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The Money Always Goes Up: Or, Escape from the Hacker Class
I've got a lot to say about "Billion Dollar Creator"—this is a small part of it.
I might have noticed the launch of Billion Dollar Creator if I could bear to log into the platform formerly known as Twitter for more than 30 seconds before existential horror overtook my will to scroll. But I cannot. So I discovered it whentexted me a link a couple of weeks ago.
Billion Dollar Creator is a new, provocatively named podcast hosted by Rachel Rogers, author of the provocatively titled We Should All Be Millionaires, and Nathan Barry, founder of the not-provocatively named ConvertKit.1 This podcast promises to teach "creators how to capture attention and turn it into real wealth" by examining "brands, celebrities, and entrepreneurs" that have built billion-dollar (or, ya know, many million-dollar) companies.
Back in 2010, all anyone could talk about was building 6-figure businesses. By 2017 or so, we'd graduated to talking about 7-figure companies. By 2020, I heard more and more people talk about 8-figure companies. Of course, a billion-dollar company is a 10-figure company.
The money always goes up, I texted Kate.
She responded that that should be the title of an essay. So here we are.
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The money always goes up for a number of reasons.
There's the battle to stand out in a market that's crowding around a particular number. If everyone else is promising 7-figures, I'll promise 8-figures! There's the potential to charge considerably more for products and services that leverage the possibility of far greater returns. If I promise 8-figures, I can charge 6-figures for this mastermind! And there's also the market's willingness to believe a certain number is a reasonable goal. Now that everyone's working from home, making a fortune with your laptop seems totally doable!
Those explanations are all reasonable. But they explain a commercial phenomenon rather than a phenomenon of political economy. The machinations of commerce are important to any of us cobbling together precarious livelihoods as independent workers. However, without understanding the political economy at work, we end up caught in the commerce machinery we're trying to operate.
Theorist McKenzie Wark argues that there is a new form of production emerging in the 21st-century economy.
She asks a bold question: What if capitalism is dead?
Capitalism is dead the way God is dead2, she explains. That is, by proclaiming its death, we free ourselves to describe today's political economy without relying on the seemingly eternal nature of capital and its machinery. This makes sense given our continual need to append qualifiers to our characterizations of capitalism (e.g., neoliberal, shareholder, surveillance, zombie, etc.). We keep adjusting our understanding of capitalism in order to fit reality rather than simply describing reality for what it is.
Wark describes our current political economy as one based on vectors of information and data rather than labor and production. This new form of production, which has been around now since at least the turn of the century, creates new class relations—the hacker class and the vectoralist class.
For Wark, the hacker class is made up of those tasked with continually creating something novel from their experience, expertise, and perspective of the world around them. For some, it's code. But others create political hot takes, video essays, books, newsletters, art, songs, drugs, vaccines, social media posts, livestreams, etc...
"We are the hackers of abstraction. We produce new concepts, new perceptions, new sensations, hacked out of raw data. Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colorings, we are the abstracters of new worlds." — A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark
In other words, if you're reading this, I'm nearly 100% certain you belong to the hacker class, as Wark describes it.
Just as farmers created value for feudal lords without owning the land and workers created value for capitalists without own owning the means of production, hackers create value for an emerging ruling class without owning the intellectual property that makes others wealthy beyond measure.
'Now, hold up,' you might say, 'don't we own the intellectual property we create as independent hackers?' It's a good question.
Using my own work as an example, yes, I own the intellectual property that I create—my words and ideas. I can leverage and license that intellectual property to generate revenue. But I'm not manufacturing and selling in the same market as those in the emerging ruling class. Wark argues that those people own the vectors of information rather than the information itself. The people who belong to that rarefied group she calls the vectoralist class.
"By hacker class I mean everyone who produces new information out of old information, and not just people who code for a living. Part of the struggle of our time is to see a common class interest in all kinds of information making, whether in the sciences, technology, media, culture, or art. What we all have in common is producing new information but not owning the means to realize its value."
Those of us who do own the products of our hacking can sell them at the going rate. But that's not the real value of that information. The real value is in the vector.
What is a vector?
To make the idea of vectors of information and the vectoralist class more concrete (a troublesome task when both are literally inventions of abstraction), I think it's helpful to consider who belongs to the vectoralist class today. If your mind automatically goes to the billionaires whose free toys we use to create and connect (i.e., hack) today, you're on the right track.
