Chaos and convergence

In the foyer of the Congress Center Hamburg, free bottles of Club-Mate, the high-caffeine herbal cola favoured by hackers, were being distributed from bikes, the riders threading their way between table upon table of black-clad guys and gals hunched over laptops: tacktacktacktack, furious fingers on shallow keyboards against a constant chatter of techno music. TV screens suspended from columns showed the bandwidth used, along with feeds from Twitter and lists of upcoming workshops. Tribes wandered between lecture theatres, bounced out of something on Tor encryption hoping to get a slot in the EMV decoding session, while ‘angels’, volunteers in bright safety jackets, rushed around stewarding and shepherding. Meanwhile, in the small meeting rooms down workshop alley, one group was updating the CryptoParty Handbook, another was talking Arduino, a third was watching a cartoon mash-up, while steampunks ran a comms centre using retro-tech rotary phones (stalk-and-cradle models from the 1920s) connected to the 4G network and a wood-and-iron teletype from which attendees could send SMSes.

It was four days after Christmas, and 3500 people were having the time of their lives at 29c3 – the twenty-ninth Chaos Communication Congress.

The Chaos Communication Congress is the annual conference hosted by the Chaos Computer Club, an outfit of computer enthusiasts that emerged from the German counterculture in the early 1980s. Though the CCC has been well known in Germany for decades, it was only after Cablegate and the global fascination with WikiLeaks and Julian Assange that the organisation became visible in the English-speaking world.

In leftist and social movement circles, many – myself included – also became suddenly aware that we were utterly ignorant about the technologies that shape our lives and the conditions under which we struggle for freedom.

Last year saw two significant advances in the push for total government surveillance of all electronic communication: the adoption of the Cybercrime Legislation Amendment Act in Australia and the introduction of the Cyber Crime Protection Security Act to the US Senate (the bill is currently stalled before Congress). On the other side, 2012 also saw the creation of the CryptoParty movement, a global grassroots endeavour to introduce cryptographic tools to a wider circle of activists and users. To this author, a default Luddite if ever there was one, these developments made it clear that one needed some idea of what was going on, both in the control and use of comms technologies by states and superstates, and in the actions and work of the dissident hackerati.

At 29c3, it appeared many others agreed. The conference theme was ‘Not my department’, a reminder to attendees to move beyond hobbyish and hackerish tinkering and to consider the larger scale. It was, however, also a rallying cry for activists: the new total-surveillance state cannot be ignored.

In his keynote address, Jacob Appelbaum, a key player in the development of the Tor network and a one-time WikiLeaks associate, noted that many people console themselves by thinking that total surveillance creates such an oversupply of information that it creates more problems for intelligence agencies than it solves. The National Security Agency’s new data collection centre at Bluffdale, Utah, will, for instance, have the capacity to store five zettabytes of data (that is, more than five trillion gigabytes – or the storage capacity of twenty-five billion PCs – enough to record and keep all electronic communications for a century). But with search-and-recognition tools increasing in sophistication, the ‘too-much-data’ argument becomes nothing more than a consoling fantasy, a way of compartmentalising away some inconvenient truths.

This year’s convergence was a call to action, and its urgency, some veterans told me, made the event rather less playful than in the past. The feeling was exacerbated by problems with internal processes: the conference was in many ways a site of contestation, in that a field once dominated by maths-oriented young men is now rapidly changing its make-up. As political activists have flooded into the cyberworld, its composition – above all, its gender composition – has changed, and the movement has struggled to cope. The conflicts are productive, but that doesn’t make them easy or straightforward.

For me, the real revelation at 29c3 came during a wonkish walkthrough of the EMV system, the cyber-processes that make credit card transactions possible, that showed all too clearly how shoddily – and thus easily crackable – the system is. What seemed like magic to me was not that these things are necessarily possible, but that this is a realm in which other people – these people – move with ease. No wonder, I thought, hackers are so confident of their ability to intervene in the world! No wonder there is such a chasm between hackers – no matter how politically minded they are – and the rest of us from the Left or social movements!

Decades of decline from the great working-class movements and the upheavals of the 1960s have reconciled the Left to celebrating resistance and preparing for greater crises to come. The hackerati, by contrast, fully expect to intervene right now.

But the hacker world is separated from the Left not merely by its possibilities but by its past and present. For while the Left confronts atomised neoliberalism with a collectivist tradition derived from the milieu – initially working class and then a class of pre-computer cultural/knowledge producers – from which it emerged, the hacker movement developed out of a new social-technological formation – the networked personal computer – that was atomised by its very nature.

The development of the PC in the late 1970s and early 1980s has been taken as a progressive revolution. But, in fact, it occurred in the ruins of a more promising development in the late 1960s, in which easy personal access to technology and massive networking were anticipated as occurring simultaneously. But such developments – based in universities, countercultural collectives and research facilities like Xerox PARC and Bell Labs – foundered in the recession of the early 1970s.

