The Increasingly Political, Ever Lulzy, Richly Cultural World of Hackers

by Hans Rollman

13 May 2015

Gabriella Coleman, ethnographer of Anonymous, is on a mission to dispel stereotypes and acknowledge the cultural contributions of hackers.
cover art

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy - The Many Faces of Anonymous

Gabriella Coleman

US: Nov 2014

“You… have now got… our attention” opens one of the (in)famous YouTube videos by the hacker collective, Anonymous.

If Anonymous – and other hackers – have gripped the attention of the media and public, Gabriella Coleman is on a parallel trajectory in the academic world. She’s trying to direct the attention of the academic community toward what turns out to be a fascinating cultural realm, while also trying to help combat some of the excessive media sensationalism that all-too-often misinforms public dialogue around this emerging cultural phenomenon.

“…by refusing to play the game of self-promotion, Anonymous ensures mystery; this alone is a radical political act, given a social order based on ubiquitous monitoring and the celebration of runaway individualism and selfishness.”

Trained as an anthropologist, Coleman currently holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal. Her first book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetic of Hacking, explores connections between the free and open source software movement, political ethics among hackers, and liberal thought. Her latest book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, zeroes in on one of the world’s most recognized, and often misunderstood, hacker entities. Entity, collective, culture – any discussion of Anonymous must take as its point of departure the name that refers to a diverse collection of individuals, groups and activities; the monolithic image media often presents of it is one of the first stereotypes that needs to be dispelled, as Coleman’s book explains.

A vibrant and perceptive work of ethnography, her study offers a rewarding balance of historical context, broad social movement analysis, and more narrowly focused examinations of key individuals, groups and moments in Anonymous’ relatively brief existence. But it also reads with the narrative pace of a thriller: as Anonymous shifts form and tactics in response to – and to engagement with – the often sensationalistic media coverage of its activities, the response of corporate and political regimes frequently frames those activities as illegal. Coleman’s research participants are at constant risk of persecution and arrest by legal authorities in many of the countries in which they operate.

But more than anything, what her book conveys is a sense of the cultural richness of a world that is growing and changing in rapid and dramatic ways.

Talking Anonymous

Coleman’s interest in hacking originated in its political potential, she explained.

“I got into hackers because I had learned about free and open source software – hackers who have reinvented the law so that they can guarantee access to their material and oppose copyright, which restricts their material. I was really floored that a bunch of engineers had turned to hacking the law and reinventing the law for their productive autonomy.”

Other aspects of her work came together from unlikely angles. Her interest in Anonymous developed while pursuing a research project at the University of Alberta, which has one of the world’s largest Scientology archives. Anonymous has launched several major attacks against the Church of Scientology, which Coleman analyses at length in her book.

The animosity between Scientology and the hacking community offers a potent symbolic reflection of the competing principles of proprietary knowledge versus free speech and open access that drive these two communities. As Coleman relates, “geeks” have been at odds with Scientology since the early ‘90s, given the Church’s staunch efforts to keep its internal activities and doctrines secret; its persecution of whistleblowers has made it a clear target for free speech activists.

But the conflict between scientologists and hackers illustrates other fascinating elisions. It reveals how struggles over deeply rooted principles like free speech and proprietary knowledge have migrated into the online world. The struggle also reveals an intensified slide from hacking as apolitical fun – doing it for “lulz” – to political activism. What Coleman’s analysis demonstrates is that hacker culture is changing rapidly; as are public perceptions and representations of hackers.

“I think the public still, and has for a long time, seen hackers in largely negative terms, but because of the fact that they do work now in Silicon Valley, and there’s the popularization of things like lifehacks, there are more meanings around the term. People have more than just the criminal association with hacking.”

“Given the fact that there’s so many economic opportunities for hackers, it’s interesting that there’s still such a political thrust to it. There’s a strong anti-authoritarianism in the scene, and because there’s been a strong history of crackdowns against hackers, and even though hackers work against governments and have a lot of opportunities to make money, they’re still really good about securing what sociologists call free spaces, which are autonomous spaces they themselves build and maintain – anywhere from Internet Relay Chat to conferences. There are real spaces of autonomy that they’ve built and they maintain. That is really, really important to understanding why a group of them move from having alternative ethics to being political. But certainly also the big crackdowns, all these state interventions have been really important in politicizing it.”

