Anonymous, Student Blogging, Batman and Online Vigilantism

February 5, 2013 § 1 Comment

why are you so serious

This term I’m trying something new with my Hacker Culture class, thanks to NYU’s transition from Blackboard to NYU Classes. Instead of having students write weekly reading responses, I’m having them blog their responses, and respond to each other’s posts. That way I’m able to check out/contribute to whatever ongoing conversations — which I can then integrate into my lesson plans, particularly if certain recurring themes or conversations emerge.

One of these themes has to do with the ethics of hackerly vigilantism, and whether or not Anonymous in particular is the real life analogue to Batman. Several students posed this question, as well as the question of why certain people are so drawn to vigilante justice. Here is my response:

Ultimately, I think the appeal of these sorts of vigilante interventions appeal to people because the internet can be such a chaotic, frustrating place. Worse, there’s often very little we can do to address these frustrations. For example, someone’s being an ass in the comments section of your favorite blog? Too bad — you can either leave or try to choke down all that bile. Somebody is saying rude things about you or someone you know on Twitter? You can block them, but that doesn’t make them or their tweets disappear (just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t there). Someone being horrible on Facebook? Have fun waiting for 6 weeks while Facebook decides what to do about it. People are constantly talking about the level of control people have on the internet, and to an extent that’s true. But there are also lots of things –and they are almost all negative things– that people can’t control.

Vigilantism offers an opportunity to right these sorts of (perceived) wrongs, often much more efficiently than anything the legal system or on-site moderation policies can offer. Because unlike these more official channels, vigilante justice is (at least can be) as swift as the people exacting whatever revenge. Furthermore it provides an outlet for knee-jerk gut-level reactions. These kinds of reactions can be extremely satisfying, even cathartic, especially when emotions are already running high. You could call it the online equivalent of punching your worst enemy in the face. The problem is, people are not always at their fairest or most discerning when they are lashing out in anger, frustration or pain. In those moments, tunnel vision often rules. So although you might initially feel justified in punching your worst enemy in the face, there’s no guarantee that the feeling will last as soon as the adrenaline stops pumping. At that point, you might just realize that you acted rashly, and wish you could take it back. 

Online, these stakes are even higher, because when people react rashly –especially when the information they’re going on is rushed and incomplete– the things they do risk following their target forever. Sometimes the resulting stigma is entirely justified. There are certain things –and I suspect this is the rationale behind the Steubenville vigilantism– that people shouldn’t be able to wiggle away from easily (they are called consequences, and people should have to face them). Sometimes, however, the resulting stigma is either disproportionate to the crime, or is based on faulty information and therefore unwarranted (not that Google cares; their search engine isn’t interested in what’s true or fair, their search engine is a search engine). 

So, while vigilantism might feel good in the moment (everyone wants to be Batman, right? or at least watch Batman from the sidelines and nod approvingly because JUSTICE), it might not be the right thing to do. In fact, it might just prove to be the worst thing. Because what if Batman has his facts wrong? What if Batman isn’t thinking straight? What if Batman is a troll? This line of questioning is certainly applicable to the Anonymous-as-Batman theory — I direct your attention to one Jessi Slaughter. This is why it’s not a good idea to make any broad claims or assumptions about Anonymous. Sometimes people operating under that mantle do horrible things. Sometimes people operating under that mantle do wonderful things. Ultimately it is the people doing the things that you should react to — not the mass noun that subsumes all of them. 

I love that these are the kinds of issues the students are raising — and it’s only Week 2. This term is going to be the best.


Hacker Culture and Politics: NYU Senior Media Seminar

January 30, 2013 § Leave a comment


The following is a course description and basic overview of the Hacker Culture and Politics class I am teaching this semester at NYU. The syllabus borrows from Gabriella Coleman’s version of the class (she created this course for NYU in 2010), and in the last few weeks in particular, opens the discussion up to include behaviors that are perhaps less recognizable as “proper” hacking, but which are marked by subversive or otherwise creative re-appropriation — the hallmark of the term as it was originally conceived.

