Friday, 28 October 2011

Hacking Justice?

Today, the law is considered more pure technicality than moral edifice - whether one is talking about lawyers, tax avoiders or looters. After the putative 'death of god' (ie. the birth of science -  mechanical and informatic) its prohibitions look more like locks/phones that need 'cracking'. Young people's experience of consumer hardware and software teach the lesson: They are used to the passing parade of outmoded operating systems – Windows 97, Snow Leopard etc. This is just a basic fact of consumer technology. The perspective is only compounded by the massive culture of loopholes – the exploit – known not just to hackers but to sub-hackers and, effectively, most youth in the West. Justice has been collapsed into material,  ultimately disposable if desire is strong enough.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Masks 2 / Rites of Passage

It would be interesting to compare the demographics of illegal filesharers with those of the rioters. Both are commonly thought to be young people. But how different are the two activities? Arguably, some young rioters effected a transposition of the widespread anonymous ‘freedom to’ - piracy - practiced online into offline space. It is provocative to consider how the underage status of some of the participants intersects with this reading. Aware of not being seen as adults they considered themselves invisible to law. At least, this is what the cops and press have already complained about. Thus, youth status was being deployed in a manner akin to an online pseudonym and an offline mask concealing the ‘real person’: a ‘freedom from’ enabling a piratical ‘freedom to’. The brazen lack of material masks worn by some of the underage actors registers this attitude and, paradoxically, represents a claim to 'adult' behaviour.
      Although age ‘protects’ from some aspects of law (freedom from) by the same token it rules out full participation in all aspects of civil life, such as voting etc. In this sense, young people’s ‘freedom to’ is limited offline. The lore of teenage rebellion, invented in the mid twentieth century, was built around a  manifest rejection/reaction to this fact, performed - in part - by expressions of ‘freedom to’ through sexuality – enacting or at least willing physical liberty in spite of hegemonic morality. Losing ones virginity in an overt way was the watershed mark of independence and a claim on adulthood even before 'legal age' was reached. Now, consider the kind of discussions taking place online at 4chan, where every user post is credited to Anonymous – a site which has also generated a notorious hacker network of the same non-referential name – where losing one’s virginity has been eclipsed by another ultimate marker of  ‘freedom to’:

Anonymous 09/12/11(Mon)20:13:32 No.353125661 [Reply]
At what ages did the following happen to you:
1) Learn to use torrents
2) Lose virginity

The majority of the respondents posted younger ages for torrent use than for sex.  Using torrents – at least as implied by the question here, because every seeking is guided by what is sought – is not just any old thing. In quarters such as 4chan it represents the ultimate immaterial freedom – the non-physical expression of liberty. If the teenager was invented in the twentieth century - or made visible – then at least part of its structure was premised on overturning the trauma of social/legal/cultural invisibility. Now the key trauma is being too visible and rites of passage are invisible/anonymous and piratical.

Masks 1 / Anonymous & Pseudonymous Identification

Another way in which online space conditioned the riot is through its commonplace cultures of anonymity and pseudonymity. There are at least two modes of digital anonymity, and they accord to different visions of political liberty/agency. The same can be said of online pseudonymity. The uptake  of both by millions of users may precede a general/state realization that these gambits amount to actual political tactics/postions. Yet, the spread of such phenomena in the digital sphere  is nevertheless setting  the stage for the offline acts. Or, put otherwise, perhaps the government and commentators have failed to discern the ideological dimension of the riots because their understanding of the relationship between ‘real life’ an online is impoverished. The ideology of the riots is playing out across the two fields and so far the state and corporate media have only been looking for reasons in the latter.  We need a new understanding of political agency that takes into account the liberties enacted online, with a view to understanding how these are being enacted in and affecting real space. Until then, the riots will seem like a waking dream.
Whereas in the previous century anonymity was often seen as an alienating condition that threatened self-worth now the vast majority of us are subscribing to an equation of anonymity with political agency/liberty. Irrespective of ‘political’ realization on the part of individuals, most digitally connected people use and abuse online psuedonymns – ie. filter email accounts, pseudonymous social networks etc. This is a negative form of networked liberty/agency, an attempt at ‘freedom from’ interference which finds its offline parallel to this in masked demonstrators avoiding data capture by cctv cameras (and rioters looting fancy dress shops).
The positive sense of anonymous liberty, the ‘freedom to’ aspect, is now commonplace and spreading: It is illegal filesharing. As a critical mass of people do it the ideology of ‘freedom to’ is perpetuated. Despite its criminal/nonconformist cachet this phenomenon has consumerist undertones – as unfettered gratification of desire for commodities is pursued even above law of the land. The easy anonymity afforded by the internet is not just contributing towards the economic erosion of the entertainment industries, it is creating a much larger class of consuming agents willing to break the law for entertainment purposes.
As Jaron Lanier notes, design underlies ethics in the digital world and ‘People who can spontaneously invent a pseudonym in order to post a comment on a blog or on YouTube are often remarkably mean’. Crucially, according to him, this is not so much a function of human nature as it is the result of bad digital architecutre. For there is such as thing as ‘troll-evoking’ design that facilitates ‘effortless, consequence-free, transient anonymity in the service of a goal […] that stands entirely apart from one’s identity or personality. Call it drive-by-anonymity’. Going further, Lanier worries that such designs can ‘accentuate negative patterns of behavior or even bring about unforeseen social pathology’. In a speculative moment he displays great foresight vis a vis the London unrest.

