Strange Bedfellows: (H)ac(k)tivism and Digital Humanities

Studying DH, I’ve acquired lots of academic jargon. Most terms are technical (metadata, NLP), but some are political, like “open source,” “copyleft,” and “hacktivism.” I find “hacktivism” particularly interesting; it evokes a constellation of practices, beliefs, aims, and criticisms, and a range of cultural actors. In this post, I interrogate examples of hacktivism[1], and point to activist work with which I hope the digital humanities will engage.

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  You talk of times of peace for all, and then prepare for war.

The first example of hacktivism, from a 1989 anti-nuclear worm, according to Julian Assange.

The Utopian View

The “hack” in hacktivism supersedes its definition.[2] When coupled with “activism,” “hack” means politically disruptive or generative digital speech. For example, signing an online petition demanding justice for Michael Brown is not hacktivism, while creating a mobile app to log interactions with the police is.[3]

Academia and hacktivism intersect in two ways. First, they share a distaste for stultifying copyright laws, which can prevent scholars and artists from producing meaningful work with contemporary material. Secondly, some DHers pursue a hacktivist agenda through the “hack the academy” movement. Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt famously bypassed the lengthy and expensive academic press industry to produce Hacking the Academy in one week.[4]

In her article “Hacktivism and the Humanities,” Elizabeth Losh assumes the panacea view of hacktivism, claiming it will help DH “question the uncritical instrumentalism that so many digital humanities projects propound” (Losh 163). However, not all hacktivists are benign—for example, the Gamergaters who issued women in the gaming industry death threats.

Let’s Problematize Things 1: “Bad” Hacktivists

For an example of hacktivism gone awry, I turn to James Jeffery and the LulzSec black hats. Groups like LulzSec consider themselves Robin-Hood-esque crusaders for good, holding the corporatocracy accountable by leaking information. In an article for PC Pro, Stewart Mitchell writes that young hacktivists “feel the web and their skills give disaffected youngsters a platform to confront authorities, believing their actions can highlight issues and causes that aren’t covered in the mainstream media” (Mitchell n.p.).

However, Jeffery’s last hack was against the British Pregnancy Advisory Service website, stealing patient details, and threatening to release them. One moral misstep does not negate all the good that hacktivists have achieved: LulzSec also wrote code which helps users access government-blocked social media sites during civil unrest (Mitchell n.p.). But concentrating power in the hands of a few anonymous coders presents an anti-democratic dilemma. It’s not the only dilemma DHers frequently ignore.

Let’s Problematize Things 2: “Blind” Humanists

In “Framing the Contested History of Digital Culture,” Lyell Davies and Elena Razlogova reveal the disquieting realties underpinning academic “cyberutopianism.” Humanists, they claim, allow personal stakes in digital open access projects to outweigh the social problems technology creates. For example, Coltan, a material in many electronic devices, is often mined in inhumane conditions. Additionally, cyberutopianism elides the legacy of the Internet as a military invention:

“Paradoxically, the image of the Internet as a place of open exchange and the advancement of democracy runs counter to the body of evidence that the Internet is becoming increasingly militarized as states quietly expand and adopt offensive and defensive information warfare capabilities, such as the 2006 launch of the United States Air Force’s US Cyberspace Command” (Davies and Razlogova 24).

Once celebrated as a bastion of freedom, the Internet is increasingly controlled by a few corporations and policed by governments.

The Art of Redemption

Despite these criticisms, hacktivist ethics can productively influence the humanities. Steve F. Anderson, although worrying that digital media studies have “strayed into the realm of the utopian,” ultimately finds hope for digital activist art (n.p.). [5] Copyright pirates ensure media availability to artists who wish to remix copyrighted material.

One well-known example is Grey Tuesday.[6] EMI, which owned the rights to the Beatles’ music, suppressed Danger Mouse’s Grey Album, which mixes the Beatles’ White Album with Jay-Z’s Black Album. In response, on Grey Tuesday supporters defiantly disseminated the album, and websites changed their colour palette to grey in support. A music video mashup also went viral, “eloquently [speaking] both to consumer frustrations with increasingly restrictive copyright laws and to the growing power of peer networks to subvert their enforcement” (Anderson).[7]

(H)ac(k)tivism in the Digital Humanities

Hacktivism ethics are productively interacting with the academy in other ways. Jacqueline Wernimont’s study of two archives, Women Writer’s Online (WWO) and Orlando, provides one example.[8]

Wernimont begins critically. WWO and Orlando, she claims, reproduce “patriarchal tropes” and “commercial metrics” with their celebration of quantity as value. However, a code-level analysis proves more positive. To briefly and inexpertly summarize, WWO (through interpretive markup) and Orlando (through DTDs) allow new understandings of women’s writing, and new spaces for interpretation.

