PRINT December 2014

Ben Vickers

Rendering of 3-D-printable “Liberator” single-shot firearm. Photo: Defense Distributed/Wikicommons.

IF 2013 WAS THE YEAR the Internet lost its innocence, 2014 may be remembered as the year the backlash began. Now, it seems, the hacker body politic has found new resolve in its opposition to the nation-state, deeming it a wholly unacceptable organizational and social form for the aspirations of the twenty-first century—not least because of its colonization of the Internet and insinuation into our everyday lives.

The year commenced in the wake of Edward Snowden’s heartbreaking revelations about the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance program. The gravest of state-orchestrated violations could no longer remain consigned to the official narrative—the facts were laid bare for the world to see in the weeks following Snowden’s security breaches. And the news was perhaps nowhere more powerfully dissected than at the Chaos Communication Congress, one of the world’s largest hacker conclaves, which took place in the Congress Center Hamburg during the last days of December, a time typically reserved for holiday festivities. But in spite of the occasion—the CCC’s thirtieth anniversary—and with more than nine thousand present, there was little cause for celebration. Over the course of four days, the conference continued around the clock. In the basement, hackathons ran without stopping; glued to the screen, people forgot to eat or sleep, while the huge auditoriums on the upper floors hosted an onslaught of despair-inducing talks that went late into the night.

The news couldn’t have been worse. One talk after another detailed the gravity of the violations: Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation condensed the targeting procedures of the NSA into an hour-long tirade; security researchers and hackers Jacob Appelbaum, Claudio Guarnieri, and Morgan Marquis-Boire composed a three-part epic titled “To Protect and Infect: The Militarization of the Internet,” breaking down with brutal technical detail the malignant structures of the surveillance programs PRISM, Boundless Informant, XKeyscore, Turmoil, and QFIRE, as well as the NSA’s fifteen-year data-retention policy. The resulting afterburn reduced Minority Report to a quaint parody of a new collective reality.

And so the message was writ large: Everything is compromised, everything is broken, nothing is safe; since its inception, the Internet has served the state as a secret planetary-scale surveillance system. Happy New Year, 2014.

The crystal-clear precision of the technical briefings and the scale of complexity they revealed competed for effect with Julian Assange’s comedic connectivity problems during his rallying call via Skype for technocratic insurrection on the part of the world’s sysadmins. But when it came to framing the historical moment and its crushing weight, no keynote could touch the sides of Quinn Norton and Eleanor Saitta’s “No Neutral Ground in a Burning World.” Their proclamation issued a historical imperative, a call that ensured everyone was complicit and everyone was implicated:

Now every action that you take and every piece of code that you write has political effects. . . . No one became a geek because they wanted to be at the center of political attention; that just happened. You don’t get to choose what era of history you live in and what that era wants to do with you, and this is a moment when it’s all up for grabs; that’s what it means to say we’re on a burning planet. And what it means to say that we don’t have neutral ground is that you’re at the center of that fire.

Since then, those on the back channels of the Net—those perhaps most heavily affected and existentially scarred by the revelations—have poured gasoline on the fire. The embers of the 1990s rhetoric of cyberstates and pirate utopias are reigniting, signaled by an engineers’ call to arms for the wholesale transformation of systems of exchange, interaction, and governance. Yet these uncompromising visions of the future find themselves deeply embedded in the underbelly of Silicon Valley and, in particular, in an unholy trinity of anarcho-libertarian-capitalist technologies: Bitcoin, the decentralized cryptocurrency that has been rapidly embraced as the next high-risk, high-yield investment vehicle; Dark Wallet, an anonymization application for Bitcoin, developed by Amir Taaki, a British-Iranian anarchist and the initiator of Bitcoin’s first standardization procedures and currency exchange, and an unlikely candidate for Forbes’s 2014 “30 Under 30”; and the first 3-D-printed gun, produced by Defense Distributed, a company led by crypto-anarchist Cody Wilson. The alliance of these latter two endeavors was more or less formally announced during Wilson’s keynote at South by Southwest this past year, and it drew a clear and very public line in the sand for the pair’s vehement antistatist agenda.

During his SXSW talk, Wilson acutely placed such efforts in the context of a generational issue, not “dis-enthusiasm or a distemper for the current mode of power politics . . . [but] a will for the transpolitical . . . [a] thinking past the consensus, capitalist, corporatist mode of organizing society.” Apparently unconcerned with the decentralized guerrilla warfare that might be encouraged by his efforts, Wilson describes the motivation of Defense Distributed as one of narrative spectacle: “Emancipatory political phenomena begin with doing something that the situation deems to be impossible.” The so-called Liberator pistol is intended as a symbolic critique of the pure marketing mantra of 3-D printing and Silicon Valley as the “next industrial revolution,” a media sensation flawlessly executed to ensure that such a revolution not remain a sanitary affair. Thus rendering the 3-D-printing industry’s convenient narrative of progress less legible, the combined efforts of Taaki and Wilson aim to drive a stake into the perception that emergent technologies must inevitably succumb to state or corporate capture.

In July, in Berlin, the Open Knowledge Festival, the world’s largest open-data gathering, chose to announce its initiation into the mainstream with a keynote address from Google’s Eric Hysen, not long after the company’s acquisition of Nest, the makers of “smart” home-automation systems. Hysen used his special audience with the open-data movement to set out an infrastructural vision that he compared, with unironic grandiosity, to the building of the road network in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, casting an invitation to all those present: “Let’s go build roads together.” Calling for an unlikely union between the antiproprietary vanguard and emergent corporatized neostates, Hysen heralded a great coming together of the grandest of global networks into the most intimate of domestic spaces, resulting in an infrastructure capable of shaping and defining a new reality, linking the universe of information to the individualized components of our daily existence.

As the prophetic reports of the RAND Corporation, that beacon of the postwar military-industrial complex, begin to ring true in the first decades of the twenty-first century—signaling a shift from the institution to the state to the marketplace as the dominant organizational forms of our time—networked modes of production and organization have begun to take hold in unexpected and provocative ways. The resulting convergence of surprising alliances, future acquisitions, unanticipated innovations, and geopolitical turmoil indicate that all bets are off.

Bitcoin only solidified its institutional acceptance this year, with the listing of BTC on Bloomberg’s financial indexes and the IRS bestowing its own seal of approval, proclaiming the digital lucre subject to the capital-gains tax. But the best—or worst—is yet to come: Bitcoin’s more ambitious, much scarier brother, the Ethereum project, is scheduled to launch sometime this winter. Echoing the block chain technology pioneered by Bitcoin, which enables nothing less than a new mode of distributed trust and authentication, Ethereum has been designed “to codify, decentralize, secure and trade just about anything: voting, domain names, financial exchanges, crowdfunding, company governance, contracts and agreements of most kind[s], intellectual property, and even smart property.” With the project promising the advent of decentralized autonomous corporations—entities capable of running themselves—it’s no coincidence, perhaps, that Ethereum’s twenty-year-old founder Vitalik Buterin has also been significantly involved in the development of Dark Wallet.

As 2014 comes to a close, we have begun to see clearly that this next generation of information technologies is far from neutral: Any notion of some originary, objective codebase has been burned to the ground, and new alliances have been formed from the ashes. With concerted efforts under way to code, prototype, deploy, and prime adoption of the first iteration of applications explicitly designed to shift the coordinates of what is deemed possible, the conflict zones for the decade ahead have been clearly drawn.

Ben Vickers is the curator of digital at Serpentine Galleries in London and cofounder of The Unmonastery.