Digital Activism #Now: One Day Conference at King’s College London

DigCultNowInformation Politics, Digital Culture and Global Protest Movements

King’s College London – April 4th 2014, 10am-6pm

Confirmed speakers: Clare Birchall, Gabriella Coleman, Paolo Gerbaudo, Joss Hands, Tim Jordan, Guobin Yang

 The so-called “web 2.0” of social network sites was invented as a business strategy to react to the first bust and, as revealed by the NSA scandal, it has been heavily used by the State as a platform of global surveillance. Yet, this space has also seen the rise of new powerful forms of digital activism, as seen in the adoption of Facebook and Twitter as means of mass mobilisation in the context of the Arab revolutions, the Spanish indignados and of Occupy Wall Street.

These contradictions raise a number of burning questions for contemporary digital activists. What are the real opportunities and threats for digital activism at the time of social network sites and big data? How can protest movements make use of the power of mass diffusion and collective coordination afforded by social media without falling prey of state monitoring or cultural banalisation? And is it better to invest energy in creating alternative and non-commercial communication platforms or in occupying the digital mainstream?

The “Digital Activism #Now” conference will explore emerging digital protest practices at a time of increasing diffusion of social media and progressive massification and commercialisation of the web. By gathering leading international researchers and activists we will examine how digital activists are making use of the affordances of the social web. Moreover, we will debate the main issues of contention among contemporary digital activists, faced with increasing possibilities of mass outreach but also with new threats.

Among the issues covered by the conference will feature the role of social network sites in contemporary protests, hacktivism at the time of Anonymous and Lulzsec, the activist use of digital culture, internet memes, and online pranks, as means of digital propaganda and the politics of transparency and secrecy in digital whistleblowing.

The conference is supported by the Culture, Media and Creative Industries and Digital Humanities Departments, by the China Lau Institute and the North America Institute, all at King’s College London.

Please register at


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Exploitation in Digital Networks: Jodi Dean Speaking

Digital culture at King’s College London is excited to announce a public lecture by Professor Jodi Dean on Wednesday May 23rd 2012, 1pm. It will be held in the Anatomy Museum Theatre on the Strand Campus of King’s.

The lecture is on the topic ‘Exploitation in Digital Networks’.

Jodi Dean is a world leading thinker on the nature of digital culture and its  politics. She is Professor of Political Science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York. Her teaching and research focus on contemporary political and media theory. Jodi is the co-editor of the international electronic journal of contemporary critical theory, Theory & Event. She is the author or editor of ten books, including: Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies, and Blog Theory.

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Blog Move

This site is being put into storage as I’m now blogging at a more fun site set up by some of my students on the Masters in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London.

Please find your way to: Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London

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Information As A Political Configuration

The rhetoric of information war has arisen again during the clash over SOPA/PIPA. Anonymous entered the fray to ddos and try to take down targets particularly after the judicial take down of data storage company Megaupload. Already running were other arms of the struggle in the lobbying of civil rights groups and the widely reported symbolic protest of blacking out sites.

While the rhetoric of war seems attractive and helps dramatise and mobilise, the question remains is there really a political contradiction or conflict at the heart of these conflicts that links Wikileaks, SOPA/PIPA, Anonymous and so on? It seems obvious that there are links, of course all are in one sense about censorship, openness and so on. But is there an ongoing political configuration that is characteristic to internet times? A configuration that helps explain what gives rise to repeated conflicts over censorship? Just as feminist theories of patriarchy help make sense of why women’s bodies are such a recurrent battleground of sexism.

For clearly, an information politics is not the only conflict of the twenty-first century, but is a conflict that enters the field of multiple political antagonisms, each affecting each other. This means both the need to focus on each antagonism to explore its dynamics but that such an exploration will be abstract as in the actions of politics there will be an inevitable hybridity. Like the Anonymous flag flying at the London Occupy St Pauls (still there yesterday months after I first saw it) or the Anonymiss campaign developing a hybrid informational feminism. Identifying political antagonisms and they dynamics has to go hand in hand with recognising their inter-minglings.

