Hacker Culture as a Heir to the Historical Avant-Garde
presented at Art in Academia, Central European University, 2018
Extract of doctoral dissertation, 2017
revised in 2020, reviewed by Maxigas
THE ART OF HACKING
WHAT IS HACKER CULTURE?
I. History of Hacker Culture
II. Definition Of Hacker Culture
III. Typology Of Hacker Culture
IV. AVANTGARDE IDEOLOGY IN HACKER CULTURE
IV.1 The Historical Avantgarde as a Precondition to Hacktivism
IV.2 Hacking Typology of Avantgarde Processes
Iv.3 Avantgarde Typology of Hacking Gestures
IV.5 Network and Anarchism
IV.6 Contemporary Networked Anarchism
IV.7 Code as Speech
V. UNFORBIDDEN BORDER CROSSING
The book whose 4th chapter you are reading is an extended and reviewed monograph based on my doctoral dissertation defended in 2017 at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, supervised by Dr. Zoltán Szegedy-Maszák and Dr. János Sugár. The monograph, reviewed by Maxigas, is scheduled for publication in Hungarian and English by the end of 2020.
The book aims to define hacker culture and hacktivism through their history and typology, the first such attempt in Hungarian.
It does so in order to lay ground for observing intersections of art and hacktivism. Hacktivism gets defined as critical and non-conform use of technology that questions the info-technological status quo of power. Its definition extends to phenomena usually not included in the definition of hacktivism in relevant literature, to subsequently draw on categories of these contemporary hacktivist scene illustrated with examples.
It examines parallels between code and language, as well as between anarchist ideology and activism. It defines the historical avantgarde as a precondition of hacker culture, and demonstrates that the interpretative framework available for one may add to the understanding of the other.
Hacking can mostly be explored as a loose network of subcultures with a diverse history and a dispersed contemporary geography.
Part of the history of digital culture, the history of hacker culture unfolds determined by the closely interwoven technical, societal and economic conditions that have given rise to it. The word hacker, when first mentioned in computer history, was used to describe those innovators who contributed to the development of computer technology on the periphery of the military-industrial complex. These innovation communities, like MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, defined the groundwork and directions for the future development of both software and hardware.
Steven LEVY, historian of early hacker culture and cyber-journalist defines a set of values as the original hacker ethic. The six values are direct access, freedom of information, decentralization, meritocracy, the value of computer engineering ingenuity and aesthetics, and a general optimism towards computers. When put into practice, the hacker ethic commits to acts that question authority, not by dialogue, but by overcoming the technical conditions of that given authority. Academics of hacker culture put great emphasis on exploring the motivations of hacking, of which the most common ones are joy, a feeling of success, the excitement of border-crossing and discovery, the desire for knowledge, curiosity, and the experience of power and control.
This chapter of the book contains the following subchapters:
– early hackers
– The Hacker Ethic
– The Californian Ideology
– Comprehensive Design
– Community Memory
– The Critique of the Californian Ideology
– The Birth of Free Software
– The Digital Underground of Bulletin Board Systems
– The Plow Down of Cyberspace.
Hacker culture synthesizes controversies like individualism and community, humility and arrogance, liberalism and elitism, and is saturated by the tension between virtual play and experiment versus an outside world limited by laws of physics and the state. The media-sociologist Tim JORDAN defines hacker culture according to technological determinism. In his understanding, hacking creates new technological determinations by means of intervention, opposing an existing determination. Hacking is a material practice that produces change or novelty in the system of a computer, network, or communication technology (JORDAN 2008: 12).
After the release of the first low-cost microchip, the new enterprises unfolding from the hardware hackers’ DIY gadget clubs tried to endorse the original hacker ethic in their working methods, while trying to capitalize on their knowledge and skills gained in hobbyist culture. The Free/Libre Open Source Software movement unfolded in opposition to this progression. The innovative open models that thrived in early hacker culture later became an inherent part of the network culture paradigm. As Pekka Himanen describes, the hacker ethic expanded into the basic modus operandi of the information society, characterized by flexibility, openness, decentralization, values freedom and creativity, and treats professionals as nodes in information technology systems (HIMANEN 2001: 140).II.
This chapter of the book contains the following subchapters:
– Definition of hacking
– Community versus individualism
– A critical stance on the history of computers
– Network Patterns in the Information Society
– The Boys and Their Toys
– From Loom to Keyboard
– Hacking Patriarchy.
Jordan distinguishes between hacking gestures based on their level of novelty and technological complexity. He sees the continuity of the hacker ethic in hacktivism, as it intervenes into technological and societal determinations at the same time, thus changing how people interact with technology and each other (JORDAN: 2008: 96). Hacktivism is the creation of new technological determinations, where these new determinations define interaction with technology in new and unexpected ways. Furthermore, hacktivism implements the original values of the hacker ethic, and its modus operandi and goal are both collective and open, aiming for political change.
