Book review of Johan Soderberg and Maxigas's Resistance to the Current: The Dialectics of Hacking (2022)
by Deepa Kylasam Iyer
Published onSep 05, 2023
Book Review: Resistance to the Current
Resistance to the Current: The Dialectics of Hacking, by Johan Soderberg and Maxigas (2022). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Resistance to the Current: The Dialectics of Hacking, by Johan Soderberg and Maxigas,details how four hacking collectives have resisted moves to incorporate their technology into the private and profit-oriented circuits of informational capitalism. In doing so, as the authors note, the hacking collectives surveyed in the book curiously mirror the Arts and Crafts movement of the early twentieth century in how this latter movement attempted to bring back industrial production into human hands. In an analogous fashion, the hacking collectives express a desire for autonomy to improve their members’ quality of life as well as working conditions.
While Soderberg and Maxigas were writing Resistance to the Current, the COVID-19 pandemic provided them with a novel context in which to develop the main arguments of their book. Indeed, as the authors and their interlocutors were witnessing, the pandemic enabled newfound means of managerial control and authority over workers via the deployment of surveillance technologies. In this void, Soderberg and Maxigas were able to anticipate new sites of contestation for the COVID-19 era among their interviewees from the hacking collectives.
In the introductory chapter, the authors discuss the cultural trope of “the hacker” – a figure who is outside the confines of institutional space, yet must constantly resist being co-opted by “the system.” Using the “open innovation” model as an illustration, Soderberg and Maxigas expose how the ethical and aesthetic values that underpin hacker identities are used by capitalists in order to appropriate and incorporate hackers into that very capitalist system.
The theorization of critique and recuperation – defined as the process by which autonomous hacker movements are co-opted within capitalistic frameworks – is the focus of the second chapter, in which the interpretive framework known as the “dialectical reversal of hacking” is also developed in detail. Soderberg and Maxigas define the autonomy that is central to hacker identities as the ability of a “collective to determine its goals and rules of conduct and then remain true to these goals and rules no matter the cost” (17). According to the authors, the three pillars of autonomy for hacking collectives are technical skills, historical memory, and shared values.
The next four chapters feature the book’s four case studies, from these hacking collectives’ inception to their recuperation or disintegration. The first case is that of Ronja, a device to connect computers using visible red light, which flourished in the Czech Republic during the early 2000s. A precursor of the “Open Hardware” movement, Ronja was a device that was built with LED lamps and lenses and required adequate technical mastery, time, and effort to set up. As user control of design was paramount to this project, the volunteers who designed and employed Ronja also determined the pathway that the design would take and built a community around the device. As lasers became commercialized, however, the group retained its autonomy by neither switching to the new technology nor writing a protocol that was simplified. The authors argue that the case of Ronja illustrates the resistance of a hacker collective against recuperation, but at the cost of the overall technical performance of the machine.
RepRap, the open-source desktop 3D printer, is the next case discussed. This project began with the utopian vision of self-reproducing machines demolishing the edifices of industrialization and democratizing production. However, in the face of technical failures, such as the machine’s inability to be assembled easily, the utopian voices of the movement were sidelined by several micro-entrepreneurship attempts by members within the community. In the early 2000s, when commercialization possibilities become more numerous, many of these attempts were recuperated, which caused a weakening of the original aspirations of the movement. The authors cite RepRap as a project that failed to resist the pressures of recuperation.
The fifth chapter details the case of “shared machine shops” including hacklabs, hackerspaces, and accelerators. The narrative behind shared machine shops is akin to that of longer-standing social movements such as those dedicated to squatters’ rights or more equitable urban spaces. Soderberg and Maxigas argue that the case of shared machine shops demonstrates how the original militant hacklabs came to be replaced by the less-political hackerspaces and eventually absorbed into the start-up-aligned makerspaces and accelerators.
The final case study examines internet chat relays, which is an example of a hacker collective that has withstood recuperation by evolving its technical capabilities and organizational forms. Internet chat relays began as a popular chat medium in the early days of the internet and, as a result, had to withstand the commercialization pressures of the dot-com bubble. Similarly, the dominant organizational models of subscription and advertisement-based commercialization also bypassed internet chat relays due to the fact that their topic-centered pseudonymous conversations were nourished by community members.
Resistance to the Current gives a thorough overview of hacking collectives as a special group of makers and creators and their dialectic relationship with informational capitalism. The main argument of the book is that technical protocols and organizational ideas are the central determinants of whether hacking collectives will be recuperated under commercial capitalism. The book’s other argument is that ideologically and aesthetically militant forms of hacking can evolve into more socially adaptive forms via a process of stabilization. Finally, the importance of time horizons to understand the above dynamics is illustrated through the four case studies presented in the book.
Resistance to the Current’s multidisciplinary account of technologically inclined social movements will appeal to those in science and technology studies and innovation studies. The historical narrative of the case studies will interest anthropologists and historians of work as well as comparative theorists of industrial and labor relations and management. The theoretical arguments of resistance and recuperation will be of interest to scholars of media and communication studies as well as those in culture studies.
In conclusion, Resistance to the Current situates hacker collectives in the spectrum of labor performed by employees, users, crowd workers, and freelancers and interrogates a very contemporary version of the long-held dialectics between labor and capital. As workplaces become re-organized to include ever-more diverse sets of employees, the arguments and case studies of Soderberg and Maxigas’s book will undoubtedly have wider resonance.
Deepa Kylasam Iyer is a Ph.D. student in the Industrial and Labor Relations School at Cornell University. Her research examines how technology impacts work in the context of freelancers and platform-based workers.
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