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December 20, 2012

New Year's Resolution: Hacking: The New Internationalism

Last up in our New Year's Resolution interview series is Gabriella (Biella) Coleman, a trained anthropologist, Coleman is the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy in the Art History and Communication Studies Department at McGill in Montreal, Canada. She just released her first book, “Coding Freedom: The Aesthetics and the Ethics of Hacking” from Princeton University Press, which was based on her Ph.D research into hacking culture and is now working on a new book on Anonymous and digital media.

Biella Coleman, Wolfe Chair, McGill University - Hacking: the new Internationalism

Coleman spent years living in San Francisco and observing hacking culture up close through interactions with both the open source and, including the hacktivist group Anonymous. She says that online communities of hackers and other enthusiasts now constitutes a kind cross cultural identity that is both worthy of academic study - and likely to have a huge influence in our everyday lives. I caught up with Gabriella at home in Montreal and asked her about her research.

“I was really interested in the ethnography of communities like open source, where you have an abundance of joking and cleverness as well as shared values like civil liberties and commitment to free speech and privacy.

As part of her research, Coleman immersed herself deeply in the open source community in San Francisco, using the traditional tools of anthropology: interviews and direct observation. She took software development, system administration and law classes to get up to speed to equip herself for the task.

In spite of their popular reputation as bristly, insular technophiles, the hackers Coleman studied were quite friendly, she said. “People were happy to say ‘let me tell you about Linux. The people behind the various projects were very accessible.’ That was less true of information security folks and of Anonymous. But Coleman pressed on, exercising a lot of patience, asking a lot of questions and not being afraid to look stupid. Over time, she made inroads even among those groups. “As is always the case with anthropologists, if you know people who are trusted, you can go a long way,” she said.

Politically motivated hacking, of the kind we’ve seen from groups like Anonymous and LulzSec is no aberration, she said. Rather, its a natural extension of the same impulse that drives people to begin hacking in the first place, Coleman said.

“Not all hackers are political, but being a hacker is to create you own identity. That means when hackers are concerned about things like politics, they come at it from technical perspective but also with a cultural and political slant as well.”

In fact, groups like Anonymous have become a kind of early warning system in a society that is increasingly dominated by complex technologies that interact in unpredictable ways. “They are important actors when it comes to accepting the strength of technology or assessing the civil liberties as it concerns things like the Internet,” Coleman said. “The can think about it and assess it. They care about it and know the technology well.”

Hacktivists like Anonymous are also at the vanguard of groups pushing back against the restrictions of copyright and other imposed boundaries to the free exchange of ideas, she said. “Transgression and irreverence is everywhere in hacking. Hackers are not going to respect any rule when it gets in the way of learning. There’s this pleasure in the act of transgression as well,” she said.

And, increasingly, that transgressive culture and the tactics used by groups like Anonymous and Lulzsec are bleeding over into other movements, and mainstream culture - in part by drawing non-technical members into the fold.

“One of the fascinating things about Anonymous is that it’s a barometer of wider things like Internet memes and videos, because it does that so well. The fact of the matter is that people are using visual representations like memes to make jokes here and abroad. In China, for example, the use of memes to criticize the state around events like the recent train wreck is very pronounced. So its kind of a new visual vocabulary that Anonymous uses very well. So its not like everyone will adopt this, but a heck of a lot more people will,” Coleman said.

Hacking, itself, has become a kind of cross-cultural identity that spans international borders. “A guy from one of my classes recently said to me ‘if I meet a PERL hacker from Brazil, I have more in common with him than your average Canadian. It has to do with that kind of craftsman ethic and the deep cultural and technical world that binds them together. Maybe 15 years ago that wasn’t the case, but now there are enough points of interaction and circulation, common histories and websites that that can be the case.”

Coleman doesn’t like making predictions. But said that, in the years ahead, she expects to see even more confluence of hacking world into other domains, including politics. “We’re at the dawn of the mobilization of hacking into political tiers,” she said. “There’s been a sea change in the last five or ten years between open source projects, the rise of pirate parties and irreverent hacktivism, with NGOs (non governmental organizations) that activate hackers,” she said. “Anonymous is an interesting case of that - where all the pieces on their own are not that interesting, but they did produce something unique together. So I expect to see that kind of melding of technical, artistic skills and other political sensibilities,” she said.

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Paul Roberts is an experienced technology writer and editor that has spent the last decade covering hacking, cyber threats, and information technology security, including senior positions as a writer, editor and industry analyst. His work has appeared on NPR’s Marketplace Tech Report, The Boston Globe,, Fortune Small Business, as well as ZDNet, Computerworld, InfoWorld, eWeek, CIO , CSO and He was, yes, a guest on The Oprah Show — but that’s a long story. You can follow Paul on Twitter here or visit his website The Security Ledger.

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