It seemed obvious that someone was coordinating the national crackdown on occupations, but I always figured it was the FBI or the Department of Homeland Security. The revelation of the truth – that a non-governmental organization called the Police Executive Research Forum has been hosting calls between mayors and providing advice based on anti-protest tactics from the last twenty years – is even more disturbing. PERF issued a hasty and unconvincing denial, but it was too late. A group of anonymous hackers aligned with the occupations were already on the attack, shutting down the Forum’s site with a Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) attack and publishing the Chief Executive’s personal information online.
It’s the vengeance of the internet, and by now you have to agree with the anons: they should have expected it. After their early association with Occupy Wall Street, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that anons would punish PERF. For the first time, hackers are playing an organized political role, imposing a little bit of their collective will upon the world. It’s a fantasy that’s existed at least as long as the internet: that the connection of people with superior technical knowledge could result in a reverse-Galt, a mutually accountable hoisting of the world onto their shoulders. Now these kids (arrested anons range in age from 15 to 26) are political actors. Hack the planet.
All of which begs the question: what the hell took so long? Why now, when the internet security apparatus has never been stronger, when nation states and corporations alike are fully aware of its vital importance? Why didn’t this happen twenty-five years ago, before they had time to prepare?
Tracing the history of hacking back to its first modern practitioners, it appears as a tool for curious and marginal young people to circumvent systems of depersonalized social control. Fugitive hacker turned security consultant Kevin Mitnick writes in the preface to The Art of Deception:
After my father split when I was three, my mother worked as a waitress to support us. To see me then—an only child being raised by a single mother who put in long, harried days on a sometimes erratic schedule—would have been to see a kid on his own almost all his waking hours …
[B]y the age of twelve I had discovered a way to travel free throughout the whole greater L.A. area. I realized one day while riding the bus that the security of the bus transfer I had purchased relied on the unusual pattern of the paper-punch that the drivers used to mark day, time, and route on the transfer slips. A friendly driver, answering my carefully planned question, told me where to buy that special kind of punch.
Mitnick would spend over two years on the run from the FBI, during which time he used his hacking prowess to stay one step ahead, even wire-tapping the NSA. There were whole communities of latch-key kids like Mitnick dumpster diving for corporate system information and using recorded tones to get free long-distance calls. It was about pulling the coolest stunts, getting into the most secure systems, and finding the slickest work-arounds. It seems a fitting enough basis for a peripheral sub-culture, but far off from a global decentered revolutionary network.
A linear progressive narrative that builds from phone phreaking to anon ops, however, would be staggeringly wrong. For as long as there have been hackers, there has been the international hacker imaginary:
“This is our world now. The world of the electron and the switch; the beauty of the baud. We exist without nationality, skin color, or religious bias. You wage wars, murder, cheat, lie to us and try to make us believe it’s for our own good, yet we’re the criminals. Yes, I am a criminal. My crime is that of curiosity.”
These words could come from one of the many weekly communiques issued under the Anonymous banner, but they don’t. They’re from “The Hacker Manifesto,” written in 1986 by a pseudonymous author called The Mentor. In the 1995 film Hackers, an FBI agent reads them to his partner with incredulity:
“Yeah, that’s cool.”
“That’s not cool. That’s commie bullshit.”
Dade Murphy (Jonny Lee Miller), the movie’s 18-year-old protagonist, is partially based on Mitnick. If you haven’t seen Hackers, the plot goes like this: Dade is a former child hacker, who under the terms of his probation can begin using computers again just as he moves to a new town for his senior year of high school. He can’t help himself, and falls in with a crew of local hackers. When one of them finds himself scapegoated for a sinister corporate plot, Dade bands together with his new friends to take down the real villains.
Although it wasn’t released until the mid-90s, Hackers is an early internet morality tale. Dade is stuck between his fellow hackers and a corrupt security systems administrator who calls himself The Plague, and has cooked up the whole plot to steal millions from his employer. The Plague and the FBI agents he has bamboozled offer Dade a way out: give up his friends and he can walk. His Mephistophelean appeal is characteristic of the crypto-Randian ideology that is the global hacker imaginary’s reverse: “Let me explain the New World Order. Governments and corporations need people like you and me. We are Samurai… the Keyboard Cowboys… and all those other people who have no idea what’s going on are the cattle… Moooo.”
