Book Review: “Abstract Hacktivism” by Otto von Busch and Karl Palmås

On: September 20, 2010
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About Frank Molenaar
Born in 1986, Frank graduated from Stedelijk Gymnasium Arnhem in 2005. After a year off studying art history at the Vrije Universiteit decided to join the Media and Culture New Media department. For his bachelorproject he worked for Westergasfabriek to create a GPS game based in the Westerpark. Very sceptical and highly nostalgic, Frank is an avid doomsday specialist, conspiracy theorist and classic nintendo game collector. Also served in the salvation army as m60 machine gun operator. Enjoys: Orwell, Adams, Thompson, Vonnegut


Every social or cultural change in which we view the world is debatable. Everyone has his or her own opinions on how the world is perceived and which parts are important in that. That is fine, that is interesting, that is what – in the end – makes us all human: We perceive things through our own eyes and we try to make sense of it all and convince other of our ways of thinking. Sometimes people try to write down the things they observe and publish them: Abstract Hacktivism is an example of this.

First of all, Abstract Hacktivism is more of a manifesto than a book. The piece consists of two seperate articles; one written by Otto von Busch and the other by Karl Palmås. Both pieces derive from the same point and explore Hacktivism from a different angle while supporting eachother in the process. It’s important to take note of their starting point: They join french philosopher Michel Serres in his idea that every period in time has a piece of technology that defines the way people think about life, history, culture, social structure etc. For instance, from the time of the industrial revolution up until the 20th century people have perceived their lives as being part of one big machine. Think of examples like the Matrix, Nineteen-Eighty-Four or Pink Floyd’s The Wall for example.

The key point of both von Busch and Palmås is that we have entered a new era: The era in which people see their lives as no longer being a small part of a big machine but as part of a network. They write that people now tend to think of their lives more in the terms of computers and networks now and this has opened up a new way of thinking about the way in which we can shape our lives. Here is where the hacking comes in.

Still caught in the old paradigm of mechanised thinking, the authors reason, the leftist movements of the late 1960’s have left the world with an image of either being part of the machine or jamming it (culture jamming). The deconstructive and – as they say – also destructive ways of reasoning and looking at the world  and the social relations therein they left the world with is slowly starting to lose power as people start to see that instead of jamming the system they might also bend the system to their will and use its inherent qualities for their own purposes.

This is what they call hacking. The piece is called ABSTRACT hacktivism because it doesn’t necessarily concern the hacking of computers at all. What the authors try to do is show that the way in which hackers (not crackers) have an ethic of using the technology to do things they were not actually meant for but still might be very interesting ways of using them. Think of fan fiction, fan edits, Machinima, craftivism or Liberation Theology. To quote:

The above examples are all aspects of what we might call hacking. Hacking in this sense a direct practice of transformative action on a physical, semantic and spiritual level. […] Hacking is essentially just coloring outside of the lines.”

The shift in the way we perceive the world has in the argument of von Busch and Palmås opened new ways to influence the way we perceive the world and especially our social poisition in a Marxist sense of the word. No longer do we only have the choice of either the red or the blue pill (fighting the system or passivly letting the system do it’s job), we can now – through abstract hacking – use the system to change it and challenge it:

“Hacking is a dialogic form, not in dialectic opposition. Not to operate with its object as an opponent or foe, but as a field of gravity. Not regarding a system of belief as opium, but as a path to liberation, using it as a trampoline, as a line of flight and a force of gravity. This central inverse force is also the one to ally with and used for rejecting a downward spiral and instead use it to shoot out of a system. As a satellite uses the gravity of a planet to launch further into space. Central to the use of a line of flight and thus the gravity of a system – the oppressive force of subjection is also the potency for liberation.”

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