Diversity Behind the Mask

What sort of a community is it that we’re talking about? Often stereotyped as middle class, white, and male, it’s difficult to get a firm sense of hacker demographics due to the anonymity and pseudonymity that defines the scene. Nevertheless, Coleman’s research suggests a more complex and diverse culture than many pundits assume. In some ways, she suggests, anonymity plays an important role in opening spaces for greater diversity.

“Anonymous, especially, is even more diverse than a lot of hacker circles. The anonymity is important. The moment you show who you are, it immediately becomes this phenomenon of ‘Oh, that’s the type of people who become involved’.”

Stereotypes, in other words, become entrenched and self-fulfilling. Anonymity helps to counter that and prevent stereotypes from emerging, although it creates challenges of its own. Yet as hacker culture becomes more complex, and more groupings emerge, space for diversity grows. 

“The hackers are really diverse in terms of ethnicity and background… there are people who served time in Iraq, immigrant kids, people whose fathers were in the IRA. That doesn’t surprise me. People who have experienced some form of marginalization are not going to be the typical white middle class kids. Although there is some of that.

“The black hat hacking, breaking into systems, that is purely male. The general scene, outside Anonymous, is generally male as well. That is due to really low numbers of women in computer science generally. That means the riskier forms of behaviour are going to be male as well. But there’s definitely a lot of gender diversity in Anonymous.”

Hackers or Heroes?

While hackers shouldn’t generally be villainized, stereotypes of hackers as unqualified heroes can also be problematic, Coleman says. While she feels the work they do is valuable and important to society, it needs to be put into realistic context.

“I think it’s unhelpful when people idolize them as revolutionary, as opposed to contextualizing politically what they have accomplished,” she says.

“They’re not going to revolutionize the world, and they’re not going to be like major saviours. That said, if your expectation is a bit more realistic, they have effected really important change. For instance, with copyrights and patents – I think that that system is really out of control in terms of the way corporations can exercise control over cultural content in a way that is completely monopolistic. And the creative commons movement has been incredibly effective and ushered in political change.”

And when it comes to the heated debate about whether some groups – for example, Wikileaks – qualify as journalists, Coleman has no doubts about whose side she’s on.

“The role that Wikileaks has played is one of source material, but it’s gone beyond source material. It’s a journalistic function, absolutely. Journalism is a dynamic field and it has changed over time in terms of new possibilities… The fifth estate has allowed the fourth estate to function more effectively.”

“When it comes to surveillance and privacy there’s an explosion of hackers that are working on improving the existing tools. We’ll see how that plays out in the future and whether those yields are effective for security and privacy. But they are rising to the challenge. In all sorts of ways, they are effecting change.”

Tricksters and Resisters

Throughout her book Coleman draws connections between hackers and the ‘trickster’ archetype. Although the trope – a staple of classical anthropology – has been over-used in much ethnographic work, in this context it works quite well. While some hackers operate in pursuit of political goals, or for self-serving reasons, the hacker-as-trickster operates in pursuit of lulz – a sort of primeval, chaotic joy derived at the expense of others. Lulz serve as a sort of social balancing mechanism – when people become too full of themselves or absorbed in the conviction of their own self-righteousness, hacking for lulz cuts them down to size, imposes humility, and sends an implicit reminder to keep everything in perspective. Sometimes it has no discernible purpose or function beyond reminding us of our own constant vulnerability to the whims and whimsies of others. There’s an element here of restoring nature’s chaotic balance, which is itself often beyond our own comprehension; all we can do is laugh and/or weep in response. Transgression – of rules, customs, social conventions – is core to this behaviour, Coleman says.

“There is such a propensity to transgress rules. That could be an institution, it could be a law, it could be a norm. There’s such a proclivity to do that among hackers and trolls. It manifests in different ways.”

Those ways depend in part on the opportunity and skill sets different hackers have. Computer engineers and programmers, for instance, might challenge norms and institutions by developing open source software, or other mechanisms for eluding copyright control. Others who don’t have those skill-sets might challenge norms and rules through obscene language and trolling. Others might do it through system hacking. But what brings these acts together is their challenge to established boundaries and the use of rule-breaking to keep culture dynamic.

“That is the core element that always comes up in hackerdom. Trolls are interesting because they always push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. Some tricksters, the lesson they convey is what happens when rules are broken. If there’s no rule-breaking, things can really calcify in a cultural and political sense. If there’s rule-breaking all the time, things can get really chaotic and scary. The trickster element is supposed to teach us that lesson, both ways.”