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One of those Guild moments: Part 1.1

So as the previous blog outlined I’m part of an online gaming guild that reorganised because of the rise of a new game (Star Wars) that drew a lot of members away from the game we were playing (Rift). Being a cross-gaming guild of many years, this wasn’t unfamiliar but it causes anxiety and uncertainty. Will there be enough people to play with if I stay in the old game? Will I like the new game? For me there was particularly, Can I be bothered to learn a new game when I’m still enjoying this one?

We now seem to have guilds running successfully in both games but this has all come at a cost. Exasperation is a good place to start; why do I participate, even promote, things that exasperate, annoy and frustrate me in what is ostensibly my leisure time and something I do for fun? For example, I manage the use of our web-site by the Rift section of our Guild. Like all web-sites you have to register. Once registered, like all web-sites, someone has to give you access to the various bits. Once access is given you can go play and post comments (in the forums you have permission to) and sign up for events. I approve the registrations for the site and I’ve had a number of people sign up just with a name, not bothering to say why they’ve come, who they know etc. I won’t approve them as they could be anyone. Annoying.

Then I have to go back to the game and start asking in chat channels, ‘is anyone Hatchet99? Someone signed up on the forum as Hatchet99, anyone know who?’. Most often I’ve gotten an answer and then I have to tab out of the game (that is, I’m not able to do any of the enjoyable things but have to spend my in-game time on this) and change the registration.

The reason I do this is, of course, that the game doesn’t exist for me without doing this. We need twenty people to do what is most interesting to me in the game, and to get twenty people I know some people need to contribute outside of just doing exactly what is most fun, even doing some things that aren’t fun. It is not unlike times I’ve helped organise sporting clubs.

But does it make sense for me to theorise this as work, leisure, play, or labour? What I’m describing clearly involves elements of these thing but in no case do I feel that any one of them really applies. It’s far easier to talk about the subjective experience involved—frustration, fun, exasperation—than it is to categorise this experience with any of the concepts that are most familiar. What this points to, for me, is rethinking not the categories or words that are used here but the processes that I’m part of. If I use work and leisure, then the processes I’m thinking of build on years of struggle around the workplace to provide time for workers to have something like leisure, something distinct from a job they don’t identify with and do solely to survive. This familiar set of divisions and work processes doesn’t, to me, hold in relation to these gaming issues. The words are worn out.

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One of those Guild moments: Part One

I’ve been in an online gaming guild for over ten years. My very first guild was in Dark Age of Camelot and across a few guilds in that virtual space we got to know a lot of people, who then joined the same guild when World of Warcraft was launched in 2004. Since then friendships have stayed even as new members arrived and some originals moved on, even as some of us have moved games, some of us have stopped playing (and then restarted) and some have shifted from our main interest in massive multi-player online games to other types of games.

We’re now in the middle of a recurrent issue for such guilds that span different games with a new game (Star Wars The Old Republic) causing excitement, drawing currently actively players away from the game that most are playing (Rift), causing old friends (and some new) to join back up ready for the new fun and causing worry among those left behind about how we will continue to do the things we enjoy. Such a change echoes through not just our guild but across the general chat channels of Rift as every bug is met with a chorus of ‘when is SWTOR coming out?’.

The most important example of this is raiding. Our guild is a friendly more casual guild that still tries to see all the content and do the harder end raids. We’re always well behind the hard core guilds but we prefer it that way. But now we face a problem that the most desirable encounters we try to do twice a week are raids that need 10 or 20 players. We had just gotten to the point were if nearly everyone was online at a raid time we could do a 20 person raid and we were killing off regularly the two 10 person raids. However, now we are worrying if we’ll even be able to carry out the 10 person raids.

