An Anthropologist Online

Gabriella Coleman lived with Anonymous to learn its culture

Threats to contemporary society—be they aimed at democracy's concepts or its infrastructure—often seem, at least to me, all the more threatening because they are discarnate and capricious. See: fake news, identity theft, crippling malware, et cetera.

And yet I love the TV show Mr. Robot, in which hackers are heroes who unite to fight the pervasive and insidious specter of corporate and government control.

The book Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous examines, among many other issues, such contradictory responses endemic to our current internet age. Author and anthropologist Gabriella Coleman set out in 2007 after seeing a video posted by the online political collective Anonymous. She sought to understand the group and, as anthropologists do, embedded herself in its culture and customs. Coleman, the Wolfe Chair in Scientific and Technological Literacy at McGill University in Montreal, this week delivers a lecture in Santa Fe on her experiences and concomitant theses as part of the School for Advanced Research public lecture series. Coleman also is the author of  Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking.

Part of Coleman's talk will focus on the question of why the government did not target Anonymous as cyberterrorists, despite the collective's actions. Anonymous has been involved in hundreds of political activist operations, among them hacking Tunisian government websites in 2011 and catalyzing the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Coleman says the half-dozen reasons why Anonymous escaped the "cyberterrorism frame" include its use of the Guy Fawkes mask (already popularized by the film V for Vendetta), as well as "the fact that Anonymous was memorialized in positive ways in pop culture. Mr. Robot was one of a dozen different forms of entertainment, from ballet to plays, that picked Anonymous up."

Coleman's book marries a compulsive narrative populated with dramatic characters and actions to an analysis that deepens the significance of cyber culture, where Anonymous was born. Her explication, for example, of "lulz" extends beyond mere demystification of vernacular into the broad anthropological context of tricksters. But Coleman's vantage point, despite being seeped in technology, is fundamentally humanistic; Anonymous may have formed in a certain time and space (4chan), but the impulses that brought disparate people together despite liminal challenges are more enduring.

I asked Coleman what, if any, outcome she might want for people learning more about Anonymous, beyond a fascinating look into an otherwise difficult-to-access culture.

"They use lots of tactics; some are not controversial, others are controversial," Coleman says, "but I do think that a lot of people can learn something and draw something positive from a group of people who are willing to not simply talk about what they believe in, but do something."

Anonymous' anonymity also can be used as a lens through which to consider the problematic nature of online discourse. While anonymity can and, at least in my view, likely has contributed to the decline of civilized discourse (see: current president of the United States), Coleman offers another takeaway: Anonymous has been willing to act on its beliefs and "to do so as well without needing fame and recognition." It was the first movement, she says, in which "people were willing to put aside personal fame for the collective good, and I think that's really important [given] how predicated on individualism and celebrity" society has become (see: current president of the United States).

Coleman acknowledges the interesting tension permeating society between collective fear regarding cyber-hacking (a la Home Depot, the DNC and Equifax) alongside the growing commitment to online privacy. While these two threads may conflict in practice, they both point to the need to understand the culture and technology at play in what Coleman describes as a "post-Snowden" world, referring of course to former CIA agent Edward Snowden who leaked classified National Security Agency documents.

Coleman's public talk is one of several SAR has planned this year that tackle interdisciplinary concerns related to technology and society. In March, anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll will discuss wearable technology; a lecture in June features New Yorker journalist Elizabeth Kolbert on "the fate of the earth." Kolbert has reported and written extensively numerous award-winning pieces on climate change.

SAR oversees an extensive collection of Native American art as well as numerous initiatives focused on Indigenous art. But the organization also has grown its programs related to emerging social science issues, such as those highlighted in this year's lecture series through the Creative Thought Forum launched last summer.

SAR President Michael Brown says since he came on board three and a half years ago, "we've been working … to beef up our public programs in ways we think will be interesting to the general public; there are a lot of highly educated adult learners who want to stay active intellectually." And, he notes, there's a "hunger" for knowledge and conversation on topics related to technology. Approaching some of these topics through anthropology certainly makes them more robust, but also is in line with anthropology itself—which, Brown notes, "is becoming a lot more diverse and focused on different venues."

Including virtual ones.


Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: How Anonymous Dodged the Cyberterrorism Frame.
6:30 pm Thursday Jan. 25. $10.
James A Little Theatre,
1060 Cerrillos Road,

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