But when the cards are down, not only does Dade back his hacker comrades, they’re able to call upon the entire global network. In the final battle scene, the camera flips though tableaus: members from England to Russia to Japan. The community responds to an attack against its own, but announces a larger moral agenda. As Hacker “Cereal Killer” (Matthew Lillard) puts it: “We say we want the free flow of information? Well that comes with some responsibilities.” These are responsibilities the hackers voluntarily and collectively assume, they choose to intervene out of a moral duty to the anonymous global imaginary against the corporate-state axis. The final reveal comes via a fanciful takeover of the nation’s television screens, a temporary dictatorship of the hackers.
It’s a happy ending, and an optimistic one: hackers could connect across traditional boundaries and serve as a vigilante check on abuses of power. But this collective, like so many promises about the geopolitics of future technology, failed to materialize. The beast lay dormant as Bush stole the 2000 election and continued to slumber through the post-9/11 reduction of civil liberties and the war on Iraq based on manufactured evidence. Prefigured by The Drudge Report’s role in the right-wing conspiracy against Bill Clinton, blogs emerged as the main way people used computers to intervene in politics. But whereas the global hacker imaginary imposes its will on others, the blogosphere is a market of alternatives; it’s the difference between a mob and an editorial board.
So whither the mob? Where did it go, and why is it back now?
I turn to another movie, not a remake of the first, but a readjustment based on the end of the 20th century. 2001′s Antitrust is the Boiler Room to Hackers‘ Wall Street, an update made necessary by the general culture’s incorporation of the first film. Ryan Phillipe plays Milo Hoffman, a genius programmer about to graduate from Stanford. Milo’s dilemma is a rejiggering of Dade’s: should he go found an open source start-up with his friends or go work for not-Microsoft (“NURV”) and Tim Robbins as not-Bill Gates (Gary Winston). He picks the latter, until he realizes that not-Microsoft is killing independent coders around the world and stealing their work.
When Milo realizes that not-Bill-Gates controls the justice department, the mainstream media, and even his own girlfriend (Claire Forlani, a plant and ex-con to boot), he hatches a plan with his college friends to use NURV’s own Frankensteinian media streaming system to pull a Hackers redux and broadcast incriminating footage, along with liberated source code, onto every screen in the world. Victorious, Milo returns to the startup’s Palo Alto garage to be showered in venture capital.
In this version of the story, the online outlaws of Hackers have turned into Wikipedia founders, in it for the joy of coding with an allegiance to the unimpeded spread of knowledge. Whereas Dale is constantly reminded that if he gets caught hacking again no college will have him, we meet Milo in the Stanford computer science program. The international hacker imaginary becomes the international coder imaginary, united by a different form-of-life. We get another montage of kids at computers as Winston explains to the SEC that any of them could put him out of business. A murderous conspiracy makes visible the obscured violence of privatization. As Milo’s friend and programming partner Teddy says before he’s killed: “They don’t even know the meaning of open source … They just want to own everything. They clone stuff, they’re reverse engineering it.” The evil conspiracy is no longer a parasite on the corporation, it’s now the entire means of profit.
At the end of Hackers, the mechanism for delivering a video onto any (and every) screen in the world never gets even a token explanation. But Antitrust is centered around the system “SYNAPSE” and its promise to “unite the global village,” which it does by stitching together Frankenstein-like stolen coding labor. The international hacker imaginary is what could exist if not for capital’s enclosures. At the triumphant end, Milo tells the cameras: “We’ve given SYNAPSE back to the people it was stolen from. Human knowledge belongs to the world.”
Even in 2001 when the second web bubble had yet to pop as it would after 9/11, there exists the idea that the globally networked will constitute a collective subject capable of acting politically in struggle for a few invariants. The most prominent invariant is anti-property, more specifically the enclosures around intellectual property. Another is against corrupt institutional power – governments, corporations, but particularly the alliance of the two. Milo’s first real moment of panic is when he realizes a justice department official (if not the whole department) is in on not-Bill-Gates’s plot, and when Dade gets a threatening home visit, it’s The Plague and an FBI officer. The profit motive leads quickly to institutionalized theft, and the government is either too stupid or corrupt to stop it.