When things resumed in the middle of the decade, kit computing (such as the first Apples) and for-sale software were the norm. Connectivity came later – much later for most of us.

The first wave of computers created a strange milieu in which the corporate and countercultural worlds overlapped: Xerox PARC and Bell Labs had been pure research facilities that paid researchers to follow their own interests, on the assumption that marketable products would result (the transistor, the graphical user interface and the mouse were some of the results). But whether working at IBM or the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link) collective, few expected to become independently wealthy from computers. Major hardware inventors could create start-ups (as they were not yet called), but most programmers of software (as it was not yet called) assumed that their rewards would either be a high salary in a corporate environment or an interesting life in an academy.

The rise of the kit/personal computer and a market for its uses made possible the start-up culture we know today. Many of the leading figures emerging from the counterculture took the entrepreneurial path, infusing the form of new capitalism with a hippie tinge. Though the first Apple computers isolated the user, their sleek form and usability presented computing as a personal liberation. The indefinite expansion of this field changed the self-conception of the IT specialist into that of someone whose work could be instantly transformed into capital via the start-up. The ‘me’ decade created the ‘me’ computer: the box in the house connected to nothing – a harbinger of Thatcher-Reaganism.

Hacking began amid this gold rush, in the second-wave of personal computing, when these separate boxes began to connect to each other via phone modems, bulletin boards, the internet and then the web. Cultural-technological developments shaped the social-psychological form of second-generation hacking, and that in turn moulded its presupposed politics, its ideology. At its root, this formation was founded on an assumption that a social ensemble is an array of individuals who make connections, rather than – as is more influential in the Left – a collectivity of shared ends in which individuality is set. A bias towards individualism is so assumed within large sections of the hacker community as to be barely acknowledged.

The politics added on top of this has been a libertarianism, often US-derived, that is simply the ‘natural’ theoretical expression of an individualist bias. The rise in the 1990s of groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation – with its much-publicised representative, former Grateful Dead songwriter John Perry Barlow – solidified this libertarianism and gave it a respectable form, neither Left nor Right but drawing elements from both.

On the one hand, a lack of regard for ‘intellectual property’ provided a base from which to imagine a wider social transformation in which property and capital occupied a lesser role. On the other, the movement possessed no analysis of how social cooperation should be organised or – beyond a vague anti-corporate sentiment (with the corporation constructed as a private state) – what the movement’s dominant processes were.

In recent years, this has begun to change. As physical hackerspaces and then makerspaces – places where hackers work collectively and where they fuse their online activities with ‘making’ in the form of welding, 3D printing, biohacking and so on – have formed, and as the state turned its full repressive attentions towards hackers, more interchange between hackers and Left activists has begun to occur.

But if the main speeches at 29c3 were any guide, such shifts have not yet suffused the movement’s understanding of itself. The narrative emphasis remained on heroic individuals and their consciences, on brave persons standing athwart state power and saying ‘No!’

Appelbaum’s keynote singled out the high-profile people – himself, Assange, Bradley Manning and other 29c3 speakers such as Bill Binney – who have felt the state’s tender mercies to varying degrees. He was appropriately deprecating about himself, full of praise for the others, willing to talk at length about the need for good men and women to do something, etc. He was, however, very light-on with analysis of how we got to this place, how the state had manufactured consent and compliance from highly skilled individuals in the field. He also only mentioned in passing the need for the hackerati to turn their attentions from defence to offence, for solutions to organising ‘childcare and manufacturing’ – that is, a material programmatic politics.

In the minutes prior to the talk, as his slideshow failed to load, Appelbaum made an aside about ‘3000 of the smartest people on the planet’ being unable to get PowerPoint working. It was an old ‘absent-minded professor’ joke, of course – a humorous way of expressing the implicit elitism of such gatherings.

Now, however, that elitism has a real base: these are people who can hack into global defence systems or build software that millions will be using a year hence. But as the encroachments of a total-surveillance state have gathered pace, and a larger number of the hackerati have become political, technical elitism has fostered a moral elitism, a vaguely Platonic notion of ‘guardianship’, of protecting the masses who cannot see beyond the images projected onto the cave’s wall.

This sentiment was most noticeable in a session on ‘whistleblowing’ hosted by Bill Binney, an NSA surveillance veteran of several decades who quit after realising the NSA was being turned en masse on US citizens. Binney’s presentation of his struggle was wholly in the heroic individual mode, with his rhetoric veering towards the constitutionalist libertarianism of Ron Paul and the Tea Party. No-one much questioned Binney’s implicit position: that using his talents to help the US run dirty wars and one-half of an exterminist Cold War had been justified by the times. The lack of dissent, from a full conference hall, was a testament to a residual political naivety.