Weekly Discussion Topics

  • Defining Terms
  • Early Days and Phone Phreaking
  • The Next Generation
  • Free and Open Source Software
  • Free and Open Software part II + Ethics
  • Piracy or Content Liberation?
  • Pirate Party
  • Anonymity as Dissent, Anonymity as Culture
  • Anonymous
  • Craft and Craftiness
  • Hackers and Trickster
  • Trolls and the Trolls Who Troll Them
  • Media Jamming and Spectacle

Required Texts 

  • Douglas Thomas: Hacker Culture
  • Lewis Hyde: Trickster Makes this World
  • Steven Levy: Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution
  • Gabriella Coleman, Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking
  • Andy Greenberg, This Machine Kills Secrets: How WikiLeakers, Cypherpunks, and Hacktivists Aim to Free the World’s Information

Required Articles (selected)

  • Richard Stallman, “The GNU Manifesto”
  • Brian Pfaffenberger, “If I Want It, It’s OK: Usenet and the (Outer) Limits of Free Speech”
  • Lawrence Liang, “Beyond Representation: The Figure of the Pirate.”
  • Robert Mueller, “Combating Threats in the Cyber World: Outsmarting Terrorists, Hackers, and Spies” (RSA Speech)
  • Lee Knuttila, “User unknown: 4chan, Anonymity and Contingency”
  • Coleman, Gabriella, “Our Weirdness Is Free. The logic of Anonymous—Online Army, Agent of Chaos, and Seeker of Justice”
  • Judith Donath, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community”
  • Whitney Phillips, “The House That Fox Built: Anonymous, Spectacle and Cycles of Amplification”
  • Guy Debord and Gil Wolman, “A User’s Guide to Detournement”

Course Description 

In mainstream parlance, hacking is, at least is understood to be, the criminal or otherwise malicious attempt to access information that isn’t meant to be accessed. In mainstream media portrayals, individual hackers are typically portrayed either as basement-dwelling malcontents with too much time on their hands or digital MacGyvers capable of building a radioactive iPad out of paper clips and a cereal box. Even hackers themselves equivocate on the meaning and implications of the title (Thomas 2003; Coleman 2010), and there is often great animosity between whitehats (hackers who abide by ethical and legal principles), blackhats (hackers who engage in unethical or illegal behaviors) and grayhats (hackers with ambiguous motives, who may appear good or bad depending on who is looking).

As loaded as the term has become, hacking in the original sense was surprisingly value-neutral. As early as 1959, students at MIT were using the term “to hack” to describe any technological project or innovation that creatively appropriated available materials in order to make something smarter, better or more interesting (Levy 1984, 39-49). In addition to interrogating the history, ethics and technical practices of hacking, as well as examining how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet generally, this course will explore the extent to which hacking—understood more broadly as creative tinkering—informs our relationship to the social, technological and media landscape.

Learning Outcomes

In this class, students will explore the historical, political and technological context of hacking. Through weekly blog entries, class discussions and their final projects, students will analyze the various narratives surrounding hacking, as well as the ways in which these narratives connect to and inform their own relationship to technology. They will be responsible for leading discussions on the course readings and critically engaging the readings and class conversations.

Final research paper  

For their 7-9 page final research projects, and drawing from course readings and class discussions, students will examine a specific moment of hacking spectacle. The event needn’t be a purely technological or computer-based hack; students are welcome to consider any moment—positive, negative or somewhere in between—of creative re-appropriation. If the event does not obviously meet the criteria of hacking, the student must include in his or her analysis an explanation of why this event qualifies as such. All analyses must consider the system(s) and/or principles hacked. Students will be given the opportunity to brainstorm specific paper topic ideas in class.

