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Anonymous and the New Religion: Data

As the world is increasingly filtered through computers there is emerging a reliance on data as a belief system. Groups like Anonymous are pushing us further towards data, as they highlight the divide they see between belief and information.

“At its best thought is but speculation, a pastime such as the machine enjoys when it sparks. God has thought everything out in advance. We have nothing to solve: it has all been solved for us. We have but to melt, to dissolve, to swim in the solution. We are soluble fish and the world is an aquarium.”

-- Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi, pg. 141

“Prepare to enter the hivemind, motherfuck.”

-- Topiary’s last message

There is a revolution raging in the United States. It’s a revolution of perception; on one side an enlightened minority of people who believe in the data-centric, computer-modeled logic that has come into its own during the last decade. On the other side are the majority: those who believe in what today seems increasingly like intellectual laziness masquerading as idealism, contradictory morality, or quaint superstition. This is true for both the conservative and liberal sides of American society. On one side are the burgeoning ideas presented in books like Moneyball and Freakanomics which show how data mining can provide truths that go against what we believe is common sense. On the other side are groups like global warming deniers and birther conspiracy theorists. In other words, willful data deniers.

Behind this move towards data as a belief system is the rise of the ubiquitous Internet, or the skyrocketing rate of time each individual is connected to some form of computer terminal - be it through phone, laptop, tablet or otherwise. Our lives and social interactions are increasingly mitigated by a machine, which like television has come to exist for the most part as a medium which facilitates an advertising marketplace. In this environment information is the commodity which is valued above others. And yet information is not neutral -- it can mean profit for those who control it and loss for those who give it away; think of applying for insurance over an Internet that can guess your age and relative health risk by your web history, or even change the price on products depending on your income level (something that is already happening). On the other hand, and more importantly for the future of humankind, information can also equal freedom.

Recently, while sitting in the keynote speech at a convention for the financial and insurance industry I was struck by the complete inattentiveness of the audience. It was hard to find someone who was actually paying attention to what was being said from the podium of a convention which cost millions to put on. This wasn’t because half of them were on their smartphones, that was just a symptom of their restlessness (it’s a mistake to see technology as a distraction - it just allows people to be distracted from what they are not interested in). No one was paying attention for a simple reason: no one cared.

I see the same thing as I walk through the offices of major corporations; few of the workers seem to genuinely want to be there. One reason for this might be that at their core even the least self aware person craves immersive, total experience. Unfortunately, a majority of the jobs available in this corporatized, specialized, technocratic world are the exact opposite. And, they pale in comparison with the all encompassing, always new, world of the Internet.

During Washington lobbyist Roger Dow’s keynote speech at the conference he highlighted the, “need to involve employees in the mission of the corporation. You need to give your employees meaning to strive towards.” Unfortunately, Dow has come to his realizations late. Thirty years ago this statement would have been revolutionary. In the '80s it wasn’t about meaning, it was about making money. Today things have tilted in the opposite direction. The lure of a large house, a luxury car in the garage, and a Rolex aren’t what they used to be. Even the poorest people in the US live within a sea of possessions, even if purchased at a WalMart, none of which seem to provide the meaning that each of them craves.

Seen against this background of general alienation and restlessness there is the distinct possibility that if cared for and cultivated the rapidly approaching pervasiveness of the Internet is a good thing. What could be wrong with a constant flow of information and communication, with the completely seamless junction between abstract information and physical reality which inventions like Google Glasses will afford people? Perhaps this will set the US back on a path towards community and social involvement, something which seems irretrievably lost. But for it to be a good for humankind it must stay wild and free; file sharing, trolling, Nigerian money scams, pornography and all. Why is this? Because the Internet is the only technology that has the built-in potential for community - but that community must be able to build itself, something which is not possible on a closed, corporate-controlled network.

One of the results of free social interaction on the Internet has been the Anonymous movement, which has been well documented by Forbes London Bureau chief Parmy Olson in her book We Are Anonymous, which deserves recognition as one of the fastest written non-fiction books of all time. It’s over 500 pages and goes in-depth into events mere months before its publication date.

Basically a combination of Internet trolls and hackers, Anonymous is not as mysterious as those without a background in web culture would have you believe. Since the days of dial-up BBS’s there has been a subculture of disaffected people of all ages using computers to talk with each other. In this world computer security, strange hobbies, and quasi-illegal behavior are the norm. What is astounding are the number of people engaged in these mini-communities. They reveal what a truer picture of the US would look like if their interests were more widely known. In these unsupervised, anonymous environments the odd, strange, and beautiful ideas that humanity is capable of are allowed to blossom.

