The computers’ endless humming has scattered the clouds of tear gas. The keyboards’ furious tapping has muted the bangs of the Molotov cocktails. The dormant rebellion of minds befuddled by the opacity of power has once again broken out. The crowds are marching towards a war for more transparency, with clenched fists and a steely resolve in their eyes. Concealed behind the impatience for battle is nothing more than the need to conquer knowledge that has been hidden for too long. Internet has transformed a rebellion into a revolution. Freedom is within our keyboards’ reach!
This article is the first in a trilogy addressing the notion of hacktivism.
1- Hacktivism: A new relationship between knowledge and power
3- Hacktivism: A path to anarchism?
This article is a translation of "Hacktivisme : les voies du pouvoir ne sont plus impenetrables", translated from French by Timothée Froelich.
The rise of hacktivism
The term hacktivism, a portmanteau of hacking and activism, refers to the political action of hackers who suddenly realize how much power their knowledge represents. The word hacker hints at a mythology marked most of the time by pop culture and ignorance, which neglects a history of individuals motivated by their need to discover, modify, and transform the technologies available to them. Why settle for the possibilities offered by household appliances, computers, or software when these can actually give access to the potentiality of other functionalities?
One of the first servers of the Telecomix infrastructure, a Debian SPARC processor.
Hackers provide answers to this question by using an advanced technical knowledge in computer programming, which they attempt to put into practice without following the established rules. The appearance of networks led to a system of community solidarity, where shared values, like curiosity or a firm belief in individual freedom, could bloom. With their continued successes in the shadows of an interconnected world, conscious of the power of their knowledge, the idea emerged of an equal political power.
The popularization of the internet network shook the opaque verticality of the traditional political structures. From that moment on, the internet presented a new idea of knowledge accessibility, of horizontality: for instance, the Wikipedia Foundation carried out several projects that were very representative of this idea. Control of knowledge is no longer in the hands of a few individuals; it belongs to all. This unusual path toward accessing knowledge, which is taking shape more and more today, enables anyone who possesses a computer and the will to access and control power.
The ties between power and knowledge
The philosopher Francis Bacon, in his Meditationes Sacrae, summarized the relationship between knowledge and power, saying that “Knowledge is power”. Knowledge of computer science, which is the key to transferring the information on which our society is based, would lead to controlling this information, as well as the power that it conveys. The hand of the technophile, sometimes facetious, sometimes angry, would point the finger at politicians who, already, can barely hide their secrets. As they slowly and helplessly fail to keep power in their hands, their only option, according to Bacon’s words, is to step into a high-speed chase with the hackers by hindering, controlling and forbidding the activities of the new knowledge holders.
Wikileaks is an association whose website publishes political documents, based on the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The theory of French philosopher Michel Foucault brings nuance to this partial vision of reality. The relationship between knowledge and power that he established seems much more appropriate for the actions of hacktivists. Foucault sees the link between power and knowledge as an interconnection of their fields, not as a situation of dependency. These connections will determine the subject and his or her action by creating links and hierarchies, or by destroying them. Thus, power necessarily involves some sort of knowledge, and this interconnection creates a circular dynamic that can lead the subject to ever more knowledge and power.
Controlling this dynamic becomes either the key to hacktivism, or the last bastion of the traditional political structures. A good example of Foucault’s thinking can be found in the statistician aspect of a public health policy. Gathering data and compiling it into databases suggests that the ability of acting at the level of the collectivity is mastered. Understanding the overall state of society, which comes from the gathering and possessing of these data, indicates a power over life, a power that can maintain the stability of a group, and illustrates the fact that power brings knowledge, too.
A new model of political action
This way of overcoming Bacon’s thinking turns hacktivism into a revolution-like revolt, where political actions – for instance, attacks against government websites – are fundamentally based on possessing information and no longer only on mere convictions. Hacktivism gives its political activism a tinge of justice. The actions that have been carried out these last years in order to establish transparency within states can only support hacktivism’s impact. The open government and open data doctrines are the most representative of this process. They make available a whole body of knowledge possessed by the leaders. In this way, everyone can gain not only information, but also the political power that corresponds to it by determining their actions as citizens, in particular through their votes.
Foucault uses the example of the Panopticon to illustrate how knowledge control can install a dominant/dominated relationship. He places knowledge possession in an architectural and carceral context: here, the warden is able to see the inmates without them knowing if they are being watched. Another’s knowledge can become a form of power over oneself, and then the fear of this relationship creates a hierarchy of distrust.
But hacktivism raises hopes and gives the feeling that democracy has returned, not as some finality for the politicians, but as a way to affirm everyone’s power over the organization of society. The solidarity shown by hacktivism foretells a liberating conquest of the relation between power and knowledge that will give each citizen a new way of mastering politics.
About the author:
After attending law school, Rodhlann Jornod is now focusing on studying practical philosophy. He is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Criminology in Paris, and is currently writing his dissertation, addressing the structures of morality related to the phenomenon of criminal justice. His interest for new technologies also led him to study the impact of sciences on notions of practical philosophy, such as moral and politics.
To find out more:
About Michel Foucault: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/foucault/
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