America’s Calling: A Summary of the Social History of the Telephone

November 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

For the past two three weeks (thanks a lot, Sandy), my New Media’s Past and Future class has focused on the history of telephony. As frustrating as it was, the Hurricane That Ate Week Nine actually gave us a great deal to talk about re: similar, particularly in relation to the process by which the telephone became an “anonymous” technology. This connected nicely to discussions of the storm, since technologies that are normally invisible (the telephone, internet, even good old electricity) were very apparent during the hurricane, if only in their absence. It was, in other words, an extremely annoying, anxiety-inducing week-long teachable moment. For the sake of morale, I will call that a silver lining.

The primary reading for this unit was Claude Fischer’s America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940. I’ve posted a summary of the book’s main argument –along with some relevant clips and images — here. First, a sneak peek!

One of the things people tend to assume about established technologies is that they’re not making any assumptions. Knowing how to use a telephone is such an obvious thing, people think, if they ever bother thinking about the telephone at all, because why would they, it’s such a natural part of human life, right? WRONG, says Claude Fischer, who reminds us in America Calling: A Social History of the Telephone to 1940 that the telephone was something people had to learn, which itself was something the people selling the telephone had to teach, and later something advertisers and marketers had react to when people began adopting the new technologies in unexpected ways.

Happy helloing, everyone!

I Shall Call You, First Internet: New Media’s Past and Future, Week 6

October 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

Normally I don’t write lectures longform, but rather as a series of bullet points. Enough detail to keep me focused, but not so much detail that I end up reading a monologue.  Today however I had a satellite video interview thing with an Australian current events show, and in order to make my 4am call had to wake up at 2:30 — hilarious, considering I’d then need to teach at 9:30. Knowing I’d be a blithering mess by the time I got to class, I decided to write out this week’s lecture, hence this post because wtf else was I supposed to do with it.

A common misconception about the Victorian age is that it was boring, and that people then were so backwards, and so technologically unsophisticated, that all anyone did was sit in parlors, occasionally axe-murder their parents, and run away screaming the first time they saw a moving picture show. This is a compelling story, because of LOOK HOW FAR WE’VE COME, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not how it was. For example, what we now describe as THE CINEMA wasn’t some overnight revolution. Just as the printing revolution actually occurred in degrees, there was all kinds of visual cultural artifacts to “prepare” people for the task of watching films. Here, look at these white people talk:

During the magic lantern era, there were even precursors for horror films: Phantasmagoria shows, essentially hybrids between light shows and magic shows. Scary or otherwise macabre images would be projected onto walls of smoke or other spooooky media in order to strike “delighted terror” in the heart of the audience. People still do this, because it is fun to be afraid!

Jesusween 1799 style

Ok, you might be saying. Cool story and all, but aren’t we talking about the telegraph today? And the answer is yes, we are talking about the telegraph today. But as we learned in Cook’s “The Gutenberg Myth,” new technologies don’t –in fact can’t– emerge in a vacuum. So, if we want to think about what the telegraph was and why the telegraph mattered, it’s important to consider the wider cultural and technological context. And the world of the 19th and early 20th century was rich with communication and entertainment technologies — technologies which initially seem out of step with the popular image of the Victorian era as being mostly sleepy and technologically backwards.

So keep in mind that the telegraph was not a singular shining beacon of innovation in a swamp of prehistoric ignorance. The “them” of yesterday isn’t all that different from the “us” of today. In many cases, we’re still doing now what we used to do then — it’s just that now, we’re able to do these same things faster. Except when we can’t!

All that said, let us now turn to the telegraph, specifically the first half of Tom Standage’s excellent The Victorian Internet.