The third invariant explains why anonymity is so central to the global hacker imaginary. Anonymity serves not only as a protection for law
Fast forward 10 years. Anonymous Operations are just that: hacker actions taken under this veil of collective anonymity. It’s an international conspiracy that traces its lineages back to the darkest, dingiest corner of the internet: the random (/b/) board at 4Chan. As /b/tards, anons mostly restricted their wrath to the board, posting the worst of the worst the web has to offer, only occasionally spilling over into the mainstream with a prank. In 2008 after the Church of Scientology (Co$ in anon-speak) used an intellectual property claim to remove an embarrassing video of spokesman and overly enthusiastic actor Tom Cruise from Youtube, anons first appeared in the street, physically trolling Scientologists in what would come to be their trademark Guy Fawkes masks in a campaign named Project Chanology.
The Church made a perfect target for the troll army. Scientology is the sort of abusive and internally coercive organization that most people recognize as malicious, but since it’s technically voluntary, only nosy, nonstate nobodies can intervene. They may be vigilantes, but there are some jobs only vigilantes can do. In addition to turning out thousands of people IRL in cities around the world, anons shut down Co$ sites with DDOS attacks and released threatening propaganda videos.
The emergence of WikiLeaks was a turning point for the identification “Anonymous,” as the hackers took up the cause of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange. Exposing information freely is a tactic and goal for the global hacker imaginary, especially to out warmongers. The release of the “Collateral Murder” video that shows US troops brutally killing civilians in Iraq could have come at the end of a third hacker film (and it may very well yet). Similarly, the ongoing sequence of occupations have provided a natural home for the hackers, with their appropriated mask becoming a visual representation of the abstracted and generalized “99 percent.”
In its current global crisis, capital doesn’t have the debt capacity to lure these young people into complicity any longer. Hackers today face a dilemma closer to Dade’s (“Is the good life already foreclosed to me under the current social structures?”) than Milo’s (“VC cash or Microsoft cash?”) while the three invariants remain. File sharing – which, as the industry suits make clear, is the largest and most generalized practice of enclosure razing in two centuries – has infected a whole generation with a bit of the hacker virus. The growth of precarious labor, the structuring of youth as a vehicle of debt, and massive proletarianization have pushed the imaginary onto the level of reality.
However, the global hacker imaginary remains that: imaginary. Though the story is global, the center is western, white, and male, whether the requisite protagonist is Dade, Milo, or Julian (who, it’s always important to note, is a rapist). The man behind the veil begins to look more Avatar than avatar. If the general figure, whether in the guise of “the 99%” or Fawkes, is to be more than a traditional savior, it has to be subject to destabilizing struggle. “Anonymiss” was a campaign by anons to trouble the gender of anonymity, both by recruiting more women to the banner and increasing the visibility of those already behind it. The realization that generalizing anonymity isn’t about the exclusion of identity, but rather its constant play and reorganization, demonstrates the kind of collective intelligence and fluidity a properly politicized global hacker project requires.
The most important difference between the movies and the reality is that, contrary to the belief of neo-cons, history doesn’t have a credit sequence. Publicly revealing corporate and state crimes doesn’t have the problem-solving effects we were promised. As Sarah Leonard writes:
“If a classified document falls on the internet, and it doesn’t get debated on CNN, does it make a sound? … Predictably, the release of an abundance of information has not caused the mainstream media to reassess its fundamental bias toward lazy, easy-to-swallow news. The problem with our newsmedia is not a paucity of facts, but a lack of interest in putting the pieces together to produce structural criticisms or even coherent stories.”
Facts alone do not make narratives, and without the right story, Dade or Milo would have ended up indefinitely detained like Bradley. But our silver-screen hackers didn’t let anyone else put the pieces together; at the conclusions of both films, they take forcible control of the nation’s screens and out the powerful and corrupt point by point. This is not an ideologically neutral act. Nor is it – like the DDOS attack – democratic. What right do they have to change my channel?
The real value of the international hacker imaginary is not just in the way it produces a general subject, but the way it self-authorizes to intervene in the social interest. The hacker is partially defined by a willingness to intentionally affect others without being invited to do so, to exercise the control necessary to break control. Not toward a libertarian market of perfect information, a fully articulated cybernetic network, but a dictatorship of the 99%.
This essay first appeared in the Winter issue of Jacobin magazine.