The Posthuman Amalgam: Anonymous and Collective Identity

 

anonymous

The innovation of the World Wide Web ushered in a new era of global connectivity and unprecedented access to knowledge, birthing what’s been come to be known as the “Information Age”. This is the era of the posthuman, “an amalgam, a collection of heterogeneous components, a material-informational entity whose boundaries undergo continuous construction and reconstruction”, who mirrors the state of flux and evolution of the technology it interacts with in how it is “a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self” (Hayles 3, Haraway). As a result, “the dichotomies between mind and body…public and private…are all in question ideologically”, and thus, the posthuman can not be easily categorized, nor can its path be easily plotted (Haraway). However, a stark example of the posthuman’s paradoxically disparate and collective identity can be found in the online hacktivist “group”, Anonymous, whose power comes from a communal hive-mind harnessing of individual agency. Anonymous is a particularly potent example of realized posthuman agency, which anticipates a future based around social collectivity and the challenging (if not the disintegration) of hierarchical control. Through their antics, their “ops”, and their fluidly changing objectives, Anonymous and their associated hacktivist brethren have introduced a toxin in the water of social structures—or an antidote, depending on how you perceive them.

Gabriella Coleman details the origins of Anonymous in her book Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy, and finds striking similarities between the trolling-centric ethos of the group and the Trickster archetype found in myth throughout the world. She notes how “tricksters are united by a few characteristics, such as the burning desire to defy or defile rules, norms, and laws”, and in this regard, Anonymous certainly fits the bill (Coleman 34). But what’s missing here is the simultaneous—and perhaps parallel—connection to the posthuman, both in their organizational structure (or lack thereof) as well as their integration with and reliance on digitized tools. After all, a group like Anonymous, composed of disparate identities that are never truly sure who is on the other side of the conversation, is necessarily facilitated and motivated by interacting with cryptotechnology. Each “member” is an enigma, as a name means little online, and even less in a group whose core tenet is the lack of distinguishable identity. In line with the posthuman view that “configures human being so that it can be seamlessly articulated with intelligent machines” where “there are no essential differences…between bodily existence and computer simulation”, Anonymous is far more than a simplistically minded bunch of hacker/hacktivists, and instead can be seen more complexly as a posthuman social organism, rife with internal debate and raw democratic action (Hayles 2-3). Superficially, anyone who interacts regularly with technology in the modern age could be said to be posthuman. But in the case of Anonymous, there is an implicit reliance on that technology for its actions to be planned and carried out, and even for the existence of the group in general. As Coleman notes:

 

We find Anonymous in any instant to be an aggregate sack of flesh—meshed together by wires, transistors, and wi-fi signals—replete with miles of tubes pumping blood, pounds of viscera filled with vital fluids, and array of live signaling wires, propped up by a skeletal structure with muscular pistons fastened to it, and ruled from a cavernous dome holding a restless control enter, the analog of the fabulously grotesque and chaotically precise systems that, if picked apart, become what we call people. (115)

While perhaps somewhat verbose, the connection here is clear—the system that Anonymous has created for themselves acts is an extension of the systems of each member, a literal example of how “biological organisms have become biotic systems” (Haraway). Haraway further notes how the “cyborg” (or posthuman), “is resolutely committed to partiality, irony, intimacy, and perversity”, and here we find a rather uncanny similarity between posthumans and internet trolls, who birthed Anonymous in the obscenity-laden boards of 4chan, and whom Coleman refers to again and again by their often explicit and subversive brand of humor (Haraway, emphasis mine). Whether troll, trickster, or posthuman-cyborg, Anonymous is perfunctorily skilled at executing its actions in the name of chaotic amusement, and an underlying (if not often primary) motivating factor for the group’s earliest undertakings was how those actions could result in the most “lull”.

Yet as the group has evolved over the last few years, this kind of merry prankster mentality is often at odds with their growing focus on activism, yet paradoxically intertwined with it. And paradoxes and contradictions are right at home in Anonymous, where concrete ideologies are a near impossibility, given the “continuous construction and reconstruction” Hayles assigns to posthumans. As one Anon remarks, “most of us are humor-driven”, often at odds with “other overly serious entities claiming the [Anonymous] name”, and resultantly, “animosity and downright wars between Anonymous-claiming entities [are] right in line with the original internet-based projects cared out by Anons” (Coleman 49). Since there is no membership requirement for Anonymous, no ideological test to “join”, anyone is allowed use of the moniker and its associated iconography—which inevitably leads to infighting. Yet somehow this nebulous pool of disparate causes and entities never manages to completely fracture, instead self-correcting by enabling those too disenfranchised with difference to leave voluntarily. This kind of spectral variance in Anons comes from the merging of endless dualisms, that, again fuse into paradoxes that somehow manage to continue operating: white/black hacker, anarchist/patriot, troll/civil crusader, etc.; creating moments of resistance and absorption in unpredictable cycles. If we take these dualisms to their extreme, they could be viewed in terms of ones and zeroes in the way a computer understands commands, where both the positive and negative, plus and minus converge into a coherent whole capable of action. But transcending this kind of either/or duality, Anonymous is far more chaotic and spontaneous in both their social construction and their evolution, where individuality is absorbed by the posthuman’s “collective heterogeneous quality”, which “implies a distributed cognition located in disparate parts that may be in only tenuous communication with one another” (Hayles 3-4). Indeed, the only “known” members of Anonymous are the ones who have been spotlighted by the media during arrests and prosecutions, and thus their identities are and can only be known once they have ceased connection with the group at large, allowing Anonymous to self correct in the face of individualism.