The determinations reformed by hacktivists are not only of technological nature but of cultural, economic and communal character as well. The attitude of hacktivism is non-conform in its use of technology and its relation to culture, questioning and discerning of technical, institutional, legal or social authority.
This chapter of the book contains the following subchapters:
– Hacking by the Use of Technology
– Progpols, Microserfs
– Societal Typology
– hacktivism in Hacker Culture
– Demonstrational hacktivism
– Mass Virtual Direct Action
– Informational hacktivism
– Culture Jamming
– Tactical media
– Contemporary Subculture AFK
– Critical Making
– Free Culture
– Definition of hacktivism
– Art-Activism-Hacking Diagram.
One of the main assumptions of this book is the idea that hacktivism may be interpreted in the context of art history and activist practices in contemporary media art. I attempt to prove and demonstrate that in the current chapter by examining the systematic analysis of non-conform cultural patterns of the two paradigms. In the second part of the chapter I seek for conjunctions of the historical avantgarde and hacker culture through the theme of anarchism, in order to highlight the similarities of how their aesthetics and media tactics relate to the societal status quo.
Finally, I observe source code as text in relation to the avantgarde’s attitude towards language and of hacker cultures to programming languages. My research question is if the existing theoretical framework of the avantgarde provides valuable new insights to understanding hacker cultures and specially hacktivism, what does hacktivism mean to subversive endeavors in media art?
The first part of this chapter argues that the historical avantgarde of the 21th Century played a major role in setting the stage for hacktivism’s intellectual framework. This argument is supported by Peter Bürger’s The Theory of the Avantgarde as a well-known classic (“The Authonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society”; Foreword by Jochen Schulte-Sasse), Claire Bishop’s Artifial Hells and studies from Dancing on Cutting Edge: Ideas on the avantgarde, from András Kappanyos, of a more fragmented and innovative approach. Bürger’s oeuvre on the avantgarde is of fundamental importance, while Bishop thematises the critique of activist art through Italian futurism, Russian proletcult and Parisian DADA. Kappanyos sketches innovative methodologies for the analysis of avantgarde artworks.
According to the previous chapter, the extended definition of hacktivism overcomes technological determinations, in accord with hacker ethics, to create new modes of interaction and cultural attitudes, and the new interactions are not only non-conformist by their technological means, but in cultural attitude as well. Disrespect towards institutional, technological or societal authority is an apparent common element of avantgarde history and of hacker culture. They do not only question but oftentimes ignore authority, not only without respect, but with remarkable wit and amusement.
We may find numerous analogies in the way avantgarde and hacktivism operates, like their program of activism, their border violation practices, their performance and hacking instructions to be reconstructed by peers, their relations to tradition and invention, their questioning of individual authorship, and their provocative behavior towards mainstream society.
Hacking may be examined as the overcoming of the semantic determinations of a certain programming language or network regulation. We may analyse hacking as an intervention that hijacks meaning (function) of text (code). We may find yet another analogy with avantgarde art in its skeptical, deconstructive attitude towards traditions of language and forms of literature as parts of the institutionalized status quo.
Bishop identifies three major shifts of social paradigm in the history of West-European art: the avantgarde starting in 1917, the neoavantgarde ending in 1968 and the fall of the Berlin Wall along with the transition that followed. These shifts, according to her, brought forth experiments to redefine art collectively, focusing on inclusion and cooperation. All the three social turns are the aftermath of a collapse of a vision of society. According to Bishop, these collapses are regularly followed by the re-articulation of the relationship between art and society of Utopian aims. This re-articulation is meant to include the production, consumption and critique of art (Bishop 2012:3).
Bishop’s book lays the ground for the critique of collective engaged participatory practice. She deducts the importance of that endeavor from Guy Debord’s 1967 well-known essay, The Society of the Spectacle. According to Debord, activist art humanizes society deafened and fragmented by the instrumentalizing effect of capitalist production. If the culture of images is dominated by market conditions, artistic practice cannot afford the production of works that reassure passive modes of reception. Instead, according to Debord, art should consist of series of actions that create friction with reality, in order to invoke solidarity (Bishop 2014:11).
We see a similar process taking place in hacker culture in the nineties, among other changes, just about the time of the third participatory paradigm shift identified by Bishop. Let’s examine the first shift to better understand this statement. The historical avantgarde was the first revolution in art that meant to attack, corrode and question the institutions of art, its traditional genres and status in bourgeois society. (SCHULTE-SASSE Xiv in Bürger 1984). The demolition of borders between art and life, the rejection of alienated artistic practice, and the invention of new practices are central to Bürger’s interpretation of the avantgarde’s program (SCHULTE-SASSE Xxxvi In BÜRGER 1984; BÜRGER 1984: 49).
