We’ve seen some very interesting developments in terms of political movements over the past few years. Perhaps beginning with the Tea Party* and spreading around the world to encompass the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, and something I’ll call the ‘Digital Liberation Movement’**
I use the term*** to describe a set of movements (?), groups (?) that appear to share some ideological tenets (libertarian/anarchistic) and maybe even members but are also distinct entities, at least in the minds of the general public. These would include the ‘pirate’ parties (both as formal entities as well as the broader community of file sharers), Wikileaks and groups focused on transparency, and Anonymous and it’s various offshoots. These are all groups that demand changes in the ‘real world’ but generally don’t take traditional paths to power in order to effect those changes.****
The thing about such entities is that given their agendas don’t track well with our tired old left/right or liberal/conservative dichotomies, it’s hard for us to understand what these things actually are. Do we classify them as criminals, traitors or terrorists (or heroes)? Certainly, there has been economic harm done in many of these cases but those categories don’t seem particularly appropriate. We have a group that targets pedophiles and revels in the disclosure of national secrets.
So, I recommend the following articles that Wired has recently published that help describe what’s going on here.
Back in November, Quinn Norto began a series of articles about the origin and evolution of Anonymous. I can’t recommend this series enough both for the article itself and it’s extensive linkage. What really grabbed me is the way it characterized the group: as the trickster archtype.
“The trickster isn’t the good guy or the bad guy, it’s the character that exposes contradictions, initiates change and moves the plot forward. One minute, the loving and heroic trickster is saving civilization. A few minutes later the same trickster is cruel, kicking your ass and eating babies as a snack.”
The other facinating (and perhaps unintentional) thing about Anonymous is that the world in which they inhabit is set up in such a way to make it uncomfotable to even discuss them intelligently without getting sucked up into their reality. Is it possible to talk about the evolution of their tactics or the various factions in the group without using terms like ‘moralfags’ or ‘lulzy motherfuckery’? Without using their terminology I suspect you lose some important context but, at the same time, such language will also function as a wall preventing people from any deeper understanding of what’s going on here.
One way to get a feeling for the culture behind Anonymous, according to Norta and I am inclined to agree, is via their extensive ‘soundtrack’ catalog. I dare you not to chuckle at song collection and how old lyrics have new life when played through the Anonymous phonograph.
“Let me take you down, cause I’m going to Strawberry Fields. Nothing is real. And nothing to get hungabout.”
Part two of the series just came out and is just as strong. If you read nothing else about Anonymous, read this series. Even if the group flames out tomorrow, never to reappear, we’re likely to see variations on this theme.
“Anonymous fundamentally produces two things: spectacle and infrastructure hacking.”
At the end of the article, Norto points to what might be an Achilles heel of the anonymous movement. All the people that become anons want to do something. They want to take action and stick it to the hypocritical powers that be. It’s not clear if the hive mind can be directed to other efforts that might involve less spectacle or have a lower chance of ‘lulzy motherfuckery’. So, when the call went out to analyze and disseminate the 250,000 Wikileaks cables, the hive was only able to do the latter. Who wants to do analysis when you could fire up the Low Orbit Ion Cannon?*****
Adam Estes over at the Atlantic has a rundown of Anonymous’s greatest hits of 2011 and one has to admit it’s a pretty impressive list any way you want to slice it. Some of the items may be hard to quantify (how much did Anonymous aid the revolutions of Egypt or Tunisia?) but the list demonstrates the minefield one has to maneuver through in any attempt to quantify Anonymous as ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’ and the utility of the ‘trickster’ analogy.
And so, where does all this lead us? I think the Anonymous story still has much, much more to go but I think the real money is going to be where online organization and hacking meets ‘real world’ action. In that vein I highly recommend #Riot by Bill Wasik at Wired. Describing the ability of technology to mobilize masses of people quickly and then tap into the group’s mind using a number of examples is quite powerful and sobering for those charged with maintaing ‘public order’.
And perhaps to temper all this ‘the world is new’ talk, check out this lengthy (but totally worthwhile) videoclip from the Chicago Humanities Festival about the role of social media in the Arab Spring. There’s so great insight into the constraints that activists have when using social media and how it’s best exploited to generate mass participation.
*I haven’t thought this idea through totally and so am not sure I can point to the Tea Party as ‘the beginning’ or this trend or even if it should be included at all but let’s just roll with if for now.
**Two things about the Digital Liberation Movement. First, the term is now mine and you’re welcome to use it so long as you send me a big, fat check every time you do so. Second, if the term hasn’t, in fact, been coined by me and YOU want a big, fat check well, you can suck it since information wants to be free and I have no intention of having my creativity stifled by your slavish adherence to bourgeois notions of ‘ownership’. So, there.
***To be fair, I’ve never actually used the term before the previous sentence.
****While the Pirate Parties are, as the name suggests, political parties, I don’t consider those to be the central focus of such entities and would expect them to either wither and disappear or change into something very different from what the current community values.
*****Even now, I have to resist the urge to shoot some zombies.