Barefoot into Cyberspace
* Book: Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in search of techno-Utopia. by Becky Hogge
Purchase copies via http://barefootintocyberspace.com/book/
"Barefoot into Cyberspace is an inside account of radical hacker culture and the forces that shape it, told in the year WikiLeaks took subversive geek politics into the mainstream. Including some of the earliest on-record material with Julian Assange you are likely to read, Barefoot Into Cyberspace is the ultimate guided tour of the hopes and ideals that are increasingly shaping world events.
Beginning at the Chaos Communications Congress of December 2009, where WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg first presented their world-changing plans to a select audience of the planet’s most skilful and motivated hackers, Barefoot Into Cyberspace interweaves an insider’s take on the drama that ensued with a thoughtful mix of personal reflections and conversations with key figures in the community aimed at testing the hopes and dreams of the early internet pioneers against the realities of the web today.
Will the internet make us more free? Or will the flood of information that courses across its networks only serve to enslave us to powerful interests that are emerging online? How will the institutions of the old world – politics, the media, corporations – affect the hackers’ dream for a new world populated not by passive consumers but by active participants? And can we ever live up to their vision of technology’s, and its users’, potential?"
"I first got the idea for Barefoot into Cyberspace at the Folk on the Pier festival on Cromer pier in June 2009. CJ Stone, whom I’ve never met but who I knew lived near Cromer (well, somewhere in Norfolk, at any rate), wrote a book called Fierce Dancing that had a huge influence on me when I was in my teens. Fierce Dancing was about hippies, crusties the free party scene and the road protest movement, a world I was fascinated by but to which I had very little access. I decided to write a book that did the same thing for its readers, but with the geek and hacker scene.
From December 2009 through to June the following year, I interviewed the people I thought would have the most interesting stories to tell. I had a lot of luck along the way. One of the first interviews I did was with a then relatively-unknown Julian Assange (in case you didn’t notice, I released the transcript of that interview yesterday). The next month, Stewart Brand, author of the famous quote “information wants to free” happened to be in town. I also got some killer material from Cory Doctorow, and had some very enlightening conversations with Phil Booth (then still at No2ID) and Ethan Zuckerman.
In Rop Gonggrijp, my very first interlocutor, I found a narrative that carried the whole book along, right to the end or, as he puts it, “the middle of the start of it”. Christopher Scally, the artist who kindly developed the illustrations for the book, struck gold when he decided we should re-use Sir John Tenniel’s now public domain illustrations that accompanied Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (somewhat inspired by an argument we had about copyright reform during the meeting to get him on board, but that’s another story). If Julian Assange is the Mad Hatter, Rop is my White Rabbit.
The book was in its first draft, minus the last chapter and epilogue, by November 2010, at which point I sent it out to a group of beta readers. Some of them were hardcore geeks, others couldn’t have been less so, and all gave really useful feedback without which I don’t think I would have found my way to the end. At about this time, the book deals started appearing – books about WikiLeaks were being sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds, and in one case a million. I started wondering if I might be able to strike gold, too.
But it wasn’t to be. Barefoot into Cyberspace wasn’t the sort of book the publishers wanted. It’s not a polemic, it’s intentionally pulpy and open-ended, and I liked it that way. So in March, I approached Felix Cohen, who had just helped openDemocracy.net get their book Fight Back! out the door, if he’d like to lend me a hand publishing Barefoot." (http://barefootintocyberspace.com/category/barefoot-into-cyberspace/)
- Chapter 3: Information wants to be free
Barefoot into Cyberspace is not a futurist polemic. It’s an invitation to understand hacker culture in a completely different frame. When I was writing it, I concentrated on the aspects of hacker culture that make being involved in it so liberating and fun – the vibe at the Chaos Communications Congress each year in Berlin, or the strong connections that the history of the personal computer and the internet have with the history of the sixties counter-culture. And of course I was lucky that the story of WikiLeaks in 2010 began to trespass on the story I was writing from my very first research trip. That lent the book’s narrative some of the drama that captured the world’s attention last year - driven as much by the stories of the people behind WikiLeaks as by the material WikiLeaks released.
