Dispatches from Digital Dystopia

January 27th, 2014 | Category: Essays, Reviews

David Hoffman once summarized George Orwell’s 1984, writing that “during times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” Aaron Swartz, Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning, Adrian Lamo, Aaron Barr, and Edward Snowden have all been pawns and prisoners of information warfare. As the surveillance has expanded from mounted cameras to wireless taps, hackers have evolved from phone phreaking to secret leaking. It’s a ratcheting up of tactics and attacks on both sides. Andy Greenberg quotes Hunter S. Thompson, saying that the weird are turning pro. It’s a thought that evokes the last line of Bruce Sterling‘s The Hacker Crackdown (1991) which, after deftly chronicling the early history of computer hacker activity, investigation, and incarceration, states ominously, “It is the End of the Amateurs” (p. 301).

These quips can be applied to either side.

Sousveillance: Steve Mann

Sousveillance device via Steve Mann, 1998.

The Hacker Ethic — as popularized by Steven Levy’s Hackers (Anchor, 1984) — states that access to computers “and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works should be unlimited and total” (p. 40). Hackers seek to understand, not to undermine. And they tolerate no constraints. Tactical media, so-called to avoid the semiotic baggage of related labels, exploits the asymmetry of knowledge gained via hacking (Branwyn, 1994; Lievrouw, 2011; Lovink, 2002; Raley, 2009). In a passage that reads like recent events, purveyor of the term, Geert Lovink (2002) writes, “Tactical networks are all about an imaginary exchange of concepts outbidding and overlaying each other. Necessary illusions. What circulates are models and rumors, arguments and experiences of how to organize cultural and political activities, get projects financed, infrastructure up and running and create informal networks of trust which make living in Babylon bearable” (p. 254). Sounds like a description of the tumult behind Wikileaks and Anonymous.

This Machine Kills SecretsIn This Machine Kills Secrets (Dutton, 2012), Andy Greenberg explores the infighting and odd cooperation among those out to break and build boundaries around certain strains of information. It’s a tale of rogues gone straight, straights gone rogue, and the weird gone pro. It’s a battle over stiffly defined contexts, lines drawn and defended. He writes of the leakers, “They take an immoral act out of some special, secret culture where it seems acceptable and expose it to the world of moral human relationships, where it’s exposed as obviously horrific” (p. 311). Theirs are easy acts to defend when the extremes are so evident, but what about the more subtle contexts? As danah boyd puts it, “Privacy isn’t a binary that can be turned on or off. It’s about context, social situations, and control.” Privacy is not secrecy, but they’re so closely related that the former seems to be lost in the fight against the latter. They’re also so close as to be constantly conflated when debated.

We Are Anonymous

Following Matt Blaze, Neal Stephenson (2012) states “it’s best in the long run, for all concerned, if vulnerabilities are exposed in public” (p. 27). Informal groups of information insurgents like the crews behind Wikileaks and Anonymous keep open tabs on the powers that would be. After a cameo in This Machine Kills Secrets, Aaron Barr takes a more central role in We Are Anonymous (Little, Brown, 2012) by Parmy Olson. A high-end security consultant, Barr set out to expose Anonymous unprovoked, and quickly found himself on the wrong side of the line. Again, hackers are easy to defend when they’re on your side. Wires may be wormholes (Stephenson, 1996), but that can be dangerous when they flow both ways. Once you get locked out of all your accounts and the contents of your harddrive end up on the wrong screen, hackers aren’t your friends anymore, academic or otherwise. The recent DDoS attacks on several major torrent trackers should be raising more eyebrows on both sides.

Hackers of every kind behave as if they understand that “[p]ostmodernity is no longer a strategy or style, it is the natural condition of today’s network society” (Lovink, 2002, p. 259). In a hyper-connected world, disconnection is power. The ability to become untraceable is the ability to become invisible (Kluitenberg, 2008). We need to unite and become hackers ourselves now more than ever against what Kevin DeLuca (2007) calls “the acronyms of the apocalypse” (e.g., WTO, NAFTA, GATT, etc.; p. 47). The original Hacker Ethic isn’t enough when Shit is Fucked-Up and Bullshit (Wark, 2012). We need more of those nameless nerds, nodes in undulating networks of cyber disobedience. “Information moves, or we move to it,” writes Neal Stephenson (1996), like a hacker motto of “digital micro-politics” (Lovink, 2002, p. 254). Hackers need to appear, swarm, attack, and then disappear again into the dark fiber of the Deep Web.

Lovink (2002) continues: “The world is crazy enough. There is not much reason to opt for the illusion” (p. 259). Who was it that said Orwell was 30 years off? Tactical media is where we watch the ones watching us.


Branwyn, Gareth. (1994). Introduction: Hackers: Heroes or Villains? In Knightmare, Confessions of a Super-Hacker. Port Townsend, WA: Loompanics Unlimited.

DeLuca, Kevin M. (2007). A Wilderness Environmentalism Manifesto: Contesting the Infinite Self-Absorption of Humans. In, R. Sandler & P. C. Pezzullo (Eds.), Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, pp. 27-55.

Greenberg, Andy. (2012). This Machine Kills Secrets. New York: Dutton Adult.

Kluitenberg, Eric. (2008). Delusive Spaces: Essays on Culture, Media, and Technology. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Levy, Steven. (1984). Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

Lievrouw, Leah A. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Lovink, Geert. (2002). Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Olson, Parmy. (2012). We Are Anonymous. New York: Little, Brown, and Co.

Raley, Rita. (2009). Tactical Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Stephenson, Neal. (1996, December). Mother Earth, Mother Board. WIRED, 04.12.

Stephenson, Neal (2012). Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writing. New York: William Morrow.

Sterling, Bruce. (1991). The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier. New York: Bantam.

Wark, McKenzie. (2012). Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, & Class. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

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