Anonymous: an anarchist analysis

Paul Raven @ 12-05-2011

Over at The Guardian, Jana Herwig gets all theoretical on Anonymous. It’s probably the most lucid attempt to tease out what Anonymous means in the context of the wider world that I’ve seen in any major publication. There’s also a glorious degree of cognitive dissonance to be had from reading about such an irreverent and vernacular entity in the high diction of academe:

This collective identity belongs to no one in particular, but is at the disposal of anyone who knows its rules and knows how to apply them. Anonymous, the collective identity, is older than Anonymous, the hacktvist group – more to the point, I propose that the hacktivist group can be understood as an application of Anonymous, the collective identity.

This identity originated on imageboard 4chan.org, as a byproduct of a user interface policy called forced anonymity, also known for short as “forced anon”.

Forced anon made it impossible for users to type in their name when they published a forum post. Instead, “Anonymous” would invariably appear as the default author name for any post. As a result, and in particular for the uninitiated, discussions on 4chan would seem like an absurd soliloquy, with “Anonymous” posting a message and “Anonymous” and “Anonymous” responding.

What this interface policy prevented was the creation of a hierarchy among users, which is known to quickly establish itself in online forums, with older forum members dominating and “newbies” having little weight in the discussion. Anonymous’s (the group’s) present dismissal of hierarchies and leadership has its roots in this practice. The uncertainty about who is talking (or probably just talking to him or herself, feigning conversation) is characteristic of the “forced anon” experience.

Herwig’s piece is in part a response to the recent schism within Anonymous; within any “normal” hierarchical group, such a schism would probably spell its imminent demise, but I suspect the very nature of Anonymous will ensure its survival, even if it mutates and undergoes a sort of metastasis. The choice of the V For Vendetta masks as part of their iconography is quite telling; the point Moore was making in the book about emergent resistance to hierarchy and fascistic control is echoed in the unpredictability of their target choices. Dissent cannot be bridled or steered; that is its power, and its self-limiting principle.

To unpack that last statement: self-identifying as a member of Anonymous is a lot like self-identifying as an anarchist, in that anyone can slip on the mask at any time, and the non-hierarchical nature of the collective means that there is no authority with the power to deny your validity. This has its downsides, in that it makes for easy pillorying and demonisation of the collective identity (such as the way that a few self-identifying anarchists bricking windows on protest marches are conveniently assumed to be representative of all anarchists), allowing a convenient way to obscure the genuine problems of hierarchy by focussing on the more foolhardy and socially unacceptable attacks made upon it.

But there are upsides, too, in that the more nihilistic wearers-of-the-badge tend to perform acts that are self-limiting in the long term; because the collective is headless, it cannot be destroyed, so the hierarchical world has to content itself with the sort of decapitations that symbolically represent the defeat of a system or group in their own narrative, while all they’re doing is trimming the wilder edge-growths of the rhizome and preventing it from becoming a hierarchy itself.

All of which is to say that I think Anonymous – and anarchism-as-philosophy – aren’t going anywhere soon; in fact, I’m beginning to think they’re an inevitable product of a global networked culture, a counterweight to the structure of society that increases in mass in proportion to the rigidity of the systems it opposes. Neither are an end-point or a goal; those that join in the hope that they are will soon leave, disappointed, because the individual reward they subconsciously seek for their actions are incompatible with the anonymity under which they are obliged to operate.

Of course, you may think I’m blowing pretentious smoke out of my own arse here; it wouldn’t be completely out of character, after all. So why not tell me why I’m wrong in the comments, eh? 🙂


On optimism

Paul Raven @ 11-01-2011

My good buddy Jeremy Tolbert has a searching and honest post about optimism, both within the context of science fiction storytelling and the wider context of the world itself:

… I used to believe in the power of sci­ence to make the world bet­ter.  And I’ve spent my entire life watch­ing peo­ple in power reduce the public’s opin­ion of sci­ence to the point where more peo­ple in the U.S. ques­tion evo­lu­tion than believe in it, which to me is basi­cally on par with dis­be­liev­ing grav­ity. The wealthy have attacked the public’s faith in sci­ence because it would have cost them money for us to believe that the planet’s cli­mate is being changed by their indus­tries.  An entire polit­i­cal arm of this coun­try dis­trusts the notion of experts.  The only sci­ence they care about is that which allows them to wring more money from the world.

[…]

Where’s my opti­mism?  Where’s my abil­ity to write sci­ence fic­tion like “The Kansas Jayhawk vs. The Midwest Monster Squad?”  Where did I leave it?  And would it be delu­sional of me to even try and adopt it again?  That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you’re a pes­simist and your pes­simism doesn’t come true, you get to be happy along with the opti­mists.  But if you’re an opti­mist whose pre­dic­tions prove false, then there’s lit­tle to be happy about.  The pes­simist at least gets the grim sat­is­fac­tion of being right. Even if they’re no hap­pier about the out­come than the optimist.

