Putting the Internet freedom movement into context: Barefoot into Cyberspace

Becky Hogge is the former executive director of the UK Open Rights Group, but she left us a few years back to write; she says,
When I left the Open Rights Group a couple of years ago to concentrate on writing, my dream was to bring geek issues like online free speech, privacy and copyright reform to a mainstream audience with a book that was cool, accessible and fun. By a stroke of luck, the year I picked to write the book, 2010, was the year WikiLeaks took hacker culture to the top of the global news agenda. The book that resulted was published last week, "Barefoot into Cyberspace", and interweaves an insider's take on the drama of 2010 with a mix of personal reflections and conversations with key figures in the community like Stewart Brand, Boing Boing's own Cory Doctorow, Ethan Zuckerman and Rop Gonggrijp.

This is not just another WikiLeaks book. It sets out to ask a specific set of questions that I took with me when I left digital rights campaigning. Will the internet make us more free? Or will the flood of information that courses across its networks only serve to enslave us to powerful interests that are emerging online? And how will the institutions of the old world -- politics, the media, corporations -- affect the utopians' dream for a new world populated not by passive consumers but by active participants?

You can buy the book on Amazon in Kindle and print formats, and it's also available as a free download, licensed CC-BY-SA. The illustrations, which riff off John Tenniel's original (now public domain) drawings for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, were conceived and executed by Christopher Scally, a friend from ORG days and before who also conceived the artwork for ORG's anti-database state protest in Parliament Square some years ago, which Boing Boing reported on at the time.

The book is intentionally pulpy and open-ended, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. It turns out this made it a bad fit for commercial publishers, so I got together with a group of friends and we flash published the book ourselves. Despite the lack of commercial interest, it doesn't seem to have had a bad reactions from readers so far, if the first few days are anything to go by.

Over the coming weeks and months, I intend to post more about the flash-publishing process, as well as share some of the raw materials that went into making the book. I've already posted the transcript of the interview I conducted with Julian Assange in 2009 at the Chaos Communications Congress, back when he was still a relatively unknown figure. Next up I'm hoping to post some short audio snippets from the interview I did with Cory in 2010.

Barefoot Into Cyberspace (Thanks, Becky!)


  1. I’m pretty sure the answer is: A small island of active participants surrounded by an endless sea of passive consumers.

    The internet is information without context, and discourse without dialogue. Instead of an engaging back and forth, we isolate ourselves into comfortable echo chambers and feel assured that we are the minority and the rest are crazies. Or, worse, we lay claim to a majority that doesn’t exist and ignore any evidence that does not conform to our own preconceived notions of reality.

    The rise of social networks online is contributing to an increase in social loafing. Why bother volunteering at a soup kitchen when you can just “like” them on Facebook in the hopes that Wal-Mart will donate money to them? Why get your hands dirty doing actual work when you can just look good to your friends?

    1. If human motivations were as you suspect then there would be no activism, because empty lip service has always been possible — you just tell people that you are doing something and then you don’t do it.

      Since activism does in fact exist, I conclude that your view of human nature is incorrect, and will no more determine what happens digitally than it did physically.

  2. uhm…

    “And how will the institutions of the old world — politics, the
    media, corporations — affect the utopians’ dream for a new world
    populated not by passive consumers but by active participants?

    You can buy the book on Amazon in Kindle and print formats”

  3. That was criticism? I thought it baseless angst directed at a viewpoint you don’t agree with.

    But, if you insist.

    In 2010, a study of nonprofit organizations showed that only 2 percent of organizations that solicited donations through Facebook broke the 10,000 dollar mark. Fifty percent of the groups survey weren’t even on Facebook.

    And those are the *high* numbers.

    If there were a better way to look at social loafing, I wouldn’t know it. Social loafing is a concept first studied in 1913. It seems that as you add members to a tug-of-war team, the collective pull of the group is less than the sum of the individual team members efforts.

    We naturally slack off when we are in a group because we believe others will pick up the slack.

    Does this mean there is no activism? No, of course not – and I never made any such claim. I just don’t think there will be a great expansion of activist behavior because of some idea of “techno-utopia”.

    I don’t believe that the current model of “click here to join our Facebook group” is creating anything more than status symbol text on your “wall”, much like “Free Tibet” or “Stop this endless war” bumper stickers are on a car. It merely serves as an identifier for you so others can assess whether they like you or not without the messy details of actually talking to you. There’s no doubt that some of the people sporting these status symbols may be involved at some level beyond the tangential to the cause they are promoting – but odds are they are not.

    Again, it’s social loafing. It’s literally the least thing someone could do.

  4. This is going to be my retirement project. I’ll write a book about why people think all of human knowledge and culture go out of the window if you introduce “computer” into the equation. Sure, some things get easier, some things get faster, but as a first approximation it is likely that motivations will stay roughly the same. Spam is a good example. Lot’s of creative ways to cheat people, but did they not exist before, in the form of misleading adverts? And before that on fairgrounds? Ditto for activism. When has it ever been more than a small minority of people who get excited about some particular thing? Is Facebook “like” so different to the charity wristbands that we had a few years ago? Same mentality, likely same fate (will be replaced by some new fad).

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