Postdigital Anthropology: Hacks, Hackers, and the Human Condition
Gabriella Coleman holds the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University. Trained as an anthropologist, she researches and writes on cultures of computer hacking. She has written two books on computer hackers, Coding Freedom (2013) and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (2014). She is working on transforming a personal collection of video clips into a public resource. Published under the name Hack_Curio, this online video portal will showcase short video clips with adjoining entries that help explain why hacking is one of the most important phenomena of global culture and politics in the late 20th and early 21st century. It will go live in the fall of 2019.
About the conversation
In January 2018, Petar Jandrić emailed Gabriella Coleman with an idea for this conversation. They met online in April and conversed for more than 3 h. After several post-transcription e-mail iterations, the conversation was completed over a very long period of time.
Digital Colonization and its Enemies
Petar (PJ): Your first book, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Coleman 2013), tells a stunning history of the political economy of (early) computer development and its main protagonists. What, for you, is hacking?
Gabriella Coleman (GC): As an anthropologist, I do not define hacking normatively, as a philosopher might do. Instead, I define it through my field work encounters: in its most basic form, hacking is a social phenomenon that is intimately connected to computers and composed of different types of technologists who self-identify as hackers.
There are different kinds of communities of practice that engage in activities that practitioners themselves define as hacking; from those who write free and open source software like Linux, those that write privacy enhancing software, others who secure computers, and those who break into computer systems either for exploration or hacktivism. Neat and tidy definitions of hacking are quite hard to formulate, especially since it’s a fraught term, even amongst hackers. Still, I recently attempted to define hacking as the amalgam of craftsmanship and craftiness. Hacking is learning and building technology, combined with a drive to either push the envelope of what’s possible, or undermine existing technological or social systems, in order to create something new.
PJ: In the chapter ‘The basic “specs” of a lifeworld’ (Coleman 2013: 25-28), you describe the proverbial hacker from the early days of the computer – a young boy, deeply in love with his first computer, who frantically types BASIC code and lives in his own world. Later on, ‘[t]hanks to the holy trinity of a computer, modem, and phone line, he began to dabble in a wider networked world where there was a real strange brew of information and software to ingest (Coleman 2013: 26). I was deeply moved by this image because it immediately reminded me of long nights I spent typing BASIC on my own Commodore 64 while parents were asleep…Yet, this romantic image is long gone – today’s hackers report very different routes into the trade. What can we learn from this historical image of the hacker for the contemporary moment?
GC: You are absolutely right that the pathways to hacking are now much more diverse. And not only that, but there also are various paradigms around hacking: from hardcore anti-capitalist hacktivism to capitalist drenched entrepreneurialism… There are so many different ways to be a hacker today than say in the 1980s or even 1990s. In Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Coleman 2013), I explain how featured programmers and hackers first formed a relationship with computers in isolation, usually independent of a broader community of like-minded computer enthusiasts. Only later did they conceptualize their activity in terms of hacking, perhaps because they read hacker literature (like a zine or textfile), went to a math camp, or connected to others through a bulletin board system. Today, technical people from a very young age can learn about their craft online and connect with others. However, today there are so many different avenues for technical activity that a lot of technical people are not going to fall into hacker circles.
PJ: People can learn a lot online, but face-to-face communication is also important. Please describe the relationship between online and offline ways of building hacking communities.
GC: Before I began my research, I assumed that computer hacking was rooted primarily online – and obviously this dimension is still incredibly important. Infrastructures like Internet Relay Chats or Bulletin Boards were (and still are) profoundly important for hacker technical production and forms of sociality. However, when I went to my first hacker conference—the free software Debian developer conference in Toronto in 2002—and then to other international conferences, I came to realize that long-distance collaboration would be impossible if you did not get to know each other and form friendships. The bonding that transpires in conferences is profound, and that’s not unique to hacking. Any professional group, from doctors to journalists to lawyers to technologists to hackers, would not function unless they met face-to-face – the conference is an incredibly important ritual in so-called secular society (Coleman 2010).
Still, hacker conferences are different than academic conferences in one important respect. At academic conferences we get together to talk about our research – we do not do our research there. At hacker conferences, however, you can both talk about hacking and hack. As a result, the social entanglement runs deeper. Hacker conferences are also incredibly festive events where you recreate what you do – let us hack together, and then let us also drink a lot and party a lot. You celebrate what you do as you do it. Furthermore, hacking is not a singular thing. There are many different types such as hardware hacking and free software hacking, and there are also some big regional differences (e.g. between Italy and Spain).
Hacker conferences such as Chaos Communication Camp, hosted by the oldest hacker association, the Chaos Computer Club, and Hackers on Planet Earth (HOPE 2018) hosted by 2600, bring together different tribes – different generations of hackers with distinct technical skills (hardware, software, biology, and so on). So, when attending a hacker conference, you all of a sudden realize that you are a part of a huge, multi-generational, international movement, and many feel something like joy or pride being connected to this grouping of people. More so, when hackers travel to any major city, from Berlin to Tokyo, they can plug into the local hacker scene or space.
One final point: while a lot of young hackers - past and present - may have grown up in small towns or suburbs, eventually many end up in big cities such as London, Paris, San Francisco, and Berlin, and geeks and hackers ended up working together and hanging out socially as well. The idea of the hacker as a primarily lone individual who does not interact much with others is just plain false, even though, of course, there are hackers who are a-social and can thrive in this scene.
PJ: In 1950s and 1960s, American astronauts who landed to the Moon were made into heroes, and their wives and families were cast as role models for suburban families. Starting in the 1970s, and probably culminating around the brink of the millennium, computer experts became the new heroes of the nation, and their wives and families have again become role models in the domestic sphere (or, at their best, in charity foundations – such as Melinda Gates). How do you go about this strong masculinity which characterizes heroes of all American frontiers, including hackers? Is it still the case?
GC: You are spot on: one prevalent way of framing the hacker has been by casting him as the male hero-technologist who conquers the electronic frontier. The paradigm is ensconced in books like Steven Levy’s Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution or, to some lesser degree, in Bruce Sterling’s The hacker crackdown: Law and disorder on the electronic frontier (1992), or certain films like WarGames (Badham 1983), etc. The figure resonates because it taps into a broader and long standing powerful American mythos of the rugged frontiersman (see Dean et al. 2019). It also resonates because of larger than life individuals, even mythical characters in the hacker world such as the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman. However, that figure of the male frontiersman has come at the expense of recognizing the collectivist, social practices within the hacker world. Those unfamiliar with hackers tend to see them as being individualistic to the core, unable to barely sustain any social bond or relationship - and to be sure, a lot of the technical work required solitude. Still, prevalent conceptualizations of hacking as individualistic have come at the expense of seeing the more co-operativist and collective social practices.
The individualist paradigm shapes people’s self-understandings and limits certain possibilities, so I tried to complicate this image and offer another paradigm in my books Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Coleman 2010) and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Coleman 2014). With some exceptions, both the Free Software Movement and Anonymous are extremely collectivist. Bruce Sterling’s The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier (1992) is a phenomenal book because the narrative does not rely on single individuals; it is about the underground scene, those hackers that broke into systems for mischief, fun, exploration, and learning. The hacker underground was an over the top macho and Sterling shows this, but at least he was able to avoid the trite and false story of the single great individual. With some exceptions, most of these figures (whether it’s Steve Wozniak for hardware hacking or Richard Stallman for free software) have tended to be male and the hacker world was primarily a male world. Obviously, that has changed to some degree in recent times. Certain domains, such as free and open source software projects like Debian and Python, have openly grappled with the problem of diversity and have sought a solution, first asking ‘what are we going to do?’ and then moving forward with an intervention. As a result, we now have groups like Women (The Debian Women Project 2018), or Python’s diversity list (Python 2018). While problems with diversity still loom large, many groups have taken initiatives over the last decade to address these problems.
