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Anonymous, Australia, and the Inevitable Fall of the Nation-State

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There is always a point at which the terrorist ceases to manipulate the media gestalt. A point at which the violence may well escalate, but beyond which the terrorist has become symptomatic of the media gestalt itself. Terrorism as we ordinarily understand it is inately media-related. The Panther Moderns differ from other terrorists precisely in their degree of self-consciousness, in their awareness of the extent to which media divorce the act of terrorism from the original sociopolitical intent...

- William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984

A phenomenon of great importance will not necessarily receive the attention it merits, and thus we may conclude that there is perhaps something going on this very instant to which we ought to be paying attention if we care to know what the future holds for us, in which case we should take a moment to examine what is novel today for signs that it may prove common tomorrow.

Ten years ago it would have been infeasible for tens of thousands of individuals with no physical connection or central leadership to conceive, announce, and implement a massive act of civil disobedience against a significant Western power, crippling a portion of its online infrastructure in the process - and to do all of this in a matter of days, and without anyone involved having to contend with the tear-gas-and-horseback response with which states have traditionally been in the habit of contending with mass action. But such a thing as this is happening today, and having been done once will almost certainly be done again - repeatedly, increasingly, and with potentially significant consequences for the nation-state and implications regarding that which will perhaps someday come to replace it.

In 1984, William Gibson introduced a great deal of what would become the iconography of the internet by way of the future world depicted in his novel Neuromancer. He also described a group of nihilistic young terrorists whose acts were often surrealist in nature and whose specialized common language and behavior had evolved quickly, one of many dramatic youth trends that were forever popping up and disappearing with an unprecedented rapidity facilitated by "cyberspace," a term Gibson invented. A decade later the author described an organization called the Republic of Desire, itself made up largely of proficient internet users in the habit of conducting destructive pranks both for amusement and reasons more practical, and occasionally even ideological.

That some great array of individuals would come to unite via the advent of the internet and thus work in concert against a shared antagonist - perhaps a hated social convention or aesthetic sensibility - was not only predictable, but predicted. And now it is happening, most noticeably in the form of the ongoing denial of service (DDOS) attacks and other actions being taken against websites of the Australian government by the semi-absurdist semi-organization known as Anonymous, itself an outgrowth of the popular image board 4chan along with an interlocking directorate of associated internet entities.

The attacks in question, in which thousands of computer users work in concert to overload a given website with requests for information and thereby shut it down for the duration, are prompted by a recent spate of moves on the part of the Australian government to censor and otherwise regulate content available to its citizens via the internet, an effort in which the Aussie state has been unusually enthusiastic relative to most of its Western counterparts. Anonymous' current campaign is the second of its kind; the first, in 2008, targeted the Church of Scientology with DDOS attacks, a series of in-the-flesh protests outside Scientology centers worldwide, the theft and dissemination of sensitive documents, and a variety of other steps - all coordinated, or not, in a decentralized fashion that provides for no names, ranks, or central direction.

The specifics of this particular case have already been described with varying levels of accuracy by some of the more astute media outlets ranging from Wired to the BBC. Some of the details expressed regarding Anonymous will be wrong, as usual, but the details matter little as nothing is likely to come of this incident, whereas the implications for the future defy overstatement. Having taken a long interest in the subculture from which Anonymous is derived and the new communicative structures that make it possible, I am now certain that this phenomenon is among the most important and under-reported social developments to have occurred in decades, and that the development in question promises to threaten the institution of the nation-state and perhaps even someday replace it as the world's most fundamental and relevant method of human organization. Over the next week or so, I will make this case more formally.

[Cross-posted from True/Slant]

Update: Friday 6:30 EST

I was contacted last night by a person whom I've verified to have been the member of Anonymous who effectively launched the 2008 campaign against the Church of Scientology by posting the now-infamous statement of purpose video, which was eventually viewed nearly four million times and which was followed by Project Chanology. The individual has offered to grant me an interview:

We are very happy with the article you wrote. I spent a lot of time working on press for the titstorm guys over the last few days. Sending out the big press release, answering and interviewing with abc, bbc, and so on. Its been busy. It is nice when someone actually gets Anonymous. So few journalists do.

What a sweet thing to say! At any rate, I'll post the interview after it's been conducted. I find that this works better than posting them before they've been conducted. It's an old journalism trick.

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