Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: why only an anthropologist can tell the story of Anonymous

The Spectator has just run my review of Gabriella Coleman's Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous , an anthropological recounting of the glories and disasters of Anonymous.

Coleman's previous book, Coding Freedom, was a sprightly but scholarly anthropological study of the free/open software movement. In Hacker, Hoaxer, Coleman's narrative voice is in full throat, telling a story that is as exciting as any spy-thriller:

Real hacker work looks like secretarial work. A person sits at a keyboard, looking, mostly, at text. That person types commands (sometimes arcane ones, though to the untutored eye no more mysterious than the commands typed by an airport check-in clerk), and squints and frowns at the screen, and types some more, and then, sometimes, feels very happy about some more text the computer is displaying. There can be very long waits. A TV show about hacking would be duller than one about fishing — at least fishing has the odd moment of a human-animal death struggle. (Combine the two and you’d have a winner: call it Pier to Pier, and film it in a rowing boat with a fishing rod at one end and a wireless laptop at the other.)

But hacking of every kind, from writing free software, to breaking into computers you don’t own, to jailbreaking devices that you do, is exciting. It’s thrilling. It’s the most marvellous sort of satisfying mental work there is — solving puzzles of enormous complexity through an impossible-to-systematise combination of rational method and intuitive leaps.

And the kind of hacking that Anonymous does — by means of the fluid, structureless norms of the group, half macho posturing, half uber-savvy media prankstership — is doubly exciting. Or exciting squared. It is filled with drama — betrayals, police informants, intimidation, brinksmanship, insane risk-taking and impassioned speeches from the battlements.

The Anonymous ghost in the machine [Spectator]

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous