The Brief History of Hacktivism

Cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling's brief history of hacktivism...


Feature taken from the June Issue of Dazed & Confused:

"Hacktivism is sexy because it seems so easy, fast, cheap and lightweight. 

The classic hacktivist is a digitally savvy character confronting a large, sluggish, analogue dinosaur. He makes a virtualised gesture, so vaporous and intangible that it seems almost beside the point to the powers-that-be. Then energies that were long repressed by the violence inherent in the system come to the fore. The great frothing saurian goes down into the tar pit of history, devoured by a cheering digital host of chirping, barking, furred and feathered things.  

That’s a great story. But its supreme example is Bill Gates, a rich, stuffy pillar of society who doesn’t get much streetcred from today’s hack-symp contingent. He was once a Seattle hippie, although unlike Steve Jobs, he didn’t take acid or set his own dress code. But Gates pulled the primeval hacktivist move when he persuaded IBM that the software for microcomputers (“micro-soft”) was a harmless toy enterprise – something best left to long-haired biz-school dropouts like himself. The upshot was catastrophic. Gates dutifully wore suits to work until he got bored and left to conquer malaria. By then, he had truly wrecked the system. Business is entirely run by weird ultra-rich moguls like him now. 

Richard Stallman is two years older than Bill Gates. His software philosophy – make it free – is older than Gates’s business plan. Stallman can never appear old-fashioned, though, because he’s truly a Franciscan saint – he wouldn’t know a $100 bill if he stepped on it barefoot in the street. Gates, meanwhile, gets called a stodgy geezer by Apple, a company that’s older, meaner and greedier than his own.

The title of elite hacktivist ninja goes to Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous programming genius or geniuses who created Bitcoin out of thin air. He/she/they unleashed Bitcoin among a small group of cranks, creating a crypto-monster that is technically capable of destroying the planet’s banking system. Nobody has the least idea who Nakamoto is. After winding up his/her/their weird toy and setting it loose, the mysterious figure simply vanished from human ken. 

Then there’s the highly active young Chinese computer-science grads called variously Comment Crew, Byzantine Candour and People’s Liberation Army Unit 61398. These ambitious geeks dwell in a bland 12-storey building in the suburbs of Shanghai. Since they’re a Red Army unit, one would naturally expect them to be well-scrubbed, lockstep, Maoist types. 

However, it’s become pretty clear that the Comment Crew are the anarchists of modern cyberwar. They’re raiding everything they can digitally touch, from the Dalai Lama to the New York Times, from Google HQ to the deserts of Xinjiang; they rob or infiltrate chip makers, defence contractors, gaming companies, natural-gas pipelines... Even Russian botnet guys, who just want lots of stolen money and sincerely hate Estonians, are less freaky and astral than these nameless, blitzkrieging Chinese spooks.

The members of Unit 61398 are matched in chutzpah only by whatever unknown parties wrote Stuxnet and Flame, the ultra-advanced, surgical, bloodchilling malware that wrecked the Iranian nuclear programme. Are they hacktivists? Folks, they can hack like hell itself, and boy were they ever active.

Then there are the world’s other hacktivists, mostly cool guys who are web-famous because the authorities beat them up a lot. If you’re anti-authoritarian, you probably think these are the hacktivists that matter most. These figures would include Julian Assange, who is sleeping on a couch in the Ecuadorian embassy after his scheme to revolutionise world journalism met a hitch. Also Kim Dotcom, a rich German pirate who was attacked by spooks and managed to turn the legal tables on them from New Zealand. Barrett Brown is an Anonymous sympathiser who is stuck in a slammer in Texas, although prosecutors can’t figure out how to charge him. The late Aaron Swartz hanged himself after zealous prosecutors charged him with way too much.

They’re famous because they’re in and out of court. That makes them interesting people. But the hacktivists who matter are the ones you know by their trail of dead institutions. And the bodycount there is getting longer by the day."

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