The book isn’t just flim-flam and high drama though. I spent two years at the Open Rights Group, a UK digital rights campaign group, and that left me with a lot of questions about our political system. So writing Barefoot was also an attempt to answer those questions. 2010 was the year the Digital Economy Act was passed in the UK – a pernicious and wrong-headed piece of legislation in the “three strikes” mold that was the result of really high levels of lobbying from the rightsholding industries. How can it be that governments across the world remain so complicit in the agenda to regulate one of the most potentially liberating technologies to have come about in centuries as if it were just a way of delivering Lily Allen’s latest hit? Behind that question lie some uncomfortable truths about the state of democracy in the 21st century.
For the cyberpunks Cory followed in the eighties, the internet wasn’t just a communications tool. As John Perry Barlow recognised when he formed the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the ’net was a place, a free place, and that freedom needed to be defended. Many of the threats to that freedom were similar to the threats to freedom found in the offline world – censorship, surveillance, and the electronic violence perpetrated by early virus writers. But some of them seemed entirely new, and it was against one of these new threats that Cory eventually allied himself. And just like his dad, it took an argument he couldn’t win to convert him.
“My ideas about copyright weren’t Canadian or activist, they were artistic. Like many people who are breaking into the arts, I learned everything I knew about copyright from older artists whose folk understanding of copyright amounted to: ‘The more copyright you give away, the worse you get screwed’. I understood copyright as a labour right for artists.”
That was about to change. Through a small online business he’d founded, Cory had got to meet EFF lawyers Cindy Cohn and Fred von Lohmann, and they’d become friends. In 2000 Cindy, Fred and Cory flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong together to speak at a music industry event to discuss responses to digital technology.
Cory continues, “I basically argued with Fred for 15 hours in the sky about copyright. And for four days in Hong Kong we went around to all the markets and we just argued about copyright for the entire trip. Then later we came to London together and we did it again. And I kind of had a conversion experience. I came around to really understand copyright as a utilitarian thing, copyright’s limitations as being good for artists. All of that stuff arose from these dialogues with Fred and Cindy.”
The EFF was interested in how the internet was forcing copyright – a set of laws originally designed to mediate the activities of commercial publishers in their dealings with artists – into territory that was starting to affect ordinary citizens’ free speech rights. Copyright had allowed Richard Stallman, through his “copyleft” hack, to reverse the enclosure of software code in the eighties. But the more traditional creative industries were beginning to see how the internet’s ability to distribute, at zero cost, perfect digital copies of the hit movies and songs they were used to selling on pretty bits of plastic might undermine their future business. The copyright enforcement measures they were proposing applied printing press-era copyright regulation to the activity of regular, internet-using citizens in the digital age, as destructive as applying EU regulations for catering firms or cash-crop farmers to domestic kitchens and gardens.
What’s more, because copyright naturally creates monopolies (whereas anyone has the right to sell cupcakes, open clothes boutiques, or try and cure cancer, only one publishing company has the right to say what happens to the Beatles back catalogue, and only one movie company has the right to make sequels to Star Wars), law-makers were increasingly becoming the targets of slick, professional lobbyists hired by global media conglomerates to extract more control over markets by pleading that the rise of new technology was threatening the “sanctity” of copyright.
For Cindy and Fred, this was a topsy-turvy, through-the-looking-glass world, “where lawyers could argue with a straight face that it should be lawful for there to be wholesale bans on entire classes of speech, for the good of society”. Cory went to work for EFF in 2002, and stayed for four years, much of which time was spent at the headquarters of the UN’s World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) in Geneva, agitating for reform.
Cory’s first job at Geneva was to step into negotiations over the Broadcast Treaty. Cory arrived five years into negotiations, and witnessed the national delegates held captive by lobbyists from rights-holder groups and incumbent broadcasters. The proposals on the table were startling: a completely new copyright, afforded to broadcasters in everything they transmitted over their networks. What was worse, some delegates had been persuaded to propose that a similar exclusive copyright be granted to so-called “webcasters”, an arrangement that could have handed untold powers to, for example, YouTube, over material they had had no hand in creating. It would, the EFF said, have “changed the nature of the Internet as a communication medium”. And nobody was there to speak up for the ’net.