The cult of novelty is central to studying the avantgarde. Novelty in this context is what circumvents institutions but is always instantly institutionalized. Helen Molesworth claims in her study »From Dada to Neo-Dada and Back Again that the societal critique of Dadaism is a sublime failure, as the concept of artwork and the institutions resist all symbolic attacks against them without major difficulty. (Molesworth 2003:178). Kappanyos calls this the paradox of success. (KAPPANYOS 2008: 12-13). This paradox is omnipresent in hacker cultures any time someone previously attacking systems becomes an informant or a full-time employee of that same system. The openness of FLOSS culture invokes Dadaist innovation, while the mainstream software industry resembles the novelty-hunger of art institutions.
Therefore, both the avantgarde and hacktivism depend on a status-quo to refer back to, to provoke, to expand or to question. avantgarde artist provoke the canon and end up being canonized for the very same innovation. Hacktivists intervene in novel ways into an already existing system of a network, computer or communication technology. Both canon and novelty are preconditions of hacking. Both avantgardists and hacktivists build their legitimization on a double basis: tradition and novelty.
Provocation targeting bourgeois values is one of the obvious parallels: hacktivism pursues its goals with a techno-cultural nonconformism, outside a certain canon of mainstream, just as the artists of the avantgarde, while they aim to affect the canon from the outside (Kappanyos 2008: 13).
Both avantgarde and hacker culture refuse existing structures of the past in favor of an idealized future utopia. These tendencies show especially well in their common affinity for issuing ambitious manifestos. There is rarely a group or tendency of second-generation hackers without a manifesto defining their ethics. GNU for FLOSS, the cypherpunk manifesto, the tech-critical Kaczinsky’s lifelong ambition of finishing the Unabomber manifesto, The Conscience of a Hacker, the slogan of Anonymous, along with Wark’s Hacker Manifesto all appear with compositions of Utopian ethical standards directed at the future (Kappanyos 2008: 102 és 104)1. Just as the artists of the avantgarde, hackers also feel personally addressed to destruct borders and barriers that stand in the way of realizing their own autonomous ethic (Kappanyos 2008: 146).
Kappanyos defines the analysis framework of avantgarde strategies in the triptych of abstraction, activism and anti-art, referring to composition, action and invention. He maps its many -isms as combinations of these factors’ variations. (KAPPANYOS 2008: 33).
Activism resonates in hacker cultures especially in the »Hands On Imperative«, in FLOSS culture and in Himanen’s hacker ethic. Hacker culture radically intervenes into political power structures, changes societal role of info-technologies by making technology available to the public, previously an exclusive privilege of the military-industrial complex and academia. These practices do not only transgress borders of institutions, but borders between specialists (artist/hacker) and non-specialists (non-artist/non-hacker/public). In this regard, we may compare participation in case of a DDOS attack to that of a Cabaret Voltaire performance.
Abstraction, the liberation of composition from representation, is present in another statement of the hacker ethic: Code can be beautiful. In this regard, code is not only judged by its functionality, but by its linguistic value and structural elegance (within what particular language it is written in). This will be examined in the »Code is Speech« subchapter in more detail.
Recipe-like instructions for performing action is not only a tradition of DADA and Fluxus (Bürger 1984:45), but of hacktivism as well: Anonymous and many other groups make their sets of instructions for performing a certain hack widely available to others. Instructions for reconstructable performativity play an instrumental role in FLOSS and open hardware culture, such as online repositories and public documentation.
The questioning or deconstruction of individual authorship is not only present in the avantgarde, but in hacker cultures as well. This belongs to the category of anti-art according to Kappanyos, but is just as relevant for performable instructions of action. Bürger ascribes the beginning of the negotiation of individual authorship to Duchamp’s signatured mass-produced ready-mades (Bürger 1984:44). According to Coleman, individualism and collectivity are both present in a constantly contradicting manner in FLOSS culture. (Coleman 2013: 210).
In conclusion, the existing theoretical framework available to analyze the traditions of avantgarde art can provide valuable new aspects to understand hacker cultures and hacktivism. As most theoreticians point out, the historical avantgarde, in contrast with its potential intent, did not destruct the institution of art as a whole, nor did it erase traditional genres of art, but carried out interventions that changed the tradition of art itself (Bürger 1984: 48). Similarly, hacker culture did not destroy the information society as such, but its contribution to shaping techno-societal relationships is of substantial importance.
In order to examine how the avantgarde and hacktivism resemble in operation and process, we may analyze hacktivist interventions along the process-oriented typology of the avantgarde artwork described by KAPPANYOS. We may as well dissect avantgarde processes by JORDAN’s novelty- complexity- and process-oriented hacking-typology.
