Hacking the Social?

Christopher M. Kelty

‘Inventing the social’ revisits a debate that in some times and places seems to have been settled, only to reappear once more. The vexed question of ‘the social’ (does it exist? is it invented? has it come to an end?) remains as vital to social theorists as it is irrelevant to every ordinary ‘member of society’. There are few concepts so obviously central to everyday thinking and yet so resistant to compelling and convincing theorisation.

Why ‘invent the social’ then (again)? For Inventing the Social, inventing the social is a way of working around the problem of critique. To claim that ‘the social is invented’ or that it is historical, or that it is contingent, or that it is over, has historically been proffered in opposition to some other claim that society is some simple natural entity, whether that be a self-evident experience of relationality or a Durkheimian metaphysical commitment. Most often, critique is carried out in order to contest a claim of naturalness as a basis for political decisions. Those who claim that the social is not invented usually have something to sell, and most often what they are selling is a way to (re)invent the social: to solve social problems, to create a great society, to nudge us, control us, secure us or to socialise us. So it needs to be said, every so often, that the social is invented, and to hope that this caveat emptor will serve as sufficient warning. But the funny thing about critique – which has been said to have run out of steam, though new reserves of critique are discovered in the shale sands of PhD programmes every day – is that its capacity to compel people to see the problem is also not a given, not natural, not obvious. Such a hope relies too much on the faith that lifting the veil, revealing the hidden, pointing out the contradiction, or demonstrating the absurdity flips a corresponding switch in readers’ brains, and perhaps by virtue of that, in their emotions and commitments as well. So no matter how sophisticated the arguments, how detailed the historical or empirical work, or how rigorously erudite the philosophical acrobatics, the social, like a relentless multi-season zombie-themed TV series, keeps coming back. We might have become a little addicted to critiquing the social; we might, today, have such a high tolerance for critique that it wears off a bit too easily.

So I suspect that here, in this volume, it is the critical account of the social that is under arrest, as it were, and not the social as such. One reason to invent the social is to propose an alternative strategy to the conventional forms of critique: the tired act of raising once again, in writing and in increasingly marginalised academic publications, a warning about the social. It would be to stop for once the relentless interrogation of the social, the torturing of this incorrigible creature, in favour of putting critique instead on a kind of watch-list. Let us secure the future by inventing the social today – this will be our new approach.

But what figure, we must ask, of ‘inventing the social’ is at work here? What figure makes sense of the idea that the social has been or can be invented? For many scholars, the social is ‘invented’ in only the most anonymous and quasi-evolutionary way: some mixture of kings, bureaucrats, politicians, scholars, elites, markets and organisations encounter the social as a problem in the world, and ‘invent’ around it systems for controlling it, responding to it, occasionally enhancing it, but always being frustrated or surprised by this unruly, eternal thing that contains an inscrutable power to upend the desires of humans to control it (on the nature of the social as a problem, see Martin Savransky’s piece in this volume).

However, a more likely figure of invention is the engineer. As the consummate Enlightenment figure, the engineer represents most clearly the desire to stand outside society, to calculate and plan it, to theorise and then straighten it into predictable lines, and to govern through it. When engineers invent the social they often do so from scratch – or what amounts to as much – by levelling whatever is in the way and replacing it with the ideal vision of a society (see e.g. Mitchell 1991; Rabinow 1989). The engineer (which might also include the statistician, the public health expert, and sometimes the revolutionary) is at the heart of the entity we call ‘society’ because he calls it into being, he invents it through both observation and practice (Hacking 1990; Donzelot 2015; Rose and Miller 2008; Tresch 2012).

Whether it is an anonymous force or the result of an engineering dream, the invented social we live with today is the layered landscape of yesterday’s attempts to invent, and to engineer, the social. We don’t live in the next epoch of the social (post-social or some neologism-yet-to-come) but in the lively ruins (or decimated landscapes) of past inventions of the social: some abandoned completely, others partially maintained here and there, retro-fitted with differing levels of enthusiasm, and yet others besides. There are reinventions as well, often as conscious attempts to fix past failures of invention, and sometimes to simply forget them. The forms of society diagnosed by Baron Hausmann, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, or Ulrich Beck, become the materiel and ordnance of another invention. But there is another figure for invention at play today: the hacker.

