Hyperrhiz 05: Reviews

Alexander Galloway and Eugene Thacker, The Exploit

Marilyn R.P. Morgan

University of Central Florida


Galloway, Alexander R., and Eugene Thacker. The Exploit: A Theory of Networks (Electronic Mediations Ser. Vol. 21). Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 2007.

Whether they're "networks," "rhizomes," "peer-to-peer systems," or other constructions, the big new thing today is the non-hierarchical structure. Everyone from Deleuze and Guattari to Haraway to Lessig writes about the changes we can expect to see in society because of the new ways technology allows us to interact with each other. Most writers see the new networked forms as inherently egalitarian — a natural way for the common people to fight back against the increasingly panoptic nature of modern life and its power structures.

Into this conversation step Alexander R. Galloway and Eugene Thacker with their new book, The Exploit. Galloway is a founding member of the Radical Software Group and created the data surveillance engine Carnivore, based on FBI surveillance software, which monitors the flow of information on the Web. Thacker has collaborated with the New York-based net performance group Fakeshop. In their previous works as individuals, Galloway and Thacker have been contrarian voices to the digital-paradise paradigm of the Internet, seeing it as a structure that enables control, not freedom. In this joint project they draw on critical theory, media studies, philosophy, computer science, and biology to synthesize thought across disciplines. They say that networks have invaded our lives and threaten to control them in a multitude of ways unless we can invent new systems, as revolutionary as the Web itself, that control them first.

The authors take an experimental approach to the writing of this book. It has two main parts: "Nodes," and "Edges." In addition, it begins with a short "Prolegomenon: 'We're Tired of Trees,'" and finishes with two more brief sections: "Coda: Bits and Atoms" and an appendix, "Notes for a Liberated Computer Language." Rather than a traditional academic-prose format, The Exploit is a collection of miniature essays and fragments that is entirely appropriate for the subject matter. Galloway and Thacker encourage readers to read in this same fragmented manner and to "experience the book not as the step-by-step prepositional evolution of a compete theory but as a series of marginal claims, disconnected in a living environment of many thoughts, distributed across as many pages" (vii).

Galloway and Thacker examine one common claim of our times: that power relationships are shifting away from traditional political structures and toward various networks, either biological or electronic. They look at questions involving geopolitics and the power of networks, asking "[d]oes the policy of American unilateralism provide a significant counterexample to the claim that power today is network based? Has a singular sovereignty won out in global affairs?" (5). The authors provide several possible responses drawing on widely held theories: a Nietzschean argument, a Foucauldian argument, a determinist argument, and a nominalist argument, then go on to present their own response. Galloway and Thacker come at the problem from a biological point of view, attempting to create a theory of networks that borrows from the biological sciences to describe networks in terms of "nonhuman" and "unhuman" forms that nevertheless share some characteristics with living and near-living things such as viruses.

Galloway and Thacker propose that "an understanding of the control mechanisms within networks needs to be as polydimensional as networks are themselves" (63). In an apt demonstration of this concept, they offer a "biopolitical" approach that emphasizes resistance to the control imposed by the networks. Such an approach has its difficulties, though, not the least of which is the company it keeps. "The stress given to security in recent years has made it more and more difficult to offer a compelling theory of resistance, one unfettered by the dark epithets so easily crafted by the political Right — such as 'cyberterrorist' or even 'hacker,' a word born from love and now tarnished by fear — but we would like to try nonetheless" (77). The approach is biopolitical because, the authors say, sounding just a bit like mystical adepts, life itself is the ability to resist force, but it is also that thing that is resisted. They conceive of the concepts of resistance and life as intimately connected.

A third related concept is the "exploit," a hackers' term for a hole or vulnerability in a system (81). The goal of resistance is to find these exploits, just as hackers do, and use them to bring about change, but in this case change for the betterment of society. The authors compare computer viruses to biological viruses and bacteria like those that cause SARS and anthrax. Computer viruses exploit the functioning of their hosts and thrive where there is little diversity (as biological viruses do in the monocultures produced by modern farming methods), although they are very diverse themselves.

Galloway and Thacker lay out some principles for those who, undeterred by possible kinship with hackers and viruses, want to bring about changes in networked environments in similar fashion. Like the networks themselves, moves toward resistance must be "unhuman," resembling artifacts of nature such as swarms and floods. Efforts at resistance must focus on pushing through rather than backing up. The goal is not so much to resist or reverse technology as to push it forward and transform it into something that better meets users' needs. Because the essence of a network is the communication between its parts, efforts to resist must focus on that communication and less on the parts (or nodes) themselves. Like viruses, the forces of resistance can take advantage of the homogenous quality of networks to spread rapidly and easily. Finally, the forces of resistance must fight fire with fire. Networks are both technical and political systems, and theorists must work on both levels.