Rosalind Krauss’s essay Originality in the avantgarde and other modernist Myths looks at the authenticity of the artwork in relation to Rodin’s work. The French state, as a heir of the late Rodin’s atelier and intellectual property, had several sculptures cast by molds never yet used or finished by Rodin himself. These sculptures were labeled and sold as original Rodin artworks by the state acting as a promoter or agent. Krauss, looking at the history of the art market, does not to find a general answer to how far authorship stretches in the case of such reproducible works of art. The discourse of art historians over Rodin’s posthumous sculptures is indeed an intricate one. Less questionable is the case of the sculptures created, cast and signed by Rodin alive. The perception of an artwork depends largely on the level of novelty and creativity it exhibits when first published. Such is the case with 0-day exploits.
As Schulte-Sasse and Kappanyos both point out, the art-making processes of the avantgarde are much more focused on methodology and process than on end result. (Kappanyos 2008: 125). In the following, we will examine how avantgarde processes may be understood within Jordan’s novelty-complexity- and process oriented hacking-typology.
A 0-day, the exploit of a so far undiscovered vulnerability of a system represents the highest value of intellectual achievement, creativity and innovation in hacker subcultures. It is broadly perceived as excelling creative intellectual work (and is bought and sold on black infosec markets accordingly). Let’s examine Duchamp’s La Fontaine as a 0-day attack, slipping through a hole of the artistic canon’s security protocol. In this case, the vulnerability is the novelty-hungriness of the bourgeois that instantly includes the piece in the canon for the idea of wanting to provoke it. Any further ready-made may be considered a 0+1-day in this regard, whereas the vulnerability is still present, and the results achieved with the same exploit, although less outstanding, are very similar.
A rubber key chain in a Parisian souvenir shop, picturing the pisoir first appropriated by Duchamp shall, by no means, compare to the first presentation of La Fontaine. Not only because it is a cheap representation of it, but also because the level of novelty and creativity in the latter is nil. If we understand the first publication of La Fontaine as an original 0-day masterpiece, rubber keychains are 0+1-day hacks at most, but better, script kiddie level activities.
We may find numerous examples of social engineering as the abuse of common social conventions in DADA performances. Let’s take, for instance, another well-known example, the Grand Soirée organized in 1919, in Zürich’s Saal zur Kaufleuten. The event, as described by Matthew S. Witkovsky , reached its scandal-provoking
peak with readings from Tristan Tzara and Walter Serner, which were planned in order to provoke the audience against the performers2. They definitely succeeded in doing so, getting the spectators involved in the event by throwing trash, money and cigarettes towards the performing dadaists, preventing them from finishing their reading sessions, including Serner’s Letzte Lockerung (last demolition). The screenplay anticipated the audience’s reaction.
The reversed question of the previous one is if the process-typology of Kappanyos may be applicable for phenomena of hacktivism. Kappanyos analyses the destruction of the author’s traditional relation to their own work of art as part of the avantgarde’s anti-art component. In his interpretation, aleatoric gestures do away with the artist’s implicit intention, ready made excludes craft, and performance puts an end to artwork being a product solid in space and time (KAPPANYOS 2008: 32). He regards innovative processes to be at the core of the avantgarde work of art, instead of the artworks themselves. He identifies ephemer, combinatorial, aleatoric, performative, self-referential and recontextualizing processes. (KAPPANYOS 2008: 63-69). We may examine how this structure is present in hacker culture:
1. Most hacks are definitely ephemerous by nature, as they last until repelled, and, when system administrators are smart, they leave no trace, or the trace they leave is reversible. Much of the history of hacking is maintained through documentation as a result of the temporary nature of hacking actions.
2. Looking at Free/Libre software development, we see a general approach of combinatorial procedure, working on several parts and versions of the same software, testing and improving each other’s work via tracking versions and contributions in repositories.
3. Chance plays a role in many actions of hacker culture. Observing the operational strategies of Anonymous described by COLEMAN, one might marvel how big of a factor chance is in a hacktivist operation. An attack may be pursued just because it is technically feasible, let that be or not be against a very specific target or a target from a broad pool of antagonists. In other words, from many potential attacks, the one that eventually can be, will be pulled off. This is specially true in the case of trolling and the LulzSec collective. Many attempts of attacks do not turn out to be successful, whereas some reach unintended targets. Therefore, intended chance or the intent of chance is present in hacktivism.
4. Recontextualization is central to hacker culture, as it transgresses and sometimes even demolishes borders of institutional and private, state and civilian, commercial and anti-consumerist information technologies.
5. One of the sophisticated self-referential phenomena of hacker culture falls in the category of performance art: live coding: a digital performance where one writes a code that generates an image or animation, and both the code itself and the generated imagery is shown on the same projection screen. This way, not only the aesthetics and complexity of the generated animation, but the wit and craft, and even the possible humor of the written code generating it, might be observed. Exploits with signatures of their authors are on the opposite ledge of the self-referential creativity range.
