November 23, 2005

The History of The Cabal

Category: Anthropology,Books/Articles,Ethics,Hackers — @ 12:25 pm

If there is one thing that drove me a little nuts about my fieldwork, it was trying to get a very precise handle over the reasons that hackers loved to joke about the existence of a cabal. On the one hand, the joke’s significance was obvious: hackers distrust centralized authority so any whiff of it will attract attention, and joking about the so called existence of a cabal is at once a reflection of this unease and a mechanism to remind those with power that they must always act with good intentions and defer to the group when it comes to technical decisions.

But in fact joking about the cabal opens up into a much vaster savanna related to the tensions between elitism and populism in hacking, as well as the general potential for meritocracies to degrade into corruption. While hackers distrust centralized authority, they do happen to trust those who have proved their worth to peers (though a combination of talent and dedication) and dole out respect and recognition to them. Often this means that some folks will eventually be entrusted with some sort of technical role, and thus, power and this is fine so long as he does not block the process of open ended debate and deliberation by which they achieved power in the first place. I address the question of the cabal and meritocracy in Debian here and am soon going to release another chapter of my dissertation that takes a closer look at the tension between populism and elitism.

But of course there is a much longer history of the general corruptibility of meritocracy (check out Plato’s Republic for an old examination of this problem and if anyone knows of more current accounts of it, please feel free to email me) and of cabal joking within hacking. Just recently I came across a really good piece on free speech, populism, and elitism by Bryam Pfaffenberger: If I want it, it’s OK: Usenet and the (outer) limits of free speech

This piece is not only a solid history of early Usenet, but gives us a clear window into how the value for freedom and free speech grew on the Net, and through very particular conditions (behind the backs of academic, corporate managers and administrators, for example), the enablers and constraints of newsgroup technologies, and of course the unavoidable fact of contingency. Moreover, this commitment to openness grew in the midst of a tension between what he calls the “ethos of collaborative egalitarianism” and the elitism of the wizards who controlled the backbone of Usenet. He sums it up nicely here:

“In spite of Usenet’s implicitly antibureaucratic ethos, it was soon apparent that sites could not function unless someone took responsibility for the many administrative tasks involved, such as placing the late-night calls (and disguising phone charges). UNIX system administrators (abbreviated sysadmins) soon came to have more or less officially recognized Usenet-supervision roles within companies, organizations, and universities they served. This role has never been a particularly happy or easy one. Sysadmins had to balance the needs and interests of their organizations against the ever-more-voracious appetite of Usenet—and later.., they had to deal with the conviction of many Usenet users that Usenet gave them the right to speak and distribute anything they liked” p. 370

For anyone interested in how the net became such a hotbed for the fever of the flavor for the free(dom/speech), this is a must read. In this piece, what comes out so strongly is that the tension between elitism/hierarchy and populism/openness is of course not just a function of social norms, but emerges out of the very contradictions of technology but technology-in-use. Though Usenet was first envisioned as a forum for discussing Unix and providing technical support, it soon burst out of the early seams of its intended birth to become a more global, unwieldy entity. But there were still those with the technical power in charge to manage the network, assign accounts, delete controversial newsgroups and so on. Eventually geeks themselves led a mini-revolution to democratize access (which meant really control over the means of production).

The problem between elitism and populism has not left the halls of geekdom yet but there are certainly more technologies than ever that tend to allow, in potentia at least, for a type of equality than before. And getting a hold on this early history helps clarify the problems and issues of today.


  1. I think joking about a cabal also helps geeks (well, all humans) cope with the fact that they can never be sure whether or not there is a cabal, or how extensive it might be. A lot of humor seems to be about reassuring oneself that the unknown is not as scary as it seems. Cabal jokes might fall into that category. After all, while you can be sure that you’re not in the cabal, you can never be totally sure that you are in it!

    Comment by Karl Fogel — November 26, 2005 @ 11:05 am

  2. Hi Biella.

    There is a recent post on nettime by George Dafermos:
    ( Five Theses on Informational – Cognitive Capitalism )
    which seems to address – or at least touch on upon -the ‘meritocratic hacker elite’ issue.
    (I have not read it, too longwindy, but what I read looked like ….)

    Mmmmm… now I see: actually I was thinking of “The Will to Code: Nietszche and the Democratic impulse: ideas_articles/berry_will_to_code.html

    Anyway, check out _both_ articles!

    greetz from still dazed & confused in Shanghai: p+D!+O!

    Comment by patrice — November 30, 2005 @ 8:06 pm

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