BUT THERE IS ALWAYS A CATCH. Before we can discuss what the telegraph accomplished, we have to consider what facilitated its success. Namely electricity, a point that connects back to last week’s discussion of the printing revolution. As Cook emphasized, until there was a cheap and reliable source of things to print on, printing could only ever be a small scale operation. In other words, movable type was important, but paper was too, perhaps even more so. Similarly, until humans wrapped their lizard brains around electricity, the telegraph could only exist in theory. Quoth Standage:

The breakthrough came in 1820 [17 years before Morse started peddling his electric telegraph machine] when Hans Christian Oersted, a Danish physicist, observed that electric current flowing in a wire gives rise to a magnetic field, a phenomenon known as electromagnetism. This magnetic field can then be detected through its effect on another object: As Oersted discovered, it will cause a nearby compass needle to move. For the first time, there was a reliable, repeatable and practical way to detect electricity (…)

Two new inventions quickly followed: the galvanometer, which indicates the flow of current by the deflection of a rotating needle, and the electromagnet, a coil of wire that behaves just like a permanent magnet–but only so long as current is flowing through it. together with the voltaic battery, either could be used as the basis of an electric telegraph (Standage 23-24). 

Which once again bounces nicely off the Cook: technological advancements are rarely entirely new, and are even more rarely devised from start to finish by a single individual. There are groupings of people who help catalyze the process, either through innovation or smart marketing or both, but even these early adopters and/or amplifiers depend on the ingenuity, expertise, and of course capital of others. This is as true of the so-called Gutenberg Revolution (which was neither a true revolution, nor solely Gutenberg’s) as it was of the invention of the telegraph. For example Morse and Cooke, the two names most frequently associated with the invention of the telegraph, knew comparatively little about the technologies they helped popularize. In fact, and delightfully, neither men knew all that much about electricity, and each found themselves stumped by the same problem, namely figuring out how to send electrical currants through long wires — a problem that had been solved years earlier by American physicist Joseph Henry. In other words, Morse and Cooke needed help throughout the process, as does everyone who helps nudge technology along.

Really, the history of the telegraph, like the history of all new technologies, is a history of institutional failure and personal embarrassment. In this case, these failures eventually snowballed into a runaway success. But the road, like most roads worth traveling, was cobbled together by doing it wrong.

Because even after Morse and Cooke and Co. got the telegraph working, there was still a great deal of reluctance, if not outright resistance, both from the government and from the public. There was just no obvious, immediate, user-friendly social use for this technology, and consequently no burning interest in its immediate adoption. Slowly its utility became more and more apparent — Queen Victoria was able to announce the birth of her son, the Duke of Wellington was able to save himself the profound embarrassment of arriving at a party without his dinner coat, a pickpocket named “Fiddler Dick” was apprehended, never again to make me snort at his name because I am 12, etc. In the end it took years before the technology set fire to the world, because it took years for the world to figure out how to get the telegraph to do the stuff people were already doing.

But once it did, the telegraph became what all great technologies become — natural and necessary, at least to those privileged enough to benefit. Americans were particularly taken, and proceeded to fall over themselves in the attempt to wire the entire nation as quickly as they could underpay immigrant workers to build the necessary infrastructure.

One major component of that infrastructure was underwater — at least, that was the goal. Initially this posed a major problem, as water and electricity tend not to mix. But there was money to be made, dammit, and where there is money to be made, solutions are sure to follow — at least eventually, as the following video will attest. It is like watching a romantic comedy, where two soulmates keep being pulled apart by hijinks!

Discussion: So — what connections can you draw between the Cook and the Standage? How does Cook help provide a framework for understanding Standage’s approach? How might we avoid committing a so-called “Gutenberg sin,” i.e. obscuring historical, economic and political contingency in order to further some deterministic teleological narrative? Can I please go to sleep now??


October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

So far, my New Media’s Past and Future class has focused on the stories people –early Christians, Rousseau, Marx, Monsanto Death Corp, Vannevar Bush– have told about the(ir) (versions of the) future — what glorious sun shall rise tomorrow, and how shall it cast into the darkness our hitherto imperfect knowledge! -and all that melodramatic white guy shit.