Such a change in the guild lays bare the existing academic and political arguments about, on the one hand, the free labor gamers offer to the companies selling their games and, on the other hand, the collapse of distinctions between producers and consumers of games. Free labor, as analysed some time ago (and perhaps as best analysed) by Tiziana Terranova is on display in the voluntary revision of our forum to make new space, on the work being done to recruit new members in the old game, on the discussions (our guild equivalent of planning meetings any organisation undergoes) and other activities, such as a trailer made about our incompetence to try to attract the right kind of person to the SWTOR section of our guild. The collapse of production and consumption, as seen in the work of John Banks and his colleagues and others such as Axel Bruns, is that all this work of organisation is what enables the games as a consumable product because without our raids the dungeon simply doesn’t happen and the game doesn’t create; it simply exists as an unused platform.

What strikes me as I live through such processes however, is not just how applicable a concept like free labor is or how the various permutations and theories of production and consumption work; but how even in weeks where I’ve taught such concepts they don’t quite seem to fit my subjective sense of what’s going on when I’m doing guild organisation. It may not be unusual for the subjective and the analytic not to be in synch, but I often can’t help feeling that concepts like labor, play, leisure, production and consumption are getting in the way of my understanding a situation that isn’t obviously any of these while also implying all of them. They feel like words built for and embedded in social and economic processes that are not completely the processes of a massive multiplayer online cross-game guild reconstruction, such as we are undergoing.

As my guild goes through this change, I’m going to try and use it to think through this uneasiness about concepts I value and use but which subjectively also make me feel uncertain. This is then, Part One in the articulation of this uneasiness.

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Talkin’ About the Revolution

Thursday saw an interesting round-table discussion I participated in on the theme of Rethinking Revolutionary Process and the Digital Difference. The inspiration was to run something just after Manuel Castells’ talks at Cambridge University that addressed and criticised his kinds of ideas. There were a couple of things I set out to say and which appeared in discussion that stayed with me.

First, the post-new social movement field of radical or revolutionary politics is constituted by multiple antagonisnms each giving rise to a possible revolution. This is both a criticism of a Castellian style totalised view of society, in which all the antagonisms have a place in a system, and of the reflex on the radical left to draw all social antagonisms into a Marxist framework. Not that Marxism isn’t relevant (depending on the flavour of Marxism of course), just that the reflex to analyse capitalism as a total system displaces all the other similarly universal antagonisms of patriarchy, sexuality politics, ant-racism and so on. Each antagonism itself giving rise to visions of social transformation. Slightly to my surprise this rather old interpretation seemed to me to retain a purchase on the nature of things.

Second, if this is the field of radical politics then has there been a digital difference? For me, there are two interpretations here. First, the digital difference needs to be seen within struggles and not as somehow a key determinant of struggles. Plenty of work looks at things this way, for example Miriyam Aouragh and Anne Alexander discussed at the round table their own research on aspects of the Arab Spring and what role digital technologies played. This is a view in opposition to all the ideas of a ‘facebook revolution’ that seems to think that somehow social media technologies ’caused’ the current wave of upheavals rather than seeing the wider causes and then exploring the role of digital technologies within the wider struggle.

In relation to this view however is the question of whether information politics has become an antagonism in-itself and the swirling mass of conflicts around groups such as Anonymous, Wikileaks, TOR Network and so on are all indicative of a specific antagonism around the use of information. Not that information politics has never existed before but that the current nature of information politics has been changed due to the cultural and social domestication of digital and internet technologies. Further, that information politics has become an important antagonism that needs its own nature and character examined and defined. After a few years working more on issues of communication and the internet, I now think this possibility has a number of researchers working on various aspects of it and is one of the central problematics of digital culture.