Methodological Challenges

Being an ethnographer working with hackers challenges conventional anthropological methodology.

“I think the toughest part here was dealing with the illegal element at some level,” Coleman reflected. “And certainly the fact that I couldn’t meet people very easily. My first project on free and open source software was very straightforward: I lived with hackers, went to their conferences, it was a very traditional project. It didn’t challenge me the way this project did because this is a secret society.

“Colleagues who work with the mafia have had similar experiences. When you’re dealing with illegal criminal elements it becomes much more difficult for security reasons.”

While compiling her research, for example, Coleman had to be very careful to ensure her data was protected lest it fall into the wrong hands, which in this case might include law enforcement or border security who could use her research to incriminate and prosecute her research subjects. Given the serious possible consequences of opening up to the wrong person, not to mention the negative stereotypes many journalists perpetuate about them, hackers are obviously cautious about accepting researchers into their midst.

Presenting the data and analysis thus collected can also be tricky. A researcher is expected to maintain a critical and analytical stance. But how do you present an honest analysis of a culture in which you’re trying to maintain a presence, and among people with very potent skills to make life rough for those who cross them?

“You wait a really long time before you say anything really substantial. Time is of the essence because you have to build trust, and so when you say things people aren’t happy with, they don’t turn on you. My general outlook on Anonymous is positive rather than negative, and that really helps. In the book I had to show some pretty ugly moments, and things I don’t agree with, but I kind of mention it and don’t blow on it. Obviously, with something like Anonymous, if they started to violate privacy right and left I’d have to change my stance. But they know that, and that it’s a tricky controversial beast.”

One problem that frustrates her is the fact that some social scientists still don’t see hackers as a complex, rich culture worth studying. Old-school understandings of both culture and hackers leads some academics to adopt dismissive attitudes toward studies of contemporary and emerging cultures.

“Some view it as very legitimate and very interesting, but there are some people who still don’t think that hackers exist as a social group. They think that they may be interesting, but that they’re culturally thin – that they’re not a substantial area for social research. I kind of understand where that comes from – I think I had that same bias before I started researching hackers. But once I saw their traditions – which are very historical, very folkloristic, and deeply reverential for the past – I thought, no! This is a very cultural world! But it’s dispiriting when people don’t recognize that.”

Unlike classical anthropology conducted in distant and remote locations, hackers exist in an omnipresent online world, which means they have access to what’s written about them. In contrast to many ethnographic subjects, these research subjects have very much of an ability to speak back to the researcher. So what did they have to say about it?

“Generally people were quite positive about the book,” she said. “People know that there’s a lot of tensions and controversies within Anonymous itself and I showcase that. It’s good to remind people that not everyone’s on the same page, and there are disagreements about ethics. Giving voice to that is a relief to people, in many ways.

“There’s a minority that are not happy about me profiting off the book, but a lot of people know that if you did a time versus money analysis, it was probably below minimum wage. They know that it takes a huge amount of effort, and it’s good that someone’s archiving the history and good that someone is getting really in there and explaining it to the public.”

Culture on Overdrive

A challenge facing researchers of fast-paced modern cultures like those of hackers is the speed with which cultural change occurs. Even in the period since Coleman began studying these communities, she’s seen some major changes. One change, she says, has to do with the broadening range of hacking that goes on, which in turn broadens the range of people who get into hacking.

“There’s this diversification of the hacker community. And it’s both technical and political. You could be a hacker by doing security, by writing free and open source software, by intruding into machines, by doing hardware hacking, and now by doing bio hacking. There’s really a lot of ways in which that kind of inquisitiveness and thinking outside the box mentality is applied to many different technological realms. There’s been that kind of diversification.”

Another major change, she says, is the emergence of an overtly politicized angle to the activities of some hackers. “The very overt whistleblowing, leaking, forming political parties, joining NGOs and non-profits as staff technologists, being watchdogs, working with journalists – that has been really dramatic and historically unprecedented. And kind of unexpected, because there’s always been a reluctance among not all, but some, hackers to engage in traditional political sites. And now they certainly have.”

In such a rapidly changing world – and one which is often sensationalized in troubling ways in the media – what does Coleman consider to be some of the truly important trends emerging in contemporary hacking?