To a degree, this position marks a step backwards from the WikiLeaks moment that brought the CCC to prominence. WikiLeaks, too, had more than its fair share of naivety and egotism, but it also had a theory of state power and a strategy deriving from that. Assange’s focus on the importance of exemplary courage was systemic rather than individualist: his argument was that a genuinely anonymous leaking system, together with mass leaking that challenges conspiratorial power, would produce courage in people who were hitherto merely disgruntled or dissenting. The appeal was not to virtuous guardians but to a universalising process.

There was nothing that compelling on offer here.

This is not to say that 29c3 represented a complete retreat from a dynamic political approach. The greatest focus of the convergence was on the burgeoning CryptoParty movement – a method, suggested a few months ago by Melbourne hacktivist Asher Wolf, of encouraging cryptographic communication between activists. The central idea is that such knowledge can be spread through informal parties at which experienced hackers and coders show activists of varying tech abilities how to load and use cryptographic software that will make their communications unbreakable.

The political importance of such a move is not merely strategic and tactical; once created, every network, no matter how small, by definition stands outside the state. The content may vary – from a mass attack on state propriety such as Cablegate to the maintenance of everyday networks that allow a small Occupy group to organise a protest without their plans being picked up by automated surveillance, parsed and interpreted automatically, and passed from intelligence organisations to domestic police and security forces under the pretext of ‘anti-terrorist’ statutes.

But even without strategic content, encrypted communication is simply the modern-day equivalent of putting a message in an opaque envelope, while the current level of everyday communication is analogous to sending all messages by postcard, detoured through a state censor.

The rise of total surveillance of electronic communication represents a new challenge to those who want to maintain the capacity for genuinely independent organising under changing historical circumstances. Past history offers many examples where a lack of attention to state subversion has had disastrous consequences. Alex Butterworth’s The World That Never Was shows how the anarchist movement of the late nineteenth century was torn apart by the state’s embedded agents provocateurs – and how the freewheeling anarchist style allowed it to happen. Out of such failures came the disciplined revolutionary party, the routine use of clandestine methods and the creation of the cell structure, all essential components of subsequent revolutionary success.

More recent disruptions of radical movements by state activity are well known, such as the state-created decomposition (following state assassination) of what remained of the West Coast Black Panther Party, and the wider social movement around it. Even more recently, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and a range of other public and private groups ran rings around the Occupy Wall Street movement by designating it a ‘terrorist’ threat and applying a full-court press of repressive state tools to disrupt planning and coordination, in the process turning individuals against each other. For example, New York activist and New Inquiry editor Malcolm Harris acquired a criminal conviction in the wake of Occupy Wall Street after prosecutors subpoenaed his Twitter records and used them as evidence against him. He was one of dozens of high-profile activists that the state was able to identify and retroactively track because of the open nature of their communications. This process – threatening many young activists with serious criminal convictions in a decidedly post-liberal era – has had a chilling and very material impact on the failure of the Occupy movement to thrive beyond its initial upsurge.

People accustomed to a less ambiguous state have been more receptive to spreading crypto tools than many in the post/late-liberal West. In Egypt and Syria, for instance, Tor users were able to keep communications running via bridge connections to Tor users overseas. It’s impossible to know what role such techniques played in the relative resilience of these movements – the Arab Spring is the first major upheaval to occur since crypto tools began to be generalised – but it’s probably uncontroversial to say that it’s better to have access to secure communication than not, when faced with state repression – violent or otherwise.

Once again, the understanding of this varies, depending on the degree of one’s tech knowledge. What is taken for granted by hacktivists – that prime number cryptography and the nature of exponentiality puts unbreakable coding at the disposal of everyone – is unknown to those still living in the world of packaged software, those who approach the tech-world with a degree of fatalism and fear.

Like most simple ideas, the CryptoParty movement only seems obvious after it has been thought of and its ramifications become multiple. The movement spread almost instantaneously across the world and quickly spawned a collectively written CryptoParty Handbook.

Nonetheless, even at this early stage, the movement has become fraught with difficulties. The manual attracted a storm of criticism when first released, both from people disagreeing with its arguments and from those alleging factual errors. When I checked in on an editing session at 29c3, the book had expanded to 480 pages and appeared to be growing as remorselessly as the UN’s Law of the Sea. Later, when I attended an in-session CryptoParty, it was poorly run and hermetically sealed, making it difficult for a neophyte to find a way in.

Moreover, Asher Wolf, who started the CryptoParty movement, did not attend 29c3. Before the event, she circulated an email denouncing the processes around the nascent movement, both in general and in gender terms, and announcing her departure from it. Wolf’s letter followed from one earlier in the year from Valerie Aurora who charged that sexism was widespread in the hacker movement, so much so that it was becoming impossible for women to become a part of it. The Ada Initiative, which Aurora founded to support women in the open-technology movement, documented a range of sexist incidents at 29c3, from the irritating to the more serious.

