Anonymous and the New Religion: Data

“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.

The Internet: A Salon for the Masses

Despite lengthy sentences and exaggerated damage figures from the corporations that suffered the attacks, it’s hard to see how the hackers’ actions should result in anything more than lengthy community service sentences. What they did, and what Olson documents clearly, had no criminal intent behind it. All of their actions were forms of social protest and no one directly involved seems to have made a penny off of their actions, at least according to Olson. Additionally, most of the hackers were young, poor and came from troubled families. Many journalists have responded with, “They did something illegal, they should be punished.” While it’s true their actions were illegal, the companies and organizations they attacked quickly healed, and with minimal if any long-term damage, all of which hardly demands prison time.

Members of Anonymous, a product of this new information epoch, are not operating outside of the law, they are filling in for the law.

The US law-enforcement response to the attacks highlights how the country that claims freedom as its most cherished commodity has created a society that not only incarcerates more people per capita than any other country on Earth, but has created authoritarian bureaucratic institutions that are virtually unsupervised by normal citizens. The CIA, FBI, the Orwellian-named Department of Homeland Security, and the TSA, have all grown exponentially since 9/11, swallowing up more and more precious budget dollars. While Republicans decried so-called “entitlement” spending the 2012 budget for the CIA increased from 53 to 55 billion dollars. As a comparison, the 2012 US National Endowment for the Arts budget was 146 million dollars, a significant decrease from 2011. In fairness, all of these expenditures were approved by President Obama, a Democrat.

The picture that is revealed by the data is a bleak one. From the ’80s onwards, and particularly after 9/11, the US has significantly increased its spending on police, prisons, defense and spy programs. We continually hear sound bites about how the poor are taking advantage of food stamps, medicare and other social welfare programs while politicians and the mainstream press turn a blind eye to where a larger and larger amount of tax dollars are going. In California, since 1980 funding for higher education has decreased by 30 percent while during the same period spending on law enforcement increased by a jaw-dropping 436 percent. Californians now spend more money on imprisoning its populace there than educating it via their once world-class University system. The State is rich with police unions, politicians, and corporations taking advantage of a citizenry that’s grown comfortably numb to where its hard earned tax-dollars are being spent.

Additionally, on a national level organizations like the FBI routinely engage in actions far worse than any hacker group is capable of. In a report based on a lengthy Freedom of Information Act case, the Electronic Freedom Foundation found that between 2001 and 2008 the FBI likely violated US law upwards of 40,000 times while investigating US citizens. What does it mean for the FBI to violate the law? It’s things like unlawful wiretaps, reading citizens emails unlawfully, arresting and questioning innocent people, and obtaining warrants by using purposefully misleading information. Because the FBI’s victims usually turn out to be innocent, these actions cause much more social destruction than an occasional website defacement.

An example of the FBI’s recklessness came during their investigations into Anonymous. In the Stratfor security breach led by LulzSec member Jeremy Hammond the FBI literally watched him hack the Stratfor website and did nothing to stop him. Yet, after the fact they claimed that his actions resulted in millions of dollars worth of damage. Olson writes:

“The FBI later denied to the New York Times that they “let [the Stratfor] attack happen for the purpose of collecting more evidence,” going on to claim the hackers were already knee-deep in Stratfor’s confidential files on December 6 [when the FBI was informed]. By then, they added, it was “too late” to stop the attack from happening. Court documents, however, show that the hackers did not access the Stratfor e-mails until around December 14.”

The New York Times article Olson references is interesting because it clearly states that the Stratfor website was defaced on 24 December 2011, a full 18 days after the FBI began watching Hammond’s every move online. This is no conspiracy theory: the FBI watched while an American company fell prey to a group of computer hackers.

