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The “Social Organization” of the Computer... - ~ %

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24th April 2012
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The “Social Organization” of the Computer Underground?

Gordon Meyer wrote a paper a few years ago by this very name. Basically, he chose to look at the computer underground as a loose confederation of criminal organizations. This is generally how the Secret Service views the matter, although cyberpunk partisans protest there is an important social and political importance to their actions; so say their manifestoes, anyway. However, if cyberpunk really were some sort of countercultural movement, one might expect to see some sort of solidarity or cooperation. Cyberpunk apparently fails in this regard, because their seem to be no united “goals” for the movement. There are people hacking over here, hacking over there, but no common coordination, goals, or structures to be found. Cyberpunks are notorious for ratting on each other and turning each other in. And they are famous for backstabbing each other in every way possible. Hacker paranoia is legendary - they don’t trust anybody, and since most of them use “social engineering” to trick people, they expect others to try and trick them.

There is no wrath like that of a cyberpunk scorned. They find extravagant ways of wreaking revenge on others who claim to be better hackers than they are. This is where cyberpunk fails as a true counterculture. Despite the slogans and manifestoes, there does not seem to be a unifying ethos. There are attempts to “hack” out a Hacker Ethic - you should redistribute pirate software, not sell it yourself for profit, etc. - but no attempts to enforce it or make it a true standard. Most computer undergrounders really don’t have any sense of a grand social mission for their activities. It’s just a way for them to get things they want for free and to go places where nasty grownups force them to get expensive accounts for before visiting.

CyberPolitics: is there any?

While few cyberpunks are explicitly politically active in the classical sense (most do not vote), in their discussions with each other, an implicit politics does emerge. The underlying value system of most cyberpunks is libertarianism. The government just has no bloody business telling you what you can and cannot do with your modem, or what information you can acquire or send, or what you put into your body, or what you do with your money. For most of them, privacy is an important issue - they’re tired of the government reading their mail and maintaining data on them (who watches the Watchman, after all?), so they use cryptographic methods to protect their communications and transactions.

Since data encryption theory and technology is supposed to (in theory) be under the sole control of the National Security Agency (ciphers are classed as ‘munitions’ vis-a-vis foreign export), providing people with public-key cryptography is also a rebellious act. The CUers who do so are called “cypherpunks,” and they feel that people should use encryption to protect themselves from the State, and decryption to access the classified information that it so jealously guards from them. Some “cypherpunks” believe encryption can ultimately destroy the State - if one enciphers their monetary transaction, taxation will become impossible. It’s not for no reason that many of them are called “cryptoanarchists.”

Cyberpolitics is basically informed by a lot of what’s going on in the general culture. Chaos theory, postmodernism, Dadaism, and Situationism (especially the latter’s use of elaborate pranks and cultural detournement to savage 'the spectacle’) attitude influence the pessimism of much of cyberpunk politics. The cyberpunk relies on the detritus society casts away - shredded phone system documents, junked electronics equipment, and dumped password printouts - for much of his trade. In many ways, his politics is just one of parasitism. Society is not going to improve very much, but the cleverest “console cowboys” will be best prepared to exploit the situation and turn it to their advantage.

Cyberpunks: the new Lumpenproletarians of the Information Age? Or something more serious?

So we’ve looked at some ways in which cyberpunk may be a new counterculture, and some ways in which it may not be. As with any movement, the question always remains: will they sell out? Will they be co-opted? Capitalism has, as usual, found various ways to cash in on the trend, with cyberpunk novels, clothes, video games, gadgets, and so on, completing the process that Herbert Marcuse describes so well. The fact that many ex-hackers are now going to work for computer security firms suggests (not unsurprisingly) that, like the hippies of the 60s, these folks are willing to cash it all in for a cushy job and a corporate jet.

Are the cyberpunks a more serious challenge to the System than their predecessors? As suggested above, they definitely have the potential to be a greater challenge. Imagine the dismay of the Hagen Daz corporate exec when he finds out that 20,000 cases have been accidentally routed to the north pole. Imagine the frustration of the government bureaucrat who finds out that all his files on 'troublemakers’ have been scrambled. Imagine the anger of the Pentagon general who finds that his drone-piloted planes are actually bombing the Atlantic Ocean instead of Saddam Hussein. Or the media monopoly executive who finds that his satellite network now seems to be only carrying “Ren N Stimpy.” But for these same reasons, cyberpunks may be a greater danger to society as a whole, not just to “the Powers That Be."

Instead of just "dropping out” of society, or just parasitically feeding off of its information monopolies, cyberpunks have the potential to change it. But to do so they’ll have to learn those weary lessons of Movement history. You know what they are. Study up. Think globally, act locally. And most importantly, don’t mourn, organize . Just think what cyberpunks could accomplish if they actually learned to cooperate with, talk to, and trust each other. If instead of pulling pranks on the Man, they actually started to try and take away some of his power. If instead of sabotaging grassroots bulletin-board systems, they jammed the signal of propaganda engines like Voice of America. Then we could say that maybe, at long last, the New Counterculture has come of age…

Steve Mizrach (aka Seeker1)

Excerpts from an old essay. (source)
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