Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy book review

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of AnonymousHacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous by Gabriella Coleman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

May all academics aspire to write such a book as Biella has here. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is a remarkably accessible work of ethnography on a technically and ethically seeming inaccessible community and subject matter: Anonymous and its politics. Biella’s account is absolutely gripping—I struggled to put this book down. Moreover, I was enchanted (as intentioned) by the story she weaves using the backdrop of humanity’s mythological reflexions—the parallel and polarizing Apollonian and Dionysian tendencies of Anonymous as objective, transparent truth advocates as well as hackers for lulzy pleasure, embodying the trickster spirits of gods like Loki or Enki. Biella successfully justifies her role as ethnographer-enchantress to pull us from our cynical doubts about these so-called criminals into the heady excitement of Anonymous’s world, where we might better appreciate the reasons why they did what they did and the profoundly unique mark on recent history they have made.

Perhaps, I am biased as a fan and student of creative forms of technology-augmented political action and a friend of Biella. Perhaps, this explains why I found the Acknowledgments and Note on Sources sections as absorbing as the main text. But I think it’s more than my personal feelings and connections. I think it’s also the effect of an exceptional piece of scholarship and storytelling.

Biella packs more than five years of participant observation, interviews, and study into a tight argument for why we cannot dismiss Anonymous as mere criminals. We get firsthand accounts of the political rationales of key Anons and watch their savvy use of media and mobilization tactics activate and embolden geeks into activists, and capture the attention and imagination of the world. Biella provides evidence of the positive impact their hacking of computer systems and the media cycle has had supporting ex-Scientology victims, Arab Spring protesters, and Occupy Wall Street activists. Furthermore, she illustrates how they have helped establish an important contemporary tradition of whistleblowing around civil rights violations and corruption in public and private sectors cresting with the Manning and ongoing Snowden leaks.

Biella also reminds us that neither are their justifications clean nor their actions obviously positive in outcome, even to her. When Anonymous chose to shine its light on certain rape cases in the US and Canada, they likely revictimized the victims in the process of pushing for justice to proceed. And the infighting of Anonymous among itself or with the historical hacker movements they nod to like anti-sec blur things further. Anonymous is far from monolithic or in consensus, and this has meant some of their operations are contradictory in their goals and ethics. Still, we find much to admire in the decentralized, anti-fame-seeking nature that persists and accomplishes much in spite of itself. Anonymous is a new kind of movement that defies simple categories.

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy will change your mind about Anonymous, the utility of hacktivism and its ethical and moral foundations, and hopefully the unfairness in how it’s been criminalized. Pick it up now.

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