Since the late ’90s the Internet has enabled the kind of freedom that only existed in Americans’ cherished fantasies of how their country was founded. Today an individual can literally experience almost any kind of freedom that he or she desires, as long as it originates at a computer terminal. From ordering any type of illegal drug on hidden websites to exploring the more wholesome freedoms of personal expression on sites like 4chan, the non-corporate Internet is a grand experiment in personal freedom, a salon for the masses. In 1992, David Clark, one of the engineers that helped craft the architecture of the Internet, wrote what has become the Internet equivalent of the Declaration of Independence: “We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”

In contrast, for the moment the rest of American society has seemingly turned in the opposite direction. It is now self evident that Americans live within a corporatized quasi-oligarchy, legitimized by a political machine backed up by a stunted media that no longer deems telling the truth as a necessary precursor for opening one’s mouth. Both Republicans and Democrats have shown themselves to be equally disinterested in the Ninth Commandment, and because of a fear of seeming partisan mainstream, journalists have done little to hold them accountable, becoming Marie Antoinette-esque in their reticence. No longer are politicians to be constrained by decorum, they will loudly make proclamations like the right of a rapist to have his child with the woman whose life he just destroyed: “When life begins with that horrible situation of rape, that is something God intended to happen,” as Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock proudly stated during the recent US elections.

It’s difficult to look at facts brought up in budgets, watchdog group reports, investigative journalism, or university studies and come to the conclusion that the US’s dedication to the freedom and the well-being of its populace is at the forefront of any of its leaders’ minds, or in the mission statements of the bureaucracy they have been hired to manage. This is not to say that the solution is that new representatives should be elected. The problem is deeper than that. The exponential increase of information produced by the Internet has not created a cultural divide so much as it has revealed just how much the populace is most assuredly not in control, and hasn’t been for a long time. Members of Anonymous, a product of this new information epoch, are not operating outside of the law, they are filling in for the law.

Since World War II the world, driven by the US, has been in a process of transformation from small, local and self-sufficient, to large, global and interdependent. Morality is something easily swept aside by the pressure of this maelstrom — it’s difficult to face wrongdoing when wrongdoing has become institutionalized. Is there a solution? One possible antidote is access to more information, not less. The only way for morality to blossom, and with it the only freedom which is meaningful, is for the dark corners of society and government to be illuminated. 2012 was the first year the CIA budget was ever disclosed as a matter of policy, but it was just the top-line budget number of $55 billion. We still don’t know what money gets spent where, and therefore why. The CIA’s budget is almost double that of the Department of Justice. The reactionary cry of “it’s national security” is no longer an excuse. There are other factors at play, the least of which is a bureaucratic government institution taking everything it can. By contrast, in 1963 the CIA’s budget was a measly $4.2 billion (in inflation adjusted dollars).

The sometimes silent, sometimes loud war raging across the world is a philosophical war. It’s a war of ideas, and perception. In the US we are rapidly unmaking the society that our forefathers fashioned as a result of the effects of the Great Depression and the subsequent mobilization of World War II. That society worked because it created through tax law a way for those who benefited from it the most, the very wealthy, to have a portion of their unimaginable wealth given back to the society which helped them create it. It was a brilliant method to stabilize the otherwise turbulent nature of capitalism, which had caused massive harm during the Great Depression. It was no utopia, but an economy was created where most people could work hard knowing they would be able to afford a home, plenty of food, a car, and education for their children.

That rubric has been slowly eroding, replaced by a propaganda-like message that the poor, somehow suffering from simple laziness, and unions, at fault for demanding living wages, are to blame for the nation’s woes. Never mind that with tax rates and union organizing at historic lows we’ll soon be back to where we were before the ’30s, having lost years of progress. We’re already there in terms of compensation, with the gap between the incomes of owners and workers at its highest level since the New Deal was enacted. Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: in the US between 1942 and 1979 average wages rose $23,414. The richest ten percent of Americans saw 33 percent of that growth, and the 90 percent below them received 67 percent. In contrast, between 1980 and 2008 the average income rose $11,714, with the richest ten percent receiving 98 percent of that growth. The bottom 90 percent received two percent. The America we mythologize is close to being unmade.

The unwinding of the American way of life will only end when the rubicon of greed is crossed and decisions can be made based on data and intelligence, for the good of all people. It’s no longer possible to say that we are not all interconnected — through our economies, through an ever warming planet, and through an Internet that increasingly binds us together. Until intelligence conquers fear and greed, groups like Anonymous will only flourish, made up of the poor and alienated. It’s those in Anonymous and other groups which prove the innate character of humanity: hardworking, intelligent, and fair.