11/13 | Hacktivism

Gabriella Coleman (McGill University)

Emmanuel Goldstein, publisher of 2600: The Hacker Quarterly

Simona Levi (XNET)

Moderated by Bernard E. Harcourt and Manan Ahmed

March 22, 2018

March 22, 2018 from 6:15 p.m. to 8:45 p.m.

Heyman Center Common Room

Columbia University

In this seminar, we will critically explore and theorize “hacktivism” as a form of revolt. Traditionally, hacking and hacktivism have been associated with anarchist-leaning attacks on the establishment. They have often been linked to radical Leftist forms of truth-telling and whistleblowing—to the hacker collaborative Anonymous, to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, to Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden.

To be sure, as Gabriella Coleman emphasizes in her article “Weapons of the Geek,” we need to be more nuanced about the politics of hackers—as she correctly argues, “the ideological sensibilities that animate hacker politics are diverse: just as we can locate liberal hackers and projects, so too can we identify radical hackers and projects and see how both engender social change” (p. S98). But it is fair to say that the hacker sensibilities have tended to be predominantly on the Left. Emmanuel Goldstein provides a brilliant history in his essay on “Hacktivism and the Hacker Promise,” as does Coleman in her article. The political valence was linked, theoretically and historically, to what Coleman refers to as “the cultural cultivation of antiauthoritarianism” within hacker circles (p. S95).

This remains true today and one can hear a powerful expression of it in Simona Levi’s marvelous essay “Working Notes for a R-evolution.” It rings loudly in her call to “study the law, understand it, explain it in other words, make fun of it, hack it to render it useless, destroy its authority by replacing it with a positive one that will ultimately be coopted with the bad taste and time-lag that characterises the system, clearing away whatever had been there previously and leaving a blank slate.”

One looming question is whether things may be changing, at least in the public imagination. Hacking may be undergoing a type of ideological drift—no longer so tightly associated with resistance to power, and often, now, connected to more authoritarian political tendencies. If one had to identify a moment, a tipping point, it might be when Julian Assange threw his support, effectively, behind Donald Trump.

The question this raises, then, is pressing: Have hacking and hacktivism drifted from a mode of resistance to merely a technology, a weapon? Has the ideological drift substantively transformed hacking from a modality of uprising to simply a technological tool?

Another way to ask this is, does hacking still have a political or ethical valence, or is it now just like a machine gun or armored vehicle that can be used and deployed by any faction?

In his fascinating post, Emmanuel Goldstein defines hacktivism as “the subversive use of computers and/or computer networks to further societal/political change.” The question is, do we need to qualify the term “change”?

Welcome to Uprising 11/13!

[Read full post here. © Bernard E. Harcourt]