I’m reading Parmy Olson’s book We Are Anonymous about the notorious yet not-well-understood online/hacker movement/lark. It’s a journalist’s book, clearly written in a rush, but fascinating. Also, to me, inspiring and heartwarming, which was probably not the author’s intent. When Olson describes the misfit kids falling out of the real world into the looking glass of 4chan, where the grossest of insult and the nastiest of porn coexist happily with the most destructive of code, I doubt she considered it might be someone’s happy trip down memory lane.
We had no Internet when I was fifteen, but we had a network — of rude t-shirts and engineer boots, of vinyl albums with crude black&white art, pricetags in British pounds, songs saying horrible wonderful things. Johnny Rotten’s snarling contempt, Jello Biafra’s amused disdain, Minor Threat’s guerrilla righteousness, The Feederz’ … just, the Feederz. Fuck were they nasty. I couldn’t even find Feederz recordings on The Pirate Bay, and that’s saying something. Feederz was /b/ before /b/ was /b/.
Épater les bourgeois, my cosmopolitan mother would sniff: shock the easily-shocked. (But even she loved London Calling.) It wasn’t just the rawness. You didn’t have to agree with the leftist politics of Crass and Rock Against Reagan, you could squirm (though you’d never admit it) at the layered brutality of “Holiday in Cambodia,” but it was grounded in the real world, for a change, even as it rejected conventional wisdom.
But yeah, it was the rawness too. You didn’t have to be anything but young and weird to enjoy escaping suburbia for all-ages shows in the city. I got mosh-pit bruises back when they called it “slamdancing.” I stage-dived at a Circle Jerks show and I didn’t even know what a circle-jerk was (and didn’t quite believe it when I learned). Though DC’s “straight edge” no-intoxicant ethos didn’t keep me away from drugs, harDCore kept me away from the Grateful Dead long enough for Jerry Garcia to die, and I am very grateful.
Of course we grew up, we mellowed out, we saw how big the world was and how tough it is to change it just by shouting. My youth is now a very worthy Kickstarter project. “Marriage is when we admit our parents were probably right,” Billy Bragg sang. Perhaps the same things will happen to the Anonymous. Perhaps repeated exposure will drain the pus from their aggression. For my parents, flaming skull tattoos were the fearful armor of bikers; my son had a Don Ed Hardy baby-onesie. Maybe my grandchild will look cute with a Guy Fawkes rattle and an apron that says “diaperfag.” It’s an old story.
But this time it might be different. Punks could at best inspire others to act, usually by making more culture, and mostly harmed themselves. They could work jobs too shitty to get credit-cards, but couldn’t close down credit card sites — and banks are a lot harder to mess with than utilities. The newspapers talk about the coming cyberwar with China, but no one’s suggesting what seems obvious to me — that some kids might engineer a home-brew Day The Earth Stood Still, where hospitals and homeless shelters have power but the rest of us don’t — or just shut down the water supply, for the lulz.
Anonymous is an outsider art with root access to the infrastructure of modern commerce. People involved in it and central to it are often marginal in real life — people under poverty, people in remote locations, people trying resolve identity issues, people who are just not right. The arts have always been a path for outsiders in; Gatsbys with gumption make their way from low circumstances to power and even philanthropy. But there was a structure and a system to accept these people, even if it didn’t welcome them.
Today’s elites no longer stand on stable ground, especially if they keep reusing the same passwords on all their logins (and they do). Thorstein Veblen predicted the engineers would eventually run things; I just don’t think he expected so many of them to be self-taught, capricious, and angry.
I hope to give my child a good solid life, a two-parent family, answer his needs and most of his wants, even the frivolous ones — in other words, give what I had. But I also hope to give an awareness that there is more, and that more will come: from people not so lucky, from places not in plain sight; things that just aren’t right until they are, things that won’t ever be right. The Rules of the Internet are brutal and strange and funny, and they may be the rules of our future. I need to help my kid keep that in mind. And so do you.
We need to watch out, in the best and the worst ways, for the people we don’t see, the people rewriting our world — Anonymously.