Why are hackers so political?

Gabriella Coleman is the "hacker anthropologist" whose book on the anthropology of Anonymous is among the best books on hacking I've ever read; her new paper in Current Anthropology, From Internet Farming to Weapons of the Geek, poses a fascinating question: given that hackers are as well-paid and privileged as doctors, lawyers and academics, how come hackers are so much more political than other members of the professional elites?

Coleman posits that hackers have a long, deep culture of mischief and playfulness -- embodied in easter eggs, jokes, pranks, and teasing -- that she calls "craftiness," which ties into the adversarial and creative nature of their work (finding and exploiting other hackers' mistakes), and that hacking, despite its solitary and autonomous nature, is also bound up into groups -- hackerspaces, collectives, software projects. The combination of valuing solidarity among autonomous agents and embracing anti-authoritarianism creates a natural politics. Throw in state suppression of hacker activities through heavy-fisted legal enforcement and the political activation is complete.

Hackers and their projects have become routine, authoritative, and public participants in our daily geopolitical goings-on. There are no obvious, much less given, explanations as to why a socially and economically privileged group of actors, once primarily defined by obscure tinkering and technical exploration, is now so willing to engage in popular media advocacy, traditional policy- and law-making, political tool building, and especially forms of direct action and civil disobedience so risky that scores of hackers are currently in jail or exile for their willingness to expose wrongdoing. Why and how have hackers managed to preserve pockets of autonomy? What historical, cultural, and sociological conditions have facilitated their passage into the political arena, especially in such large numbers? Why do a smaller but still notable fraction risk their privilege with acts of civil disobedience? These are questions that beg for nuanced answers—beyond the blind celebration or denigration offered by popular characterizations of hacker politics. In this article I will provide an introductory inventory—a basic outline of the sociocultural attributes and corollary historical conditions—responsible for the intensification of hacker politics during the last 5 years.

From Internet Farming to Weapons of the Geek [Gabriella Coleman/Current Anthropology]

(Image: Million Mask March - London 2014, BJP Corp, CC-BY)

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