Certain technical domains have historically had more women - or at least they are more visible. One such domain is hardware hacking. Take Addie Wagenknecht—a brilliant hardware hacker and artist who helps run the Open Hardware Summit (Open Source Hardware Association 2018). There is also Limor ‘Ladyada’ Fried, a hardware hacker and the founder of Adafruit Industries (Ceceri 2011) who was the first female hacker to be featured on the cover of Wired in 2011. In the underground of small hacker groups that have historically broken into systems, there are less female examples, but I suspect there are some that we simply do not know of as they have received next to no coverage.
PJ: At least since Vannevar Bush’s metaphor of science and technology as ‘the endless frontier’ (US Office of Scientific Research and Development 1945), computer development has been seen as the new ‘electronic frontier’ (Rheingold 1995; Turner 2006; Jandrić 2018a; see also conversations with Howard Rheingold and Fred Turner in Jandrić 2017). In my previous book, Marcell Mars and Tomislav Medak assert that such mindset ‘easily melds with entrepreneurial culture of the Silicon Valley. Therefore, it is hardly a surprise that individualism has become the hegemonic narrative of hacker culture’ (Jandrić 2017: 262). Let us brainstorm a bit: can you draw some similarities between people such as Christopher Columbus, Francisco Pizarro González, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk? How relevant are these similarities?
GC: The connection between a frontier mentality and the hacker world, as Richard Barbrook and Fred Turner have explored, seamlessly melds with the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley. Some people think that all hackers are raging hacktivists, at root progressive political actors, which is just not the case – there are many hackers which slot in easily into capitalist cultures and push them along without even thinking about the negative repercussions of their technologies with some glorifying their technology as a positive force on the world.
That is the colonial project at some level. I read a profile of Mark Zuckerberg by Steven Levy (2017) and he was very hackish growing up: always playing with computers, doing things that he wasn’t supposed to do… He had that mindset of craftiness, but then he developed into a perfect example of the colonialist who is pushing boundaries in ways that have pretty negative consequences but are dressed in the clothing of a progressive political project—a manifestation of what Barbrook and Cameron identified as The Californian Ideology (1996).
People like Richard Stallman and Kevin Mitnick, however, are quite different. In some ways, Richard Stallman is a bit like Don Quixote. When he came up with the idea of free software, he was like a mad man who was going against the grain of the capitalist direction that software was going. Stallman was also extremely aware of the surveillance implications of closed software systems that were controlled by corporations and governments; at some level, he is the anti-Zuckerberg. Kevin Mitnick is also very interesting because he was breaking into systems for his own edification – this wasn’t about making money or conquering the world through software projects. His activity, which was part of the hacker underground, is a form of social practice and a type of knowledge that also has disrupted dominant economic logic at some level. But Stallman and Mitnick tend to be the important exceptions that go against the grain of the colonial mindset that people like Mark Zuckerberg put into practice.
PJ: Extending the above thought experiment a bit further, can you perhaps draw an analogy between colonizing physical worlds (such as America) and developing / colonizing the Internet (see Jandrić and Kuzmanić 2016, 2017)?
GC: That’s an extension of what I was just talking about. Whereas someone like Richard Stallman created the material and philosophical conditions to prevent technological domination through free software, many others create the technological and ideological conditions to capture people’s attention and data. What’s important to understand is why some hackers have forgone economic opportunities to halt those processes of colonization; there are only small pockets of freedom in a vast colonial empire.
An open source project, Tor (Tor Project 2018), which allows people to be a little bit more anonymous on the Internet, disrupts the colonial project of surveillance capitalism. It is remarkable that without these renegade hackers, we would not have any kind of software that allows people to be anonymous or allows them to encrypt their software. There is a surprising number of hackers who decide to contribute to projects like Tor, Tails, Signal, and Leap, when they could just be making a lot of money. It is interesting to explore why they are saying: ‘we’re not going to sail with the Pinta, the Nina, the Santa María, but instead we’re going to build our own little ship and do something different.’ Why some hackers have decided to turn away from the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit is far from obvious—and is begging for explanation (see Coleman 2017a, b for such an attempt).
The Anonymous Response to Surveillance Capitalism
PJ: Your second book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Coleman 2014), provides amazing insight into the world of Anonymous. What is Anonymous, and what makes it so unique?
GC: Anonymous is an open source name that, in recent times, has been used by technologists, activists, hackers, designers, and artists, to organize different forms of collective action from street protests to computer hacking. Anonymous is a bit difficult to describe, at least succinctly, because different groups have used it for different purposes, and its early history had nothing to do with helping people (but rather, often hurting them). Indeed, in the mid-2000s, there was barely a bone in Anonymous’ body that would indicate it would one day land in activist and hacktivist territory. Back then, the name—and this is important—was adopted from the default ‘Anonymous’ username given to 4chan posters. 4chan is an anonymous discussion board that was founded in 2003, and grew to include a slew of boards dedicated to various topics from anime to literature to fitness. One of 4chan’s most distinctive socio-technical features is anonymity: posts on the imageboard are attributed to Anonymous, with the option to fill in a name field. But no one does that; instead, the community preferred the shared authorship and shunning of individual reputation, which eventually grew into a full-blown ethic.
Back then, Anonymous developed a reputation—a terrible one—due to prolific acts of Internet trolling, which almost always entailed—and continues to entail—pranking hitched to defilement, trickery, or cruel torment. Trolling styles are diverse, but Anonymous-style trolling was episodic, swarm-like, and prolific enough that in 2007, Fox News anointed Anonymous as the ‘Internet hate machine’ (Fox News 2007). Even if Anonymous was often considered hateful, however, it had not yet hooked into broader political mobilizing on the left or right. Six months after the Fox News story, trolls used the moniker Anonymous to target the Church of Scientology—a campaign that morphed into a sincere crusade against the cult, an offensive that continues today under the same Anonymous banner. Crucial to this transformation was a video first designed as a troll, that surprised both insiders and outsiders by prompting an earnest debate about protesting the Church. Critics of the Church also swooped in at this time to urge these trolls to join their cause. And they did. Anonymous moved forward with an experimental but ultimately successful protest on Feb 10, 2008, carried out in 127 cities across the world with over 7000 people showing up. They adopted the Guy Fawkes mask to insulate themselves from harm—a pop culture icon that became a symbol for the movement.
Anonymous thusly started to become political out of a practice of apolitical (but often terrifying) trolling. Eventually, the name became associated almost entirely with progressive, liberal or left activism—perhaps because, by 2010, these collectives had established themselves with infrastructure off 4chan proper, getting a foothold on chat rooms (where I spent much of my time doing research) and other activist communities both online and offline (contributing to Iran’s failed Green Revolution, or fighting censorship in Australia). More so, in 2010, a new and extremely prolific Anonymous node appeared and cross-pollinated with ‘hacktivist’ and WikiLeaks types, pushing it even further away from the boards and from pure trolling. By 2011, even though Anonymous was much more than hacking, a lot of politically motivated computer intrusion was happening under the name.
Anonymous may strike as completely unique—a phenomenon of the 21st digital century—but its semiotic features connect it with other phenomena. It’s a perfect example of what media scholar Marco Deseriis (2015) calls ‘the multiple-use’ or the ‘improper name,’ which is there for anyone’s use, but in a very particular way: by design, a multiple-use name rejects individual authorship in favor of showcasing an unknown collective—a conglomeration of people that often shifts. For example, some famous multiple use names are Capitain Ludd, Luther Blisset, Nicolas Bourbaki, and Karen Elliot. Using a collective name forces people to relinquish individual fame or recognition, and instead pushes them to organize something, maybe an activity or a publication or call to arms, in the name of a collective.
