silhouette of a man standing alone.

“Have you been on Yik Yak?”

My graduate student friends can attest to the fact that I ask this question of almost everyone at some point. Sometimes more than once, like when you’re excited about something and can’t help but tell the story over and over again to the same audience. Annoying, I know, and I’m sorry to all my friends.

But it’s just because I find Yik Yak absolutely fascinating. I’m drawn to it because, for at least some users, it serves as a sort of technologically cultivated hive-mind therapy session. For the uninitiated, Yik Yak is an anonymous social media app available on Android or iOS mobile devices. Users can post, vote on, and publicly reply to “yaks.” Users collect “Yakarma” based on how many votes their yaks receive and how often they vote on other yaks. Once a post receives more than five down votes it is removed. Rather than following other users or adding friends, Yik Yak shows posts from others within a ten-mile radius of your location, so when you visit the Yik Yak stream you are seeing the anonymous posts of other users in your area. As such, it is particularly popular among college students—a place to gripe about classes you hate, snoring roommates, bad cafeteria food, and attractive people that won’t give you the time of day. Of course, it’s also a place for inside jokes and celebrating particularly rowdy parties, but to be frank, there’s a lot of complaining. more...


On January 9th, people donning the symbols of Anonymous promised a “massive reaction” to the shooting deaths of over a dozen people in Paris. Posted to YouTube and Pastebin under the hashtag #OpCharlieHebdo, Anonymous proclaimed, “It’s obvious that some people don’t want, in a free world, this sacrosanct right to express in any way one’s opinions. Anonymous has always fought for the freedom of speech, and will never let this right besmirched [sic] by obscurantism and mysticism.” Obviously what happened in Paris was a despicable act and I have little sympathy for the perpetrators but their actions weren’t random. What happened in Paris is the beginning of a fight between fanatics who hold polar opposite views on free speech and the battle lines being drawn are dangerously close to the ones that outline the War on Terror.  more...


It is pretty easy to mistake most technologies as politically neutral. For example, there is nothing inherently radical or conservative about a hammer. Washing machines don’t necessarily impose capitalism on whoever uses one, and televisions have nothing to do with communism. You might hear about communism through television, and there is certainly no shortage of politically motivated programming out there, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that says the technology itself has a certain kind of politics. This sort of thinking (combined with other everyday non-actions) is what philosopher of technology Langdon Winner (@langdonw) calls technological somnambulism: the tendency of most people to, “willingly sleepwalk through the process of reconstituting the conditions of human existence.” It is difficult to see the politics in technology because those politics are so pervasive. The fact that technological artifacts have politics is kind of like Call Me Maybe, once you’re exposed, it is hard to get it out of your head. more...

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The cognitive linguist George Lakoff wants liberals to stop thinking like enlightenment scholars and start thinking about appeals to the “cognitive unconscious.” He asks that progressives “embrace a deep rationality that can take account of, and advantage of, a mind that is largely unconscious, embodied, emotional, empathetic, metaphorical, and only partially universal. A New Enlightenment would not abandon reason, but rather understand that we are using real reason– embodied reason, reason shaped by our bodies and brains and interactions in the real world, reason incorporation emotion, structured by frames and metaphors anad images and symbols, with conscious though shaped by the vast and invisible realm of neural circuitry not accessible to the conscious.” That quote comes from his 2008 book The Political Mind and –regardless of your political affiliation– it is certainly worth a read. Others appeal to your “embodied reason” all the time and, when they do it right, their conclusions just feel right. This is how, according to Lakoff, Republicans are so good at getting Americans to vote against their interests. Appeal to one’s sense of self-preservation, individuality, and fear of change and you have a voter that is willing to cut their own Medicare funding. I generally agree with Lakoff’s conclusions, but I do not think Republicans are the masters of this art. Internet pirates, the likes of Kim Dotcom, Gottfrid “Anakata” Svartholm, and even Julian Assange, state their cases and appeal directly to our cognitive unconsciouses better than any neocon ever could. more...

This is part of a series of posts highlighting the Theorizing the Web conference, April 14th, 2012 at the University of Maryland (inside the D.C. beltway). It was originally posted on 4.2.12 and was updated to include video on 7.11.12. See the conference website for

Any study of politics is going to be fundamentally about power, and about who is free to exercise it and how: How policy is made, how the public sphere is constituted and how boundary lines are drawn around it, who has a voice and who is excluded from

Presider: Sarah Wanenchak

discussion or consideration, who is central and who is marginalized. By the same token, the study of contentious politics – as it focuses on dissent and protest – is fundamentally about how those who have been marginalized, denied a voice, and left without power act to seize the things that have been denied them: How activist communities form and frame themselves, how their objectives and tactics change over time, how they seek entry into the public sphere and engage the actors they find there, how the voiceless find a voice and what they use it to say. Moreover, it’s about what is visible and recognized: How we understand political action in light of what’s gone before and what might come in the future.

All of this would be complex enough without communications technology, and what this panel highlights is how technology changes and enriches this already-complicated picture. Communications technology has the potential to change what we understand by “public sphere” and how we construct meanings around events, as well as how different collective actors organize and react to each other. If knowledge and information are vital to the development of a social movement, then understanding how knowledge and information flow is additionally vital.

Given recent and ongoing global protest movements, the intersection of technology and protest is a subject both broad and deep. Rather than attempt to capture all aspects of it, the excellent papers in this panel call attention to more tightly focused corners of the political picture, and in so doing, illuminate further potential avenues for research and exploration. Additionally, the geographical and cultural focus of this panel is truly diverse, allowing us to push back a bit against the American-and-Eurocentric bias that appears too often in research of this kind.

