21. Review of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
Melbourne, 12 June 2015
forthcoming, American Anthropologist
The past five years have seen a global flourishing of political initiatives in which tech-minded actors of different kinds (geeks, hackers, bloggers, online journalists, citizen politicians, etc.) have played prominent roles. From whistleblowing to online protests, from occupied squares to anti-establishment parties, these ‘freedom technologists’ can no longer be dismissed, particularly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the surveillance abuses of America’s NSA and allied agencies. Based on long-term anthropological fieldwork, Gabriella Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, is a riveting account of one these new collective actors: Anonymous.
Written for a general readership, in the conclusion Coleman reveals that the book has two ‘clashing objectives’. ‘First and foremost’, it has the ‘Apollonian’, ‘empirical’ aim of setting the record straight about Anonymous. Contrary to their popular image as
reckless online hooligans, Anonymous has now ‘matured into a serious political movement’ (p. 392). The book also has an ancillary, ‘Dionysian’ aim: to “enhance enchantment” by learning from Anonymous’ exploits on their own terms, not through academic jargon, so as to ‘nudge forward [the ongoing] process of historical and political myth-making’ (p. 394).
To elaborate on this idea, I wish to suggest that Coleman has actually written two (thoroughly entangled) books within the covers of one. Book 1 could be titled Coming of Age on the Internet: How Anonymous Matured into a Serious Political Movement. This is a book retracing the group’s exhilarating journey ‘from motherfuckery to activism’ (p. 396). Coleman finds reasons for hope, for if ‘one of the seediest places on the Internet’ (p. 51) – the uncensored website 4chan – could spawn such a formidable force for change, we may still have a chance to reverse the ‘total surveillance’ course taken by the US government and its allies after 9/11.
The story begins in 2008 (chapter 1) when Anonymous, until then a brand used primarily for trolling, ‘unexpectedly sprouted an activist sensibility’ (p. 19). This sensibility soon blossomed when some Anons took on their ‘evil doppelganger’, the Church of Scientology. Although a successful operation, their use of strictly legal tactics earned them the accusation of ‘moralfaggotry’ from hardcore participants (chapter 2). Other political milestones would follow, including their defence of WikiLeaks in the late 2010 ‘Cablegate’ affair (chapter 4), the campaign against Tunisia’s authoritarian regime whose downfall ushered in the ‘Arab Spring’ (chapter 5), various operations launched against the security industry (chapters 7-9) and in support of Occupy (chapter 10), ending with the outing as an FBI informer of an influential Anon named Sabu (chapters 10-11).
If Book 1 tells a compelling story of transformation, then Book 2, the eponymous Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous, is an account of the continuity-in-diversity that makes Anonymous what it is. Taking our guidance from its title, we can divide Book 2 into four main parts, each emphasising one of the ‘many faces’ of Anonymous. Part 1 (chapters 1-3) could be aptly named ‘Hoaxer’, for it is here that we learn about the more ‘lulzy’ exploits of the collective, that is, about its penchant for online trickery and mischief. Part 2 (chapters 4-5), where WikiLeaks looms large, could be named ‘Whistleblower’, followed by Part 3 (chapters 7-9), ‘Hacker’, devoted to a range of ‘security ops’, and ending with Part 4 (chapters 10-11) ‘Spy’, where Sabu’s betrayal is dramatically confirmed.
Beneath this broad typology lies a wealth of ethnographic detail. We follow the trajectories of a range of research participants, both online and offline, as they traverse a labyrinthic social world in constant flux. Some are skilled hackers, others merely geeks, still others have a way with the media, or simply don the Guy Fawkes mask during street protests. Yet amidst all this diversity there is also unity, as Coleman explains in the Introduction. For all their differences, most regular Anons enjoy gathering around IRC channels, share a predilection for ‘deviant humour’, despise the cult of celebrity, and are always keen to tinker with digital tools (or ‘weapons of the geek’, chapter 3). Although it may look chaotic to the untrained eye, Anonymous is held together by its ‘relationships, structures, and moral positions’ (p. 114).
Who in academia would benefit from reading this work of popular scholarship? While the volume as a whole deserves to be widely read, the helix I am calling Book 1 will be of particular interest to scholars and students of politics, political anthropology, social movements and activism. For its part, Book 2 is essential reading for those with an interest in media, communication, and digital culture. As Douglas Rushkoff puts it in the book sleeve, it is ‘a perfect initiation for all those n00bs out there still wondering what a ‘n00b’ is’. Moreover, this double-helix volume will make a very strong addition to courses on research methods, ethnographic writing and public anthropology. Indeed, by pursuing her two ‘clashing objectives’ simultaneously, Coleman sets a worthy example for students and scholars wishing to experiment with new ways of writing (digital) culture – and reaching diverse audiences while they are at it.
Back to freedom technologists series…
About the author
Dr John Postill is Vice-Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow at RMIT University, Melbourne, and Digital Anthropology Fellow at University College London (UCL). His publications include Localizing the Internet (2011), Media and Nation Building (2006) and the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Practice (2010, with Birgit Bräuchler). Currently he is conducting anthropological research on new forms of digital activism and civic engagement in Indonesia, Spain and globally. He is also writing a book on the connection between techno-politics and new citizen movements around the world, as well as the co-edited volume Theorising Media and Change (with Elisenda Ardèvol and Sirpa Tenhunen).
Follow John on Twitter: @JohnPostill