What I found refreshing and fascinating about Anonymous was how seriously they took the anti-individualism, anti-celebrity ethic. Say you were hanging out on a chat channel and you sought some recognition or fame for some action you took (and to be clear, on chat channels people used stable nicknames, so reputations formed). More likely than not, if you made such an attempt, someone would puncture and/or deflate your ego: you’d be criticized, chastised, or marginalized in some fashion. I was intrigued by Anonymous because these activists came together not only to support many of the social movements and causes that I supported at the time—such as the Arab Spring, Occupy, and fighting creepy security companies—but they did so in a way that eschewed hyper-individualism. It was rather exhilarating for a collective enterprise to emerge in this way, and in a moment where other online currents were all about showcasing the individual through something like social media.
PJ: Please describe similarities and differences between hacking and the activities of Anonymous.
GC: Today Anonymous is often identified with hackers and hacktivism. Their legacy will be measured and tied to hacking: breaking into a system, sabotaging it, or stealing information and putting it out in the world. Still, the majority of people originally involved in Anonymous were not hackers. In contrast to many areas of hacker production where serious technical skills are a pre-requisite to participate, Anonymous was much more open and participatory. Anonymous produced a lot of manifestos, videos, and artwork, so a lot of the people who got involved were not hackers but rather were geeky types. Geeks and hackers are bedfellows—they may not have the same skill sets, but they hang out in similar places and care about similar issues (over net neutrality or copyright restrictions, for instance) and share a similar vocabulary.
Still, what remains curious about Anonymous is its diverse roots. Because participants are ‘hidden’ from each other, Anonymous is more diverse than other non-anonymous political domains. When we interact in face-to-face domains, or in specialized online domains like Free Software, we know who we are dealing with, and we tend to be attracted to people like ourselves. With Anonymous, however, participants did not really know who else was involved, which eliminated the tendency for people to seek out those who were similar to them. Take, for example, LulzSec, a hacker group in Anonymous. Although its members were all technical people, its makeup was pretty diverse: it included hardcore left anarchist Jeremy Hammond, ex-soldier in Iraq Ryan Ackroyd, Puerto Rican ‘Sabu’ Monsegur who came from a background of drug dealing, a young (at the time) 16-year-old Iraqi immigrant in London… and 2 Irish lads—one who had a rather well developed political sensibility, and the other who was motivated by a sense of justice. Although differing in political, social, and ethnic backgrounds, they were united by Anonymous, where they came together to hack systems and to flaunt the pathetic state of Internet security. Compared to explicitly leftist hacker-inflected projects such as IndyMedia (2018), which was an important citizen media platform run by bona fide left activists, Anonymous had much less ideological unity. Nonetheless, people came together to act.
the adoption of the same alias by organized collectives, affinity groups, and individual authors. (…) Contrary to a proper name, whose chief function is to fix a referent as part of the operation of a system of signs, an improper name is explicitly constructed to obfuscate both the identity and number of its referents (Deseriis 2015: 3).
By adopting an improper name, Anonymous has made a huge leap from an individualist ethos of hacktivism to a new form of collectivism. How does this leap work in practice? What are its main consequences?
GC: Anonymous’ ideology of collectivism and its rejection of individual fame is embedded in what they do, not just what they believe. Cynics may charge back on that, though: of course, it’s handy to remain anonymous because it functions pragmatically as a shield against law enforcement. But compared to the legal activities that transpired under the name Anonymous, the number of illegal activities was minuscule. Most people were making and releasing videos, cheerleading on Twitter, or creating beautiful posters – all signed with the name ‘Anonymous’ (which was one of the ground rules for making and releasing this stuff).
Remaining anonymous, though, is not an easy thing to do—I’ve gotten to experience it firsthand. As an anthropologist who studies hacking, it was important for me to participate in Anonymous. I did not break the law when I was participating (not that I could have, as I have no hacking skills!); instead, I worked with other people to create texts for a couple of videos. In one case, I was very proud of a video I contributed to—I thought the text was very poetic, and I wanted nothing more than to let the world know that I helped create this cool call to arms. Yet, I’ve never publicly identified myself, because if I did, I would be violating a core rule of the organization – not to attribute individual authorship to creations. This is an incredibly hard rule to follow. On occasion, some people seek fame and recognition, but are criticized to the point that they are eventually kicked out (see Coleman 2014 for details). Anonymous submerges the individual author within the collective, and they are proud of it!
PJ: Speaking of anonymity, my first instinct is individual: getting lost in a crowd, making a fake Facebook account… Yet, Deseriis shows that:
Anonymous allows for the experience of anonymity online to be named as a shared experience. Once anonymity becomes Anonymous, it also becomes pseudonymous. That is, it is no longer an undifferentiated or anomic social phenomenon, but something that can be mobilized and contended by different parties towards a specific goal (Deseriis 2015: 176).
Please unpack this relationship between anonymity and pseudonymity.
GC: Although this is mostly right, I would perhaps complicate the quote a bit: for much of Anonymous’ early history, the name Anonymous (with a capital A) existed and functioned as a multiple use name. As such, the participants taking the name were, for the most part, not pseudonymous but Anonymous. Let me discuss how the ethic and name came into being.
A baseline commitment to anonymity was borne on 4chan, back in the mid-2000s, largely due to technical features backed by social norms. A former Anonymous troll turned subsequent member of the Anti-Scientology brigade explained the dynamic better than I can: ‘The posts on 4chan have no names or any identifiable markers attached to them. The only thing you are able to judge a post by is its content and nothing else. This elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status, is [became] the primary ideal of Anonymous.’ I substituted ‘is’ with ‘became’ because initially anonymity existed as a perfect example of what Raymond Williams defined as a structure of feeling, or what might be better termed as an infrastructure of feeling: ‘social experiences in solution, as distinct from other social semantic formations which have been precipitated and are more evidently and more immediately available’ (Williams 1977: 133-134). Eventually, around 2005, Anonymous indeed precipitated anonymity as a primary ideal with participants suturing a structure of feeling to a moral code and to the name Anonymous. This code embodied various facets, from the idealization of meritocracy to casting anonymity as a virtuous alternative to our celebrity obsessed culture. This was enabled by the collective name ‘Anonymous’ and its consequent symbols of a headless man or a woman in a suit.
After 2010, when quarters of Anonymous became more firmly rooted in activism, this commitment underwent metamorphosis. It became ‘more nuanced…incarnating into the desire for leaderlessness and high democracy.’ These two tweets are good examples of what he means: FemAnonFatal is a Collective•NOT an individual movement NOT a place for self-promotion NOT a place for HATE BUT a place for SISTERHOOD It Is A place to Nurture Revolution Read Our Manifesto... •You Should Have Expected Us• #FemAnonFatal’ Ego & fame are by default, inherently contradictory to anonymity. The tallest blade of grass gets cut first. Remain unknown. Be #Anonymous. —Anonymous (@YourAnonNews) April 16, 2012.
‘This desire for leaderlessness and high democracy,’ with a few exceptions like these tweets, was hard to see; it was largely visible to those like myself and a few others interacting closely with Anonymous. More so, the norm was not only idealized, but socially enforced because by this time, with the activist oriented Anons, more social interaction occurred pseudonymously. The era of anonymous Anonymous had ended by 2010.
Indeed, in chat rooms where Anonymous launched their ops, most chose to be pseudonymous and thus interacted with stable, pseudonym nicknames. Reputation, based on what you said and did, accrued. Soft leaders and more visible players emerged. For instance, a Twitter account like AnonyOps (Twitter 2018) was one of a handful of the more visible players. Behind stable anonymous names, people developed personas and reputations, and some got very close to each other. Stability of pseudonymous interactions and identities enabled lived ethical relations, which are much harder to achieve in a purely anonymous space. There were chat rooms dedicated to topics from ‘let’s talk about the philosophy of anonymity’ to ‘let’s have a chat room for the reporters.’ This created shared collective identities and provided shared spaces where people could either be chastised or praised. And indeed, when people were seen to pine for attention, or especially when they acted non-anonymously, they were routinely cut down or kicked out. Still, while the ideals of anonymity matured over time, this ethic (and the multiple use name ‘Anonymous’) was borne, somewhat surprisingly under the conditions of mass, deep anonymity.
