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Tuesday, 28 June 2011

The new anarchists - Are Hackers The 21st Century’s First Revolutionary Movement?

Hackers’ efforts to fight the power may lead to a backlash

Peter Steiner’s now famous cartoon for the New Yorker, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” first appeared in 1993 but didn’t, according to the artist, receive much attention until the Internet became more familiar to people. It was a rare instance of a cartoon doing what it’s not supposed to do, gaining relevance over time as people understand just how pithily it captured an essential truth. This, surely, elevates it to one of the most important cartoons in history (Steiner told the New York Times in 2000 that he felt a little like the person who invented the smiley face).

History has shown Steiner’s vision to be much too benign, and the cyber events of the past year — hacking and theft on the scale of 18th-century piracy — demand an update, perhaps along the lines of, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re China.” But even that may have been spoiled after the events of this week, which saw the appearance of an alliance between two groups of clandestine hackers, Anonymous and LulzSec, both of which have been implicated in numerous high profile security breaches.

In a statement announcing “Operation Anti-Security,” LulzSec declared that “the government and white hat security terrorists across the world continue to dominate and control our Internet ocean … we encourage any vessel, large or small, to open fire on any government or agency that crosses their path.”

This was accompanied by “an open letter to citizens of the United States of America” on Anonymous’ news site, which sounded uncannily tea party-ish in its call on Americans to “wake up” and take back their liberties from a corrupt government.

To judge from the reaction of some information security experts, the alliance was on the scale of Germany teaming up with Japan during World War II. Except by the end of the week, LulzSec was apparently calling it quits, alarmed, perhaps, by the arrest of an alleged member in Britain and the attempts by other hackers to expose their identities.

With subterfuge as the name of the info-war game, the virtual equivalent of smoke and mirrors makes it difficult to say what’s true and what might be misdirection, especially with organizations that are leaderless and decentralized. But here’s the upshot of this recent cycle of cyber shenanigans: On the Internet, one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist.

Technological prowess has given hackers an extraordinary sense of political entitlement. It’s easy to theorize about how the world should work if your only engagement with it is through a computer and you’re in your teens or 20s. But weaponize your theories through hacking and you’re all but certain to lose the public, who will demand ever more stringent crackdowns and restrictive laws that, in turn, will push some hackers to even more extreme responses.

At the same time, the hacker collectives do possess a technological prowess that is beyond the imagining of most people, and with a deep understanding of how technology works, there is the privilege of insight. The explosive development of the Web raises serious, complex questions about ownership, privacy and freedom. And if these are ignored by politicians, or dominated by commercial interests, or dismissed by a mainstream media averse to complexity, then hacker frustrations will turn to direct action as a way of getting attention.

This is, after all, what non-governmental organizations and other advocacy groups do on a much more limited scale to promote their interests. (Still, it’s one thing to disrupt traffic with a protest march; it’s another to disrupt Internet traffic with a denial-of-service attack.)

The question is what kind of politics is this technology empowering? If you don’t acknowledge genuine concerns or even good faith in the info security community, if government is irredeemably corrupt, then you haven’t just abandoned politics, you’re anti-political; all that’s left is a war of attrition.

Oddly, the most useful insights on hacker culture may come from a re-engagement with the politics of anarchism, as noted in a review of new books on the subject in the summer issue of BookForum by Columbia historian Mark Mazower. While Mazower makes a mistake, in my view, in seeing revolutionary politics as still being mediated through academic leftism rather than through technology, his point — that the anarchist theories of the 19th century are more relevant than Marx to explain the present political conditions — is timely.

Anarchism’s combination of individual commitment, ethical universalism and deep suspicion of the state as a political actor mark it out as the ideology of our times,” writes Mazower, before ending his piece with the claim that “we are all anarchists now.”

But we’re not. We are disenfranchised because today’s anarchism belongs to the hackers — and they have the means to make much better bombs. Whether the alliance between LulzSec and Anonymous was ever real or not, it defines the new ideological reality of our times: the network as an emerging anarchic state actor. Whether we like it or not, this politics of technology forces us toward libertarianism, to maximal freedom, because the alternatives — anarchy and control — are dancing toward disaster.

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