I interviewed Cory at the time, and his bafflement at the way things were progressing was palpable. “It’s a very different world working at WIPO,” he told me. “The most egregious lies are being told about how the world works and nobody is sticking their hand up and saying ‘that’s not true’”. Cory and his colleagues began live-blogging negotiating sessions, getting the news of what was happening out online and in front of the people the new laws might affect. That was not the way things were normally done at WIPO, and eyebrows were raised. As he told me: “They characterise that as an abuse of their hospitality because we’re telling tales. But it’s the UN, right? The idea that the UN proceeds in secret is the stuff of paranoid fantasy.”
Being a campaigner can be very lonely. I know at ORG I was often the only person in the room from “civil society”, that is, the only person not representing either the Government, or some commercial interest. Once, during a consultation on how best to protect children online, Yahoo!’s then full-time lobbyist – or ‘Head of Public Policy’ as they generally prefer to be known – actually queried why I was there at all. In what sense were the interests I represented different from the interests she was there to represent – that of her customers?
What this shows, and what I learned during my time at ORG, was that citizen involvement in day-to-day politics is a novelty in Westminster, and rather out of fashion. Politicians have become middle managers, administering an erratic and passive client base (the electorate) while reporting up to a corporately-funded multi-party system that long ago transformed from a scaffold for ideological discourse into a career development framework for awkward Oxbridge graduates. Citizenship has undergone what some scholars have called a process of “marketization”. Benefits claimants and other users of public services are now “clients”. MPs run their surgeries like pantomime social workers. Ministers appear on the Today programme to distribute their coupon-book soundbites for listeners to redeem on polling day. Re-imagined as consumers of a sanitised pre-watershed media concoction of “public life”, citizens are no longer expected to behave in any other way than that which serves their own self-interest. The Digital Economy Bill got through at least partly because the MPs who received hundreds of letters from their constituents begging them not to pass it genuinely believed the only thing the authors of those letters cared about was their right to share music without paying for it.
This is one reason why government has come close to getting it wrong on internet regulation so often. Just like Bill Gates, government thinks that web users are not web-creators but web-consumers, and seeks to regulate the web as if it were a service being provided by companies like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook. More importantly, the fact that the digital age has come upon us halfway through our participatory shift from citizen to consumer also throws that shift into relief. Perhaps it would have been fine to stick with managerial-style politics had history really ended in 1989, but it didn’t. Confronting completely new challenges to society – networked digital technology, climate change – perhaps we need a model that is a little more sophisticated than the Customer Helpdesk? Certainly, No2ID’s success at mobilising the grassroots indicates that citizen participation in public policy may not be the novelty Westminster believes it to be.
Just as political party membership has dwindled, there has been a dramatic rise among UK citizens of affiliation to single issue campaign networks. Since peak membership in the 1950s, political party membership across the UK’s three major parties has declined by a factor of ten. Today, the National Trust has more members than the three parties put together. On the one hand, this could be interpreted as a consumer-like polity shopping for the issues about which they care most. But on the other, it is a clear indicator that the concerns of the political class no longer reflect those of society at large. What No2ID have achieved – in part at least, for there is still much work to be done – they have achieved in spite of the systems in place at Westminster and Whitehall to respond democratically to social challenges and social change. Campaign networks, and especially ones like No2ID, are more responsive, more inclusive and more representative than the MPs and bureaucrats we pay to keep society on the straight and narrow.
In 1984, Stewart Brand foresaw two challenges that the rise of networked digital technology would pose to societies. The first, that “information wants to be free”, has undermined the copyright system set up in the printing press age, putting both innovation and free expression in jeopardy. The second, that “information wants to be expensive”, that “the right information in the right place just changes your life” (and, conversely, the wrong information in the wrong place just changes your life too), continues to menace individuals’ privacy, autonomy and dignity. On these issues, the instincts of the public have continuously outclassed the instincts of a political system compromised by its managerial self-image and its affinity with the corporate ethic. Westminster has, very publicly, come up wanting."