Cory Doctorow

The Anonymous ghost in the machine

A review of Hacker, Hoaxer Whistleblower, Spy by Gabriella Coleman penetrates the chaotic world of the mysterious non- collective that hacked the Pentagon and the government of Tunisia for starters

Why would you send an anthropologist — as this book’s author, Gabriella Coleman, is — to study Anonymous, the indescribable hacktivist phenomenon whose operations (‘ops’) and giddy, menacing, profane video-manifestos have seized the media and the public consciousness from 2006 to the present day? Because Anonymous is, above all, an anthropological phenomenon.

At first glance, you might think that the Anonymous story — the Guy Fawkes-mask-wearing, meme-spewing, terrifying, hilarious non-collective that hacked the church of scientology, the government of Tunisia, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, and the Pentagon (for starters) — is a story about computer security, or youthful alienation, or political activism.

But political activism isn’t anything new, and activists have always been early adopters of technology. When I was an anti-war activist in 1980s Toronto, 98 per cent of my time was spent addressing and stuffing envelopes, and the other two per cent figuring out what went into them. Activists very quickly discovered that technology could replace stamps and envelopes with free, superior electronic equivalents, and never looked back.

As for computer security: the subject is an important one, and it’s one of the poles around which the story of Anonymous orbits. But every year there are millions of hacking stories, big and small, and none of them is as important or enduring as Anonymous’s run of spectacles that has made the world stand up and take notice.What make Anonymous different from everything before it — what makes it something genuinely new upon this earth — is its culture.

I first met Gabriella (‘Biella’) Coleman 15 years ago in San Francisco, when she was doing doctoral fieldwork for her dissertation on free/open source hackers and their ethos. She’d taken a job at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a charitable campaigning group where I was a staff activist.

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