The revolution will be webcast

There is a revolution currently taking place online. This is a revolution against the status quo, centralised authorities, political establishment, existing business models, and creative paradigms. This has the shape of generational warfare because most of the players are so-called Millenials, but it is actually a revolution prompted by ideals popularised by older men and women (Klein, Stallman, Barlow, Assange, Žižek, Lessig). There is no doubt that this is a wired revolution, it has been brewing in the backwater IRC chatrooms and obscure forums of the Internet, but also in more public places, such as Reddit and 4chan. It uses online tools to communicate and spread its message. It is composed of a technically sophisticated generation using English as its shared language, but consists of an almost fractal cultural structure made-up of memes, sub-memes, trends and fads. This is an almost tribal revolution that has as its flag the aegis of decentralisation.

Apologies for the grandiloquent opening paragraph (I was trying to go for a bit of a Barlowesque tone), but I believe even the abuse of superlatives cannot do justice to the momentous nature of what is taking place since last year. When we look back at the first years of the new decade, we may come to think of it as having as much cultural relevance as the rise of the counter-culture in the 60s. There is a deep and fundamental change in how we interact with one another through technology, and this has permeated to almost every facet of modern life. The change however has prompted the creation of a generational breach, where the so-called digital natives come of age (I have problems with the term, but please bear with me). Talk of generational warfare and ageism can be a bit trite when dealing with new technologies, but there is something to it, particularly when it comes to the Internet. We have generations that feel at home online in ways that older people simply cannot comprehend, and this is what I believe can be found at the heart of the current online revolution.

The revolution is not really a united front, but it is certainly a push against authority. While the hacktivist movement began some time ago with the rise of P2P file-sharing (and it still remains an important element), to my mind, Wikileaks provides the “gotcha” moment for the establishment. Through the diplomatic cables we learned that governments and politicians are really as petty and corrupt as we assumed them to be. Moreover, Wikileaks displayed a very important feature of modern interaction between governments and citizens, the descentralised nature of the Internet allows for Wikileaks to continue running even after the establishment side of the Internet attacked the site with almost unprecedented virulence, from removing its domain name, to attacking its hosting and obliterating its sources of funding. Yet the site persists to this day. Then we have the various DDoS attacks from Anonymous, mostly against sites related to the copyright wars; Anonymous is an amorphous philosophy organised around the motto that “you cannot kill an idea”, so it is not a group in the traditional sense. Lulzsec’s attacks were more chaotic, mischievous, and seemed to have the only desire to laugh in the face of any sign of authority. Finally, there is a financial part of the revolution in the shape of Bitcoin, an attempt to bring down the financial institutions of the 20th century and replace them with a decentralised crypto-currency.

All of these fronts in the revolution have several common elements. Firstly, there is a generation that not only understands the Internet in entirely different ways to how most people over 32 do, but that speaks a different language altogether. Memes now make up the shared language of a generation. It is an often remarked phenomenon that the “water cooler” shared cultural experience is on the decrease as we have fewer common cultural materials due to the rise of the Long Tail. Movies, TV and music are now too fractured to act as social glue, so the digital generations use Internet memes as their shared experience. This language then becomes the invitation ticket, the knowing wink, the evidence that you’re “in the know” and get it. The use of the meme as shared language acts as a separator between the Digitals and the Analogues in ways that go beyond age.

The second element of the revolution is one of technical knowledge. There is a growing number of people who are so proficient with technology that they have come to believe they are untouchable. It could be kids who have grown hacking parental filters, bypassing institutional firewalls, and hiding their identity in a web of online aliases. These are the online shock troops that make up Anonymous, Lulzsec, and whatever group-du-jour is making the headlines this week. It is also “old” hackers who are adept at circumventing computer security and finding exploits. But the revolution is not only being led by elite hackers, the entry-barriers in the hacking community have been lowered thanks to a surplus of adequate technical knowledge coupled with easier-to-use tools (such as do-it-yourself denial-of-service kits).

Finally, this is a non-political revolution, there is no over-reaching ideology uniting the various online groups; despite the label “hacktivist”, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of ideas behind what the groups do other than references to V for Vendetta. Wikileaks is definitely on the left of the political spectrum, while Bitcoin is on the right. One could be tempted to ascribe anarchism as the uniting theme, but I have not seen any evidence that enough people understand anarchism to really think that there is a conscious anarchist ideology espoused. Perhaps there is a new ideology being created, cyber-libertarianism mixed with social responsibility, an ounce of hatred of authority with a hint of decentralisation. This leads to a mix of interesting political bed-fellows, but one can see many commonalities, the online revolution is mostly anti-corporatist, socially liberal, secularist (even displaying open anti-religious sentiment), anti-War (including the War on Terror, Drug War and their ilk). The typical example of the apolitical nature of the Digital revolution is that even the Pirate Party movement seems to be struggling to find a common identity beyond advocating against copyright law.

What seems clear is that whatever is taking place online at the moment is fuelled by an almost unmitigated contempt for authority at the most basic level. The existing edifices of society are seen as tired and huge fossils from the slow analogue age. The symbolic language of the Digitals is practically designed to mock, a perennial laughing at the older generations who just don’t get it. From the nyan cat, to the laughing man, going through the trollface and the Guy Fawkes mask, the contemptuous tone from particular sectors of the Internet is hard to miss. Some of it is typical teenage rebellion, but I believe that there is more to it, the mocking has become part of the revolution and it is itself central to the generational outlook shared by the various rebellious movements we see online.

This re-opens questions that I kept asking myself last year when Anonymous was more active with its various DDoS attacks. Is it time to take all of these online phenomena seriously? It is easy to think of the various hacking groups springing up all over the place as the work of bored and pimply teenagers with social interaction problems, and maybe some of them are just that. But there have been some few attempts at making more intelligent points about what hacktivism means. Although I disagree with some of the content, this post from the Deterritorial Support Group (DSG) is for me one of the clearest attempts at posting some of the ideas behind what is taking place online. Too bad such an intelligent post is met with tl:dr mocking typical of the target audience.

Governments and regulators so far seem both clueless and impotent when it comes to hacktivism and other similar online happenings. While there have been several arrests against alleged Anonymous members, the decentralised nature of the idea makes it almost impossible to destroy. As with P2P file-sharing, it would seem that the more centralised groups are more likely to be subject to law enforcement.

One thing is clear from a merely legal perspective. You cannot fight a war you do not understand, and it is quite an indictment that in many cases the authorities are not prepared to meet the challenges posed by hacktivists. Personally I tend to be split in my opinion of this revolution. I find the mocking tone grating, particularly from the likes of Lulzsec, but I tend to agree with some of the ideals of some of the more benign hackers.

Besides, what happened to ACS:Law was a thing of beauty.

Comments 3

    1. Thanks Glyn! My upcoming book is only tangentially related to this, but it would be a great subject. I think Gabriella Coleman might be writing something on this subject.

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