The New Barbarians: The Postcolonial Hacker in the Age of Globalization (MLA 2015)

The following is a lightly edited version of the talk I gave at MLA 2015 in Vancouver, BC as part of the Postcolonial Digital Humanities: Praxis panel. A Storify of the full panel twitter stream (hashtag #mla15 #s14) can be found here.

The New Barbarians: The Postcolonial Hacker in the Age of Globalization

The new barbarians destroy with an affirmative violence and trace new paths of life through their own material existence.
–Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri

How do I relate myself — hypocrite lecterur! — mon semblable mon frère! — when I ambivalently occupy the place of ‘barbaric transmission’ which is also the negative space of civilization?
–Homi K. Bhabha

Whatever code we hack, be it programming language, poetic language, math or music, curves or colourings, we create the possibility of new things entering the world. Not always great things, or even good things, but new things. In art, in science, in philosophy and culture … there are hackers hacking the new out of the old.
— McKenzi Wark

Homi K. Bhabha opens his 2006 introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth with a question that any contemporary reader of Fanon must ask: “what might be saved from Fanon’s ethics and politics of decolonization to help us reflect on globalization in our sense of the term?” (xi). The answer, of course, is much, and Bhabha articulates those points of continued importance by emphasizing the way in which the cold war imposed a second Manichaean conflict for nations emerging from colonial rule. The political tug-of-war between the United States and Soviet Russia made the realization of a Third World a “project of futurity conditional upon being freed from the ‘univocal choice’ presented by the cold war” (xvii). As such, Bhabha argues that “Fanon’s work provides a genealogy for globalization that reaches back to the complex problems of decolonization” (xv).

I would like to extend Bhabha’s reflection on how the work of anti-colonial theorists and activists inform our present moment of neoliberal globalization by considering them in the context of present-day acts of digital political action, more commonly known as “hacktivism,” a portmanteau of hack (in the computer sense) and activism. I want to begin by recovering this hackneyed term (my apologies for the pun) from the Guy Fawkes masks and internet trolls lurking on 4chan1 by first exploring the origins of this term in western hacker traditions, second by contextualizing the rise of hacktivism with the already extant but largely unknown digital political action happening in the global south, and then finally considering some of the challenges and opportunities those histories raise for a Postcolonial Digital Humanities praxis.

Cult of the Dead Cow

The Cult of the Dead Cow

The origin of the term “hacktivism” is contested and somewhat shrouded in hacker lore, but most accounts credit its origin to a member of the hacker group Cult of the Dead Cow (cDc) known only by his/her alias “Omega.”

"Mysterious" Omega - originator of "hacktivism"

“Mysterious” Omega – coiner of “hacktivism”

(As an aside, can we agree that coining hacker collective names has become something of a lost art? “Lizard Squad”? “Guardians of Peace”? All pale compared to “Cult of the Dead Cow.”) While cDc had no political aims as such, in the late ’90s Omega and a few others became alarmed at the rising tide of state censorship of the internet–most recognizable in the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” but observable even in countries that espoused principles of freedom and openness. This subgroup dubbed themselves “Hacktivismo” and announced themselves saying “Hacktivismo is a special operations group sponsored by the CULT OF THE DEAD COW (cDc). We view access to information as a basic human right. We are also interested in keeping the Internet free of state sponsored censorship and corporate chicanery so all opinions can be heard.” Shortly thereafter the group crafted a declaration articulating their values, principles, and why they saw the necessity to actively subvert state efforts to control information shared over digital networks. To give the declaration at least the patina of authority, the authors specifically cited Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Hacktivismo Declaration

The Hacktivismo Declaration

Internet manifestos proclaiming that “information just wants to be free” in one form or another are dime-a-dozen, but what distinguished Hacktivismo was their willingness to develop tools for dissidents in any country, the US, China, Cuba, Iran, etc., to actively subvert state controls over the flow of information. That is to say, to actively defend their beliefs about state censorship and through their various projects, empower others to do so as well.