Jeremy mentions a video (clipped from a rather good documentary on stats from the BBC which I watched late last year) which was linked to in the comments thread of another post by Mike Brotherton; it covers (in a flamboyant data visualisation style) the sort of points I try to make a point of repeating to myself like a mantra on a regular basis: yes, on a day-to-day level, life seems pretty tough and the world looks to be high-tailing it to hell in the proverbial handbasket, but when you look at the aggregate experience of the human species over a comparatively short span of time, things have consistently improved, and show every sign of continuing to do so (paradigm-breaking Outside Context Problems or existential risk events notwithstanding). Indeed, sometimes I think our capacity to worry about the future is the strongest indicator that the here-and-now isn’t anywhere near as bad as it could be.

[ To pre-empt the rejoinder that life hasn’t improved for everyone to the same degree, and that there are still places that progress – however defined – has yet to make much of a showing, and that we in the Anglophone West have by far the best deal of them all: this I understand, and I’m not trying to downplay the suffering of others. On the contrary, I’m trying to show why we should push forwards with hope and aspirations of a better life for everyone. ]

These things are observable, measurable. Why, then, as Jeremy asks, is it such a struggle to be optimistic? Is it as difficult for everyone? (As shocking as regular readers may find it, my peacenik globalist optimism is something I have to work at rather hard, and sits very much at odds with a lengthy history of depression; I know other people who seem to just bubble over with optimism, but I have no idea what effort – if any – they expend to achieve such a state.)

And the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that optimism isn’t just hard work, it’s scary: it invites disillusionment, it openly courts the up-ending and down-throwing of one’s conceptions of the world. To maintain optimism, one must keep picking oneself up after the arrival of a disappointment, rebuild a new theory of the world, adjust and amend it as new data comes to light. By comparison, pessimism is easy: sit back, shake your head stoically as you predict bad things to come, and then just open a newspaper or web-browser and pick out the evidence to prove you were right. People are a lot like electricity, in that we tend to follow the path of least resistance. Pessimism has a nice fat copper cable strapped straight to the psychological earth-point; the gratification of being proved right, gained with minimum emotional expenditure.

As a result of that, pessimism seems to be the more popular stance, at least at present; it therefore follows that optimism is unfashionable, not to mention easily undermined by pointing to all the short-term badness in the world. Hence optimism becomes harder still to maintain: you’re flying in the face of popular opinion, and that’s rarely a fast route to popularity and choruses of agreement.

Furthermore, I think optimism contains a component of agency – a feeling that things can be changed, and changed for the better, by doing stuff. Pessimism is predominantly fatalist, as the responses to my post about the Giffords shooting demonstrate very clearly: thinking that we can change the tone of political discourse is naive and condescending! The corporations and politicos have got it all sewn up, and there’s nothing we can do but ride it out and hope the powers that be fix it so we come out a bit better than Those People Over There (whether Over There is the next neighbourhood along, North Korea, or any other strawman enemy-of-the-moment; doesn’t matter, really, so long as there’s some way to make it look like you deserve better than they do).

But just look at history: we have changed the tone of politics, many many times over, and we will do so again. And those who change it will be the ones who didn’t just sit back and sigh, imagining the inevitable dystopia just around the corner. This is not a partisan point, either: activism works. But it’s also work. I’m reminded of the apocryphal slogan of Generation X (the source of which escapes me): “Can’t win, so why try?” Maybe that’s why being optimistic is a struggle; perhaps it’s just generationally out of fashion.

Of course, this is all easily portrayed as conjecture and hypothesis on my part, mixed with a generous handful of self-justification… and maybe that’s what it is. Perhaps pessimism really is the more rationally valid and sustainable attitude: after all, the universe is a machine for creating entropy. But I’m going to struggle on being optimistic as best I can, regardless: for one thing, my mind needs the exercise.

And for another, I’ve never been one for following the herd. 🙂


Jaron Lanier on Wikileaks

Paul Raven @ 22-12-2010

The Wikileaks story just keeps on rolling, but in defiance of the clichĂ© it’s picking up a fair bit of moss as it goes. At the risk of repeating arguments made, well, pretty much everywhere (and to reiterate a point I made before), it’s quite possible to be supportive or generally approving of Wikileaks as a principle and as an organisation at the same time as thinking Julian Assange to be a serious douchebag who’s responding to the limelight like weeds to the springtime sun… though the caveat there is that most of what we’re hearing of Assange’s public statements is being filtered through other news organisations whose fondness for Wikileaks is less than complete. The truth remains obscure, in other words.