PJ: Anonymous seems to self-regulate quite nicely. Please describe this mechanism of self-regulation. How, where, when, and by whom is it decided that an action will be made by Anonymous (as opposed to the same action just being anonymously done)?
GC: The brief and simplistic answer is that anyone can simply decide by tagging an action or claim as ‘Anonymous.’ This has happened many times. If a single person or a group feels the need to call attention to some injustice, they can organize some campaign under the name ‘Anonymous.’ This is one of the reasons that so many Anonymous nodes have spawned across the globe. But, as with most things, this story is also a bit more complicated.
Firstly, some actions never take off. Sometimes this is because those with power do not give an ‘op’ (also known as an operation) much attention in comparison to others. Just like other domains, Anonymous is not lacking power plays and/or micro-politics. Secondly, while Anonymous did attract many different types of people, many of those involved—thought not all—had connections to the Internet. This means that it was more likely that a certain population—geeks of one kind or another—would adopt the name. Thirdly, patterns that formed between 2010 and 2012 meant that many of Anonymous’ actions tended to lie on the liberal to left side of the political spectrum (with a few exceptions). In this regard, the fact that Anonymous got involved in the period of progressive ferment from 2011 onwards was important.
Still, there were exceptions, though rare, to this trend. For instance, there was a fascist Anonymous node in Germany with a large Facebook following. Many of the other German groups were quite upset and tried to brand that group as ‘faux-Anonymous.’ This was ultimately unsuccessful, though, given that anyone can take on the Anonymous name. Still, the great majority of nodes, groups, and actions tended to lie on the liberal to left side of the spectrum simply due to historical contingency: a number of the big operations from 2011 to 2012 were squarely of the hacktivist sort or were imbricated in the progressive social movements of 2011, especially. If you went to any of the street demonstrations or camps that unfurled that year, you’d likely see Anonymous masks. So, a pattern of identification developed so that ‘progressive’ types tended to deploy the name. As the reactionary and far right grew in importance, they never took the name—even though it was possible to. Perhaps it was the left/liberal branding that made it an unlikely choice.
PJ: Is this pseudonymity a bit dangerous? When you are partially anonymous or pseudonymous, then you can build a reputation; when you build a reputation, then you can get access to more and more sensitive material; and then, as you show using the example of the Anon named Sabu (Coleman 2014), you can sell this information to the FBI…
GC: Absolutely – the FBI has used this tactic to access sensitive information. Through pseudonymous interaction, people got to know each other pretty well, and came to trust and like each other. This led to the sharing of too much information, and subsequently, their capture (that is, once an informant existed). Good rapport and chemistry help when you are working on a shared project and giving out some personal information can be useful to create ties. This, however, eventually became their Achilles heel. Being constantly online, even if pseudonymously (such as Sabu, Kala, or Topiary on Twitter), drew a lot of attention from law enforcement and haters. For example, Sabu was outed as Hector X Monsegur by a small security group called Backtrace Security (he had used his name in public before and it was tied to the nick name Sabu). The FBI was also following him. At one point he logged in without anonymizing himself, and they found his IP address.
Hacker collectives who are breaking the law must think very seriously about technical and social anonymity. Anonymous provided the proof of concept but did a terrible job of it. It is very difficult not to give real details about yourself, and the more stable your persona is, the more likely someone will eventually find you. Future groups must be much more careful. Maybe they should put themselves out in a more limited way to draw less attention and give a lot less information about themselves. It is also very useful to appear for a period of time, disappear, and then completely reinvent oneself as a new persona. Persistence of identity, even if pseudonymous, is a security vulnerability.
We have seen some groups, such as Phineas Fisher (see Blackbird 2018), who have done very similar work to Anonymous: hacking leak sensitive, politically worthwhile data to the world (see Coleman 2014 for the history of the hack-leak combo). Whoever was behind the persona, whether an individual or group, was far more security savvy than Anonymous. After a big hack, they would hardly broadcast the information about the hack for a few weeks or a couple of months. Then, they would disappear and re-emerge again only when they did a new hack a couple of years later. Phineas Fisher recently killed off the persona all together, announcing, ‘I’m never coming back as this persona.’ If a new persona is created in the future, it will have to be substantially different, so that people will not connect it to Phineas Fisher. In order to achieve security through anonymity, hackers have to be much craftier in putting their online persona out there.
PJ: Does this mean that social anonymity is a bigger challenge than technical anonymity?
GC: Both are tough to achieve. For technical anonymity, you can never rely on just one tool. You need at least a couple of different ones. Even then, though, if you make just one mistake, you are screwed. Social anonymity is even harder, insofar as it is in human nature to share personal information. In fact, it’s so innate that some people do not even know they are doing it, or how/why they get caught! A good example is Jeremy Hammond, a very experienced hacker who had been jailed, but had taken very strong technical precautions in his work. One of his mistakes, though, was using the nickname Anarchaos, signaling that he was an anarchist hacker (which there are few of in the United States). Under this online nickname, he mentioned things about his protest history, like having attended the Republican National Convention protest. As such, with the help of their informant, Sabu, the FBI was able to collect what Anarchaos was publishing online.
When the FBI arrested Jeremy Hammond while he was on probation for drug testing, they noticed that Anarchaos (and some other affiliated nicknames) stopped publishing. Clearly, they likely knew that Jeremy Hammond was Anarchaos! Perhaps this could/would have been avoided if Jeremy Hammond used a very different name and persona. For instance, had he made his identity seem like an Australian libertarian really into bitcoin and not even a left anarchist, and had he used Australian mannerisms and talked about Fosters beer, it would have maybe thrown the FBI off a little bit. But Jeremy Hammond’s persona was his life. This makes his story a good example of the tribulations associated with sharing too much personal information (even when technical precautions are taken seriously).
PJ: Let us move away from the individual – what is the relationship between Anonymous and democracy?
GC: Until recently, online spaces were often cast as uber participatory and by extension, more inherently democratic. Many theorists have convincingly and thoughtfully punctured that argument, however (Barney 2000; Dean 2009; Dean et al. 2019). People are more apt to listen to these critiques now than ever before given what has transpired on the Internet. From Russian propaganda (and Donald Trump’s Twitter account), to any of Facebook’s scandals, the far right’s use of the Internet has finally killed the wicked witch of techno-utopianism, a myth not sustained by us, but by pundits and journalists. But it would be as foolish (more like suicide) to abandon these tools and all they can offer for social movements.
For nearly 20 years, boosters and critics alike tended to refer to some single—and I think incorrect—category of activity called Internet activism or digital activism—a term that has adorned countless infographics and hundreds of book and article titles. Commentators are slowly recognizing that the Internet refers not to a technological singularity, but rather that it encompasses a multitude of tools (from geeky non-corporate chat channels to corporate social media), distinct communicative genres (like the Twitter #hashtag or anonymous trolling), tactics (like hacking into a company to retrieve evidence of corruption or sophisticated grass roots propaganda campaigns), and specific media (like punchy videos or Internet memes). Different actors and social movements wield these genres and tools differently to produce incomparable types of activism. Some interventions, like hacking, are historically novel and are antagonistic and risky; other interventions are remediations of older formats: such as the online petition. Flattening and papering over these has made it harder to both assess the use of these tools and appreciate how we might strategically wield different genres of protest.
To return to Anonymous: this collective is not a great model for how to run an organization democratically. Actually, it’s not an organization— it’s a little too chaotic. It’s still, though, important and admirable.
