Last night, I finished reading Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by anthropologist Gabriella Coleman (thanks to my husband for the Christmas present). I recommend it and think it’s important for anyone with an interest in Internet activism, trolling, hacking, surveillance, or security. You won’t be overwhelmed with a lot of anthropological assessment or theory, and Coleman had access and a background that make her journalistic story a compelling read.
Coleman’s narrative is told from a near-insider point of view. Studying hackers for many years, she has talked with, met in person, and even befriended some hardcore operators from the Anons and other groups. She had access beyond the #reporter room in the Anon IRC channels with the handle biella; she didn’t go undercover or mislead anyone about her identity or intent. She points out that, of course, this could be risky. A friendly Anon warned her once about overhearing a conversation among others who considered hacking Coleman to give her a taste of what it feels like. Another Anon (the snitch Sabu) hinted that the FBI might be watching her even if she was innocent. She had to remind the Anons that she had no special standing — she wasn’t a lawyer, for example — so for her protection and their own, they should not discuss illegal ops in front of her. She became very mindful of her data security, saying, “crossing a border meant days of preparation to secure my notes and put together a safe travel computer.” (Note that Coleman now lives in Canada: a country that searched my husband’s laptop at a border crossing, confiscated it, and temporarily detained him because of the existence of a common Internet meme image in his browser cache.)
Coleman covers the LulzSec fiasco that was also well told by Parmy Olson in We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency, but that is neither where she starts nor ends. She gives some background on hacking and trolling, from phone phreaks to the cesspool of 4chan’s /b/ and then dives into Project Chanology, the Anonymous attack on Scientology. She details the conflict between “moralfags”, “namefags” and those who just want the lulz and the subsequent splintering of Anonymous into smaller and conflicting ops teams. The book continues through the Arab Spring, on through LulzSec, and into the releases from Edward Snowden and Anonymous ops related to rape cases in the US and Canada.
Anthro notes: Coleman’s analysis of lulz is one of the few times the book gets downright anthro. Her anthro roots also show with the frequent reference to trickster figures in myth. I found the trickster framework useful but overdone, one of the pet peeves I developed while reading. She also suggests that Anonymous can be understoood as the “superaltern” (via Chris Kelty). In comparison to the subaltern, who have no voice, the superaltern are “those highly educated geeks who not only speak for themselves but talk back loudly and critically to those who purport to speak for them.” She also twisted the James Scott’s term “weapons of the weak” (methods used by powerless populations to express themselves politically in indirect ways) into “weapons of the geek” — “a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged and visible actors who often lie at the center of economic life”. She even pulls in some Bakhtin, describing IRC as “polyphony”. She writes about tactics for enforcing egalitarianism in societies, the effect of creating a shared identity stripped of conventional outside markers, and secrets as tokens of exchange. If you’re reading this with an anthropological background, there is a lot to think about, but these analytic moments are scattered through a book that rarely feels academic and is accessible to anyone.
It’s not a perfect book by any means. Coleman admits to being romantic about Anonymous and making a philosophical choice to “enhance enchantment” in her approach. This has been the chief criticism I’ve seen from other (relatively) unbiased critics. Her discussion of disgusting, racist, sexist, life-fucking, and otherwise maliciously lulzy ops is very limited in contrast to ops of more punk and political activism. She nearly lost me relatively early in the book when she stated that “Ma Bell” was a term that came out of phone phreaking, when it actually predated phreaking by many decades. A small error, but since I’m not unfamiliar with the main topics she’s discussing, it made her sound like an academic outsider. Coleman also writes about the Occupy Wall Street movement as someone who was in New York City at the time, which I believe gives her a very different perspective than how it was seen by many of us outside the area, whether we agreed with the basic message of the protests or not. There are a few typos in the Kindle edition; unfortunately, some of them are at places where they could cause a flash of confusion.
The conclusion of the book is not the strongest part, which is disappointing because I think the messages there are so important. Coleman was trying very hard to avoid cynicism (she says as much). We are now post-Chelsea Manning, post-Wikileaks, post-LulzSec, and post-Edward Snowden. The police took down The Pirate Bay about three weeks ago. People cheerfully share intimate information on social media and carry GPS-enabled devices. She writes:
When this push toward the panopticon is stacked with a litany of broader issues — from growing wealthy inequality, waves of global and national recession and unrest, and the looming prospect of climate-induced environmental disaster — it is not difficult to understand how a disabling, pervasive, and frightening uncertainty has come to colonize our states of being.
She sees hope in the activist-oriented Anonymous ops, and frankly, so do I. Anonymous is deeply flawed, destructive, and often wrong, but I think we need it. I think it’s important to remember that we can be Anonymous, too. Behind our keyboards or writing letters or out in the streets, we can draw attention to the bullshit.
Oh, and a final note: ffs, encrypt.