That said, it’s been interesting – and heartening – to watch the results of genuine grassroots action as regards the #MooreAndMe rape apologism campaigns; it’s a horrible way for it to have happened (and a horrible that it should even be necessary), but I can’t help but feel that there’s a good side to the way that discussion and criticism of mainstream cultural attitudes to rape have been brought out from the marginalised sidelines of feminism into highly visible layers of public discourse. Granted, it’s been rather like overturning a rotten log in a gloomy forest, but that’s the price of progress, I suppose; a societal problem can’t be fixed until society becomes conscious of it. Sunlight, disinfectant, you know the drill.

So to the tireless folk behind the #MooreAndMe hashtag, my utmost respect. As hard as it might be to believe for a regular reader of this site, there are times when I realise that the most helpful thing I can do is shut up and let people who really know what they’re talking about do their thing. Perhaps stepping back from the fight isn’t as useful as pitching in, but personal experience dictates that the greatest of harm can result from the best of intentions, and that one learns much more from listening than flapping one’s own uninformed lips.

But there’s one commentary link-out that needs to be made, and it’s to Jaron Lanier’s Wikileaks piece at The Atlantic. I’m by no means in complete agreement with it on a number of points, and there’s a slightly patronising “yeah, I was once naive enough to believe all that stuff, too, but I done growed up” undertone to it that grates somewhat… but of all the negative responses to Wikileaks I’ve read so far, it’s by far the most cognisant of the playing field it discusses, and the first that has really made me think hard about my own stance on the matter. It’s a long one, and not easy to yank quotes from while maintaining context, so just go read the whole thing… whether you’re for or against.


The Net interprets censorship as damage…

Paul Raven @ 10-12-2010

… and routes around it. So runs Gilmore’s old theory, anyhow, and it looks like we get to witness a full testing of it as the Wikiwars roll on. Too much happening for me to be able to do any sort of coherent commentary on it, really; I suspect we’ll still be picking apart the fag-end of 2010 a decade from now. So instead, a bunch of links:

Interesting times ahead…

chaotic system hazard sign


Wikileaks and Anonymous

Paul Raven @ 27-10-2010

There are a few things worth noting about the latest Wikileaks document-dump, the first and most obvious being how utterly unsurprising (though still deeply saddening) the contents were; for me at least (and I suspect for many others) it’s more of a confirmation of long-held suspicions than anything else.

The second is the reaction from the US and UK governments, which have focussed on the supposed risk to military personnel that the leaks will create; we heard that warning last time, too, and it turned out to be hollow. But it’s proving a very effective distraction to career journalists and their readers, most of whom have overlooked one very telling fact – namely that the aforementioned governments have made no attempt to claim the leaked documents are false. “OK, so we lied… but we were doing it to protect you!” Oh. That has worked out well, hasn’t it?

Thirdly is an observation from Mike Masnick of TechDirt, who compares Wikileaks with everyone’s favourite internet-prankster boogiepersons, Anonymous. The common themes are that they’re both products of our newly-networked era, and that they’re both being underestimated by the very powers that they most threaten.

I’d argue that the time to take the concept of Anonymous seriously came quite some time ago, actually. Even as people dismiss the group as often immature and naive (at times, quite true), what’s impressive about it is that Anonymous is a perfect example of truly distributed, totally anonymous, ad hoc organizations. When the group puts out statements, they’re grandiose and silly, but there’s a real point buried deep within them. What the internet allows is for groups to form and do stuff in a totally anonymous and distributed manner, and there really isn’t any way to prevent that — whether you agree with the activity or not.

Some think that “a few arrests” of folks behind Anonymous would scare off others, but I doubt it. I would imagine that it would just embolden the temporary gathering of folks involved even more. Going back to the beginning of the post, if the US government really was effective in “stopping” Julian Assange, how long do you think it would take for an even more distributed group to pick up the slack? It could be Anonymous itself, who continues on the tradition of Wikileaks, or it could be some other random group of folks who believe in the importance of enabling whistleblowing.

And yes, there’s a smattering of self-aggrandisement on my part here, because I made a similar suggestion back in July:

It’ll never be a big-bucks business, I’d guess, but the accrued counter-authority power and kudos will appeal to a lot of people with axes to grind. But what if they manage to make it an open-source process, so that the same work could be done by anyone even if Wikileaks sank or blew up? An amorphous and perpetual revolving-door flashmob, like Anonymous without the LOLcats and V masks? It’s essentially just a protocol, albeit one that runs on human and electronic networks in parallel.

Nowadays I flinch from making bold statements about profound change, but I find it very hard not to look at distributed post-geographical movements like Wikileaks and Anonymous and not see something without historical precedent. Whether it will last (let alone succeed in toppling the old hierarchies) is an open question that I’d not want to gamble on just yet, but what’s pretty much undeniable is that the nation-state is under attack by a virus for which its immune system has no prepared response.


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