Firstly, Anonymous provides the space where people can come together for a collective endeavor while being asked to put aside the need for individual recognition. Given the rampant individualism and desire for fame and recognition in Western societies, we need more spaces where we can practice the art of self-effacement and work toward collective goals. Again, Anonymous provided an admirable model for how and why this is done. Secondly, the logic of Anonymous allows for certain forms of decentralized autonomous collective decision-making without requiring consensus and uniformity across the network. In other words, instead of demanding that people all share the same ethic, Anonymous works under a ‘meta-ethic’ that suggests that ‘you can do want you want, and I can do what I want.’ This meta-ethic does not work everywhere, but there is some value in an experience where you cannot necessarily police everything. This is like the diversity of tactics in anarchist organizing where people say: ‘I don’t agree with your tactic but go ahead and do it!’ This democratic thrust in the ability to accommodate difference is admirable.
With that said, though, problems arise if the name is used for extreme racist or other interventions that make people uncomfortable. As I already mentioned, in Germany, for example, the name Anonymous was used for fascist projects, and other German Anonymous groups said: ‘that’s not us, we’re not the fascists.’ So, you can see that there are real limits to configuring a name as a commons for anyone to use. Policing boundaries is important, but so is the space to allow for a diversity of tactics and differences. This can prevent total fragmentation and division.
Finally, Anonymous provides a model for how to remain unwatchable and un-trackable. Historically, states went after individuals engaged in political projects; currently, surveillance capitalism works by collecting and aggregating individual data. Anonymous monkey wrenches that logic and makes it hard to tally and trace who they are. It is important to think about how people as individuals and groups can make themselves illegible to the state and to capitalism.
PJ: I’m glad you mentioned anarchism! In our recent dialog, Jodi Dean gave a sobering critique of anarchist horizontalism:
Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked: How Everything Is Connected to Everything Else and What It Means for Business, Science, and Everyday Life (2003) shows that complex networks are not flat or horizontal at all. Complex networks are characterized by free choice, growth and preferential attachment. These three characteristics generate hubs, and their links are distributed according to power laws where the top (hub or most popular node) has twice as many links as the next one, which has twice as many at the next and so on. So there is the one at the top and the many at the bottom. The curve is thus very steep with a long flat tail. The horizontal processes favored by anarcho-libertarians create the conditions of hierarchy that they are against. It’s like they see the long tail, but not the hierarchy, the steep curve. (Dean et al. 2019: 223).
Can we say that Anonymous is organized in anarchist ways, and that it will fall into the same trap?
GC: I agree with Dean’s critique – power has the tendency to pool among hubs of people or single individuals. But I also think that there are ways one can modulate that! Organizing is a very strategic enterprise and we have to be comfortable with different types of formats and their limits. We need to think when we need a leader, or when it’s best to forgo a leader and organize in a flatter fashion. An anarchist consensus-based format, which tries to fully do away with hierarchy, can be naïve and problematic unless you find a way to work against the tendencies that Dean describes. That is, just because the tyranny of structureless is real, one can institute mechanisms in non-hierarchical spaces to modulate the pooling of informal power. Also, not every political intervention or organization should be consensus driven.
In Anonymous, the hackers had more power at some level. They could not do what they did without the video makers, the media makers, and the people who could rally their troops, so there was a weird sort of symbiosis. The hackers, though, also had the most to lose—many lost years in jail. Anonymous was also less organized than certain anarchist collectives that try to intentionally build up non-hierarchical consensus-based communities. Anonymous was more chaotic and harder to predict, so it was a different beast altogether (even if it had some of those tendencies). I do not think we necessarily have a vocabulary, yet, to understand Anonymous. Michel de Certeau (1984) rightfully notes that tactics are more short-term and spontaneous, while strategies are more stable. Anonymous was really tactical at some level and is not a good model to think about strategic long-term interventions. Anonymous is very valuable as a political formation to rally troops, to publicize information, and to hack, but it should not be used as the model for other forms of political organization.
PJ: In 2016, after Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as their Word of the Year (Oxford Dictionaries 2016), the concept suddenly gained a lot of popularity. In a narrow sense, the concept of post-truth refers to a curious mix of truth and lies exhibited in Donald Trump’s presidential campaign (Jandrić 2018b). However, a deeper inquiry into the concept reveals philosophical questions about the nature of truth and human communication (Fuller and Jandrić 2019; Dean et al. 2019). Arguably, Anonymous’ actions are often directed towards revealing the truth. What are the potentials of these actions in the post-truth world?
GC: One can only conceptualize and understand a moment in time in relation to the context. In its heyday, I would often portray Anonymous as confusing because one could never be sure when they were telling the truth or when they were telling lies. Measured against the rise of Trump, however, or against the Russian propaganda machine, or against the Far-Right, Anonymous is very earnest, straightforward, public, and transparent (see Coleman 2014). They never doctored information when dumping emails, their manifestos were calls to arms, and they worked with journalists instead of trying to trick them into publishing false information.
Still, Anonymous demonstrates that relying on pure reason and truth is not enough. We always need a catchy vehicle or channel to compel people to pay attention: and here Anonymous shone. They were rather performative, relying on a politics of spectacle to ensure protracted attention. Those who think we can just rely on unmasking lies to get at truth are extremely naïve. I think that liberals who have tended to elevate the power of truth and reason are finally understanding this. Anonymous offers very important lessons about the role of emotion, fantasy, and visual culture in getting people to pay attention to problems.
PJ: You are a writer, a researcher, and a prominent public intellectual with an amazing number of public appearances. What does it mean to be a public intellectual in the age of post-truth?
GC: In the United States, papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times are portraying themselves as bastions of truth. In comparison to Fox News or Breitbart they are beacons of truth, but prior to this era, scores of critics, scholars, and activists were critical of the liberal mainstream media, for very good reason. They have fallen victim to state and corporate propaganda, purport to be neutral when bias is a condition of knowledge, and often are not as independent as they purport to be (Lawrence et al. 2007; Herman and Chomsky 2002). This has been well documented, but one of my favorite books that really gets at the stakes of the devastation that can follow media manipulation is Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes and Conway 2010). The authors document how scientists and industry played the mainstream media to sow doubt over tobacco and climate science. In the era prior to post-truth, mainstream media was not necessarily a shining armor of truth. So, it’s worth thinking about how existing weaknesses in our media landscape have made the current scourge of lies more likely. Scholars and experts, of course, should intervene as much as they can to stamp out inaccuracies and other manipulations. But we are not always sought out and heard. There is a cottage industry of scholar-pundits who get tapped as ‘experts’. Some are good, others offer quite questionable analysis.
Because there were so few people looking at Anonymous, I was sought out as an expert. I spent a lot of time clearing up a lot of misunderstandings about Anonymous. Some journalists really wanted to find the one leader, which was a laughable inquiry given how many people were contributing. These journalists, though, were simply obsessed with it (or with portraying them as cyber-terrorists)! I think the expert can productively work with journalists in order to diminish misunderstandings and manipulations and help them provide more accurate reporting. With that said, though, I do not think we could simply believe that truth in reporting, even in its best forms, can ever solve the problem of getting people to believe in the truth. Truthful journalism in educating the public is necessary but insufficient. In order to change people’s minds, we need much more targeted public relations and an honest propaganda campaign.
The Transgressive Nature of Hacker Anthropology
PJ:Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking (Coleman 2013) and Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Coleman 2014) are ethnographic works. What are the distinctive contributions of ethnography and anthropology to our understanding of the digital realm?
GC: Along with Christopher Kelty (2008), I was one of the first to conduct anthropological work on hackers. However, I built my research on a foundation of excellent journalistic, historical, and critical work in the field, and have drawn from the likes of Fred Turner (2006), Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron (1996), MacKenzie Wark (2004), Steven Levy (1984), and Bruce Sterling (1992).