Consider the cases of invention presented in Inventing the Social. Many, such as the work by Christian Nold, Alex Wilkie and Mike Michael, or Nerea Calvillo, mean by invention something close to participatory design (in its current meaning) – design which not only invites social relations into the process of design, but even takes social relations as the subject or perhaps medium of design. In these cases, what is designed is also intended to do two things: activate or ‘invent’ the social relations in question, and provide a materialised critique of those relations by and through this attempt to activate or invent them. So Nold’s clever experiments in and around Heathrow and its sonic environment both bring people into relations with each other and the designer, and through the resulting designs, attempt to somehow change those relations. The residents are stuck in an old model of the social, whereas Nold sees an alternative: ‘I suggest that the airport opponents’ lack of success in challenging the metric [of acceptable noise levels] may be due to the fact that they have been unable to politicise the lack of care involved in the way community annoyance has been measured’ (this volume, p. 102). In a provocative way, Nold suggests that the social itself (labelled here ‘the issue’) is his client – and not the council, the airport or the residents around Heathrow. Others, such as the contributions by Noortje Marres and Carolin Gerlitz, or by Michael Guggenheim, Bernd Kräftner and Judith Kröll, mean by inventing the social an attention to how the social is being invented by others all the time – by social media users and designers, doctors and patients and anthropologists. As Guggenheim et al. suggest, invention here can be understood as ‘a systematic transport of the breaching experiment (Garfinkel 1967) into practices of the self. It is a form of creating the social by lay people through the means of effecting systematic breaches and changes in their own conditions of living’ (this volume, p. 69). There is also here an exquisite attention to how the social and technical intertwine, and how what counts as sociality worth having is never simply found but painstakingly made. As Marres and Gerlitz put it here, ‘the accomplishment of different forms of sociality depends – in a non-straightforward way – on how digital infrastructures, devices, and practices are assembled in practice’ (this volume, p. 254). To see that assembly from the inside is to see its vulnerabilities and its possibilities.

Still others (see, for example, Savransky, Clark or Muniesa) remain stubborn, returning again to the theorisation of the social, or the meta-theorisation of the social, or perhaps the theorisation of the meta-social, but all with an avowedly inventive attitude. They participate less in an old engineering mythos of inventing the social from scratch – those monstrous Parsonian (or Luhmannian) edifices of yore – and more in the style of the provocateur, the imp, the trickster, for whom all attempts at naive invention demand to be poked at, teased, trolled.

In all these cases I perceive a certain desire: to invent the social here means to intervene in it, to invert or to trouble it, and most importantly, to be there with and among others, as agent, tinkerer, designer, or even simply as theorist-agitators. For things do look different when one looks at the social as something to invent, to intervene in, to change and affect, to cause and to fail to cause–and not something to stand outside, to explain, resist, unveil, or critique. From this perspective, society ceases to be a problem and all of a sudden seems to be a resource, a toolkit, a field, a sandbox, a play (or a playhouse), maybe even a weapon. It involves not just a salubrious engagement with the ‘real world’ but the opportunity to retool social science for new environments, to engage in an active, creative, conviviality in places ranging from museums and cafes and art galleries to basements, hospitals, restaurants, to the internet, the campaign trail, the countryside, the war zone, the hot zone, or the border. It seems to exhume scholars from within the disciplines and their bloody-minded – but strangely persistent – norms, and expose them to the actual and vital eventful movement of that which they study. To invent the social is to create actually existing alternatives and real choices, to lay open means and methods to view and to invite others to tinker with them, extend them, break them, or repair them.

Now picture a hacker.

No, not that one.

The problem with the figure of the hacker is often that it is hard to see past the simple stereotype of the hacker into the figure itself. It should be an ambivalent figure: white hat, black hat, Unix geek, Facebook employee, social engineer, GCHQ operative, hacktivist, criminal, feminist, troll, gamer, maker: hacking comes in an under-appreciated variety of flavours today, ranging from morally repulsive to ideologically blinkered to creatively progressive. Some hack rootkits that own a server; some hack free software that runs the server, some hack pointless apps that spy on other people, some organise public protests that galvanise a movement, some make money, and some write things intended to criticise the very things the others are making, because even writing can be conceived of as a hack (Coleman and Kelty 2017; Murillo and Kelty 2017). At the heart of hacking is a certain commitment to critique through making. It is critique in a sense far more expansive than the kind that ostensibly belongs to ‘critical social scientists’ – it is more in line with what Foucault described as a refusal: ‘we do not want to be governed like that’ (Foucault 2007). So perhaps even more importantly, hacking is a particular kind of making – not the invention de novo (or creative destruction) of the engineer or economist, but a seeing-from-within, a making-as-exploiting, a kind of making that requires dwelling within precisely those ruins of past attempts to invent in order to find the weakness, the opportunity or the precise place to build a critique. Hacking is not confined to a class or a type of person, but is its own ‘style of reasoning’ (fittingly, see Ian Hacking 1992). It necessarily implies a collective, if not a social contract (though if the social is a shibboleth, pace Muniesa, hackers love cracking passwords).

