Saturday, December 31, 2011

Parallels between Punk and Anonymous

Prologue:  Before starting my career in the tech world 15+ years ago,  I was a graduate student in Sociology studying political movements and economies. 

At any rate, what’s intriguing about technology is not only about 0s or 1s, data structures, angle brackets, optimized queries or distributed architectures (don’t get me wrong, I love elegant code  and design as much as any other geek) – it’s also the intended and unintended consequences it has on society at large.   As the automobile and large manufacturing re-shaped our society a hundred years ago, the internet and all of the emerging technologies are transforming our social interactions today. 

2011 was a landmark year.  We saw “Arab Spring” unfold before us in large part because of mobile devices and social media (granted, the other necessary ingredients – anger, resentment, disenfranchisement, chronic poverty and unemployment – have been brewing for many years).  The “Occupy” movement harnessed the same political, social, economic, and technological ingredients along with a sprinkling of hyper-aggressive tactics of the NYPD and transformed a seemingly innocuous protest into a worldwide meme.  WikiLeaks, rightly or not, also changed the way we view government, particularly when sensitive or embarrassing information is exposed.  And to that end, this year demonstrated that the combination of mobile and social technology meant that information could spread virally, beyond the full control of any one entity.  This has spurred new tensions between individuals who interact with data and entities who provide and/or control the data.

In this case, I see many interesting parallels between the Punk subculture of the 1970s and early 1980s and the nascent subculture of Anonymous that is growing today.  Both have emerged during periods of economic turmoil, and both have a strong anti-authoritarian sentiment that are willing to challenge the current establishment.  

I love the Sex Pistols (and the Smiths, the Cure, The Damned, Souixsie and Banshees, and so on, and on, etc.).  I can listen to “Anarchy in the UK”, “God Save the Queen”, or “Pretty Vacant” any time. It’s loud and raucous.  It’s fun.  It’s… well, rebellious.  Johnny Rotten’s menacing, sarcastic vocals epitomized the political, social and philosophical undertones of the Punk subculture of the mid-to-late 1970s.

From many accounts, the Punk subculture, particularly in the UK, emerged during the mid-1970s in part because of the poor economy.  Disenfranchised youths with few economic prospects gravitated to a style of music and dress that was non-conformist by nature and expressed their anger and frustration against society and government.

The ethos, or ideology of Punk is well described here (source:
It is passionate, preferring to encounter hostility rather than complacent indifference; working class in style and attitude if not in actual socio-economic background; defiant, unconventional, bizarre, shocking; starkly realistic, anti- euphemism, anti-hypocrisy, anti-bullshit, anti-escapist, happy to rub people's noses in realities they don't wish to acknowledge; angry, aggressive, confrontational, tough, willing to fight — yet this stance is derived from an underlying vulnerability, for the archetypal Punk is young, small, poor, and powerless, and he knows it very well; sceptical, especially of authority, romance, business, school, the mass media, promises, and the future; socially critical, politically aware, pro-outlaw, anarchistic, anti-military; expressive of feelings which polite society would censor out; anti-heroic, anti-"rock star" ("Every musician a fan and every fan in a band!"); disdainful of respectability and careerism; night-oriented; with a strong, ironic, satirical (often self-satirical), put-on-loving sense of humor, which is its saving grace; stressing intelligent thinking and deriding stupidity; frankly sexual, frequently obscene; apparently devoted to machismo, yet welcoming "tough" females as equals (and female Punks are often as defiant of the males as of anyone else) and welcoming bisexuals, gays, and sexual experimentation generally; hostile to established religions but sometimes deeply spiritual; disorganized and spontaneous, but highly energetic; above all, it is honest.
Compare this to the first two parts of Quinn Norton’s (Wired Magazine) well-done analysis of Anonymous in “Anonymous: Beyond the Mask” (Part 1 here:; Part 2 here:  One of the first things this series does incredibly well is to identify Anonymous for what it is – a culture, or more accurately, a counter-culture. 

Like Punk, Quinn goes on to describe the Anonymous culture:
The birthplace of Anonymous is a website called 4chan founded in 2003, that developed an “anything goes” random section known as the /b/ board.

Like Alan Moore’s character V who inspired Anonymous to adopt the Guy Fawkes mask as an icon and fashion item, you’re never quite sure if Anonymous is the hero or antihero. The trickster is attracted to change and the need for change, and that’s where Anonymous goes. But they are not your personal army – that’s Rule 44 – yes, there are rules. And when they do something, it never goes quite as planned. The internet has no neat endings.
What’s more, both are media savvy in their own ways, leveraging them for their own purpose.  Obviously, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the internet wasn’t even a twinkle in our eyes yet, so they relied on print and radio (typically either on small, low-band college stations or on pirate radio stations since mainstream radio stations wouldn’t give them airplay) to get their message out.   Anonymous, however, have the luxury of the internet and search engines, where information is easily accessible and available:
But to be historical, let’s start with, a wildly popular board for sharing images and talking about them, and in particular, 4chan’s /b/ board (Really, really, NSFW). /b/ is a web forum where posts have no author names and there are no archives and it’s explicitly about anything at all. This technological format meeting with the internet in the early 21st Century gave birth to Anonymous, and it remains the mother’s teat from which Anonymous sucks. (Rule 22)
Both follow its own rules, many of which run counter to conventionally accepted protocols, and frequently meant to shock, ridicule and otherwise laugh at mainstream society. 
/b/ is the id of the internet, the collective unconscious’s version of the place from which the base drives arise. There is no sophistication in the slurs, sexuality, and destruction in the savage landscape of /b/ — it is the natural state of networked man. 
In this, it has a kind of innocence and purity. Terms like ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ are common, but not there because of racism and bigotry – though racism and bigotry are easily found there. Their use is there to keep you out. These words are heads on pikes warning you that further in it gets much worse, and it does. 
Nearly any human appetite is acceptable, nearly any flaw exploited, and probably photographed with a time stamp. But /b/ reminds us that the id is the seat of creative energy. Much of it, hell even most of it, is harmless or even sweet. People reach out for help on /b/, and they find encouragement and advice. The id and /b/ are the foxholes of those who feel powerless and disenfranchised.
And like Punk, it never intended to be overtly political.  Rather, the circumstances and events of the time instigated it.  “The Guns of Brixton”, written by The Clash about the 1981 Brixton Riots is one of many examples.  For Anonymous, its forays into political protest were spurred on by their collective belief that Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were wrongfully targeted by governments and large, multinational corporations, and that fellow “compatriots” at BitTorrent site, Pirate Bay, were wrongfully attacked.  In all cases, the common thread was a belief of suppression by the establishment. 

