Review of: Gabriella Coleman (2014) Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York and London: Verso, 464 pages.
From the Canadian secret services to social scientists to the participants themselves, everybody knows that if you want to understand Anonymous, you have to turn to Gabriella Coleman. Widely hailed as an exceptionally thorough ethnography, her new book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous appeals to something hackers hold dear, and academics not enough. The former call it correctness, the latter rigour. ‘Accurately portrayed’, as Anonymous activist Commander X puts it (2014).
The explicit goals of the book are found in the concluding chapter – to dispel myths about Anonymous, and to submit to its enchantment in the form of a popular yet analytical treatise – it is an important milestone in hacker studies and therefore I concentrate on its usefulness as a work of social science. Hacker studies as an emergingfield suffers from the beginning of what I call a ‘social movement syndrome’: the trying, often desperately, to understand, or if necessary misunderstand, hackers as a social movement – or failing that, at least as a socially relevant movement. On the one hand, this is understandable since social movement studies provides a stable framework for studying the rise and fall of disruptive groups; on the other hand, such a perspective results in a tension between academia and the hacker scene because most hackers are not interested in being a social movement. Finding their techno-activist allies in the scene, scholars correctly identify an ongoing tension between activists and engineers amongst hackers themselves.
While Levy’s 1984 summary of ‘hacker ethics’ made profound impact on both the scene and the scholarship by thematising a tension, it has not solved these problems in the long run. The ‘play struggle’ concept put forward in Söderberg’s Hacking Capitalism has probably been the most successful and lucid attempt to unify the political contradictions of hackerdom. The concept theorized hackers as disgruntled workers yearning for the joys of unalienated labour which capitalism is unable to provide (2008). In Hacker, Hoaxer… the transition from computer- and media savvy users looking for adventure to accidental revolutionaries is explained through the ‘trickster thesis’.
Coleman builds on Lewis Hyde’s work in cultural criticism, which goes back to Bakhtin’s literary criticism of Rabelais, arguing that ‘It is not difficult to imagine the troll and Anonymous as contemporary trickster figures. They are provocateurs and saboteurs who dismantle convention while occupying a liminal zone.’ (34) Where others reference the hacker ethics as a centerpiece of hacker culture, she builds her analysis on the idea of ‘lulz’: laughing at someone else’s expense. The argument is compelling for resolving the above outlined paradox because it can explain how fun loving hooligan hackers can turn into electrified revolutionary militants.
After playing out the trickster thesis about free software developers in her previous book (Coding Freedom), written ‘back to back’ (407) with this one, she found in Anonymous the empirical material with which to demonstrate the operation of tricksterism on a more concrete hence more persuasive level (2012). If conceptually the previous title spells out hacking as an elegant solution that is essentially a joke, here the subversive tendency of tricksterism is developed a step further as ‘LOLs’ (laughter) become ‘lulz’. The subversive potential of the ‘practical joke’ at the heart of hacking was convincing in the previous book, but it rested on a more subtle, more fragile analysis of hacker sociality: with Anonymous explicitly thematising the lulz in their own discourse, arguing for it to have a central piece in the theoretical understanding of the hacker phenomena makes a more solid argument.
Speaking of external rather than internal causes, the role of repression by the state and capital in the politicisation of the hacker scene is central in both stories as a device which moves the plot further. The key insight here is that institutionalisation and politicisation are processes mainly driven by external pressures, so that it is not possible to theorise the hacker scene without theorising its interactions with wider social structures. This is an important observation which builds on her earlier work with Alex Golub (Coleman and Golub: 2008), but has taken on more substance since then, accumulated into the telling term nerd scare.
In the final analysis, tricksterism offers a way to theorise subversion as an anthropological universal that is an indispensable part of human sociality even if it is in perpetual conflict with the established order, rather than something which emerges spontaneously from outside capitalism (which would be ridiculous).
Commander X notes that the book is ‘both epic and encyclopedic’ (2014). A triptych of four chapters each depict the rise, heyday and fall of Anonymous and its satellites, spanning a total of 464 pages. As Coleman was researching Anonymous before it was cool, the narrative is spread evenly and gravitates with the creeping force of destiny towards its tragic end. Her decision to present the trajectory of Anonymous through drawing parallels with the rise and fall of US radicalism is a claim, a hypothesis and evaluation in itself. Therefore, my recapitulation follows that lead.
Such radicalism – just like hacking – emerged in conjunction with the cultural shock of the early 1960s which brought youth cultures into circulation (Wallerstein: 2004); while in the book the ‘shock culture’ of trolling solidified in the first decade of the 21st century from the explorations of free speech on the Internet. The Walpurgis night of taboo breaking counter-culture turned into the daybreak of political resistance as the new formation came into contact with mainstream society – hippies turned yippies then, trolls turned hacktivists now.
Activists of Students for a Democratic Society worked in tandem with militants of the Black Panther Party, joined by Vietnam veterans and young folk singers like Bob Dylan. Coleman vehemently denies the ‘creepy basement dweller’ stereotype of hackers, bringing together Irish kids with a Puerto Rican gangster, an Iraqi veteran with an alterglobalisationist black block protester, amongst a host of minor characters who could all work together behind the mask. These motley crews organised direct action against the state and capital in public assemblies as well as affinity groups. The boiling points are remembered as the Days of Rage in 1969 and Operation Payback is a Bitch in 2010. As Anons like to say: ‘And Now You Have Got Our Attention’.