A targeted website or server may be down while the signature of the hacker appears on the same URL.
6. Performativity, as the exceeding of the artwork’s mediated character might be the single one aspect of the avantgarde that hacker culture does not deliver, if we understand it as an elimination of mediation. If by exceeding of mediation we mean overcoming the character of the medium, it might be considered another valid factor.
In his 2008 collected volume, Kappanyos advocates for DADA methodologies to be applied and expanded in digital culture, for instance, for digital artworks that maintain a grammatical structure, but not a logical one (Kappanyos 2008: 47).
The idea of anarchism, as used in a colloquial context, has little to do with anarchism as a political ideology. It is not a synonym of chaos, but the Utopian idea of radical self-governance without hierarchical armed forces. Small affinity groups cooperate and coordinate without vertical power structures. Different streams of anarchism vary on the scale between individualism and collectivism, all of them forming a leftist, anti-authoritarian, anti-state ideology with a century-long history. Anarchism spread in Europe in the beginning of the 20th century as a radical leftist movement. Today’s common misunderstanding of the world is much influenced by the history that followed, especially that of Stalinist ideology seeing a potential rival in anarchism. Anarchism, unlike communism or fascism, does not hallmark any historical totalitarian regime of oppression, partly because of its nature. It is more relevant as a set of guiding principles or ethics in grassroots communities that aim for horizontal structures of operation and decision making. At the beginning of the 20th century, for the artists of the avantgarde, anarchism meant a vision of radical freedom, an anti-authoritarian critique of society, the vision of a revolution of equality to come.
Patricia Leighten examines the relationship between the Parisian avantgarde and anarchist ideology in her work The Liberation of Painting, Modernism and Anarchism in Avant-Guerre Paris. According to her, main authors of anarchism, Proudhon, Bakunin and Kropotkin all claim that art has to break up with catering for bourgeois values and should solely serve societal solidarity and revolutionary pursuits (Leighten 2013:5-6).
This radical demand is answered in different ways by the prewar Parisian art-world. Traditional salons keep exhibiting naturalist painting, but do involve socially sensitive topics. Some artists reject elitism and offer their labor for anarchist periodicals and propaganda-materials. Visual abstraction is also interpreted by Leighten as a rejection of bourgeois values, meant to evoke a new consciousness by its novel aesthetics. (Leighten 2013:12).
Leighten sees the oeuvre of Kupka and Picasso even more radical, as they represent their anarchist commitment by rejecting an aesthetic consensus of what art should be like, replacing it with their own individualist expressions. (Leighten 2013:12). Many of their contemporaries have identified with individualist anarchism in defense of the autonomy of artistic expression (Leighten 2013:7).
Roger Farr examines Hugo Ball’s commitment to anarchism in the period of the Cabaret Voltaire being active in Zurich. Even though Ball never publicly claimed himself an anarchist, Farr points out that Ball published a study of Bakunyin’s work titled Bakunin Brevier in 1914 (Farr 2010:20). According to Farr, Ball’s knowledge of the collectivist Bakunyin’s writings, and in particular, his ideas on destruction as an act of creation and his criticism on language as a tool in the hands of power influenced Ball’s Zurich activities instrumentally.
„What a hacker does and will do is embarrass the power elite as dudes on the ground can’t (…) by puncturing the illusion of power.” 3
Most contemporary activist struggles draw inspiration from anarchism to a certain extent, either in ideology or in tactics. Contemporary anarchist groups sharply criticize and question the institutions of representational democracy and patriarchy, which offer illusory choices between limited options. For the alternative movements and communities of Western Europe, this is a simple fact. At the same time, many others hiss upon hearing the word anarchism, associating it with destruction and aggression, as if anarchism as political ideology would be responsible for even a fraction of armed aggression than any other such as communism or fascism. The reality is, of course, more complex and exciting: anarchist ideology inspires contemporary activist struggles, as well as it affects much of their practical, operational or public tactics.
Decentralization and autonomy, the equal share of agency between members of a community, affinity based work groups are cornerstones of anarchist ethics. Anarchist communities practice decision making methods fairly unknown to the wider public, such as consent, cooperation without agreement, unauthorized direct action, mostly in small groups whose members work for the same goals. The following remarks point out patterns of anarchist ideology in the history of hacker culture.
The multi-author book Expect Resistance, published by the CrimethInc Ex-Workers Collective, echoes Fuller and Papanek in their critique of capitalism and labor specialization, their praise for anarcho-primitivism and for the autonomy of local communities (CrimethInc. 2007:7). The similarity between the Californian Ideology, network culture and anarchism are even more apparent. The system-architecture of the Internet collides with how anarchism envisions communities: a decentralized network of nodes that operate without a controlling hierarchy, that form a dynamic network with each other, and reorganize themselves if needed. In the case of the World Wide Web, nodes are servers, while in the case of anarchism, nodes are syndicates, collectives, affinity-groups or work-groups. Both systems are non-hierarchical and decentralized by design, therefore the loss of a node does not affect the overall performance of the network, and the nodes are free to reconnect in different constellations.