Ironically, or perhaps concurrently, while information about one another is limited or nonexistent in Anonymous, during their strategic operations, “information is the weapon” (The Hacker Wars). Whether by leaking classified documents, drawing attention to corporations or governments by spotlighting censorship or the denial of free speech, Anonymous understands that “information properly understood and properly used in an honest way is more effective than anything else in the world” (The Hacker Wars). This potential of information is vividly evidenced by the disparity between massively powerful intelligence agencies and common civilians, seen especially in the Snowden disclosures in 2013 that revealed the all consuming secret dragnet the NSA was enabling on large swaths of the global population. The associated state ideology, that “anything hidden, anything private, anything sovereign is a direct threat to the surveillance state” puts such governmental powers in direct opposition to groups like Anonymous and other hacktivists and whistleblowers, who “embarrass the power elite in a way that boots on the ground can’t…by puncturing the illusion of their power” (The Hacker Wars). As Hayles notes, “It is no accident that the condition of virtuality is most pervasive and advanced where the centers of power are most concentrated”, where future conflicts will be “waged through the techno-sciences of information” (20). Here is the root of the subversive terrorist label that’s been attributed to Anonymous, as they threaten not just websites and personal data, but whole regimes of power. And while it may seem that such adversity is due to the technical wonder of its associated members, in fact much of Anonymous is made up of decidedly non-hackers who somehow still manage to find themselves on an even playing field with the world’s most sophisticated surveillance apparatus in their utilizing of posthuman collectivist tools.

The most well known of these is the DDoS attack (Distributed Denial of Service), where a usually large network of computers are linked to pummel a target website with innumerable requests that can crash the site completely from being accessed. For a group that vehemently defends free speech, a DDoS attack might seem like a paradoxical tactic, since it effectively “silences” the targeted site, and indeed there is often internal debate surrounding its use, owing to the aforementioned contradictions in the group. But it’s important to understand that Anonymous is often politically motivated, and the use of DDoS is akin to widely distributed, digitally-based civil disobedience. Where real-world action in the form of protest under our current surveillance-centric society can be swiftly intercepted by authorities (by being confined to a single physical area), resulting in the possible exposure of individual identities (and therefore place greater scrutiny on those individuals going forward), DDoS is the posthuman counterpart, where a base of likeminded individuals can coordinate from disparate global coordinates to strike at a target en masse—and while risk of being caught or exposed is certainly still a distinct possibility, the sheer numbers possible with DDoS and the fact that it happens in the digital domain make it easier to execute as a collective, embodying the “distributed cognition” of posthuman agency (Hayles 3). This is how digital bodies, acting as one, can make their voices heard with maximum exposure while minimizing permanent damage to systems or third parties, making it a viable form of peaceable posthuman protest.

 

With the current climate of near ubiquitous surveillance of Americans and the greater global population, groups like Anonymous provide an outlet for stifled voices who, had they spoken out publicly, would most likely find themselves on secret watch lists. While often labelled as terrorists in the media and by prominent public figures, Anonymous has more often than not been a force for good, crippling and doxxing (releasing personal information) from child porn sites, retaliating against Scientology’s notorious free speech stifling, helping to identify Chinese cyber attacks, declaring war on ISIS and shuttering associated social media accounts, taking on Kim Jong-un’s dictatorial hold on North Koreans, and even having a significant hand in the Arab Spring uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt (Love). These actions, among many others, illustrate how the posthuman era allows individuals who share the same cause to connect and mobilize like never before. Protected by their anonymity, and bolstered by their ability to rally huge numbers of support when necessary, Anonymous has emerged as enigmatic, unpredictable, and paradoxical, but dedicated and effective in their efforts. While their tactics may not always be legal or publicly approved, the results the group has achieved illustrate that disparate networks of unknowns can bring about massive change and influence whole populations, with far greater potency than would be possible in the physical world alone. An amalgam of shifting identities with contradictory values that are nonetheless able to organize as a collectively cognizant force, Anonymous is one of the faceless faces of posthumanism in our time.


 

Works Cited

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker Hoaxer Whistleblower Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. New York: Verso, 2014. Print.

The Hacker Wars. Dir. Weisman, Vivian. Over Nine Thousand, 2014. Film.

Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto”. 1983. PDF.

Hayles, N. Katherine. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. pp. xi-20. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1999. PDF.

Love, Dylan. “8 Things That Anonymous, The Hacker ‘Terrorist’ Group, Has Done For Good”. Business Insider. 27 April, 2013. Web. 12 Dec, 2015.

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