The Culture of Law (16):  Hacking the Law (Redux)

If we’re either unwilling to either let Iain McGilchrist’s culture predictions come to pass without a tussle or wait for whatever unpredictable developments cultural evolution might serve up, we need to get proactive. We might try hacking the law and its culture.

“Hacking” has become the new shorthand for initiative, self- improvement, DIY, entrepreneurialism. Take a moment and Google “hacking for better ______.” Fill in the blank however you like:  home, health, money, relationships, law, religion… and you’ll be amazed (at least, I was) at the hits you’ll get. I mean, What Would Jesus Hack in The Economist?! Or how about this Harvard “Hackathon,” staged to solve a problem that has long perplexed (and probably depressed) scholars:

“Legal scholars can spend years or decades researching a topic, then publish an article in the most prominent law reviews and academic journals, only to find the work never reaches public consciousness. In the past the only way to remedy that situation was to get a mainstream news outlet to write about your research…. Now there’s a second option—get computer programmers to build an app based on your work.”

The radical fringe element of the hacking world is still out there:  you find it in the online “hacktivist” collective Anonymous; it’s probably also responsible for the “Die Hipster Scum!” t-shirt I saw the other day. But mostly, hacking has gone mainstream. In fact, it’s been gentrified — so says a brilliant analysis recently featured in online Aeon MagazineHow Yuppies Hacked the Original Hacker Ethos, by radical financial thinker Brett Scott. The whole article is worth a read, but here’s a taste:

“Unlike the open uprising of the liberation leader, the hacker impulse expresses itself via a constellation of minor acts of insurrection, often undertaken by individuals, creatively disguised to deprive authorities of the opportunity to retaliate.

“It’s a trickster spirit, subversive and hard to pin down.

“Gentrification is the process by which nebulous threats are pacified and alchemised into money. A raw form – a rough neighbourhood, indigenous ritual or edgy behaviour such as parkour (or free running) – gets stripped of its otherness and repackaged to suit mainstream sensibilities.

“We are currently witnessing the gentrification of hacker culture. The countercultural trickster has been pressed into the service of the preppy tech entrepreneur class.

“Silicon Valley has come to host, on the one hand, a large number of highly educated tech-savvy people who loosely perceive themselves as rebels set against existing modes of doing business.

“Thus the emergent tech industry’s definition of ‘hacking’ as quirky-but-edgy innovation by optimistic entrepreneurs with a love of getting things done. Nothing sinister about it: it’s just on-the-fly problem-solving for profit.

We need to confront an irony here. Gentrification is a pacification process that takes the wild and puts it in frames. I believe that hacking is the reverse of that, taking the ordered rules of systems and making them fluid and wild again. The gentrification of hacking is… well, perhaps a perfect hack.”

True, the gentrified version of hacking takes the subversive, outlaw edge off, which gives change agents a voice in even the stodgiest forums — including the law. But sometimes we need that edge, and would miss it if it were to vanish altogether.

The Aeon article ends with “Go home, yuppies.”

“Die, Hipster Scum.”

Same dif.

For a fascinating anthropological study of Anonymous, check out Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistle-Blower, Spy:  The Many Faces of Anonymous. And, just for the fun of it, compare the cultural dynamics you see there to a vastly different kind of culture in another anthropological study, When God Talks Back:  Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship With God. Trust me, put those two side by side, and you’ll never think about culture the same ever again.

And speaking of the gentrification of a radical culture, there may not be a more extreme example (hackers aside) than the gentrification of the annual ultra-bizarre cultural experiment know as Burning Man.

We looked at the subversive hacker culture e as an agent of change in the law a couple times in the Future of Law series earlier this year, along with related topics such as the democratization of the law and open source/access. Both the Future and Culture of Law series will be collected in a new book, The Law It Is A-Changin’, to be out in early 2016.

The Future of Law (Part Nine): Hacking the Law

Hackers used to be known by the color of their hats:  black, white, and gray. There were good guys, bad guys, and in-between guys. Nowadays, hacking is the new caché in the self-improvement culture. Self-hacking is the ultimate DIY — it’s how you step up, take responsibility, get it done.

Remember DU Law professor Debra Austin from the Killing Them Softly series? Here’s her advice re: neural self-hacking for stressed-out lawyers. Or check out this video on neural self hacking, Google style.  And how about this conference in London last summer on The Future of Self-Hacking that asked:

“What are the best methods for “hacking” improvements on ourselves? What do recent insights from science and technology have to say about self-development? What methods are likely to become more widespread in the not-too-distant future?”

At that conference, an all-star group of presenters talked about:

  • Smart methods to improve our consciousness, memory, and creativity
  • Meditation as self-engineering
  • Diet, drugs, and supplements – impacts on fitness and performance
  • Actions based on self-measurement (QS: quantified self)
  • Best insights into goal-setting, affirmations, etc
  • Risks and opportunities in the frontier lands of DIY brain-hacking and mind-hacking.

Hacking may be enjoying a surprising new respectability in its social status, but not all quarters of the hacking culture are so benign. Hacking still has an edge where the radicals hang out, playing a sort of X Games version of the democratization of knowledge. That’s where you find WikiLeaks, open source social entrepreneurship, corporate open source and its anti-intellectual property orientation, and the rest of the voices denouncing the keeping of ANY kinds of secrets or protecting proprietary interests in them.

  • In the realm of law, these radical players will increasingly bypass conventional modes of entry into the legal profession and law practice, and will offer their own alternative solutions to perceived injustice and inequities.
  • These radical players are already changing the law, hacker-style.
  • And they will continue to do so.

Consider, for example, the swift race towards justice we see daily in online news, as surveillance footage and ubiquitous smart-phone videos capture people in the act. Or consider the kind of visceral responses we make to images captured on police body cameras. As lawyers debate about them, these technologies are already changing evidentiary standards and criminal investigative methods. It’s not hard to imagine other applications — if you need to prime the pump, Google “whistle-blowing as cultural ethos” and check out what comes up.

Hacker law is the law of outcry and outrage, fueled by an insistent impatience that flies in the face of the law’s historical emphasis on rational, language-based deliberation. Are those who practice it vigilantes? Anarchists? Underground heroes? Tomorrow’s Gandhis and MLKs? It depends on where your sympathies lie, but like it or not, the hacker ethos has invaded the law. And, as is true of all the trends we’re looking at in this series, we’ve only seen the start of it.