What an anthropologist is well positioned to do is to measure what people say against their practice. What hackers say about what they do sometimes aligns with their practice, but other times it does not. For instance, a lot of work on hackers has highlighted hacker’s embrace of individualism because it is what they do talk about, value, and instantiate. Hackers also behold rather communitarian social habits, yet that communitarian sociality is less commonly a part of their vocabulary. Rather, their self-understandings are largely dominated by discourses of individualism and anti-authoritarianism, especially, but not exclusively, in the United States. As an anthropologist, you can see that is part of the picture but that hackers engage—deeply and quite meaningfully—in collective social practices, yet fail to articulate that in their proscriptions, norms, and writings.
PJ: Speaking of anthropology, one usually imagines researchers staying with faraway communities and engaging in unusual activities (Schneider 2013) - such as spiritual healing in Guyana, which was your first academic interest. Yet, you brought anthropological practice into a completely different environment – IRC chatrooms and other online spaces shared by Anonymous. Arguably, your job was much more complex than standard anthropological research – before starting, you first needed to reinvent anthropological method for the digital environment. Please describe the main challenges facing a classically trained anthropologist in this exciting venture into the digital realm.
GC: My first challenge was simply convincing my advisor that hackers were legitimate to study. My sense is that my peers could see that hackers might be interesting politically but believed that they lacked cultural depth. Secondly, anthropology is often rooted in fieldwork and the immersiveness of fieldwork is always overwhelming, whether it’s for hackers or religious healers in Guyana. As a researcher, you arrive as an outsider and a stranger and have to convince your interlocutors that it is okay to belong and to essentially snoop around – not for weeks, not for months, but for years! It’s really awkward, unnatural, and weird! And that challenge remains in all truly ethnographic environments. Thirdly, when you do anthropology research in a faraway place, it really requires you to be there, and when you are not, the work more or less stops. This contrasts digital anthropology, which is always on and ongoing (today that situation is a bit more complicated, though, given that there is usually some online element to most research areas). The pressure to always do research is constant, and you have to know when to step away. Finally, hackers are highly educated and some can be judgmental about your skills (or lack of them). Being a woman certainly helped, insofar as they did not expect me to have the same technical skills as a male counterpart and were just thrilled that I was using Linux and stuff like that. I suspect it would have been harder to garner their respect had I been male.
For my first project on the Debian community and free software, face to face research was particularly important; I was living in San Francisco in order to spend day in and day out day with hackers. I was constantly attending small events and large conferences. It became apparent rather quickly that the perception that most hackers interact simply and only online was just plain wrong. In the past – or in circles where the law is broken – of course interaction remains online. But most hackers also congregate face to face all the time and tend to cluster in high tech cities like Berlin, San Francisco, and Sao Paolo.
In that regard, Anonymous was much harder to study. Because of their law-breaking, my research had to be primarily online, and I did not know who was behind the screen. Initially it was very exciting, but then it drove me crazy having all these conversations with people I did not know beyond a two-dimensional nickname and screen. I also was on lock down, chained to the computer every day. Like so much anthropological research, it became all-consuming.
PJ: In spite of the radical change of context, digital anthropology is far from immune to traditional anthropological questions. Please describe your level of involvement with the Anonymous, and the main challenges in setting boundaries between you (the researcher) and the protagonists (those researched). How did you decide where to draw this boundary?
GC: Many journalists who covered Anonymous accused me of doing good work but also of getting too close – which they saw as causing unrepentant bias in my research. My reply (at least in my head) was something like: ‘I am doing exactly what I am supposed to do, you just don’t understand anthropology.’ We’ve long been comfortable with the intimacy borne from being in the trenches, but that situates your knowledge in ways where objectivity—if such a thing even exits—is impossible. I am totally fine with that state, though. You just need to make your positionality clear and that’s always what I’ve tried to do in my work.
The accusations – or at least remarks – were so (annoyingly) consistent, I eventually wrote a piece about my interactions with journalists and their perception of my so-called bias entitled ‘Gopher, Translator, and Trickster: The Ethnographer and the Media’ (Coleman 2017a). This article helped explain my methodology and type of expertise to journalists. It’s difficult to understand something without doing it, and there were moments where I definitely contributed to the labor of Anonymous’ operations. I was quite comfortable helping them – with proofreading, editing manifestos and calls, getting journalists on the channels, and coordinating connections – as long as I was not breaking the law. I could have been more involved, though, if I had created a call for action or started an operation, but for me it was enough to experience what they were doing to gain the respect and trust of people. You cannot just be there and not help! This close intimacy, within bounds of reason, is what anthropology is all about. I have been told that I have Stockholm syndrome, that I was so involved that I did not see the terrible qualities of Anonymous, but I am very well aware of some of the limits of this form of activism and broached the topic in my book. Also, people within Anonymous are very thoughtful, even self-critical themselves. Every domain has its internal critics and talking to these internal critics is particularly important.
PJ: What about emotional engagement and boundaries?
GC: There are different anthropologists and different approaches. I developed friendships, and friendships are emotional. Some anthropologists do not become friends with the people that they are studying, though. That’s a personal choice which has some limitations. I’m glad that there are anthropologists who do not become friends with their subjects, so they have distance which allows them to do certain things. But I can do things that they cannot do and vice versa.
PJ: Anthropologists are not flies on the wall. They need to simultaneously have one foot in and one foot out – close enough to earn a group’s confidence, and far enough to remain researchers. This is especially important in the case of Anonymous, who often engage in illegal activities. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Coleman 2014), you explain that you earned the confidence of Anonymous by becoming their knowledgeable public voice. What are the main challenges associated with this role?
GC: I decided to start speaking with press about Anonymous in late 2010, soon after I became fully embedded. At the beginning, talking to journalists felt precarious. I was concerned that I may be spreading lies and misinformation because I did not know enough, or that I was being fed false information, or that I would say something that would make Anonymous upset and lead them to slam the door shut. Those early press interactions were psychologically unnerving. I was concerned that the access and trust I had gained could just end any moment. Eventually as I learned more and more about Anonymous, I grew more confident in my ability to speak to the media.
Actually, I eventually talked to so many journalists that they became ethnographic subjects as well! I started to treat them with more nuance… and the first thing to note is that journalism is not some unitary block. The variation in quality and approaches is significant. Motherboard (2018), ABC, CBS, and other mainstream media, reside on difference planets when it comes to their technology expertise. Motherboard has many journalists on staff with deep knowledge about hackers and technology. Conversely, an ABC producer once asked me how ‘he could find the Julian Assange figure of Anonymous?’ I had to suppress my laughter…and explain ‘No, there is no Julian Assange figure of Anonymous!’
PJ: After publication of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous (Coleman 2014), you became a prominent public figure – and you are now being invited to give numerous talks, interviews, etc. Please describe the relationship between your academic persona and your public persona. Do they complement each other, get in each other’s way, or both? How do you balance the popular and the academic?
GC: At the university, introductory lecture classes are filled with students who are basically members of the public and they may or may not be interested in your area of expertise. During my talks I therefore approach members of the public like I approach my first year and second year students. Seen in that way, it’s not all that different to interface with the non-university public. With that said, academic writing is very different from popular writing, and it’s not always easy to switch. In the public sphere, there is a pressure to comment on things as they are happening, and I still find that very hard. Then there is the question of format. On the one hand, I find these 800-word op-ed pieces, published in places like the Guardian, pretty meaningless. Every once in a while, someone says something interesting, but it tends to be things that scholars already know, and I’m not even convinced that they reach anybody except people who already know them.
On the other hand, scholarly journal articles are just boring and hard to get through. Sometimes there is something really important, innovative, and meaty and so of course I do appreciate what gets written. There is just too much (and much of it is of questionable quality). I do think that we need more hybrid formats. For instance, I really like Limn (see Coleman 2017b) – it is a scholarly magazine that publishes at a more rapid pace and in a more accessible format. In Limn you can publish something a little bit longer than a journalistic piece, maybe 2000 or 3000 words, but you are writing it when things are still a little bit new and have not fully been worked out. So, you get your piece out there, you get feedback, and then you can spend a couple of years doing another, more substantial piece.