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Following Trends in Digital Culture

Following trends in the development of digital cultures often means being caught between two all too familiar ways of understanding the digital. One follows closely the ins and outs of various changes, seeing change as being so fast that it is almost impossible to follow. The other tends to see long term trends ignoring minor changes to look for overarching movements. The former tends to follow technologies, while the latter tends to epochal shifts in culture and society. Both grasp important issues in digital culture but taken separately they tend to be misleading. On the one hand there is an over-emphasis on constant change which ignores underlying trends and, on the other, there is usually an assertion of some extraordinarily significant major cultural shifts that are applied evenly to all cultures ignoring variations.

But connecting them offers analyses that pay attention to neither the flashy, and often minor, changes between such as Ipad and Ipad2, or three or four and so on, or to the sudden irruption of an epochal change that suggests our world is entirely different. Cybercrime is a good lever to help see that treating the two as being in opposition is not much help to analysis.

In cybercrime there is, of course, constant change in technologies as new viruses, phishing attacks, malware and more emerge. Cybercrime has also been considered an epochal change in the nature of crime, with everyone suddenly subject to direct attack, as if the muggers on the street now crouched just behind our laptop. Yet, taken in these terms they are not much help to understanding. Software is known to be highly malleable and so innovation is a constant possibility, yet the main forms of attack remain well known and have been around for as long as computer networks. Social engineering, which involves tricking people into giving out their passwords, or embedding links in emails that when clicked on covertly install software, are just two examples of longstanding techniques. The burglar behind our laptop is also a change but hardly one which grasps the everyday moments of online life nor is it helpful in understanding.

Between such exaggerated stances, and in danger of being obscured by them, are some significant shifts within cybecrime. For example, a long term cybercrime opponent, Neil Campbell on recently retiring stated:

“What we have seen – and this has been inevitable and inexorable – is a trend for governments [to be] heavily involved in espionage, as best as I can tell … And certainly if it is not governments, it is large groups of very well organised people looking… to gain an advantage by stealing intellectual property and information relating to ongoing trade negotiations or contractual negotiations between companies.”

 This trend has some evidence behind it with the increasing reports of data hacks of governments and corporations, with the caveat that it’s not entirely clear if this is an increase in reporting or an increase in a type of attack. If it is a trend then it has some significant meaning, in particular it will drive up the complexity of cybercrime with the previously fairly rare ‘zero day’ exploits (that is software weaknesses that had never before been seen being used to exploit systems) becoming more common. This connects to another long term trend in cracking involving the increasing complexity of attacks and the constant ‘peer education’ that crackers conduct, and will lead to a faster rise in the complexity of attacks as zero day exploits are learned, passed around and, in the end, automated. If there are more governments or large scale organisations, including established crime organisations drawn to the net by online gambling, moving into generating exploits then we are in the middle of a significant shift in the cybercrime arms race, one in which the complexity of attacks is likely to rise quickly.

Following trends in digital culture means taking account of the fast pace of technological change and paying attention to the ‘big picture’ changes, sometimes of epochal significance, but it also means refusing to be dazzled by either and pulling them into an understanding of trends that are both everyday and epochal

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Masters of FUD

Security on the internet has recently climbed back up the agenda. A large and expensive conference in London early this week saw Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, William Hague, to name just sme of the biggest names, all discussing the openness of the internet and related security concerns. It was in some ways encouraging to hear those such as Hague and British Prime Minister David Cameron acknowledging the importance of an open internet, but such assertions still sit within deep concerns about online activity.

Just before this conference opened, the Director of the UK’s communications intelligence agency, GCHQ stated that the UK had been subject to a ‘disturbing’ number of cyberattacks. UK Foreign Secretary Hague used the same language to call the number of e-crimes and attacks on government and industry disturbing. This is a difficult area prone to heavy handed and alarmist claims, but in which there is also a difficult problem. It is important that this debate begins to be based strongly on clear evidence or it is likely to lead to shifts in legislation and internet regulation more for geo-political advantage than to protect citizens of nations. Let me give two sides of the evidence coin with a bad example and then what seems to me to be exemplary for our future.