‘It’s not crazy to worry that, with millions of people connected through a medium that sometimes brings out their worst tendencies, massive, fascist-style mobs could rise up suddenly. I worry about the next generation of  young people around the world growing up with internet-based technology that emphasizes crowd aggregation, as is the current fad. Will they be more likely to succumb to pack dynamics when they come of age? [1] 

Notwithstanding the hyperbole about ‘fascist’ mobs, anonymous pack dynamics were certainly visible.

[1] Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto, Penguin, London, 2011, p.63,64.

Ping Me Baby!

What has been consistently overlooked in discussions about the riots is the connection between ostensibly ‘mindless’ displays of unlawful acquisition – the grabbing of flat-screen tvs – and the techonological conditions that allowed such events to happen. We all know that the rioters coordinated their gatherings and encouraged acts of looting through use of a specific make of mobile phone – Blackberry (via its BBM application which allows messaging between with other blackberry-owning contacts without recourse to the easily interceptable and more widespread technology of text messaging). We also know that the state lacked a mechanism to control this technology once it had become, for all intents and purposes, ‘weaponized’ by its users. However, the use of BBM necessitates more than a future agenda for the government’s security apparatus. It is a phenomenon that  helps us to understand what the looting actually was (about).
One month prior to the riots I was in a takeaway food shop on Ridley Road market, Dalston, just metres from where a hastily convened mob would later storm the Kingsland shopping centre in an attempt to ransack its shops. For lack of something to read while waiting for my fast food I perused a large pile of glossy brochures for club nights stacked next to the till. I found myself strangely fascinated by one in particular: ‘Ping Me Baby’, it read, is the nightclub for blackberry owners:


The reason there is an independent club night dedicated to Blackberry owners (rather than convened as a marketing strategy by the company) is that there is a critical mass of users in central London and this group constitutes a particular economic body. BBM is a free – unlimited – messaging application and in this sense represents a ‘value’ option for mobile communication. It allows users to send one-to-many messages to their network of contacts. This is the equivalent of a fixed price buffet and, in a similar way, a cheap industrially produced meal – of the sort that I was buying at the chicken shop and which the attendees of Ping me Baby! eat too. It implies consumers of lesser means. We know that Blackberry handsets are the smartphone of choice for the majority of British teens – 37% according to an Ofcom study conducted in same month as the unrest?1 During the riots we were informed that the government was in frantic talks with the makers of Blackberry (RIM) about limiting its service in order to restore public order. One wonders if they are now taking the time to access their customer statistics in order to understand which ‘public’ was acting.
Blackberry/BBM is a consumer choice that, as the existence of a club night suggests, is a potential identity – one defined by the unlimited satisfaction of a desire (to communicate by text) available to those with limited financial means and the willingness to create a social network mediated by a branded consumer apparatus. The club night worked in this manner: free entry to a carnival space for Blackberry owners, pay to play for the rest. In fact, the riots operated in a similar fashion. In material terms the closed network of the BBM is what allowed mobs to come together almost instantaneously. Yet, underlying/ subtending the radical social intensity of this phenomenon was the functional logic of consumer-technological society – physically manifest in the kind of phones in people’s pockets and present in their desires. Note, for instance, the apparent Freudian-slip in the advertising text: the author probably means to say that blackberry owners ‘should be rewarded’. Instead, the grammatical structure indicates that blackberrys should be ‘awarded’ to people who already own them! We need not be surprised that the rioters chose to loot electronic goods instead of smashing banks.

After some research it became clear than the club night was named after a song by a contemporary urban/rnb singer. It’s not clear if he was employed by Blackberry to create the song, if he is courting them so they might licence his music, or if he is adopting a viral marketing strategy to piggyback off consumers' identification with their mobile phones. The lack of clarity on this issue is symptomatic of viral marketing – either its practice or its influence. This discovery seems to suggest that the advent of viral marketing has in some way brought about the birth of viral looting. The announcement that it would a ‘roadblock affair’ seems less hyperbolic than the marketers first intended.

The mob’s clamour for consumer items clearly reflects the structural violence of our economy.

burnin like a torch