PJ: These days, there is a lot of talk about the need for transcending traditional borders of academic research (see Jandrić 2016). You also work across the borders between anthropology and information science. What do you make of traditional academic disciplines and the need to transcend them?
GC: It’s important to develop expertise in a discipline because it helps orient and ground you as you confront the sheer complexity of any cultural and political phenomena. It provides a starting point, a set of questions, some methods, and texts so you can navigate that terrain. Methodologically, I am a classical anthropologist and appreciate my vigorous training in anthropology as I know I have a solid bedrock and foundation for proceeding with my research. At the same time, though, disciplinary paradigms can limit us as well. If your work cannot speak beyond your discipline, then there is probably something wrong – or you are thinking to insularly. Social phenomena are complex; while I focus on cultural elements, there is still political economy or psychological elements at play. We simply cannot address every element that feeds into a certain topic. Rather, we must divide and conquer. You have to find this balance between being grounded in a discipline and speaking beyond your discipline, which requires reading about, taking seriously, and integrating other approaches in your writing and thinking. Media, communication, and information studies are really good at that interdisciplinarity, partially because they do not have as much of a shared history as disciplines like anthropology, sociology, and history.
PJ: In Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous you write that LulzSec and Anonymous live out Nietzsche’s maxims: ‘They dared to subvert and break formal law, etiquette and mores, and experimented with the art of transgression. They reminded us: to make life into art, and art into life, you sometimes need to break rules’ (Coleman 2014: 562-563). How do you see the relationship between art and academic research?
GC: This is one of my favorite quotations! I fully am an empiricist, and still think imagination and intuition are important for my own scholarly practice: they have helped me conceive of my priorities and how to write. I’ll give an example: an intuitive moment, for instance, led me to hone in on humor in the hacker world and I ended up writing extensively about its existence in my first book. One day I had what I can only describe as a vision that humor played an outsized role among hackers – and I ran with it. I was not thinking in any rational way. It just hit me in a very emotional way and that’s when I decided to focus on the topic. So, one side concerns feeling your way through important research questions.
The other side concerns the aesthetics of writing—an area that, to our peril, we often overlook. We offer arguments but what about rhetoric? What about presentation? What about getting people to listen to our arguments? We need a vehicle to transport it and we should be thinking as much about the container as the content. We should be as obsessed with crafting compelling, accessible, and enticing formats as we are with formulating our arguments.
The Postdigital Challenge of the Existential Condition
PJ: The era of cheap oil, globalization, and digital technologies has brought about significant change in our social arrangements. Early theorists like Manuel Castells (Castells 2003) have talked about information capitalism; these days, scholars like Jodi Dean (Dean 2009; Dean et al. 2019) are developing new concepts like communicative capitalism. What is the position of online activism within communicative capitalism?
GC: I’m not a fan of the terms ‘online activism’ or ‘digital activism’ (though I’m the first to admit, I’ve been guilty of using them as well). There are just too many incomparable forms of activism that can be carried out online: what exactly connects activities like hacking into a computer, the establishment of the independent medial collective IndyMedia in the late 1990s, and online petitions (just to mention a few examples)? Very little. Sure, digital tools have now become omnipresent, and social movements cannot exist without them. Still, because these genres are mushed and mashed together and because pundits have historically treated new media as the preferred conduit for social change, the critical work by Jodi Dean (2009), Astra Taylor (2014) and others served a vital corrective role. Dean’s analysis on the symbiosis between communication technologies and capitalism (which is spot on) is a paradigm that is now being blown to pieces because of the use of technologies by conservative forces and the emergence of tools of surveillance, domination, manipulation, and propaganda such as Facebook. Still, even if technology will never save us and can often hurt us, using these tools for social movements (in a non-naïve way) can provide a different path for communicative capitalism. That is, political organizers and activists must deploy all available technologies, genres, and platforms to organize, agitate, get the word out, and enroll new participants. To simply critique technology and then fail to use it, would be short sighted.
GC: Many free software hackers have managed to create spaces of non-alienation for their labor. Projects such as Python (2018) and Debian (2018) consist of individuals who autonomously come together, who have access to the means of production, and who are in control of the fruits of their labor in ways that do not happen when you work for a software firm. But it would be very naïve to stop at the Marxist analysis for these and other cases of hacker labor because hackers’ love of autonomy and creation is also exploited by technological capitalist giants. Google, for example, exploits hacker labor in a profound way. They will tell hackers: ‘you can work 20 percent on your own projects that we don’t own and control.’ Google draws hackers into working for their company by exploiting hackers’ commitments to their own autonomous side projects! Free software hackers create sites of non-alienation, and then their commitment gets exploited by the big technological giants where many of them end up working.
Still hackers have often been too insular, ensuring their productive freedom but contributing to tech giants and companies that are exploiting their workers and others. In response, we need to try to convince hackers and technologists to form or join up tech-oriented collectives and cooperatives. This is where the work of Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider (Platform Cooperativism 2018) is so important: they recognize that some of the new economic models introduced by capitalist platforms like Uber are powerful and here to stay. They just need to be refigured so that workers are in control. And more so, so that the sharing economy does not screw over citizens – which we are beginning to see with Airbnb in every major European and North American city.
PJ: Speaking of Trebor Scholz and Nathan Schneider, what do you make of the emancipatory potentials of Platform Cooperativism (2018)?
GC: When we think of free software projects like Python or Debian, many may not immediately think of them as worker owned online cooperatives, and yet in many respects that’s exactly what they are. While many of the participants are not workers in the traditional sense—garnering a salary and benefits and clocking 9 to 5 day—they do determine and control the means of production. In this way, free software projects should be seen as cooperative. We have a lot to learn from them. A class of collective software institutions has staying power and many have lasted. Debian, for example, has existed for 23 years – that’s ancient for Internet time.
Online cooperatives - when compared to brick and mortar factories that require significant capital to get going - cost less to start up. Given the existence of actual functioning worker cooperatives in the form of free software projects, it is totally realistic to take existing economic businesses like Uber and AirBnB and remake them into cooperative platforms! The difficult part is not so much the software (although someone needs to code it) but rather is the hard work of organizing workers so that they contribute to such projects in large enough numbers to provide meaningful alternatives to the existing capitalist driven ones.
PJ: Please explore the relationship between digital participation and knowledge making.
GC: When people are writing about open source software projects like Wikipedia, I am always disappointed by the obsessive emphasis on peer-to-peer production, openness and participation. Many of these projects are predicated, to some degree, on these three elements. But these projects only thrive because they are not open, they are not simply peer to peer, and because participation is constrained. They flourish because they are institutions, with overt policy and procedures, and these elements are so often missing from the conversation and, with some important exceptions, even the analysis of these projects. We have tended to hyper focus on and elevate openness and individual participation as ideals because of the way they align with and confirm our cultural ideals and biases, but we ignore and fail to think through how these projects scale and organize themselves as institutional collectives.
Making the institutional dimensions readily apparent and visible is important for several reasons. Many projects have failed because they model themselves on these projects thinking ‘we just have to keep our doors open, do nothing, and magically people will participate and everything will be good!’ No way! Successful projects work not because people participate (they do) but because participants architect complex social collectives with procedures and governance. This was the emphasis in my work with the free software project Debian (Coleman 2013). I made visible the collectivism at work in these projects. I disagree with the critique that goes: ‘participation aligns with liberal individualistic philosophy, so let’s do away with participation.’ Our society tends to idealize participation and individualism, so it’s impractical to stomp it out of existence. Instead, let us also show where participation meets collectivism (as it invariably does).