The bad example is the early 2011 report on cybercrime in the UK which led with claim that the cost of cybercrime in the UK is £27 billion a year.  A nice exact figure, easy to fit into a good headline and a lot of headlines were duly received. Where did the figure come from? They describe their methodology in this way:

“Our assessments are, necessarily, based on estimates and assumptions rather than specific examples of cyber crime, or from data of a classified or commercially-sensitive origin. We have drawn instead on information in the public domain, supplemented by the tremendous knowledge of numerous cyber security, business, law enforcement and economics experts from a range of public and private-sector organisations.”

Only one source for the ‘information in the public domain’ is given, a 2006 report on identity theft that itself includes few clear numbers, all the rest of the figures are estimates. They estimate (that is, they guess) all of the claimed cost of intellectual property damage and of industrial espionage and the majority of data on individual cybercrimes. In effect the vast majority of the £27billion comes from the best guesses of the report writers, informed by the best guesses of those they spoke to. Who wrote the report? Detica, a subsidiary of arms company BAE who offer cybersecurity products, something no doubt government, corporations and individuals might be more interested in having read about the £27 billion a year in cybercrime.

Contrast this tangle of astonishingly poor methodology with the work of the Citizen Lab, who carefully outline and track attacks. Reports are full of evidence they have gathered and there is a commitment to carefully presenting any findings. This sometimes also produces an alaarming view of the world (see the report into cyberespionage Shadows in the Cloud ) but one at least with a solid basis in evidence and a critical attitude to the information public policy in relation to the internet should be based on.

FUD, fear, uncertainty and doubt, is a well known strategy of influencing public opinion with exaggerated and scaremongering stories. Far too many approaches to cybercrime or cyberwar or cyberespionage are the next generation of FUD.

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Anonymity has become a focus in digital culture, again. The stakes are usually thought of as being a kind of triangle between anonymity, authenticity and responsibility.

Authenticity is articulated in the difference between Facebook Marketing Director Randi Zuckerberg’s argument that online and real life identity should be linked to because people ‘behave better’ when they are linked and 4chan founder Christopher Poole/moot’s response that anonymity allows authenticity. Poole/moot here used the striking phrase that he believed in ‘content over creator’.

Another example, is that Google+ began by imposing a requirement for real names, but very recently announced pseudonyms or handles would be allowed in the future. These ideas are also not that different to ideas about the triangle of anonymity, authenticity and responsibility outside digital contexts. When Julian Assange appeared in London wearing a V for Vendetta Guy Fawkes mask the police forced him to remove it. Speaking soon after he contrasted the lack of anonymity for individuals, like himself trying to wear a mask, with the anonymity banks are allowed. The irresponsibility of banks, perhaps in relation to tax havens and tax avoidance, can be hidden behind their anonymity.

In these examples what is posed is the question of what makes someone produce the thoughts that most closely correspond to what they think, What gives greater authenticity; having to link your online actions to a real world identity? Or being able to leave that identity behind?

What is somewhat missed in this debate is what online anonymity means, because anonymity in the sense of not being able to connect an online and offline identity is not the only issue. Rather in addition to such a disconnection, being online means being able to swap and spoof online-identity markers. To what extent can any identity marker be trusted in online life? Whether it’s a pseudonym in a forum or social media site, or an email address or twitter name; most internet-dependant identity markers can not only be multiplied but are also spoofable and hackable.

This means that those wanting to outlaw a disconnection between online and offline identities must do two things. First, connect the online reliably to the offline. Models for this clearly exist, for example authentication of an offline identity is required for setting up an account on the Chinese equivalent of twitter. Second, each offline identity can only be allowed one online identity. Without the second step blurring identity remains possible online and the fundamental role of anonymity online will remain.

Both steps look draconian and authoritarian. They not only undercut the dynamism of digital cultures but they implement some of the worst surveillance possibilities that the internet’s architecture offers. Moreover, they decide in public policy ways that anonymity is really not authenticity, which is a claim that remains open to fervent debate.

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