I want to draw a line, however dotted, between the efforts of groups such as Hacktivismo to resist the forms of control deeply imbedded in the technology of the internet (what Alexander Galloway calls “Protocol”) and the centrality of access to information in anti-colonial efforts. In the chapter “On Violence” in The Wretched of the Earth, Fanon emphasizes this centrality in his famous assertion that “The colonized, underdeveloped man is today a political creature in the most global sense” (40). This distinction as a global political creature was made possible because the “colonized man” had invested in transistor radios to keep tabs on which national leader was being propped up or deposed by CIA or KGB agents. The information gleaned from these precursor wireless networks allowed the colonized from Laos, to the Congo, to Nigeria, to Algeria to discern the true intent of the cold war powers, despite the counter-information propaganda being distributed on either side. The radio, purchased at the expense of other necessities, served as a defense against the informatic violence of both colonial and cold war powers. This understanding of information as violence (of which I have more to say in a longer form of this talk) once again connects the anti-colonial movement with present-day hacktivism. Hacktivismo emphasize this point in their declaration, writing: “State sponsored censorship of the internet is a serious form of organized and systematic violence against citizens, is intended to generate confusion and xenophobia, and is a reprehensible violation of trust” (my emphasis).

If the origins of hacktivism as a practice and a term are obscured by the frequently trivial practices of groups like Lizard Squad who took down the Playstation Network over Christmas, disappointing eager video game enthusiasts everywhere but otherwise accomplishing nothing, then the history of politically focused hackers in the global south is nearly blotted out entirely. While the role of the hacker group Anonymous in keeping Twitter feeds open during the Arab Spring is worth noting (though not exaggerating, as was originally the case), there is in fact a digital political action tradition in countries like Turkey and Iran that precedes the term hacktivism and the efforts of Hacktivismo. Perhaps the most prolific and visible of these groups is the Marxist-Leninist Turkish group known as “Redhack.”

Turkey's Redhack hacktivist group

Turkey’s Redhack hacktivist group

Established in 1997, two years before Hacktivismo, Redhack espouses an unapologetic socialist agenda as what they see as a corrective to the current government of President Erdoğan. While they tend to take themselves more seriously than their western counterparts, they still exhibit the playful irreverence that in many cases defines hacktivist culture, as you can see in their adoption of Papa Smurf as their preferred icon.

Papa Smurf as Marxist Hacker

Papa Smurf as Marxist Hacker

What notoriety Redhack has generated beyond Turkey’s borders came from their participation in the 2013 Gezi park protests. It was widely reported at the time that the Turkish government tried to block Twitter in an effort to isolate the protestors and limit their ability to generate solidarity with the rest of the country. Those efforts quickly failed as Redhack and others circumvented the government’s attempts at censorship by offering free low bandwidth wi-fi services and by finding alternative routes through the internet to the outside world. Redhack also invited anyone afraid of being arrested for comments made on social media to tweet the hashtag #redhacktarafindanhakclenik (“#wewerehackedbyredhack”), essentially muddying the legal waters for any subsequent prosecutions. Redhack’s efforts were among those which prompted President Erdoğan’s infamous declaration that Twitter was “a menace.” Other hacks have include hacking into the public utility company and deleting millions of dollars of worth of electric bills in protest over environmental concerns, hacking police servers to reveal secret informants and defacing websites to expose government or corporate duplicity and corruption.

Redhack defaces government webpages after being designated a terrorist group

Redhack defaces government webpages after being designated a terrorist group

For their efforts Redhack has been labeled a terrorist organization by the Turkish government, a labeling western governments and corporations have gone along with all too readily, causing Twitter to shut down the various “official” Redhack twitter accounts.

With these obscure or alternative histories of hacktivism in mind, let me turn to focus of this panel and ask: how does hacktivism intersects with Postcolonial Digital Humanities praxis? I would offer two primary points of departure: one literary and the other DH focused.

