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Is Hacktivism Civil Disobedience, Or Just Trolling?

BY Nick Judd | Monday, December 20 2010

Hoping to sway, or at least shake, die-hard supporters of Julian Assange and Wikileaks, Jaron Lanier has also put the Twitterverse all abuzz with his article in The Atlantic on "The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy."

Lanier's piece is a nuanced plea in support of the right for states to keep secrets and, obliquely, an argument against the idea that "hacktivism" such as distributed denial of service attacks [UPDATE: Or, Lanier's main target, Wikileaks' operation itself] can reasonably be called civil disobedience.

We celebrate the masters of nonviolent activism, such as Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. All these figures displayed astounding courage, faced arrest, and suffered without hating their oppressors in order to demonstrate a common humanity. These remarkable people did not make "Crush the bastards" into their mantra.

So the question has to be, if you add the Internet, can you now be a nonviolent activist without having to show courage and respect the opposing side? Is it now suddenly helpful to be a troll, attacking from the darkness, as the members of Anonymous do? Does the Internet really make life that much easier?

Of course it doesn't.


Civil disobedience is fundamentally respectful of the shared project of having a civilization, but only when the protestor gets arrested voluntarily and without sneering at opponents. Instead, one hopes to raise consciousness with a flood of respect and compassion, even for those who disagree.

Based on Assange's writings on government, conspiracy, and secrecy, Lanier asserts that Cablegate is intended to be a poison pill for American diplomacy:

The point of Cablegate is to make it hard for diplomats to function. We know this is the point, since Julian Assange has described the strategy in his writing. He hopes to screw up the USA, which he considers a conspiracy of bastards, by screwing up the trust which glues the USA together. When you reveal what one person said in confidence to another, you screw up their relationships with other people. That's what Wikileaks has come to be about with the Cablegate episode, not the revelation of deeply scandalous secrets.

Another assertion that stands out here is the way Lanier frames a need for secrecy as a need for structure, and a need for structure as something with which computer people should be very familiar:

You need to have a private sphere to be a person, or for that matter for anything creative to happen in any domain. This is the principle I described as "encapsulation" in You Are Not a Gadget. I have written about this idea in various ways, but I'd like to try another way here, addressed to the truest believers. Let's consider encapsulation in computer code.

There was a time when computer code was messier, in that any piece of code could read or write to any other part. That didn't work out well. Programs were too tangled and impossible to maintain.

So a movement to add structure to programming took root. For instance, the idea of "object oriented" code breaks a program up into encapsulated modules centered on chunks of data and code related specifically to that data. If you program in an object oriented way, you are not allowed to make the code in one object directly manipulate the interior of another. Instead, everything has to go through the proper channels.

It's hard to synthesize or rephrase the particular way Lanier tries to get at privacy in activism, secrecy in government, structure on the Internet or proper exercise of political agency for the empowered "nerd" class — the whole article is worth a read.