We live in strange times. We all know it. Some of us celebrate and play with the sense of vertigo being experienced whilst others tremble and attempt to limit the turbulence through various kinds of self-absorption. This contested space is very much alive and creative. Those choosing to play in this space are consciously seeking to realise preferred futures. Even the ‘bad guys’ have their preferred futures and often they have very powerful technologies at their disposal to help realise these. Yet even the solitary has cultural power. No being is an island. I argue that each cultural actor is a cultural hacker generating new possibilities within the cultural genome, exploring new pathways by reconfiguring old elements, inserting new ‘code’, and out of this creative work generating the alternative futures.
To hack in this cultural sense is to take the hacker mentality described by McKenzie Wark into creative spaces previously immanent to the cultural project. To hack is to claim — or reclaim — our right to cultural agency. Cultural agents are hackers. They understand that to change their responses, to offer alternative narratives, images and visions is to hack into the cultural coding that determines how we think, relate, remember, act, love, fear and hope. This is what Wark recognised when he wrote his Hacker Manifesto in 2004.
Whilst Wark’s preoccupation was the emergence of a ‘hacker class’; my preoccupation is the futurist as hacker. Futurists hack culture not simply by ‘invention’ but by developing and applying hacker-techniques in the service of those organisations, communities, societies and individuals seeking greater agency in a world of diminishing returns. As Wark notes such work can be essentially amoral as the hacker can be totally focused on the production of the new: ‘to hell with the consequences’. However, by working within collective processes and structures the collective itself imposes ethical limits on the role of the futurist-as-hacker. This of course is not a one way street. The futurist-as-hacker also has an effect disproportionate to their ‘size’ on the organisation, community etc that they serve. The futurist in helping stakeholders shape preferred futures will often create a ‘gravity free’ space in which the better and the best become narrative pathways for futures that involve inclusive, ethical, win-win responses to current dilemmas.
To hack is to exercise individual and collective agency within the cultural domain. To hack is to put one’s creative energy in the service of social, cultural and ecological processes that keep gridlocking, in a state of postnormal paralysis. It is to step outside one’s context for a moment and to see the world not as a given but as an open system with co-creative possibilities. It is to actively enter this open space and create new possibilities beyond the trance inducing condition of business-as-usual. With this in mind I have started to tag my tweets with the hashtag #hackfutures to see what kind of possible order/disorder might arise from this potentially subversive and creative media platform. I am not just tagging the obvious topics like AI, the transhuman or nanotech, but also historical, aesthetic and ecological Tweets that embroider the cultural ferment. I invite other Twitterati to join me in this. Here are two examples of this exercise. This is pretty crude hack-mapping but it is a start and leads on to further considerations of what futurists are doing as hackers.
The first observation is that futurists hack narratives. This hack sits at the heart of scenario work which unpacks and reconfigures sets of possibilities following the narrative logic of a specific given scenario. The hacker instinct is to add an element which causes a narrative mutation to occur. This experimental dimension is safe within a scenario workshop but becomes real and productive of effects once applied to the contexts of our clients. Narratives can often be conveys via images — such as the ‘black swan’, ‘elephant in the room’ or ubiquitous anthropomorphic cyborg who appears regularly on Twitter.
Narratives are key to our identity, so it goes without say that hackers also hack identities at both the cultural, social and individual levels. In fact hackers bring about mutation at all levels as the process of Causal Layered Analysis demonstrates. A litany hack might be a new piece of technology, a product or a new meme that modulates or messes up the ordinary, adding new elements to our two dimensional worlds. A system hack goes deeper and generates a system level mutation in which a system level process such as the ‘checkout-chick’ is replaced by ‘self-serve’ in which the narrative of service with its relational dimension is replaced by the narrative of self-sufficiency. The subtext here of course is that relationships, even superficial ones, are an encumbrance. The monad neoliberal self seeks freedom, agility and speed at all costs. Narrative legitimacy at the system level is often, as this reflection indicates, rooted in deeper causal processes such as the worldviews that underpin systems.
A worldview hack is an ideological or epistemological hack. It attacks the legitimacy of knowledge-power centres. The issue of ‘fake news’ for instance is a brilliant worldview hack as it destabilises traditional verities and tribalises systems of knowing. It is also a relational hack in the same way that the shift from checkout-chick to self-serve is, as it breaks the logical links between systemic knowing that builds on scaffolded and interrelated ‘truth’ statements anchored in research and peer corroboration. Worldviews themselves all have mythic/metaphoric roots. Metaphoric hacks offer new emotional and ontological anchors to culture. Perhaps the greatest hack in recent centuries was the factory. Here order, productivity and rationality converged to provide social utopians with a taste for profit a wonderful metaphor for society. As a result educational and health systems became factories as Ivan Illich bewailed decades ago. The state too became a factory. The recent counter-metaphor to the factory is the network. This too is a brilliant hack yet the factory is still deeply embedded in our psyches and institutions.
To hack is to create a mutation in the world. Scenarios and CLA are tools for hacking. Gaming and play are also powerful ways to hack at the visceral, epistemic and ontological underpinnings of our world and our place in it. Games and play invite creativity and also joy into what we do. A lightness of being to contrast with the heaviness that is promoted as the dominant modality for dealing with life: This is serious stuff!. Yet the ingredients for approaching issues of social and environmental continuity and change are still part of games and play. Games in particular require strategy and perseverance especially if the game is about winning (not all are of course). Play being less structured also relies on agreed forms and informal rules though winning is less important than the process and fun of play itself.
This short reflection is a thought bubble. As a hacker I am writing for hackers. The intention is not to form a hacker class but to explore the hack as a tool for futures interventions and the hacker identity as a useful way of situating those disrupting the dominant ‘program’ in the ongoing struggle to build a more just, inclusive and free world.