The next section of the class takes that same basic idea –that the stories we tell about The Future are as much a snapshot of the (well, the storyteller’s) present as they are prophesies about some great big beautiful tomorrow (hat tip Robert Nisbet) and applies it to the stories we tell about the past. I’m clumsily describing this approach as “looking forward/looking backwards,” which I will apply to tomorrow’s discussion of the telegraph. This week and next, we’ll be considering what kinds of stories people have told about telegraphy, and more importantly, what kinds of arguments these stories end up making — particularly when a newer new technology godzillas into the frame and forces everyone to rewrite the historical narrative, i.e. pfft who needs a telegraph when you can just CALL someone.

The Ideological Underpinnings of Progress: New Media’s Past and Future, Week 3

September 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

So Fall term is clip-clopping along and boy oh boy, why is it nearly October. It’s been a busy few weeks, what with moving to NYC and decorating our apartment and teaching a brand new class and adopting a puppy and going on the job market (sorry there’s no link for that, just imagine taking several wrong turns while hiking in the mountains and finding yourself standing at the mouth of a 10-inch wide crevasse carved into the side of a rock face, and you know there is a Kentucky Fried Chicken on the other side, and you haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon, but your backpack is too wide to fit inside, and all of your water is in your backpack, so now what). But it could be worse, I could be a Facebook investor!

But I digress. Last week I asked my students to think about the ideological underpinnings of the notion of progress, which is typically presented as a natural and necessary aspect of human nature. Like the Manifest Destiny, for our souls! In order to facilitate this conversation, we read Kirkpatrick Sale’s “Five Facets of a Myth” as well as selections from Robert Nisbit’s History of the Idea of Progress. Both authors acknowledge that the idea of progress is historically contingent –i.e. it didn’t just appear fully-formed out of nowhere, the concept was naturalized over time, because of white people– but each approaches the topic from a decidedly different angle. The cartoon breakdown is that Nisbet gives progress a qualified thumbs up, while Sale smashes a personal computer in front of a live studio audience.

This week, we’ll be talking about the inadvertent (and very much intentional) social and political implications of progress — the dark side of progress, if yous will. It is going to be depressing!

To Love and/or To Hate

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Picture probably related, as we will soon see. 

BUT FIRST. Yesterday during class I decided to ask my students about their relationship to technology, specifically their attitudes towards and experiences with their most beloved and most loathed machine/platform/technological whatever. I asked because I was curious, but also because it’s VERY IMPORTANT to figure out this sort of dynamic, the sooner the better — in order to know how to structure and present my lectures, I need to know what kinds of people I’m dealing with. Mostly programmers? Mostly luddites? Mostly casual Facebook users? etc. Not that I have an investment in that breakdown, but it is a good breakdown to take into account. 

So I asked, and immediately a trend began to emerge — about three quarters of the class cited the same technology for both categories. In other words, the things they loved the most were also the things they hated the most. Even more intriguingly, smartphones, and specifically iPhones (further intriguing tidbit: every. single. student. had an iPhone), were the most frequently cited love/hate technology. The consensus was that, while smartphones bring us together, they also….well they bring us together. Maybe a bit too together. Furthermore, while smartphones help us connect with our friends, they also help us be very rude to our friends, either due to texting during real life conversations and/or accidentally pissing someone off while texting, because of inadequate or not enough emoticons. Plus as annoying as their phones can be, the students have a hard time ever turning them off. Because what if they miss a text they don’t want? 

The funny thing is, I could totally relate — but not with love/hating my phone. I just love my phone, no ambivalence there. But I do reserve the greatest amount of revulsion for the thing I also love above all else — namely, the stupid goddamn internet, may god bless it forever. See above; I am both the annoying meme-pin wearer and also the person attempting to jump out the window. This is a very strange relationship, now that I think about it. And probably not very healthy. Sort of a “you make me sick and I hate you, let’s have a baby!” deal. 

And this is why I like teaching.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Teaching category at a sandwich, with words???.