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Rebels for the System? Virus writers, general intellect, cyberpunk and criminal capitalism

Mathieu O'Neil
Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 20(2): 225-241.
ISSN 1030-4312
June 2006

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Abstract

In recent years there have been numerous reports of attacks against computer systems around the world by viruses created by `computer hackers'. It is asserted in the media that the time and energy required to assess and repair the damage caused by this malicious software, sometimes known as `malware', is proving increasingly costly to corporations. The seriousness of the threat posed by rogue computer programmers to the economic system seems to be borne out by actions such as that undertaken by Microsoft in November 2003, when it offered a bounty of $250,000 for information leading to the capture of the authors of the Sobig virus and MSBlast.A worm. In our networked world, nothing, it seems, could be more disruptive than the break-up of the global flows of data resulting from this electronic sabotage. `Hackers' are commonly divided into law-abiding and lawbreaking programmers. This article aims to question whether the distinction is justified, in the context of globalised capitalism. However, for clarity's sake, the terms `virus writers' or `computer intruders' will be used when referring to lawbreaking individuals and groups, and `legitimate hackers' when referring to law-abiding individuals and groups. Yet since all of these individuals and groups share a commitment to autonomy, for example the freedom to access information without restrictions, the term `hacker' will be used when referring indiscriminately to those people who engage in `hacking', the unauthorized or uncontrolled use of computers.

Contemporary capitalism's cycles of production and consumption are fuelled by the development of information and communication technology (ICT). Technoscientific progress depends on cooperatively produced knowledge, which Marx called `general intellect'. It would be tempting to portray hackers - highly specialized knowledge workers who rebel against state and corporate authority - as a progressive general intellect, opposed to the economic and social order. This reading would mesh nicely with an understanding, popular amongst contemporary intellectuals, of legitimate hackers as a positive social force, who have been unfairly lumped together with computer vandals in order to disqualify threats to the dominant system, such as free software. My own understanding of hackers, however, is quite different. I do not mean to imply that individual hackers do not feel that they are genuinely resisting dominant norms and values; but I am interested in defining how the economic and social order can accommodate, and, perhaps, coopt this resistance. I start with the premise that hacking is indeed a gesture of defiance. Popular perceptions of hackers as `rebels' have been shaped by many sources, but few have proven as influential as William Gibson's 1980s cyberpunk fiction. Reviewing cyberpunk's economic positioning of hackers - how Gibson's `computer cowboys' fit into the labour market - will inform a reassessment of the socio-economic impact of real-world virus writers and hackers in globalised capitalism.

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