PJ: Many early theorists of online communities believed that participatory technologies such as Web 2.0 will indeed bring about radical equality (e.g. Rheingold 1995, 2002; Rheingold in Jandrić 2017) or even certain forms of anarchism (Jandrić 2010). However, it soon became clear that even the most egalitarian technical infrastructures eventually produce non-egalitarian spaces. For instance, Ford and Wajcman show that ‘Wikipedia is held up as the collaborative utopia: a world model of free, decentralized participatory democracy. Yet underneath this idealized image, an obdurate gender divide remains: the overwhelming majority of contributors are male’ (Ford and Wajcman 2017: 522). How would you explain this tendency; what can we do about it?
GC: Egalitarian practices and norms, whether in anarchist collectives or in academia, always have the tendency to creep toward hierarchy. Structurelessness is a limitation on egalitarian-like spaces. As the famous title of an important article on the topic put it, there can be a ‘tyranny of structurelessness.’ The more that we recognize that human interaction often tends towards hierarchy, the more we can create procedures to reign in that tendency. That is, egalitarianism is a practice that requires procedures, vigilance, and constant modulation. The choice is not between hierarchy and structureless but about thoughtful mechanisms to share and distribute power. Anyone who has worked in a context with no power and total hierarchy and worked in contexts with power sharing and egalitarian ways, I think, knows that the latter is preferred over the former. However, the tendency for power to pool and corrupt will never, ever disappear even in self-avowed egalitarian spaces. There are spaces that are more or less egalitarian, and there are procedures that are more or less successful, but they require constant revisiting.
Furthermore, equality comes in different forms and in different levels. Take for example the American university system: is it a meritocracy? At some level not at all, because if you come from a well-off family and you have gone to good school, you are far more likely to get in and succeed. At that level, it is a total myth. But, once you are in, higher grades aren’t given to those with better looks, connections, and power. Or for instance, in Canada or parts of Europe where education is more affordable across the board (compared to the US) the so-called meritocracy is still rather partial but better functioning than in the US where education is so expensive.
It is the same with online spaces. And while participants in volunteer projects such as Wikipedia, Debian, Python, and Tor often embrace meritocracy, they are very aware of these dynamics and the limits of meritocracy. They are stacked against people with less power, less education, etc., and if these projects really want to be more open, then they have to intervene in their recruitment, codes of conduct, and policies, to level the playing field.
PJ: The mission statement of Postdigital Science and Education begins with the following statement:
We are increasingly no longer in a world where digital technology and media is separate, virtual, ‘other’ to a ‘natural’ human and social life. This has inspired the emergence of a new concept—’the postdigital’—which is slowly but surely gaining traction in a wide range of disciplines. Published in the influential Wired magazine, a major source of inspiration for the growing body of postdigital research is Nicholas Negroponte’s article ‘Beyond Digital’ which boldly claims: ‘Face it—the digital revolution is over’ (Negroponte 1998). This does not mean that the digital is not important. However, continues Negroponte, ‘its literal form, the technology, is already beginning to be taken for granted, and its connotation will become tomorrow’s commercial and cultural compost for new ideas. Like air and drinking water, being digital will be noticed only by its absence, not its presence’ (Negroponte 1998). (Jandrić et al. 2018: 893)
Please comment on the concept of the postdigital. What are its theoretical and practical potentials?
GC: I appreciate the concept because it acknowledges that technology, in many parts of the world, is so woven into every aspect of our lives that it’s not meaningful to differentiate between online and offline. This digital dualism, as some have phrased it (Jurgenson 2011), created this weird, ontological division that proved to be unhelpful and plain wrong in some cases. For instance, for the first 15 years of digital studies, the digital domain was somehow cast as immaterial. The emphasis on infrastructure, all the rage today, was non-existent. I understand the need to talk about things like cognitive labor, but you cannot have cognitive labor without a machine, electricity, servers, and those that maintain the machines. The level of ignorance was astounding. It is a good reminder that our models—always limited and provisional—can be just plain wrong and we should always subject them to scrutiny.
Without a focus on the material basis of software and the Internet, most early scholars of the Internet – with a few exceptions (Barney 2000; Agre 1994; Chun 2005; Galloway 2004) – missed the boat on things like surveillance and control. Or, for instance, other scholars were casting things like online publishing and interaction as cheap and inherently democratic. Once you consider the cost of servers, electricity, and labor, there is nothing cheap about online platforms. Nor is there anything inherently democratic about their mere existence and it is astonishingly naive to ever think that is the case. But it also seems to be an enduring and persistent way to think about technology – especially communication technologies – in the West.
However, even if more people are online, technological saturation is and will always be uneven. Access, literacy, and use are still unevenly distributed. The state of technology in North America, Europe, and parts of China and Japan should not be the standard by which we describe the state of the world. Too many descriptive categories like the ‘networked age’ or the ‘network society’ were too sweeping and failed to take into account distinct patters of use across the world...
PJ: A century ago the Frankfurt School started speaking of about the irrational consequences of rationality, and the debate over the ‘irrationality of rationality’ has continued until this day (Ritzer and Atalay 2010: 386; see also Ritzer et al. 2018). Do you see grassroots movements such as hacktivism and Anonymous as potential correctives for this trend, as a part of the problem, or both?
GC: There are many facets to the irrationality of rationality, but one stems from treating technology—in all instances—as progressive when in fact it is often wielded as a tool of oppression, preventing human flourishing, well-being, and solidarity. Because hacktivists and Anonymous are so closely allied to technology, one might assume that they simply perpetuate the problem but generally they act as a correctives to the irrationality of rationality. Firstly, they provide some of the most trenchant critiques of technological systems, say, of those tied to surveillance, and those corporations and institutions that implement them. Secondly, they often build tools, like the browser, Tor, which provides technical alternatives to the hegemonic tools that set into motion the irrationality of rationality. Finally, a class of hackers overtly risk a lot by hacking, sleuthing into systems to retrieve politically important information to leak. Taken together they remind us that technology is a terrain of judgment and friction: there are choices about what technologies we design and use and there is nothing inherently good about technology per se.
PJ: People always had a profound interest in creatures which combine human and non-human characteristics such as Frankenstein. With Dona Haraway’s (1991) cyborg and Katherine Hayles’ cybersphere (2006), this interest has entered the discourse of social sciences and humanities. You are an anthropologist, and anthropos means human. What, in your opinion, does it mean to be human in our historical moment here and now?
GC: Your question echoes the age-old existential condition: what does it mean to love, to suffer, and to die? As an anthropologist, I am keenly interested in the human condition, on the one hand, as it manifests irrespective of time and place and, on the other hand, as it is shaped by radically unique conditions of time and place. Anthropologists tend to put more emphasis on the differences, as we have often pushed against an excessively powerful Enlightenment view of the human being as universal and rationally economically motivated. Even if we eschew universalism, perennial questions around existential conditions such as sickness and drying, or caring for others, do force us to consider what binds humans together in spite of the radical differences that are set into motion by things like radical alterity, culture and technology. What strikes me as unique about the present concerns the global existential crises affecting everyone and everything. The planet is now sick, poisoned and altered by an unfettered economic system that has taken no regard for caring for our planet and in fact has been fine with exploiting it over and over again. While certain segments of the population are already living under conditions of precarity and uncertainty (refugees, the dispossessed), the world’s population, in some form, now faces climate precarity and uncertainty. We have no clue how things will specifically pan out in the next few years, much less decade, except that they will be bad. Given current signs—the constant churn of record-breaking heat waves—all indicators are frightening. So now, humans are faced with the mind bogglingly difficult task of the survival of the human species. Humans have pulled off remarkably complicated projects—like blasting people into space—but the sheer complexity of the coordination solutions, first to configure stop gap and then a more substantial realistic solution to our climate crisis, is something we have never faced. It’s impossible to say whether we will rise up to the challenge to fix the problem, but it will most certainly force a rethinking of what it means to be human.
The interview was transcribed by Gordon Asher and Leigh French. We extend our deepest thanks to Helen Alexandra Hayes for her thoughtful edits in the piece.
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