Back from my visit to Project EPIC in Boulder, and right to the opening keynote of the 2013 Association of Internet Researchers conference. The keynote speaker is Gabriella Coleman, whose focus is on cyberactivism. Computer hacking has taken an increasingly prominent role in society in recent years - hackers have engaged in disrupting communication through DDoS attacks as well as in increasing transparency through leaking information.
But what are hackers? Some programme software, some develop hardware; some promote transparency (e.g. through the free software movement), some operate from the anonymous underground. Put simply, hacking is where craft and craftiness converge, Gabriella says - often with a great deal of humour and subversion. Hackers are quintessential craftsmen (men, most often); they enjoy the performance of circumventing the rules by using the weapons of the geek.
These weapons are the precise opposite of the weapons of the week - civil resistance: hackers have a great deal of craft consciousness, of political understanding, which they bring to their activities. But their politics are diverse, as much as hackers themselves aren't always male, middle-class, white libertarians. Hackers like Jeremy Hammond, who hacked a surveillance company to release its internal email records, take a radical anticapitalist stance, for example - and sometimes take an explicitly techno-critical point of view, questioning the built-in politics of the Internet itself.
If hacking is where craft and craftiness merge, then we need to examine that convergence, and also explore the persona of the trickster - for example in the form of Anonymous, whose exploits take a quasi-magical and playful form. Anonymous are a nebulous, fragmented entity - while it began with a kind of trolling of the authorities for the lulz (and was described by the media as the "Internet hate machine"), more recently it has been instrumental in organising earnest street protests, like Occupy, and is now a rhizomatic entity with many facets.
This is not simply chaos, however. The trickster' sanctions are deliberate, but often also self-defeating (as in the figure of Loki); playful, but consequential (as with Puck); disruptive, but constructively so (as with the figure of Eshu). Some tricksters are ethically motivated, others not - their quest is driven by a mix of voracious curiosity and chance, with limited impulse control and great experimentation. Such subversive activity is tantalising and can change our cultural norms.
The trickster is a handy device for understanding Anonymous. It continues to embrace devious and transgressive humour - the lulz - which is often dark, borderline disturbing, and sometimes close to hate speech, but the lulz are no longer the dominant motivator for action: defending the right to anonymity and opposing censorship are just as important as motivating factors.
Anonymous is a skillful shapeshifter, a pluralistic multitude, but presents a singular face. It sometimes gets caught in its own traps. And it is mercurial - changeable, volatile, as well as lively and quick-witted. And it is a trickster only to a point - the historical archetype is contextualised and updated to the present context, and thereby transgressed.
Anonymous are subterranean sorcerers which take the Hollywood spectacle for political purpose. Its 2008 leaking of the Church of Scientology's training video - featuring Tom Cruise - generated major legal action by the cult, which merely resulted in substantial trolling activity against Scientology, including a viral video calling for the cult's destruction. But that video itself was so successful that it sparked a global day of earnest demonstrations against Scientology, which became the starting point for Anonymous"s transition into a political entity.
Further earnest Anonymous actions addressed the problem of the Guantanamo detention camp, for example, but also continue to exploit society's prevalent ignorance. Media, for example, tend to describe Anonymous as "shadowy", but may leading members, while anonymous, are highly approachable; they call them "hackers", but hacking is only one tool amongst many for Anonymous; they seek to build up celebrity leaders (as they have done similarly with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange), but Anonymous has survived in spite of the occasional unmasking and arrest of individual Anonymous members.
The magic and trickery of Anonymous also lies in its simultaneous sensibility and insensibility: Anonymous addresses small issues and world events; acts as one organisation and through multiple loosely affiliated outlets; rage against the machine of politics and media but are also deeply embedded in its structures as professionally employed geeks and hackers. Anonymous members may be cut from the same cloth, but that cloth is a motley one by default.
Anonymous's pseudo-anonymous frameworks enable the interactions between socioculturally diverse participants; this was revealed when members of the LulzSec splinter group were arrested, for example. For these diverse members, however, working closely together also ends up revealing their social and philosophical differences - a distressing fact which is sometimes addressed simply by changing to a different pseudonymous identity, used as a blank slate. Masking offers the right not to be oneself, not to understand.
Anonymous teaches us the virtual of opacity and illegibility in the age of surveillance, then. As a fundamental rule, Anonymous requires it's members to shun fame and attention; when this ethic is violated, members are chastised and ostracised. Its rise to prominence is fascinating for its ability to escape surveillance and privacy violations; its actions remain difficult to track and predict, and it's network remains opaque and indecipherable. Secrecy itself functions as a front of resistance.
But Anonymous are unlikely to be our saviours - they may be more likely to represent the party at the funeral of privacy and civil rights, the darknet fringe if the surveillance society. Yet anonymous leaks of state surveillance programmes have led to changes in government policy before - the emergence of Anonymous itself from the fringes of the lulz-seeking hacker community is so unlikely and unexpected a phenomenon that its future development and impact remains difficult to predict; even its present state is still maddeningly incomprehensible.
For the researcher, to examine Anonymous is ethically and practically difficult - what results is a kind of kinky empiricism: an empiricism that is ethical because it generates new obligations both to the subject of the study (which must be better explained, but should not be demystified in the process) and to the wider scholarly and societal community (which needs to understand the practices, but also the magic of Anonymous).
Anonymous has become a general, global symbol of dissent - a collective identity of trickery. Anonymous has blazed a fire for others to follow, burning itself and others in the process and being repeatedly reborn from the ashes. Anonymous is a passionate, artful intervention in political processes - it waxes and wanes, comes and goes, flames out and resurges.