Neither archive was explicitly designed to theorize code, and so the aggregation of women’s work is more “activist” than “hacktivist.” Indeed, Wernimont points to two important elements an archive would need to be truly feminist: a decentered model of authority, and interactions amongst a heterogeneous userbase. Still, it’s heartening to see theory applied to DH projects. Soon, I hope, feminist theory will leave the realm of after-the-fact interrogation, and influence the design and implementation of DH projects.

Conclusion

Returning to this post’s title, “strange bedfellows” suggests that both hacktivism and DH have something to gain through dialogue. “Bad” hacktivists exist, as do politically unreflective humanists. The potential, however, for a generative collusion of these two digital modes of thinking overcomes these dangers. Hacktivism could provide DH an ethical backbone and space for playful experimentation.


A Very Brief Hacktivist Constellation (in no particular order):

Critical Art Ensemble, The Yes Men, HyperCities Cairo by Xarene Eskandar, Electronic Disturbance Theatre, b.a.n.g. lab, Transborder Immigrant Tool, Kembrew McLeod, Hacking the Academy, Learning Through Digital Media, Anonymous, LulzSec, TeaMpoisoN, the Pirate Bay, Copyleft, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Software Foundation, Creative Commons, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, Indymedia, Democracy Now, Downhill Battle/Grey Tuesday, the Grey Video by Ramon & Pedro, Participatory Culture Foundation, Mike Nourse/Terror Iraq Weapons


 Endnotes

[1] Elizabeth Losh narrowly defines hacktivism as: “The writing of code to promote or subvert particular political ideologies. In addition to protesting human rights violations, in the recent past hacktivists have used their programming skills as a form of civil disobedience to promote free and open software, piracy, free speech, freedom of movement, governmental transparency, information ethics, political self-determination, environmental protection, and a range of other online and offline causes” (162). This is a good starting place, but I hope to expand this definition beyond coding.

[2] To paraphrase the dictionary: “hack” means to illegally break into a computer, stealing or implanting information.

[3] Signing an online petition is a nice thing to do, but it does not generate anything new, while building an app serves as a political action and facilitates further action.

[4] Ironically, you can now buy the book for $70.

[5] In his words: “I believe we are witnessing a transformation in the digital artwork’s position as fundamentally entangled with circuits of replication, recombination, dissemination, and along with them, endless potentials for productive mutation” (Anderson).

[6] Another example I enjoy: Ricardo Dominguez founded the Electronic Disturbance Theatre for virtual sit-ins (Losh). Check out the Critical Art Ensemble for more academically-linked hacktivism.

[7] See also the Critical Art Ensemble and their manifesto Digital Resistance: “They thus advocate hacking as both an art form and political weapon, which points to the importance of thinking not just in terms of media objects and practices but also of their evolving contexts of distribution and exhibition” (Anderson).

[8] Although I focus on feminism here, Davies and Razlogova use history as an example of an activist-inflected field: “Online historical archives include international collaborative grassroots projects such as the Marxists Internet Archive; large-scale nonprofit activist projects such as Densho, an archive on Japanese American internment; and university-based projects such as the Martin Luther King, Jr., papers at the King Institute at Stanford University and the Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Projects at the University of Washington” (Davies and Razlogova 11).


Bibliography

  1. Anderson, Steve F. “Aporias of the Digital Avant-Garde.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quaterly. 1.2 (2007): n.pag. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
  2. Davies, Lyell and Elena Razlogova. “Framing the Contested History of Digital Culture.” Radical History Review 117 (Fall 2013): 5-31. Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
  3. Losh, Elizabeth. “Hacktivism and the Humanities: Programming Protest in the Era of the Digital University.” Debates in the Digital Humanities. Ed. Matthew K. Gold. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012. 161-186. Print.
  4. Mitchell, Stewart. “Life after Hacktivism.” PC Pro 1 Jan. 2015: 56-60. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.
  5. Wernimont, Jacqueline. “Whence Feminism? Assessing Feminist Interventions in Digital Literary Archives.” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly. 7.1 (2013). Web. 2 Dec. 2014.
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