First, as I look at the literature of the moment, I see a literary trope forming around the character I want to call the “Postcolonial Hacker.” Such characters can be found in fictional texts such as Hari Kunzru’s Transmission, Lauren Beuke’s Moxyland, and Teddy Wayne’s Kapitoil. We can also observe the figure in non-fiction works, such as Vikram Chandra’s recent Geek Subline: The Beauty of Code, the Code of Beauty. And, of course, in television and film, as in seen in the character Neal Sampat played by Dev Patel in the HBO series The Newsroom, where he functions as a virtual stand-in for Edward Snowden.

Neal Sampat: South Asian racial stereotype, or "postcolonial hacker"?

“I shut it down with my phone.”

To the practice of reading and teaching postcolonial literature of the 21st century, I would ask, how do we read this figure? How do we contextualize him or her in relationship to the history of anti-colonial resistance? How does their racial and cultural background either justify or excuse their behavior? The postcolonial hacker as I conceive him or her is not simply an adept computer nerd from outside the developed West. Rather, this figure destabilizes the systems upon which our globalized, technologically constructed world functions. In their book Empire, Hardt and Negri posit the idea of a “new barbarian,” one who, as cited in the epigraph above, “destroy[s] with an affirmative violence and trace[s] new paths of life through their own material existence” (215). Their use of “barbarian” here is in the context of the Roman empire and the Germanic tribes who, violent though they were, opened spaces of possibility in a system that seemed as all-dominating then as globalized neoliberalism does to us today. As I have tried to demonstrate with the examples of Hacktivismo and Redhack, hacktivists broadly can be seen as these new barbarians, exposing information governments seek to hide, inflicting vigilante justice on those who offend their values of openness and transparency, and yes, running roughshod, barbarian-like, over those who might inadvertently get in their way2. What the postcolonial hacker does in addition to the above, however, is to help us link the long history of colonialism with our contemporary moment. By making this link to the past visible, the postcolonial hacker allows us to follow Bhabha’s injunction to read Fanon (and other anti-colonial writers) “palimpsestically” (xvi). That is, to read Fanon in terms of the overlaid pasts, presents and futures of both colonizer and colonized geographies, drawing a visible line from the globalized present to the colonial past.

In closing let me leave you with my second point of departure, which is to ask, how might hacktivism be considered a critical practice? “Making” or building things with code is recognized as a core DH practice (though not the only DH practice). What possibilities exist, then, for integrating hacktivist tools and techniques into our digital present as we study and teach the works of anti-colonial writers like Fanon? What are the transistor radios of our day? What are the avenues of transmitting knowledge that might open new spaces and new possibilities in an era when academic freedom is consistently threatened? What is at stake if we as digital humanists adopt hacktivist practices in our research and teaching? And perhaps more importantly, what is at stake if we do not?


[1] I don’t mean to trivialize the work of Anonymous and well-known hacktivists such as Edward Snowden, but I do want to decenter their narratives in order to demonstrate an older and more diverse hacktivist tradition. For some of the best work on Anonymous, see Gabriella Coleman’s new monograph, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous.

[2] See Adrian Chen’s critique of Anonymous’s practices in his article in The Nation: “The Truth About Anonymous’s Activism: A look behind the mask reveals a naïve techno-utopianism.” This topic requires a more sustained argument, but while it is essential that we guard against “techno-utopianism” as Chen calls it (or what Evgeny Morozov calls “technological solutionism”), to simply cede the digital realm to state or corporate control seems nihilistic. What is clear is that successful activism must now take place both online and in the physical world to be effective, though, as Chen’s article points out, doing so can pose a significant challenge.

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. “Forward: Framing Fanon.” The Wretched of the Earth. By Frantz Fanon. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.

Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth. Trans. Richard Philcox. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.


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