ -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.15: his description of the “communal character of science” (Merton 1973, 274) surely refers more to an ideal of a pure, vocational science than actual professional practice (Pielke 2012; Shapin 2008) -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.15: This was not simply a ‘capture’ or ‘enclosure’ of academic work but through the development of a new discourse of post-war science by leading academics bolstered by the awesome power of the atomic bomb, a reconceptualization took place of the production, distribution and consumption processes of scientific research, its justification and its objectives, its means and its ends. Through the joint efforts of academics and politicians, the purpose and practice of scientific research was positioned as a ‘basic’ vehicle for the accumulation of capital left to the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, with the use and subsequent growth of computing at its core (Pielke 2012; Godin 2009, 2006; Polanyi 1967; Shapin 2008). -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.15: Therefore the resistance and overcoming of this imperative cannot be measured by the extent that the production of science and technology is conducted openly or held in public through legalistic means. This critique of hacking points to the urgent need for science and therefore the university itself to be re-produced apart from the imperatives of the reproduction of capital and its source of value, labour. It suggests that the production of scientific knowledge should be mediated less by the current dialectic of open vs. closed in higher education and elsewhere (‘open science’, ‘open data’, ‘open source’, etc.), but by its effective contribution to a post-capitalist transformation in what constitutes labour and our capacity to reproduce ourselves. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.16: the hack as object and hacker as subject runs the risk of fetishising hacker culture and positing them as a ‘sub’ or ‘counter’ culture, somehow set apart from the totality of the social relations of capital and other forms of working class struggle -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014

p.16: Instead, hacking conceived as a form of labour produced by a series of historical moments in the valorisation of US higher education institutions and a concurrent re-conception of the idea, purpose and method of science, is regarded as a transitional constitution of the social relations of capital to be abolished through the socialisation of its critical achievements. Such achievements are by no means guaranteed and until such time, the “commons-based”, “peer-to-peer”, “open” techniques of production and distribution, including the legal means of protecting those techniques, can be understood as contemporary forms of struggle by labour that acts in, against and beyond the university and other institutionalised expressions of the social relations of capital. -- Highlighted apr 4, 2014