Monday, March 5, 2012

2600 Reflecting on the Role Hackerdom Played on the Rise of 2011's Social Movements

The following editorial I copied and pasted from the Winter 2011/2012 edition of 2600 The Hacker Quarterly. The source link here is not from the official 2600 website b/c they don't post the articles up online. The source link is from some random site I found with Google.

Original Title: "Movement"
2600 Editorial Team

While we can only speculate on what 2012 will bring, it seems fairly certain that 2011 will be remembered as a year when individuals worldwide began to feel empowered and when, more than ever before, the old guard was put on notice that its policies need to adapt and change with the times - or risk becoming extinct.

We've gone on at length before about the value of the individual, how we all have so much more power than we're led to believe, and how it serves the status quo to have us all convinced that we can't possibly make any difference. Our belief in this has never wavered, but it's essential to have it borne out in practice, as the theoretical can only go so far. After the last year, we can point with certainty towards various key examples that show how much individuals can accomplish with a little dedication, coupled with a degree of mastery in the world of technology. We can also point to the reaction these people get from those in charge as proof of the threat they pose to their power structure.

Freedom and empowerment are concepts that, once unleashed, spread quite rapidly. We saw that earlier in the year, as the Arab Spring took hold. I t all started with Mohamed Bouazizi, a street vendor in Tunisia who became so fed up with the constant corruption and humiliation that made it impossible for him to earn a living that he sacrificed his own life as the ultimate form of protest. The outrage from fellow citizens mushroomed and led to massive protests and the actual fall of the government less than a month later. According to The New York Times, "The protesters, led at first by unemployed college graduates... and later joined by workers and young professionals, found grist for the complaints in leaked cables from the United States Embassy in Tunisia, released by WikiLeaks, that detailed the self-dealing and excess of the president's family." The government had its state-run media to whitewash the news. The people had social networking and cell phones to get and share updates. I t was no contest.

The unrest spread to neighboring countries, leading to significant conflicts in no less than 16 of them, the most significant being Egypt, Libya, and Syria. The tensions had always been there. But once the fuse was lit, there was no turning back.

Domestically, we've witnessed much in the way of stress and hardship, but nothing that comes close to events in other parts of the world. However, while we may not have had security forces killing demonstrators or a repressive regime that tolerates no dissent at all, we, like all humans, have a sense of justice and can only be pushed around so much before something snaps. That appears to have been the case with September's Occupy Wall Street movement, a simple protest inspired by our friends over at Adbusters magazine, which wound up getting bigger and bigger before eventually spreading to hundreds of sites throughout the country and across the world. While the mass media initially mocked, ridiculed, and basically ignored these protests, supposedly due to the lack of a clear list of "demands" from the demonstrators, the movement actually became strengthened as a result. Since there wasn't a clear agenda, anyone who felt that the system wasn't working was able to join and help determine what path to take. Alliances were thus formed that wouldn't have been possible had all of the answers been laid out from the beginning, as would be expected in a typical political movement. It was an unusual tactic, but clearly an effective one. And the media's agenda of ignoring what was going on became painfully visible, which led to more outrage and an eventual about face on their part. Suddenly, the movement became front page news everywhere.

The concept of a group that had no leadership was very similar to that of Anonymous, an online entity which has become increasingly active in the "real world" as well as on the net. The Guy Fawkes masks they embraced were quite visible worldwide at many of the Occupy sites. But anonymity was only an option, not a main ingredient in what was going on. The lack of a hierarchy and the development of the
Occupy Wall Street General Assembly enabled any individual to speak to the crowd through the ingenious use of a "human microphone," created out of necessity due to an arbitrary ban on megaphones. This adaptability and desire to bypass unfair restrictions using clever tactics
is something we're all familiar with in the hacker world.

At press time, there have been a number of violent crackdowns on these groups by the authorities. While all kinds of excuses were given, ranging from health concerns to reports of crimes and illegal activities within the camps (much of which was echoed almost verbatim by mainstream media), many firsthand accounts dispute the degree of such problems. Actions caught on video clearly show that the people targeted were posing no threat to anyone, other than refusing to obey orders. Whenever we see this kind of reaction displayed by an authority figure, we know what it means, whether it's a high school principal expelling a student for some mischief on a computer, a corporation firing an employee for discovering a security hole, or a parent sending their kid to reform school or feeding them drugs because they're "out of control." It means the authority figure is desperately afraid of no longer being in charge of the situation. They begin to act increasingly irrational and they view the individual as the sole source of the problem. This is always the wrong course of action.

Listening to, learning from, and opening a dialogue with an individual is the only way to take positive steps. This is true regardless of how much or how little we agree with what they're saying or doing. For us in the hacker world, this is old news. But what's different is seeing this sort of thing playing out on
a different stage and seeing how those in charge are truly afraid of the kind of dialogue that empowers individuals. That alone is a milestone.

We've also seen tremendous growth in the use of technology by individuals for truly worthwhile goals. While social networking and smart phones were never designed to foment civil unrest, used properly they are invaluable tools in a movement gathering steam. Overseas, people used Facebook and Twitter to quickly organize mass demonstrations before the authorities knew what was happening. Attempts to restrict access to these services backfired badly. In the States, similar tactics were used by demonstrators, with the addition of numerous live video feeds from cities all over the country. When something happened, the whole world could literally be watching. Live. When the crackdown occurred in New York City, there were no less than four separate live streams being fed by people's smart phones, all with surprisingly good video quality and relatively decent audio. Well over 50,000 people were tuned in to these feeds, with many more picking them up from secondary sources. As interest in what was going on swelled, the mass media even joined in, simulcasting these streams since they hadn't been able to get behind the police barricades themselves. The people had literally
become the media.

We've learned a great deal from these events. The hacker world, the ideals of full disclosure, the distrust of governments and corporations, the embracing and manipulation of high tech, the desire for free speech, the empowerment of the individual….these are all intrinsically linked together. It really does all

But there's a flipside. There will always be people and entities who see all of this as a threat and who will try and control it. That's a battle that will never end and which will be fought in a variety of arenas. We see it every day in the form of corporate copyright abuses, antiquated business practices that fight technological advances, increased government secrecy, or the suspicion that's injected into the populace towards anyone who doesn't quite think, act, or look like everyone else.

In other words, individuals may have shown their ability to manipulate technology in a way that benefits them with these actions of 2011 . But those opposed to this sort of thing have been taking notes and will be better prepared to counter this ingenuity the next time around. As hackers and developers of new technology, we need to always have this on our minds, as the true future of freedom, both here and abroad, can be greatly affected by what we choose to consider as a priority.

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