We Are Anonymous is a highly recommended entry point to begin to understand what that hidden culture is, where it comes from, and how it's influencing the mainstream. Olson doesn’t just give the reader a recap of events since 2008 (the first en masse attack by Anonymous), her sympathetic account shows why people find Anonymous attractive, and why, despite its rough edges, much of what it does and stands for is something that should be promoted. So much has been written in the press about Anonymous that the most important thing has been missed: Anonymous is a collection of highly intelligent, moral, but extremely disaffected people who look out at the world and see little there for them. Perhaps without realizing it, they begin to create the world anew through what they have at their disposal: computer terminals.

The first Internet message was sent from UCLA to Stanford on October 29, 1969. It was originally supposed to say “Log” but because the terminal the message was being typed on crashed the first message ever sent became "Lo". This failed message unwittingly set theme of the Internet -- that laughs would be part of its very founding. This was the first instance of what has become known as “Lulz”, or emotionally satisfying pranks played on everyone from teenagers on Facebook to governments and multinational corporations. Lulz are satisfying because there is typically a perceived injustice being righted contained within each prank, even if that message is simple humility. Without being intentional, “Lo” sent the message of, “Don’t take yourself too seriously.”

Anonymous started on the basis of Lulz, something most journalists, Olson aside, haven’t understood. One participant in Anonymous interviewed by Olson said, “...people would jump on the chance to cause massive lulz, annoy the hell out of people, and possibly do some good for the world. I found an army that did not belong to one person, but belonged to each other.” It’s that last part, the “...belonged to each other.” that makes all the difference. It turns what would otherwise be called simple hackers into hacktivists, and has catalyzed a new breed of political action.

For Anonymous to be understood one simple fact needs to be accepted: at some point in the 21st century the balance between civics and capital tilted towards capital. The ties that bind us together, the feeling of being a citizen in a country, any country, which adheres to a higher principle other than simply making money are quickly evaporating. At one time on the national stage ideas mattered as much as the cold hard realities of capital and politics. Not that long ago there was a national civic dialogue that mattered. In the US a controversial figure like Malcolm X was interviewed regularly on national TV and his opinion taken seriously.

In contrast to this loss of community in our time, groups like Anonymous bring much needed perspective to the mass adoption of social networking websites, most of which only masquerade as fellowship. Chris Poole, 4Chan’s founder, recently said that the only meme Facebook has ever generated is, "I lost my cell phone, please give me your number".

It’s a joke that requires a knowledge of Internet memes to understand, but it’s telling. There is no community built around Facebook, despite the fact that because of connection with friends and family, there should be. The reasons are obvious: first, the social risk to a user is high when not agreeing with others on Facebook, second, a user probably disagrees with a good portion of their Facebook connections about most things and third, true community generally requires the ability to be authentically one’s self. None of these are possible on sites like Facebook. One of the Anonymous affiliate groups recently attacked Tumblr with a brilliantly written spam missive which read in part:

"This [attack] is in response to the seemingly pandemic growth and world-wide propagation of the most FUCKING WORTHLESS, CONTRIVED, BOURGEOISIE, SELF-CONGRATULATING AND DECADENT BULLSHIT THE INTERNET EVER HAD THE MISFORTUNE OF FACILITATING."

If you aren’t laughing, then you’re not getting the point. Anonymous is interesting because when left alone to do so (via unfiltered networks and message boards) the first organic movement that the Internet has spawned resulted in a bunch of people in masks, hackers helping Tunisian revolutionaries, and an organized cyber war on Scientology. It turns out when left alone to gestate and grow, the Internet will produce something of social value. The Internet has a conscience.

In a rare moment of journalistic right-place, right-time Olson was in contact with most of the members of LulzSec while they were performing what have become the most well-known computer security breaches in history. LulzSec was a six-person Anonymous splinter group whose members were responsible for most of the recent computer attacks people are familiar with: HBGary, PayPal, Sony, Tunisia, the CIA, and StratFor. While Olson wrote about and communicated with them, almost all were arrested and are currently facing long prison sentences. One of the hackers, Jeremy Hammond, is looking at a possible life sentence. Interestingly, they were all caught by old-school means -- one of their own turned them in.

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