If we examine the birth of this system architecture in a historical context, Stuart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalogue appears to be of influence- if not in reverse (see: chapter I, Californian Ideology). The WEC formed an information network connecting colonies, cities, reserves and other actors. Obviously, anarchism as an ideology existed before the WEC and before the Internet, therefore the presence of anarcho-courious activist groups on the virtual horizon is not a consequence of the sheer existence of the Internet. But it is definitive that the architecture of the World Wide Web and of anarchist methods of operation are reflecting each other, and (at least) the former is the sine qua non of all cognoscible contemporary activist struggles.
Eric S. Raymond, the editor of the Jargon file claims to be an anarchist. (Coleman 2014: 3; 7). Levy mentions several times that MIT’s AI Lab was operating by principles of anarchism. (Levy 2010: 123). An Anarchist’s Guide to Free Software explains in detail to less technically prepared anarchists why FLOSS is the sole acceptable choice of software for an activist critical of capitalism and globalization. The original hacker ethic echoes the ideology of anarchism in direct access, the questioning of authority, and in being anti-bureaucratic.
„There are Some Things Money Can’t Buy. For Everything else, there’s HTTP Error 408 Request Timeout” 4
Tim Jordan examines the latest participatory turn, the one that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, also identified by Claire Bishop in the context of art, along tendencies of the information society in his book Activism!. Jordan points out that the activism of the millennium is relieved of the rhetoric of the class struggle, and, organizes along a new set of values in a horizontal manner, where these values are not exclusive to each other. (Jordan 2002:29). Anonymous represents the post-9/11 wave of this generation, and serves as a great example of information technology shaping operational strategies that reflect the principles of anarchism in digital space.
Coleman does not declare Anonymous as an anarchist group. Moreover, when describing the period between 2008 and 2012 that she spent as a cultural anthropologist with different work-groups of Anonymous, Coleman describes their strategies as novel. In a technical sense and scale, this definitely holds true, but not on the level of system-architecture. To prove this, we will examine the modus operandi of Anonymous in the context of activist and anarchist traditions.
Anonymous consists of activists all over the world working for different goals, oftentimes independently, without each others consent of knowledge. Most of them probably do not possess high-level computer skills. (Coleman 2014: 16; 131). There is no membership, permanent location or main goal. The method of organizing, the tools of the actions, a few principles and visual communication are stable. Anonymous mostly works in defense of information freedom and privacy rights, as a sort of self-authorized public service justice organization protecting civilian rights.
Coleman understands the public identity of Anonymous as a collective identity. (Coleman 2014: 48). This shall not only be regarded as the continuation of the golden era hacker gang names, but is rather rooted in neoavantgard tradition. Tatiana Bazzichelli marks several grassroots groups of this collective identity tradition as cultural forerunners of Anonymous in her book Networked Disruption, such as the Luther Blisset Project, Neoism, the Church of the Subgenious and the Italian Anna Adamolo movement. Bazzichelli examines these through five common factors: openness through the critique of media; questioning of the dogma of truth; refusal of authoritarianism; collective myth and the disruption of bureaucracy. (Bazzichelli 2011:75).
Bazzichelli understands these groups as part of shared network modality tradition, where the groups come from different contexts and goals, but do share a grassroots network structure (Bazzichelli 2011:18). She claims that the American art projects of the above mentioned list are part of another tradition too: mail art, that she regards as one of the first art movements that intentionally bypass museums and other art institutions. For the primary goal of mail art was not the fulfillment of the letter as a medium, but the building of an open international network (Bazzichelli 2011:76-77). The significance of mail art, according to Bazzichelli, is that it created new, free patterns of communication for many art movements from DADA to Fluxus (Bazzichelli 2011:78).
Brian Holmes takes the liberating power of collective identities further: he claims that free identities like the Luther Blisset Project created prototypes of media subversion, that made the emergence of transnational activist movements possible by the millennium (Holmes 2009:22). Holmes’s statement collides with Jordan’s definition of post-1989 activism.
The collective image of Anonymous is easily processed by the media due to its simple and consequent symbols. (Coleman 2014: 14). The media producer Anons overdraw their bandit image (Coleman 2014: 71), and they explain their actions very simply. Therefore, they actually produce ready-to-consume media content, making press work simple in the case of a successful action, sparing press workmen of research and editing. Anonymous consequently has their agenda streamed and validated by multiple channels in no time, with skyrocketing views. This tactic is unique in the contemporary activist scene. Other groups constantly struggle to be represented authentically, or to be represented at all, while Anonymous produces content that gets aired for free without being edited, on top of the attention they already receive online.