In the second major section of the book, Galloway and Thacker continue their extended metaphor of networks and the forces that resist them as living organisms. They draw parallels between such diverse concepts as medicine, government, and war. They show that not only is the Internet a network, but so are phenomena such as AIDS and terrorism. The wars of the present and future, real and metaphorical (as in the wars against disease and poverty) are actually wars of network against network — information networks against biological networks. Part of these battles will be surveillance on an unprecedented scale. Although the popular view is that new technologies will lead to a new age of freedom because they will allow users to escape outside control, Galloway and Thacker argue that these new technologies rely on increased communication to work, and that "double the communication leads to double the control" (124). They predict that opportunities for surveillance and control of users will increase exponentially, a phenomenon already seen in the growing use of biometric identification systems. "At least the unidirectional media of the past were ignoring half the loop," they say. "At least television did not know if the home audience was watching or not" (124). Modern technology, in Galloway and Thacker's view, operates like the video screens in every home in Orwell's 1984 that worked in both directions — watching as well as being watched by the inhabitants.

Can resistance succeed by switching from proprietary to open-source software? Not according to Galloway and Thacker: "While tactically valuable in the fight against proprietary software, open source is ultimately flawed as a political program. [. . .] We suggest that this opposition between closed and open is flawed" (124). In Marx's day, the poor and working classes had no capital or goods to sell, but they could sell their labor, in essence selling their bodies, or at least renting them out for the duration of the working day. Today, according to Galloway and Thacker, the situation has changed for those who have nothing to sell but their bodies. Today they must sell not only the physicality of their bodies and the work they can do, but also the information their bodies (and minds) contain. Employers and other entities want to examine their bodies for identifying details, their buying habits for profitable trends, and their chromosomes for promising genes. "The biomass, not social relations, is today's site of exploitation" (135). Escaping the surveillance, being nonexistent, is the way to resist. The way to become an exploit is to fall off the radar screen, they say.

In the final section of the text, the "Coda," Galloway and Thacker assess the current state of affairs. In a departure from the mass protests of the 1960s, in which turning out large numbers of people to a single location and showing solidarity to a cause or group was important, the new forms of protest are loosely organized and distributed. They use technology to their advantage. "The very fact that the multitude is not 'One' is its greatest strength; the multitude's inherently decentralized and even distributed character gives it a flexibility and robustness that centralized modes of organization lack" (150-151).

The authors disagree with those who see networks merely as collections of individuals. They claim, rather, that networks in and of themselves have and wield power regardless of the members that compose them. Networks are neither egalitarian nor human. The authors ask, "If no single human entity controls the network in any total way, then can we assume that a network is not controlled by humans in any total way?" (154). And, logically, if networks are more than the sum of the humans that make them up, then shouldn't we suspect that they may have aims and goals other than our own? Galloway and Thacker urge us to develop a deeper understanding of networks than we now have, an understanding of their elements and processes. They suggest that networks exist on a different scale, at a different order of magnitude, than humans do. On the network scale, individual human actions and experiences are no more important than are the actions and experiences of a single cell on the scale of a human being.

If the authors are right, this is an important book because it deals with no less a topic than the civilization in which we and our descendents will live in the years to come. Will the twentieth-century dystopian vision of humans as mere cogs in a machine come to pass literally, electronically, in the twenty-first century as we are subsumed into one or many networks? Will surveillance and control become ubiquitous? Will freedom, autonomy, and privacy be things of the past? If these concepts are important enough to us that we want to preserve them, then we will have to master the techniques of resistance. Galloway and Thacker are trying to alert us to this need and its urgency. Their biopolitical approach is novel and insightful, its presentation is appropriate, and its theoretical basis is sound. Readers without a solid background in theory may find the text hard going in places, and we are expected to make the connections between the fragments the authors lay out for ourselves, but the text does reward the effort required. Ultimately, before the resistance the authors want to encourage can become widespread, their concepts will have to be operationalized — translated into more concrete form. The Exploit can serve as a guide, however for those who wish to write the handbooks for the new resistance movements to come.


DOI Permalink

https://doi.org/10.20415/hyp/005.r01