Sunday, January 20, 2019
Book Review: 'Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous' by Gabriella Coleman
Anonymous is almost certainly not what you think it is. You have to live it to understand it, its implications, its functioning, and its place in society. Gabrielle Coleman lived it, as a fully disclosed academic anthropologist. This is her story as much as theirs.
The structure of Anonymous is like the structure of the internet: multiple channels, multiple entry points, self healing patches, and lots of redundancy. (Also lots of swearing, lots of personal attacks, and lots of suspicions. Testosterone is involved.) This enables a totally flat organization to achieve in minutes what giant corporations and government take years to effect. The exhilaration, the joy, the satisfaction participants savor is incomparable. Anonymous is far more than a labor of love; it is idealists executing on their dreams. Everyone should be jealous.
Gabriella Coleman hitched a ride on some of those dreams, and was clearly jealous. She goes so far as to express the compulsion, the adrenaline rush, and the thrill of watching it happen live. The characters are as richly detailed as any in fiction. There are heroes and villains, victims and survivors. There are plot twists and subplots. It covers roughly four years in which Coleman got close enough to many of the characters as to meet in person, something totally alien to the whole concept. Often as not, they confounded her assumptions.
The story is a classic bell curve. At first there is confusion and commotion and random, unconcerted activity. They were in it for the entertainment value. As the participants refined their goals and their skills, they won many battles, notably Scientology, where they earned their stripes. They then took on and down whole governments. They had a purpose and a focus they described as the immune system of democracy. Then, with no higher levels to reach, destructive elements entered the picture, promoting vandalism for the sake of vandalism and its entertainment value (like the good ole’ days). Credit card theft became a factor. Certain participants got cocky and became spokespeople, against the rules. Chosen targets got wilder and riskier. The FBI flipped key players into informants. Efforts began to pay negatively, as governments poured money into detection and countermeasures. But the constant flow of fresh recruits, new issues and new inspirations mean Anonymous can scale different heights.
So maybe it’s not a bell curve. Maybe it’s a sine wave. Anonymous will continue to mutate, to respond to the powers of the day, the events of the world and to the abuses of society, all of which are moving targets. Anonymous is structured perfectly to deal with that.
There are too many unexplained references, some cultural, some academic, which especially in the fast changing world of cyberspace will prove ephemeral. It will make this book much less readable in years to come. For now it is a massively engaging peek into an idealistic ethos that can actually change the world. This is unprecedented, and very much worth understanding.
And how has all this experience affected the author? For one thing, Coleman refuses to own a “personal tracking device”, aka mobile phone. Enough said.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.