Anonymous used the Guy Fawkes mask in their street demonstrations against the Church of Scientology for the first time. Fawkes was the protagonist of the comic and the movie V for Vendetta, an anarchist character by all means. The Hollywood movie based on the comic inspired the Anons to create the present image of Anonymous, without claiming themselves to be anarchists. The mask became an international symbol of revolution, however, it is a strange case of appropriation: these masks are made in China, and the sales of each of them contributes a percentage to Time Warner who owns the movie’s copyright (Coleman 2014: 271). One may download the visual scheme of the mask in any image format from online. There is even a low poli DIY Guy Fawkes mask thread on Pinterest.5
Anonymous functions along the lines of doocracy, a shared work dynamics where everyone does what they prefer according to their interest and motivation. Work-groups are formed spontaneously and without solid borders; fluctuation between and from and to groups is constant (Coleman 2014: 75, 49). The most important interface of organizing is IRC, Internet Relay Chat. Debates are not necessarily ended with agreement, but sometimes with the acceptance of non-agreement. Groups may divide over an issue and work in smaller groups of consent (Coleman 2014: 311). Operations apply both legal and illegal technological methods (Coleman 2014: 6). In spite of the fact that many prominent members are currently serving sentences, Anonymous became an important part of the activist scene.
‘The word has become a commodity (…) We must give up writing second-hand: that is, accepting words (to say nothing of sentences) that are not newly invented for our own use’ (Hugo Ball 1974, 26; 71).
Gabriella Coleman observes the legislation history of FLOSS in her book Coding Freedom. She claims that source code may be understood within the category of speech, and thus shall be legally protected as free speech (Coleman 2013: 169; Himanen 2001: 86). The 5th statement of the Hacker Ethic claims that one can create art and beauty on a computer. Contemplating these two statements one may look at hacking as the overcoming of the semantic determinations of software. This needs a bit of explanation.
A programming language is an artificial, human-made electronic language that has a fixed syntactic set of rules. Code written in such language is a set of commands to be executed by a computer. Machine language is the primary level of languages that transmits a series of ones and zeroes to a machine. Assembly language is translated to machine language by an assembler. Each processor family has its own assembly language, or languages. The commonly known programming languages like BASIC, C, LISP, etc. are high-level languages with which one may express commands and operations with a syntax much more similar to human languages than that of machines.
The author of a software composes a text (code) on a high-level language, where this text (code) consists of a series of logical operations, and is called the source code of that software. This source code is compiled by that language as an application, translating its operations into assembly, then to machine language for the particular processor and computer that it is running on. The vocabulary of most high-level languages consists of mathematical signs and words of the English language.
This short intermezzo makes it clear that each software is a particular artificial linguistic construct, that is meant to transmit information between human and machine or machine and machine. Each family of programming languages has different syntax systems, while, within a single family of languages the subgroups are understood differently as in the case of human languages.
In this interpretation text is the source code of software to which a particular set of syntax rules apply. The meaning of a source code is the software compiled by it.
Hackers are keen on text-based communication with computers and each other, as opposed to graphical user interfaces, GUIs. This applies in the case of human-machine-network-machine-human communication chain as well, such as in the case of IRC.
Jordan, within his research on FLOSS, describes the success of any software being dependent on its functionality, whether it works or not (Jordan 2008:42-66). In our interpretation then, this question equals having a meaning or not.
In the early decades of computers, hacking partially meant the creation of high-level languages and other protocols of communication, which was engineering work (Levy 1984:ix) with an inductive logic. Hacking interventions of today mostly apply the opposite, deductive logic.
Being skeptical towards language, the deconstruction of semantic, literal, poetical norms present in the avantgarde concurs with the deconstruction of the functionality, or the meaning of software.
We may regard hacking gestures that hijack or impair a functioning communication system by coding as a semantic intervention. We have to remember that the hijack still has to happen within the syntax of the given language in question in order to function as such. The destructive semantic interventions of hacker culture resembles the avantgarde’s relationship to language. The skepticism towards the semantic status quo is, in both instances, induced by the submission of that given language to the institutional power structure.
The below mentioned DADA to DATA manifesto quotes Kurt Schwitters claiming that it is not DADA that produces nonsense textuality, but reality controlled by authoritarian institutions and capital. For Dadaism, love making and law making with the same set of words is absurd (Gerritzen 2016:13). Bürger and Kappanyos both point out that the avantgarde’s relationship with language depends closely on it’s relationship to society and the institutions of art.
