Friday, October 09, 2009

Hackers and Democratic Liberalism: Notes on a Seminar...

Last night, I attended a seminar by Gabriella Coleman, Assistant Professor of Media Culture and Communication at NYU and author of the forthcoming book, Coding Freedom: Hacker Pleasure and the Ethics of Free and Open Source Software.

The topic was how ideas of democratic liberalism get marshaled in a technological context. Coleman discussed as her main example the case of Anonymous versus the Church of Scientology. She highlighted the history of the cyber-conflict, tracing its roots back to USENET in the early 90s.

The Q&A following the seminar was fascinating. Among the issues raised that piqued my interest:

  • "The Politics of Spectacle"

  • "The tyranny of expertise"

  • A question as to why hackers often appear so "anti-religion"

  • A question as to whether members of Anonymous are only "role-playing as activists"

  • A striking consensus among the audience that such hackers "seem like they are all between 12 and 20 years old" (not based on any data), and subsequent theories based on that assumption.

  • As far as political causes go, audience members generally seemed united in bewilderment that opposing Scientology was so high a priority for these hackers.


My two points of constructive criticism would be that, first, there needs to be more mediation of audience commentary. As often happens at many lectures on digital media topics, academics tend to marginalize hackers as almost other-worldly alien beings. Most members of Anonymous and other internet trolls are, in fact, NOT between 12 and 20 years old, and to conceive of them in such homogeneous terms - trying to squeeze a round peg into a square categorical box - does a great disservice to the intellectual debate. Anonymous members and other hackers don't even need above-average technical skills. Many of their tactics are as simple as launching an "edit war" on Wikipedia and Amazon.com book reviews. In short, reign in the audience to prevent them from trivializing what Coleman herself described as a fairly complex "political phenomenon".

Second, a lot of the language used to describe the cyber-conflict threw around terms like "geeks", "hackers", "tricksters", "yippies", and the like. There are notable distinctions between them. I perceived Coleman's main point, centered on the ideals of democratic liberalism, in the specific context of hacktivism, which was a helpful framework for understanding the issues discussed. There is a growing body of literature on hacktivism for those interested in the political movement angle of this story.

Overall, the seminar proved to be excellent brain-fodder :-)
  

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