Elon Musk is a vectoralist. The platform formerly known as Twitter is the product of vectoralist production rather than capitalist production—the code, user base, and advertising system produce the flow of information (i.e., data) that continually generates wealth. Tesla and SpaceX aren't strictly capitalist ventures, either. Instead, they've created vectors of information that provide an ever-ready spring of wealth that Musk and fellow owners can drink from. When Musk says he wants X to be the "everything app," what he means is that if X can become the vector through which the maximum number of people can do the maximum number of activities, he'll have a well of wealth that never runs dry.
"There is nothing that can't be tagged and captured through information about it and considered a variable in the simulations that drive resource extraction and process," observes Wark. This is how most business growth happens today. Automakers are turned into lending institutions. Retail stores are turned into logistics services and consumer behavior research groups. Real estate is turned into a complex web of lending, derivatives, rent-seeking, and other abstractions of data. Tech companies don't produce technology so much as create and exploit an information vector.
Maybe a more metaphorical description would be helpful.
Imagine that a vectoralist hires a group of hackers to dig a trench through an open field. Once the trench is dug, the vectoralist enlists the help of a new group of hackers to start pumping water through the trench. Now that the water's flowing, the vectoralist uses the force of the water to power a mill that produces flour. Further down the line, the flow of water runs through a hydroelectric dam (it's a big trench...). And even further down the line, the water is collected and resold to the hackers who pump the water back into the system. The vectoralist makes money not on the product of their system, but on the system itself—the vector they've created.
And now we can return to our aspiring Billion Dollar Creators. Both Rogers and Barry have hung their hats on hacking wealth accumulation. Barry wrote a 2019 article on "the ladders of wealth creation" before writing the "Billion Dollar Creator" article that led to the new podcast. Meanwhile, Rogers's brand is organized around a mission to "build a world where women hold serious financial power."3
I want to say explicitly that this piece is not meant as a critique of either Barry or Rogers personally. I'm much more interested in the phenomenon that inevitably leads to the place they've ended up with their work.
I say hacking wealth accumulation purposefully.
Because, for all the talk of billion-dollar companies, financial power, and personal freedom, Rogers and Barry belong to the hacker class as well. They don't own systems that can siphon surplus data to generate wealth. Even ConvertKit, a software company, generates revenue directly from its software product rather than from the flow of information. It's a good business to be in—but it's not the best business to be in.
"That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who monopolize the means for making worlds we alone discover. We do not own what we produce—it owns us." —McKenzie Wark
What Rogers and Barry hack ultimately feeds vectors they don't and (likely) won't ever control. In hacking the language of wealth, they mortgage their ideas, fans, users, books, and code to Google, Meta, and X. And this is why the money always goes up. No amount of money will ever satisfy because it's not money itself that gets you into the ruling class today. To become a vectoralist, you need to own a vector.
It doesn't matter how many "figures" your company is worth. Anything less than controlling a vector will feel precarious. You can't escape the hacker class through sheer force of will or savviness. Your work will always serve someone else's interests better.
What Wark proposes is a "collective hack." Instead of wallowing in the bleakness I just described, she argues we need to find the connection in our differences. I'll admit that my first instinct is to distance myself from the wannabe billion-dollar creators, whoever they might be. I want to roll my eyes at the income claims bro-creators use to go viral on X or LinkedIn. I want to reserve my right to trade snarky texts with Kate about people who have reached a level of material comfort that I can't really imagine at this point in my life.
But Wark warns against this exact tendency. She explains that we all figure out how to move through life with a modicum of freedom. For some, that means they'll "take the money and run." For others, that means refusing to compromise. Either way, there's a good chance we end up resenting those who took the other path. "One lot resents the prosperity it lacks, the other resents the liberty it lacks to hack away at the world freely," she writes.
And phew, if that last sentence doesn't get to the root of all of my professional insecurities.
The money will always go up because it's a hack on a hack—a sure way to produce something new and novel out of the same old boring information:
"The workplace nightmare of the worker is having to make the same thing, over and over, against the pressure of the clock; the workplace nightmare of the hacker is to produce different things, over and over, against the pressure of the clock."
The money goes up, and we see something different. And ultimately, that's how I know that the promise of Billion Dollar Creator is hollow. It's the same story told with a new gloss. It's the same hack with a new name.
Up until my switch to Substack, I was a very happy ConvertKit customer! I’d still recommend it for those who need much more email marketing functionality than I do.
The “God is dead” idea is grossly misunderstood. Take it from me, a person with a signed copy of The Gospel of Christian Atheism.
I think this is for a future post, but if we can agree that “money is power,” then is that a system we want to gain power in?