Where they differ, however, is in their means of expression.  Punk is analog.  It could only reach those in proximity to a radio signal (or the occasional TV appearance), a concert venue, or to a “zine”.  It’s effect and impact on society at large could only scale to the number of members it could congregate in any one physical location, which meant that it could remain largely contained and isolated.  On the other hand, Anonymous is digital.  Its reach is unbounded and its impact on society much more significant.  The virtual nature of Anonymous means that they are able to challenge mainstream society more directly with little or no impunity.  With tools like the Low Orbit Ion Cannon for DDOS attacks, and with more talented hacker members able to break into corporate and government servers and stealing sensitive information from them, governments and corporations see them as a real threat.

At its essence, the Punk subculture provided its members a means of “flipping off” mainstream culture, through its music, dress, art, literature, and language.  Yet, it was easy for mainstream society to ignore early punk youth, since their access to media was relatively limited.  Anonymous shares this same “f--- you” attitude along with the same antipathy toward authority, yet they have the means to express their views more dramatically, and with greater reach, particularly because the internet, social media, and mobile devices enable members of Anonymous to be anywhere, or anyone.

Punk has evolved over the decades.  The music has changed; the aesthetics are different, and to some extent, what was considered shocking then is widely accepted now.  Yet, the idea of Punk is still here.  Anonymous is just the latest manifestation of it, and it could potentially have even greater impact on society-at-large.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

SOPA Will Be Our Generation’s McCarthy Witch Hunt

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Joseph McCarthy was determined to eradicate the Red Scare by accusing numerous Americans of treason and being communists.  It resulted in many actors being blacklisted, and resulted in the now infamous question to the “Hollywood Ten” from the House Committee on Un-American Activities – “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”  They exercised their 5th Amendment rights and refused to answer the question, principally because they felt their First Amendment rights were being impinged.

In its current form, the “Stop Online Piracy Act” (SOPA) would allow the Department of Justice and Copyright holders to seek injunction against websites that are accused of enabling, facilitating or engaging in copyright infringement.  It doesn’t stop there:  It would force search engines to remove all indexes for that site, mandate that ISPs block access to the site, and require 3rd party sites like PayPal from engaging or transacting with the offending website.  All because the copyright holder (or DOJ) makes an accusation.  The burden of proof is on the ISPs, the search engines and the 3rd party vendors to show that the “offending website” is not violating any copyright (So perhaps Congress should consult the 6th Amendment).   The implications are severe even for websites that reference these infringing sites.  They could be shut down too.

Let’s be clear, I’m not condoning piracy of any kind.  Intellectual Property vis-à-vis copyright is the coin of the realm of many companies, even whole industries like Publishing, Media, Software, and yes, the Entertainment world, and they should protect their assets. They should derive value and profit from their IP.  An author who pours their heart into a publication, or an artist whose performance I like should be paid.  Likewise, content producers – studios, publishers, media companies – should be able to garner payment for their role in providing content.  But they are looking at the whole piracy issue the wrong way.

Brute-force tactics to protect copyright have been epic failures.  DRM approaches don’t work.  In fact, they incite piracy, and worse, they harm the very companies they try to protect.  In 2007, Radiohead released their album “In Rainbows” DRM-free.  A year later, they had sold over 1.75 million copies and 1.2 million fans would buy tickets to their show.   Bottom line:  Locking down content doesn’t protect copyright holders.  Instead, DRM tactics will end up frustrating consumers who legally purchase content but can’t use it or copy it to a new device and, as a result, diminishes revenue.  And at that point, the opportunity cost of future purchases with the same DRM constraints will grow higher and higher.  Media, publishing and entertainment executives know that DRM has failed, and feel that their only recourse is through SOPA.

There will always be a small percentage of consumers who will use pirated content.  But it needn’t be a negative sum game.  In some cases, it should be written off as a business cost in order to generate more revenue:  a pirated song, might lead to the offending consumer to purchase a ticket to a concert, or to the next movie because they can’t wait.  Yet, to prevent wholesale piracy, technology exists today that can protect copyrighted content:  XMP (even ODRL can be serialized into XMP), digital fingerprinting for starters.  By using these, along with other tools that can scan the internet for matching assets, asset producers can identify and isolate pirated copies.  Then they can go after the offending sites directly. 

SOPA won’t stop piracy, but it will impact everyone’s access on the Internet.  And in that vein, SOPA legitimizes the piracy of 1st Amendment rights, much in the same way that McCarthyism censored free though in the 1950s, simply by accusation of copyright infringement. 

NOTE:  The views expressed in this post and on this blog are my own.  They do not reflect the views of my employer, its employees or its partners.