So picture instead a collective of hackers. Perhaps something like the latter-day multicultural Star Trek crew of the television series Mr. Robot where the diverse collective society is led by a smart, savvy, female hacker, and includes a black felon, a young Muslim woman, a (now token) bearded white guy, and, tying them all together like a hoodie-wearing Spock, is a mentally ill drug addict. Which is to say, picture not the anti-social adolescent hacker of media stereotypes but a more gregarious group of friends and lovers and neighbours, engaged in problem-seeking and problem-solving in the face of a complicated world duct-taped together by big and small corporate experiments, previous hacks and kludges, broken technologies and a conflictual mix of expectations about the future and how to achieve it.

For one of the things that animates the hacker is precisely the fact that the existing systems (which are mostly technical, but also crucially composed of people, with their foibles and expectations), are complex accretions of past attempts at invention. Old systems, poorly maintained, full of vulnerabilities and human habits, are not failed inventions to the hacker, but opportunities to exploit, places to hang out and dwell (sometimes out of sight), and perhaps ironically, the very means to an expanded sociality, a way of being with others that, for whatever reason, has been denied them elsewhere. It is a way of seeing from the belly of beasts whose invention has been hard won and long in the making. Sometimes seeing from this perspective results in sabotage – the hacktivists of Anonymous, the trickster spirit that animates a ‘fuck-shit-up’ disruption (not a Silicon Valley innovator’s-dilemma-disruption) (Coleman 2014). Sometimes seeing from this perspective animates a specific inversion – a way of making technology do something it was not designed to do. And sometimes seeing from this perspective simply makes clear a vulnerable spot in what has been invented – whether that be an operating system or a social system – that can be exploited for gain (e.g. ransom and ransom-ware), or re-made to be openly available (free software), or disclosed to embarrass and improve (outing, leaking and doxing), or squirreled away to await the highest bidder (zero day exploits for sale on black markets).

There is conviviality and competition in every hack, but it remains an ambivalent figure because it still contains elements of the anti-social, of a certain cynicism about progress and liberation, a certain toxic concentration of anomie, criminality and in some cases, a co-optation ill-fitting the name (e.g. Facebook – an engineer of the social par excellence – is at 1 Hacker Way and calls itself ‘the hacking company’). There is failure, ineffectualness, pointless pursuit by the authorities, in-fighting, spying, accusation and informing. There is also, quite obviously, a problem of sociality in hacking: that it is mostly done by men and that it relies on exclusion through technical virtuosity, that it engages in reprehensible ethical and aesthetic actions. But not all forms of hacking have the same problems, social or otherwise.

What’s more, hacking is ambivalent because hacks are themselves social problems. What can be good for some people (taking down the Sony network for political retribution) can be bad for others (a two-month outage in a beloved gaming platform) (Milburn 2015). A hack is mobile and self-contained, and by definition cannot be controlled by or confined to some entity or another.

I come thus not to praise the hacker nor to bury him, but to point out just what it is that the figure reveals today, and why Inventing the Social seems to me to be an emblematic expression of it. For there is something of the hackish impulse at work in the essays in this volume – perhaps most obviously, Andres Jaque’s experiment with the basement of the Barcelona Pavilion. It is a literal inversion, in that it opens up the view from inside and below, and by doing so both displays and reinvents the social space and relations of the Pavilion. A different artist or a different activist might have done something different with the inversion – perhaps focusing on an environmental problem or a labour violation in order to shame the institution. For hacks can also be purely aesthetic or purely criminal: it is not the politics that makes the figure of the hacker useful, but the way it inhabits and observes existing structures, looking for concrete, technical ways to change them from the inside.

Hacks can also fail productively – not unlike the story that Wilkie and Michael tell of the Energy Babble: a device that provokes reassessment of the social order of environmental activism not by doing something instrumental (‘solving a problem’) but by, in part, flummoxing people. There is a bit of ‘the lulz’ in the Energy Babble: it is trolling environmentalists, artists, and the government agencies all at the same time.

Hacks emphasise the material – though that is the wrong word, since both software and social relations are sometimes said (mistakenly) to be immaterial. Hacks deal with things, but software, just like air and helium in Calvillo’s piece, is not immaterial, just difficult to work with. Its characteristics require investigation and experimentation, much like those of helium, and the result of doing so is never only about helium (or software), but also about the social, spatial, and conceptual relations within which it has been installed. Hacking the air, for Calvillo, would not be just a metaphor: it would be a very specific orientation towards the air and its relations, and would be quite different to engineering the air, or controlling the air. That we leave to builders of Zeppelins, or worse.

Or again, in the work of Nold, to take the social as client is to see it from the inside, both its technical constitution, and the existing, hard-won previous invention of the social constituted around noise levels and decibel maps. To hack the social, here, is to transform that previous invention into something that displays, reveals, discloses – leaks or breaches – in order to potentially shame or perhaps simply inform. The noise around Heathrow is not changed thereby – but the inner workings of measurement and regulation are made public, and this act of disclosure is itself a kind of hack, dependent on an invented social it works from within.

