Dispatches from Digital Dystopia

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.

References:

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.

Twin Peaks: The Forest of Symbols

Setting the screen for shows such as Picket Fences (1992-1996), The X-Files (1994-2003), Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Veronica Mars (2004-2007), Pushing Daisies (2007-2009), The Killing (2011-2013), and games like Alan Wake (2010), Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1990-1991) was easily the oddest hit show in television history. Set among the trees and mountains of my beloved Pacific Northwest, the show hosted themes of dangerous dreams, reckless teens, and the paranormal, parallel, and perpendicular. With recently debunked rumors of its return and a Blu-Ray release imminent, it’s time to go back into the woods.

The Black Lodge

How in the hell this show was ever a hit is one of its many mysteries. Twin Peaks invaded the living rooms of America just as the Zeitgeist was shaking off the awkward, neon discomfort of the 1980s. The world was “wild at heart and weird on top,” in the words of Barry Gifford, and even if everyone knew it, no one was saying it. We let Frost and Lynch make our unease explicit. Collective pre-millennium tension notwithstanding, our anxiety never really relented.

Incest and child molestation are as American as apple pie. Or should I rather say cherry pie, the dessert choice of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks? Leland Palmer is the all-American Dad if there ever was one, so it’s more than appropriate that he is the one to be possessed by the evil spirit BOB, and to rape and murder his daughter Laura. This deed is necessarily something of a ritual, the founding gesture of the American nuclear family. — Steven Shaviro, Doom Patrols

twin-peaks-guideRitual abounds in Twin Peaks. Its liminality, the “between and betwixt” of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner, is evident in Laura Palmer’s double life, “none-more-purposeful” (Neofetou, 2013, p. 77) Special Agent Dale Cooper’s limbo while investigating her death, the transubstantiation of BOB, and his toggling of Leland Palmer’s consciousness. The ephemeral existence of the Black Lodge is itself a flickering signifier of ritual. The coffee and doughnuts, the family dinner, even the recording and sending of messages are imbued with the gestures of ceremony.

The time of Twin Peaks wasn’t run by social media and cellphones. Secrets traveled via letters and landlines, diaries and cassette tapes. The latter of these played very important roles in the show and helped define the drama surrounding the two main characters. Laura Palmer’s secret diary and Special Agent Dale Cooper’s microcassettes respectively recorded the weaving mysteries of Laura’s short life and their postmortem unraveling. Both have been published as companions to the show. In addition, Frost and Lynch collaborated with Richard Saul Wurman to put together an Access Guide to the town of Twin Peaks. More than mere merchandising, these books prefigured the internet-enabled transmedia narrative of many 21st-century television shows.

Twin Peaks: Fan Phenomena

The newly published Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks, edited by Marisa C. Hayes and Franck Boulègue (Intellect Books, 2013), expands the between and betwixt of Twin Peaks-inspired writings by fans and crtics alike. It’s the first such collection aimed at fans rather than academics. For instance, In his Fan Phenomena essay, Andrew Howe catalogs the cultural artifacts of the series: posters, coffee cups, dolls, sculptures, and so on, while David Griffith confronts the show’s misogynist aspects with waves of feminism, what Diana Hume George (1995) facetiously calls a “double-breasted approach”(p. 109). Fran Pheasant-Kelly explores the physical spaces of Twin Peaks, and there are three Fan Appreciation interludes in between the essays. It’s a must for any fan of the franchise. Fan Phenomena collections are also available for Star Wars, The Big Lebowski, Doctor Who, The Hunger Games, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn, among others.

Fan Phenomena: Twin Peaks is yet another testament to the lingering legacy of Frost and Lynch’s vision of fucked-up family life as well as the power of good television.

References:

Frost, Scott. (1991). The Autobiography of F.B.I. Special Agent Dale Cooper: My Life, My Tapes. New York: Pocket Books.

George, Diana Hume. (1995). Lynching Women: A Feminist Reading of Twin Peaks. In, David Lavery (Ed.), Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, pp 109-119.

Lynch, David, Frost, Mark, & Wurman, Richard Saul. (1991). Welcome to Twin Peaks: Access Guide to the Town. New York: Pocket Books/Twin Peaks Prod./Access Press.

Lynch, Jennifer. (1990). The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer. New York: Pocket Books.

Neofetou, Daniel. (2012). Good Day Today: David Lynch Destabilises the Spectator. Winchester, UK: Zero Books.

Shaviro, Steven. (1997). Doom Patrols: A Theoretical Fiction about Postmodernism. New York: Serpent’s Tail, p. 147.

Turner, Victor. (1967). The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Turner, Victor. (1969). The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

von Gennep, Arnold. (1961). The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.