‘Hackspace’ is a term derived from hacker culture, referring to a place where people can tinker on projects and use communal resources and facilities. Normally they host physical hardware, computers and electronics equipment, but the concept can be adapted well to an economic justice setting. Imagine a space with maps of global financial flows, libraries holding communal books, and rooms to design campaigns in. LSFA will be a place to explore the nature of money, host workshops and build installation art, films and even phone apps that explore the financial system.
The dark side of the financial sector
In 2013 I published The Heretic’s Guide to Global Finance: Hacking the Future of Money. In it, I sketch out a several problems in our current global financial system.
Firstly, the financial sector steers money into industries that are hardwired to breach planetary ecological boundaries. Secondly, it creates inequality. Not only do financial professionals reap outlandishly large salaries, but financial instruments are conduits for powerful investors to direct money into powerful institutions, often in ways that do not benefit many ordinary people.
Thirdly, it exhibits high levels of complexity and opacity that, when combined with the fact that the system is highly interconnected, creates systemic risk and the ability for financial crashes in one country to shake the entire global economy.
Fourthly, it hosts the culture of finance. This tends to be portrayed in the press by pictures of traders swilling champagne at strip clubs. The deeper issue, though, is the entrenched desire of financial professionals to imagine their profession as an apolitical agent of economic efficiency, rather than accepting the intensely political nature of facilitating investment processes around the world.
Finally, there is the process we call financialisation, that creeping sense that the culture and drives of the financial sector are taking over many aspects of life previously untouched by it. It turns everything into investable and tradable ‘assets,’ from land, to food, to atmospheric pollution rights.
In my book I chose to apply hacker philosophy to the financial system. Finance, much like technology, often repels people through its apparent complexity. The way that technology hackers approach a complex, interconnected technology system is thus a useful model for thinking about how to approach a complex, interconnected financial system, too.
The act of technology hacking initially involves exploring a piece of technology that opens up the ability to jam its workings, as well as to build your own version of it. Using that as an analogy, financial hacking involves exploration of the financial system that opens up the ability to design campaigns that jam its workings, and also allows us to start building our own DIY versions of the system.
The term ‘hacker’ has a subversive appeal that can capture the imagination of both activists and entrepreneurs. Indeed, it’s a useful archetype to use when trying to engage the entrepreneurial imagination of activists who need to build economic alternatives, whilst simultaneously engaging the activist imagination of entrepreneurs who need to be more critical when designing and building new things.
True hacking fuses together notions of creativity with rebellion. A hack is like the act of kicking down a door to make a table. It is not merely rebellion (kicking down a door), or merely creativity (making a table). It’s the art of blending the two into a seamless act of creative rebellion or rebellious creativity.
The politics of labelling
However, the term ‘hacking’ comes with a certain amount of political baggage that needs to be addressed.
In the way I describe it above, hacking refers to an ethic or an impulse, rather than any specific class of action. ‘Hacker’ is not really something you can put on a business card like ‘plumber’ or ‘accountant’. It has a similar dynamic to terms like ‘mystic’, ‘leader’ or ‘innovator’: I may have mystical tendencies, or leadership skills, but as soon as I concretise those and explicitly call myself a mystic or a leader, I have missed the point in some way. They are not concrete roles, they are loose sets of characteristics.
One of the confusions, though, comes from the fact that there is one version of the word ‘hacker’ that refers not to an ethic, but to someone with the very specific vocation of breaching computer security systems. This is the definition obsessed about in sensationalist terms in the mainstream press, and it comes laden with criminal connotations, such as ‘Hackers steal credit card data’.
This has turned the figure of the hacker into something of a bogeyman in the eyes of many people—especially in my parent’s generation—who are often on the defensive when it comes to technology anyway. It’s like the term ‘anarchist’, which has been divorced from its rich intellectual history and presented in the conservative press as lawless wildcats throwing Molotov cocktails, evoking fear in the everyday reader.
The gentrification of hacking
In recent years though, the term has come to have a second problematic interpretation. This is the Silicon Valley version, which presents the geeky but successful male coder-entrepreneur as a hacker. As tech start-up culture has become exponentially more powerful, this definition has risen, too.
Rather than carrying a subversive edge, this version of the term gets applied to all manner of generic computer-based innovation undertaken by preppy, Stanford-educated entrepreneurs. With their mainstream success comes a ‘revenge of the nerds’ triumphalism. ‘Hacker’ starts to get worn like a badge by an exclusive club of soon-to-be-wealthy business-focused masters of tech.
This in turn has given the term more legitimacy in innovation scenes in general. The gentrified version is even seeping into public sector parlance and NGOs, where ‘hackathons’ are held and computer language like ‘beta testing’ and ‘2.0’ are applied to all sorts of activities.
The true cores of hacking though, do not resemble either the criminal interpretation, or the Silicon Valley interpretation. To seek the soul of hacking, we need to go deeper into the underlying dynamics.
Exploration: The de-alienation impulse
The basic foundation of hacking is the exploration impulse, the desire to explore and understand things that most people in society are not encouraged to explore or understand. It is a drive to de-alienate a world that appears confusing and unwelcoming. For example, urban exploration, or ‘urbex’, crews explore derelict buildings, infrastructure and underground train lines. Hardware hackers explore the internal moving parts of machines, computer hackers explore lines of code.
This adventuring is underpinned by a rebellious curiosity. Applying this mentality to the financial sector is useful, because many people are told that finance is only for experts, not something for ordinary people to either understand or be curious about. The perception that finance is ‘too complicated to understand’ serves to create a layer of protection for the financial sector, much like the perception that computers are too hard to understand forms a layer of protection for Microsoft.
The desire to challenge those perceptions and explore, though, can sometimes veer into what is defined as ‘illegal’. That’s because exploring beyond set barriers can involve breaching boundaries encoded in law, especially when powerful institutions have a hand in setting such laws. There’s also a natural tendency towards deviance from social norms built into the hacker ethos.