And yet. And yet, inventing the social should also come with a significant anxiety. The heart of this anxiety is that trying to hack – to construct, tweak, experiment with, tickle, tease or prod the social into being – is to join the rest of the world. It is to face the reality of competing on a global stage, not just with other experts in the social (think tanks, development agencies, education specialists) but with experts in the social for whom the social itself is a means to other ends: power and capital.

One need only consider the naturalisation of social media as a site of the social: Facebook or Twitter’s engineers are smug in their certainty that they now access ‘the social’ in huge pools and swells of data that poor university professors can only gaze at longingly from their rickety shacks on the shore. Though they may well be experimentally inventing the social (as Marres and Gerlitz show), their power comes from falsely but convincingly asserting that they stand outside it, observe it, and understand it better than anyone else. In this respect they ascend from the position of hacker to some even more monstrous form of the engineer – Facebook may call itself the ‘Hacking Company’ but its pretensions are not to hack, but to destroy the world and re-make it in its own image. They are not interested in critiquing the social, they are interested precisely in owning and controlling it – from the myriad everyday A/B tests that observe whether a blue font or a red font generates more clicks, to the controversial experiments in manipulating the news-feed, to the secretive and unknowable experiments in machine learning and algorithmic AI that guide users in everything from job ads to racial profiling of minorities to book-buying to driverless cars to, apparently, voting.

Or, for example, there is also the questionable fixing and staining of ‘the social’ engaged in by the elites of the bio-medical establishment, for whom the social is an evident problem, and where the refusal to engage with social scientists is both a misunderstanding of the object of their own expertise and a performance of their power over others – not just the sick and suffering, but those adjacent experts proposing other diagnoses and different treatments. Doctors do not ‘hack’ the social: but some do find themselves inside the layered ruins of past attempts. The responses to Ebola in 2014, for instance, dealt precisely with the frustrating failures of multiple different regimes, each with its own partial view of what makes the social work (see, for example, Rosengarten, this volume; also Lakoff, Collier, and Kelty 2014).

To invent the social as hackers is to bring ourselves into direct competition (by other means) with those who are busy inventing the social at scale, everyday. To my mind, this is the same problem that hackers proper have: they dwell inside a system of systems, tinkering, exploiting and exploring, but they do so against a backdrop of entities with much more money and power – who have the might if not the right to invent the social. To hack is to demonstrate the existence of alternatives to that might, and to do so through means other than critique and writing. And it has a greater chance of having an effect. Insofar as Inventing the Social aims at this goal, its clearest figure is the hacker – not the engineer or the scientist, much less the scholar. It somehow seems that a demonstration, an experiment or an event – even a small-scale one – both holds more persuasive power, and seems to reveal more, than an isolated act of writing, or some old method strait-jacketed in norms of distance, objectivity, or neutrality. The disadvantage is that we (social scientists) remain comparatively outside, underfunded, inadequately resourced amateurs in this game. The advantage is that by inventing the social we can lay bare the workings of invention, we can demonstrate how sausage is made, and perhaps thereby make it otherwise. The disadvantage is that our sausage shop is a street-corner operation in competition with abattoirs of shocking efficiency and cold chains of global reach. This is the anxiety that should face the inventive sociologist, the hacker sociologist.

Because what should be clear from the fact that ‘critique has run out of steam’ is not so much that it has run out of steam for academics, but that those in the world who regularly ‘invent the social’ were never really listening very hard to such critiques in the first place. It is quite possible that academic social science is just now emerging from a kind of legitimacy cocoon, within which critique seemed to be its main product, packaged in the butterfly garb of scientism or intellectual capital, and delivered to the world stage for everyone to gaze upon. But even if such legitimacy ever existed, that form of critique is in fact nearly exhausted (or perhaps more optimistically, awaiting a renewal from somewhere other than critique itself). What remains is for us to join the rest of the world, to invent the social, to build, to experiment, to make, to compete with the largest, the most powerful and the most extensive inventors of the contemporary social. But hacking demonstrates that there is more than one way to invent the social, that we are not all strictly in competition to invent the same social in just the same way, that it matters not simply that we experiment with the social, but how we do so. It is now necessary to say, perversely, that we invent the social critically, that our way of doing the social will demonstrate to others the nature of the problems we face more clearly, more precisely, or in ways that will lead to a better world, in ways that will be more theoretically correct, in ways that will compel us to think otherwise, because we make otherwise. If we want to invent the social otherwise, how should we think about the social (again)?

If the promise of inventing the social, or inventive methods, is offered in order to remake social science today, the figure of the hacker cannot be ignored. It is symptomatic of the social today, of the invented social we have inherited and are faced with exploring once more. But even more importantly, the promise of the hack is that it opens up competition to individuals and collectives with no power. Even though they compete with the largest, the richest, the most extensive – it is a figure that gives hope, even if it courts destruction as well.


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