Sexism has become a central issue, with the male-dominated world of hackerdom struggling to respond to the influx of women, both those from a coding background and those political activists who made themselves hacktivists in the 2000s. As hackerspaces and hacker networks encouraging face-to-face interaction have begun to emerge, base social issues had to be considered: who gets to speak, how should culturally embedded structures of male spatial and situational dominance be treated, and so on. While some of this repeats issues that the Left has faced since the 1960s, some of it is distinctive to hackerdom, such as the presence of a high proportion of people (mostly male) with limited social orientation and aptitude, and a both implicit and explicit misogyny with regard to coding abilities and practice.

This appears to be more deep-seated than a question of attitude. The lists of speakers at the 29c3 PechaKucha events (a form of quick-fire slideshow presentations), a highlight of each day, were utterly dominated by men. Yet, the sessions seemed welcoming: open to all comers, with no audience criticism and with everyone receiving the same polite applause. But where were the women? One answer, as Asher Wolf has noted, is they were home looking after children: the ‘3000 smartest people on the planet’ couldn’t seem to get it together to create a workable childcare service, a feature of every sizeable Left gathering for decades now.

In matters other than gender, the default setting of the milieu appears to be highly accepting: many hackers, for instance, don’t give a damn what people look like, themselves included. Doubtless this is not the full story, but it may be that hackerdom has a quite specific dilemma to deal with: open and inclusive for a whole range of groups, while simultaneously appalling on gender matters. With its mix of work and play, its intense coding sessions, its ‘angels’, its ‘heaven’ – a sort of playpen chill-out area where people lolled in foam rubber – 29c3 felt like a temporary autonomous zone, a little piece of communism broken off from the future and flung backward in time, even if its practical arrangements fell a little short.

But can the movement spread its base message: that in our era, a civic liberty necessarily involves the use of cryptographic communications and tools, and that this is part of the development of a parallel realm of social and technological alternatives?

The CryptoParty movement – if it continues to grow – seems essential. People who have attended other events have told me that they vary in quality, which is unsurprising given that those with the skills to teach are focused on the thrilling and fascinating nuts and bolts of coding and cryptography. But I wonder if the push towards a significant take-up of these new technologies by activists and groups does not demand an even simpler approach. Such techniques are becoming as necessary to genuine political independence as possession of printing facilities and knowledge of clandestine techniques were once fundamental for radical groups.

The widespread acceptance of the necessity of such skills died in the 1960s, as a fully liberal society opened up and all but violent dissent ceased to be (officially) criminalised. The online revolution has done double duty – delivering up all communications weightlessly to central authorities while simultaneously persuading its several billion users that the internet is a space of liberty.

A faster, simpler spread of comms technology is required: a model that is a level downstream from the CryptoParty model, with instructors training other instructors to spread the word. Crucial to that is some self-training in educational skills, so that the instructors become efficient and no-nonsense trainers for those who want the basics. Three one-hour sessions on Tor, PGP encryption and similar matters would do me – if the training is run in a manner that demands my attention and focus but that doesn’t require a deep intellectual or emotional engagement with the material. Instead of a 400-page manual, a dozen or so pages is what is required.

With a streamlined ‘short course’ – perhaps designed in consultation with teachers or educationists – the process would self-replicate, as the training would include learning how to train others. As the Left and the social movements began to adopt such systems, they would become a default procedure, something that those wishing to engage would have to learn. Conferences and convergences like 29c3 could then offer the ‘short course’ as an outreach process, either free or for an affordable donation. But so too could other organisations – this journal, for example.

Essentially, this recapitulates an early shift within the Left from a freewheeling presentism – the anarchist idea that one expresses full human freedom right now by being a ludic and spontaneous subject – to the notion of a disciplined deferral that made the Left a more efficient force. One doesn’t have to believe in copying the dour self-abnegation that became an unfortunate hallmark of this tradition to accept that a measure of that self-discipline, and the associated systemic social patterning, would be of use to the hacker movement, above and beyond its efficiency as a tool of propagation.

In other words, the hackerati have more to learn from Left history than many currently suppose – indeed, a process of cross-fertilisation is what needs to occur.

There will still be plenty of opportunity to drink Club-Mate in heaven, but at the moment it’s necessary to emphasise the liberation that comes from a more focused and disciplined approach.

Thanks to Asher Wolf whose information and viewpoints greatly expanded my understanding of these matters. All opinions remain my own. All errors are a software problem. 

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Guy Rundle is currently a correspondent-at-large for Crikey online daily, and a former editor of Arena Magazine. His ebook, And the Dream Lives On? Barack Obama, the 2012 Election and the Great Republican Whiteout, is forthcoming.

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