The Vietnam war of the sixties features as the Arab Revolutions of the 2010s where Anon’s fight from afar with ‘any memes necessary’ (Taylor 2015). Here, the author does a good job of presenting the alternating dynamics between conspiracy in affinity groups and mass organisation on open channels, demonstrating her thesis that Anonymous is not simply a ‘hive mind’ of mass collaboration nor just a shadowy hacker group, but a labyrinthine territory of resistance. In the last period, plurality gives way to underground cabals caught in a spiral of armed struggle: the splinter groups of Anonymous – Lulzsec and Antisec – go on a ‘hacking spree’ against major state and capital actors like the FBI or Sony, as well as military contractors like Stratfor.
The exploits and desperation of Weather Underground style, clandestine guerilla warfare resonates here well. State repression arrives through paranoia and infiltration modelled on COINTELPRO tactics. One of the central characters in both Anonymous and its splinter groups –called Sabu – is flipped, continuing to participate as a spy and a provocateur, while the agencies slowly track down and encircle the other participants. All receive grotesquely disproportionate sentences especially on US soil, but the worst – a decade long sentence including periods of solitary confinements – is reserved for Jeremy Hammond, a long time anarchist hacker who was ‘hands down the most insurgent of the bunch’ – a telling tale for any militants, in electronic disturbance or not. What could have amended the value of the book as part of the historical record is a timeline of operations, hacks and arrests that served as a scaffold for the narrative and a reference for historians of hacking.
In summary, the moral of Anonymous’ parallel with New Left resistance in the 1960s and 1970s is that the strategy and tactics of crashing opposition groups did not change. They did not have to change, since illegal infiltration and provocation is still the most effective method. Thus Coleman manages to situate Anonymous in the most illustrious line of political resistance in the United States, showing that electronic disturbance or not, their antics should be counted as activism.
Methodologically speaking, there is much to address in terms of hacker studies in particular and anthropology in general. The innovation of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is to use IRC logs as its primary source material. The anthropologist can meet hackers on their own ground: the telegraph of the Internet. This enables her to capture an essential site and aspect of hacker sociality that have been seriously under discussed in the literature so far. As a community-managed social media or federated social network operating continuously since 1988, or an Internet protocol for real time conversations, IRC has survived generations of chat technologies and social media platforms, emerging in the new millennium as the primary field of social interactions for new generations of geeks like hackerspace participants, and of course Anonymous themselves (maxigas 2014). Coleman manages to utilise this medium thoughtfully for her ethnographic work, with the advantage that chat logs provide automatic transcripts of interactions. Since the channel is a plain text medium, there are no other aspects of the communication (like tone of voice) that are lost in the ethnographic record. This research practice can be recognised as a contribution to the widening toolbox of digital ethnography. Digital methods are not fetishised either, since traditional methods and ‘Away From the Keyboard’ meetings also provide important insights and complement online interactions.
However, Coleman does not spell out the way in which making use of IRC as a communication channel is itself a political choice made by hackers and hoaxers which structures social interactions and subjectivation processes. For instance, the use of topical channels and pseudonymous identities that are the staple of IRC technology and its usage probably encourages the emergence of a common voice. Their choice of media arguably helps Anons develop the impersonal, peer produced politics that made them famous, as well as opening the possibility for the conspirative group dynamics that the author describes as complementary. Even though the paranoia instilled by text-only interactions comes across clearly in the book, in general a digital ethnography should be more explicitly reflexive about media use. This in turn leads to a wider discussion problematising the very definition of ethnography.
Theoretically, there is much debate about what ethnography – the method that defines the identity of anthropology as a discipline – should be and we seem to differ on the topic with the author. Ethnography is more than gaining rapport and spending time hanging out with the natives – although that is an essential part and Coleman spends much time recounting the process. It is also about generating data from observations and relating emic knowledge (the subjects’ own understanding of themselves) to etic knowledge (social scientific conceptualisations). The idea of anthropology, as it applies ethnography, is that an inside view of a particular culture can expand our theoretical understanding of societies and these previous two can tell us more about what it means to be human. Notwithstanding its contributions recounted above, the book is noticeably lacking in this area. The analysis rests on a wide range of scholarship from a number of disciplines, yet few of these ideas are developed further based on the empirical material. Coleman does a good job at picking relevant concepts and observations which apply to the phenomena – like Nietzsche’s Dionysian critique of modernity or the !Kung people’s shaming of the meat to check on authority, or even Hyde’s trickster figure – but does little to contribute upstream to these theories. For instance it would have been interesting to spell out in detail how the role – and the powers – of tricksters change in the midst of electronic networks, growing mediatisation and the cognitive capitalism going rampant in the new millennium. Altogether, the book suffers somewhat from a lack of a cumulative effect and a consistent theoretical argument, which is perhaps fair since it says ‘story’ on the tin.
The story of Anonymous could be told in as many ways, as any other story; and in many ways my own review is probably as unfaithful to the book as the book is to the movement. Yet, Coleman’s account has a beginning, a middle and an end with a moral, and that is what counts: it makes for a good story. Another angle will be told by my friend Pedro Jacobetty on the peer production of politics, on the foot soldiers of mayhem, how they used the media and how it used them: another tale of solidarity, deception and betrayal. As Coleman’s work shows brilliantly, an anthropologist works with her whole personality; it was the only story she could tell. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy will be remembered as a contribution to the social history of the trickster, militant activism and hacker studies, a gritty chronicle of the search for adventure in a 21st century dystopia.