“I think maybe there’s two different threads or currents,” she responds. “One is (security) breaches – they’ve been in the news in a really dramatic way since 2012, and while there’s always been a very strong security industry and field, nevertheless I think security practices are changing in corporations. And keeping an eye on those developments is interesting and important.

“And then the other one concerns the privacy movement. A lot of hackers have tried to improve encryption tools to make them more usable. It’s a tough challenge, but they have certainly taken the challenge and moved forward with it. It’s a very open question whether they’ll succeed or not. But it’s certainly a really important part of the future.”

Understanding Hackers

If she could dispel one stereotype about hackers, says Coleman, it would be “the one, because it is so prevalent, that all hackers are anti-social, bordering on the pathological. They’re hyper-social! If I have a party with hackers, I have to kick them out of my house – they just want to hang out and keep on talking! They have meet-ups, they have unbelievably festive conferences, they hang out. Yes, an asocial person can find a home in hacking, because hackers are not going to judge them or kick them out of that community. But they’re not only social but I would say they’re hyper-social. Because with all their regular offline interactions, many of them are also hanging out in chat rooms all day. They’re socializing, joking, sharing work.”

Her work with hackers has endowed Coleman with a profound respect for the community and culture in which she has found herself accepted. It’s also left her with a deep sense of the important role hackers play in the modern world; and the valuable lessons their often irreverent anti-authoritarianism can teach us.

“I would say their anti-authoritarianism is sometimes bullshit and co-opted. But I think it does truly exist. Many hackers have indeed taken the risks to push moral and political boundaries. Whether it’s whistleblowing or having the audacity to recreate our intellectual property laws. It’s their willingness to experiment and challenge power and authority… I just think that a lot of people don’t know that hackers have long acted politically in these ways. It’s all the more interesting given the economic opportunities (they could pursue), that a small but sizable group say ‘I’m going to risk everything by doing this.’”

Militant and Political

What Coleman and her work illustrate clearly and convincingly is the increasingly political slant which Anonymous and other hacking activities have taken. Not all hackers are supportive of this shift; if anything the hacking ‘culture’ is defined by its fierce independence of thought and action. Cooperation is often contingent and precarious; but when it happens, it has the potential to create a force powerful enough to rival both corporate and state power. Indeed, it resembles revolution at its most basic – a spontaneous coming together of egalitarian individuals working toward a common goal; the distinction being the uniquely technical range of skill and focus hackers bring to the task.

French philosopher Alain Badiou, in his recent collection Philosophy for Militants and elsewhere, has tackled the issue of how we may bring about a new politics. In his introduction to the book, translator and fellow philosopher Bruno Bosteels explains the title, noting that ‘militant’ doesn’t mean a nasty violent person as news media and government propaganda have tried to define it; rather “a militant, simply put, is somebody who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk, or who goes the full mile.”

In an era when political ideals are increasingly held to double standards by those in power, those who do ideologically “walk the walk” find themselves on the outside of the normative “political fiction”. What Badiou says we need are new heroic figures, new political fictions – “We must create new symbolic forms for our political actions…” he writes. “No doubt the difficulty lies in the fact that we must find a great fiction without possessing a proper name for it.” While heeding Coleman’s call not to idolize hackers, it’s worth considering whether perhaps Anonymous is that name, and the mask its symbolic representation.

Indeed, the mask is a powerful characteristic of Anonymous; the deliberate subjugation of egos and individual fame and recognition, the disdain for leaders and determinedly egalitarian approach to struggle, as Coleman rightly emphasizes: “…by refusing to play the game of self-promotion, Anonymous ensures mystery; this alone is a radical political act, given a social order based on ubiquitous monitoring and the celebration of runaway individualism and selfishness.”

In a world obsessed with celebrities, it’s perhaps something that there’s an equally avid fascination with those who cannot be seen, who work in the ‘shadows’ and behind the mask, and whose activities, while often challenging normative political fictions, are equally unpredictable. Coleman’s work doesn’t remove the mask entirely, but it does reveal some of the deep humanity and rich culture that drives this complex community. While it’s hard to say what long-term impact they’ll have, Coleman’s work makes clear that our society is better off for the complexity, irreverence, dynamism and hope that Anonymous and other hacker communities bring to it.

“They have consistently shown that a group of hackers have taken that anti-authoritarianism to heart, because they’ve been willing to act in risky ways that benefit society as a whole.”

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