Paul Graham, former developer of Viaweb, functional programming guru and founder of Y-combinator (the first startup-incubator) authors the book Hackers and Painters – Big Ideas from the Computer Age. In one of the essays contained he sketches up the programming language of his dreams, the absolute language (Graham 2004: 10.8.). At the same time, he questions of it would be to the benefit of all:
‘So it is probably all to the good that programmers live in a post- Babel world. If we were all using the same language, it would probably be the wrong one.’
Hacker subculture’s affinity groups oftentimes organize along the use of particular programming languages. Such group may put the language they master above all others in rank and quality (Coleman 2013: 96).
Parallel to and entangled with programming languages, hacker’s particular linguistic culture has another level, described by E. S. Raymond as the hacker slang. Part of the subculture, it is used in most channels of communication and collaboration, and its proficient cultivation is key to being included in a community and accepted as an expert. Hacker lingo is characterized by expressions derived from programming, and the pertaining humor that jumps back and forth between spheres of computer and human language . One of these sub-cultural lingo styles is leet speak, 0r l33t sp34k, wh3r3 4ll v0w3l8 4nd 80m3 c0n80n4nt8 4r3 r3pl4c3d w1th numb3r8.
„More avant than any garde could imagine! ”
(Dada to Data, MOTI, 2016)
The avantgarde ideology of hacker culture is expressed in its most dense and articulated form in the DATA TO DADA manifesto published by the Dutch MOTI, Museum of the Image in 2016. We find Meike Gerritzen, Geert Lovink, Bruce Sterling and McKenzie Wark between the many authors of this critical and satirical publication. They call for a new Dadaism in the 21th century over-saturated by digital data, on the 100th anniversary of the Cabaret Voltaire. The new Dadaism shall be Dataism. Dataism calls for the rejection of the embrace of Big Data, controlled communication provided by contemporary information technologies. It highlights the lack of societal consent over surveillance and control technologies already in practice. It criticizes maker culture for not being any critical (Gerritzen és Lovink 2016: 18), and expresses solidarity towards the hardship of artistic production (Roestenburg 2016:17).
Lovink already called for radical thinkers questioning authoritarianism in the online world in 2015. In this article that proceeds the manifesto, he claims that ‘We need to remain rigorous and ruthless and demand avantgarde experimentation at the highest level and live art forms that express the feeling of our era’ (Lovink 2015:unpag).
No matter how delightful it is to read Dataism’s humorous, absurd and critical texts in a well-designed, flashy-retro publication style, it was produced within the institutions of art indeed. To be more precise, as a publication of the Museum of the Image, that Gerritzen directed at the time of this publication. Nevertheless, it made possible an open access publication, in the manner of free culture.
The question is if the proposal of the Dataist manifesto may come true inversely: if the contemporary info-technological environment becomes a less aesthetic, but just as well nonsense mirror of DADA left to its own devices. This way DATA would become DADA – an undefined, multipurpose and purposeless cock-horse outside of comprehensible language. Dataists demand a new, 21th century art: independent programmers and artist-hackers who resist the powers that control the Web. They claim that programming is the new painting and writing, that finally ends the cult of the author for good (van Dartel, 2016:31). The next chapter of the book examines such artworks that meet these criteria.
This chapter is a collection of contemporary art case studies that demonstrate the previous findings in action.These artworks are chosen from the last two decades’ techno-critical, subversive new media scene. They do not only comply with the definition of hacktivism as transgressive gestures, but represent aesthetic and sensory authenticity as well:
– Female Extension by Cornelia Sollfrank
– Border Xing by Heath Bunting
– Looking for a Husband with EU Passport by Tanja Ostojic
– Face to Facebook by Paolo Cirio
– Sterile Field by the Critical Art Ensemble
– Random Darknet Shopper by Mediengruppe Bitnik
I dedicated this book to the endeavor of defining hacker culture and hacktivism through its diverse history and contemporary geography. I tried to highlight the analogies between historical avantgarde’s revolutionary ethics and those of hacktivism. Studying hacker culture reveals an impalpably wide techno-cultural horizon, where countless projects and groups operate day to day, and where technological innovation is way faster than academic research or legal justice. Non-conform information technologies are probably the most inspiring layer of contemporary culture to study, that have way more effect on shaping this culture than what one would think at first sight. The immediacy, innovation, subversion and operation methodology that is present in these phenomena is something that might rejuvenate contemporary artistic practices and their interpretation. Brian Holmes claimes that contemporary subversion is about allowing the inherited forms of solidarity and struggle to morph, hybridize or even completely dissolve in the process of encountering and appropriating the new toolkits, conceptual frames and spatial imaginaries of the present (Holmes 2009:21). My text hopes to contribute to the inception, reservation and understanding of such subversive attitudes.
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1The Conscience of a Hacker, http://www.phrack.org/archives/issues/7/3.txt
GPL licenc: https://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/gpl-1.0.html
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3 Peter LUDLOW, professor of philosophy, Nortwestern University, in