The world comprises and exhibits radical complexity. It’s evolving faster than our feeble attempts to grasp and model it. Many believe our time to be a transition from a simpler and stabile time to a future when equilibrium will be completely beyond our grasp. Drowning in waves of information and bludgeoned by images and sounds of digital media, many people have lost a sense of orientation and its attendant teleology, longing for security and stability. Such disorientation has yielded newer and improved accounts of the prevalence of ‘the death of God’.
Stability, however, is quite deceptive: it is merely a momentary pause in a complex and turbulent fluidity. While the moment of complexity fosters confusion and vertigo, today’s socio-political, economic, and cultural transformations create nonetheless newer and improved possibilities to explore and ascertain the nature of our present. If all philosophy, as Hegel says, is a ‘philosophy of its time’, then it is our duty as scavengers of the present, to apprehend that fundamental property governing our time: complexity.
It’s not simply that our moment of complexity is any different than its predecessors. Rather, what is unique about our time is the sheer acceleration at which things change. Everything moves faster and faster to the extent that speed itself has emerged as the virtue of contemporary life. As Marx said, ‘all that is solid seems to melt away’, creating a sense of disorientation, lamented by many as the paralytic onset of nihilism. For many, confusion and uncertainty yield a need for simplicity that fosters a futile longing for a ‘return to nature’. In today’s world, however, simplicity has morphed into an idle and idolatrous dream incapable of realization.
What role does philosophy play in this world? What role can philosophy play? Philosophy, it is often thought, trades in simplicities. The modus operandi of most philosophy proceeds in accordance with a principle of reductionism. Underneath the parade of phenomena and the surface-level flutter of activity reigns a simple ‘One’, whether a fundamental level of reality or a metaphysical unity. The spectrum of reductionism holds no philosophical bias, for analytic and continental thinkers alike take reductionism to its absurd ends. Whether reducing the common-sense world to aggregates of sub-atomic particles governed by the laws of nature and probability, or reducing the sensuous world of everyday objects to correlates of thought, both reduce one domain to the logic of another.
Philosophy is ultimately concerned with problems and the concepts we create to venture solutions. In fact, if one seeks to glimpse the variety constitutive of the philosophical enterprise corner any philosopher and ask, ‘Hey. What’s your problem?’ Hidden in this simple question will emerge a complexity worthy of the most beautiful fractal. Committing to philosophy means accepting an adventure the outcome of which has no transcendental assurances. Thus, the philosopher as conceptual adventurer lacks the assurance that her problems are well founded, risking the possibility that the problems emerge merely as a property of our current state of knowledge. Moreover, the problems we venture as solutions —or dissolutions— never achieve the pristine clarity of precision known in the exact sciences. Philosophy trades in open-ended questions and answers, a dance that pivots around this call-and-response structure. It invites a dialogue intrinsically plural, suggestions for revisions, and proposals for further improvement or completely new alternatives.
I’d like to propose the following: philosophy is conceptual hacking. ‘Hacking’ is often understood as a technical skill possessed only by those high-level computer engineers whose software and computer know-how facilitates a relationship with the internal logic of computer software; that is, provide any piece of software to a computer hacker, and she’ll find not only the internal state-of-affairs but, more importantly, the inherent possibilities lying dormant therein. For example, give a hacker a pair of glasses. The ‘normal’ mind sees a technology for vision correction. However, a hacker sees not only a technology for vision correction but sees its inherent possibilities. The question isn’t merely what is this/what does this do; it is also, and more emphatically, what can I make this do? What possibilities are inherent to these objects and its relations? Thus, hackers gave us Google Glass and Oculus Rift.
Hacking, then, should be understood more generally as any attempt to infiltrate and dissect a particular domain and, first, exhibit its internal structure of current state-of-affairs, that is, all that domain’s facts. But, second, and this is the creative, constructionist venture, the hacker must find those virtual possibilities lying dormant in that particular domain’s state-of-affairs. The proper tools of the philosopher —the philosopher’s technology— are concepts. Thus, conceptual hacking comprises the philosophical investigation into a particular concept (‘Knowledge’, ‘Reality’, ‘God’, ‘World’, etc.) and the determination and exhibition of how that concept is understood and employed. The positive, creative aspect of conceptual hacking consists in the construction of solutions or dissolutions that attempt to render that concept coherent within a larger, more general Weltbild.
Hacking is ultimately concerned with abstraction and abstractions. While most flee in the face of abstraction, the hacker welcomes, even seeks its intrusion. Hackers produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, all hacked of out raw data: they are abstracters of new worlds. One might venture to designate the task of hacking as double: preventing the existence of ‘the system’ by debugging the inherent contradictions within any theory
of everything and, subsequently, putting its intellectual and conceptual firepower in the service of creating new worlds. The hacker displays the proclivity to take things apart, getting an overview of a system or object’s internal structure and governing mechanisms, and implementing the resultant insights positively for newer, better creations. Thus, philosophical hackers resent any attempt to obstruct disassembling a system of thought, regardless of its sedimentation into current “common sense”. As Stephen Levy writes in Hackers, “And wouldn't everyone benefit even more by approaching the world with the same inquisitive intensity, skepticism toward bureaucracy, openness to creativity, unselfishness in sharing accomplishments, urge to make improvements, and desire to build as those who followed the Hacker Ethic?”
This task promotes the hacker to a cultural position of fundamental importance. Computer hackers, to be sure, have received the most attention in virtue of domestic surveillance programs and the heroic efforts of Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and Chelsea Manning. However, the original hackers had little to anything to do with computers. Instead, ‘phone freaks’ were the original hackers. Phone freaks sought to disrupt and short-circuit the communication and phone systems of AT&T and Bell. The point was to short-circuit the telecommunications world by finding inherent loopholes, gaps, and glitches.
Thinkers tinker, and the fruit of a hacker’s labor is the alteration of representational worlds. Concerned with the abstract, by implication, hacking is concerned with the virtual. For in virtue of abstraction the virtual is identified, produced and released. I belabor these points because it underscores the hacker and the philosopher’s relation to Being. Suffice it to say that those rebellious, unhygienic tinkerers and thinkers tarry on the tangent of chaos.
Philosophy and hacking appear to be therapeutic activities; however, not because, as Wittgenstein thought, it cures the hubris and gullibility of human reason to mistake linguistic and grammatical complexities for metaphysical entities. On the contrary, philosophy and hacking can provide the “kick” to propel the person into a reflexive relation to his or her default settings, both epistemological and ontological, in order that the worlds and situations in which we find ourselves, and their constitutive rules and laws, are thematized and made an object of reflection. Most importantly, higher-order reflection on the structure and laws of domains exposes the contingency of those constitutive rules. Philosophy and hacking can illuminate the contingency of the formal structures and laws governing all domains. This is precisely what makes both endeavors so radical.
Our place in the world is, indeed, one of actors on the stage of information states. Human freedom consists not in the freedom to do what one will; human freedom designates the higher-order recognition of one role specific to a particular state and the ability to hack this state and elicit and entangle and short-circuit one’s position. Humans, like all entities, are engineers and hackers. Homo hackus.