Titles and abstracts are after the cut.


This xkcd comic humorously highlights a seeming tension in  WikiLeaks’ so-called “anti-secrecy agenda:” While secrecy facilitates the systemic abuses of institutional power that WikiLeaks opposes, it also protects extra-institutional actors working to disrupt conspiracies (i.e., uneven distributions of information) that benefit the few at the expense of the many. However, as I discuss a recent Cyborgology post and a chapter (co-authored with Nathan Jurgenson) for a forthcoming WikiLeaks reader, Julian Assange’s approach to secrecy is far more sophisticated than just unconditional opposition. For example, he explains in a 2010 TIME interview:

secrecy is important for many things but shouldn’t be used to cover up abuses, which leads us to the question of who decides and who is responsible. It shouldn’t really be that people are thinking about: Should something be secret? I would rather it be thought: Who has a responsibility to keep certain things secret? And, who has a responsibility to bring matters to the public? And those responsibilities fall on different players. And it is our responsibility to bring matters to the public.

Assange is saying that secrecy is not a problem in and of itself; in fact, society generally benefits when individuals and extra-institutional actors are able to maintain some level of secrecy. Secrecy only become a problem when it occurs in institutional contexts, because institutions have an intrinsic tendency to control information in order to benefit insiders. This conspiratorial nature of institutions is what WikiLeaks truly opposes, and enforced transparency (i.e., leaking) is merely a tactic in that struggle. For this reason, WikiLeaks and Anonymous (the extra-institutional Internet community and hacker collective) are allies, despite the superficial tension highlighted in this comic.

Julian Assange, the notorious founder and director of WikiLeaks, is many things to many people: hero, terrorist, figurehead, megalomaniac. What is it about Assange that makes him both so resonant and so divisive in our culture? What, exactly, does Assange stand for? In this post, I explore two possible frameworks for understanding Assange and, more broadly, the WikiLeaks agenda. These frameworks are: cyber-libertarianism and cyber-anarchism.

First, of course, we have to define these two terms. Cyber-libertarianism is a well-established political ideology that has its roots equally in the Internet’s early hacker culture and in American libertarianism. From hacker culture, it inherited a general antagonism to any form of regulation, censorship, or other barrier that might stand in the way of “free” (i.e., unhindered) access of the World Wide Web. From American libertarianism it inherited a general belief that voluntary associations are more effective in promoting freedom than government (the US Libertarian Party‘s motto is “maximum freedom, minimum government”). American libertarianism is distinct from other incarnations of libertarianism in that tends to celebrate the market and private business over co-opts or other modes of collective organization. In this sense, American libertarianism is deeply pro-capitalist. Thus, when we hear the slogan “information wants to be” that is widely associated with cyber-libertarianism, we should not read it as meaning  gratis (i.e., zero price); rather, we should read it as meaning libre (without obstacles or restrictions). This is important because the latter interpretation is compatible with free market economics, unlike the former.

Cyber-anarchism is a far less widely used term. In practice, commentators often fail to distinguish between cyber-anarchism and cyber-libertarianism. However, there are subtle distinctions between the two. Anarchism aims at the abolition of hierarchy. Like libertarians, anarchists have a strong skepticism of government, particularly government’s exclusive claim to use force against other actors. Yet, while libertarians tend to focus on the market as a mechanism for rewarding individual achievement, anarchists tend to see it as means for perpetuating inequality. Thus, cyber-anarchists tend to be as much against private consolidation of Internet infrastructure as they are against government interference. While cyber-libertarians have, historically, viewed the Internet as an unregulated space where good ideas and the most clever entrepreneurs are free to rise to the top, cyber-anarchists see the Internet as a means of working around and, ultimately, tearing down old hierarchies. Thus, what differentiates cyber-anarchist from cyber-libertarians, then, is that cyber-libertarians embrace fluid, meritocratic hierarchies (which are believed to be best served by markets), while anarchists are distrustful of all hierarchies. This would explain while libertarians tend to organize into conventional political parties, while the notion of an anarchist party seems almost oxymoronic. Another way to understand this difference is in how each group defines freedom: Freedom for libertarians is freedom to individually prosper, while freedom for anarchists is freedom from systemic inequalities. more...

628x471Why is it that authorities are so quick to fear, blame and entirely eliminate electronic communications in the face of unpredictable gatherings of people?

Hosni Mubarak pulled the plug on the Internet during the Egyptian uprising in an attempt to do away with the protesting masses. After the recent riots in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister David Cameron blamed social media and pondered shutting down electronic communications. And, most recently, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (or BART) subway system turned off mobile coverage because there were rumors of protest. Authorities large and small across the globe are worried about people being more connected than ever.

Putting aside the important issue of free speech, I want to ask why BART officials feel that communication technologies are making people less safe in times of confusion? Is it part of a larger knee-jerk reaction to not understand social media and thus be scared of it? Ultimately, disrupting communications in a time of potential crisis to make people more safe is a fallacy; it does just the opposite.


Most of us here at Cyborgology have written at least one post about augmented warfare and revolution. I suggested that the panopticon has moved to the clouds, and PJ warns that we may soon see it descend into a fog. In the wake of the Arab Spring, we have all commented on what it means to have an augmented revolution (also here, here, and here). The Department of Defense is well aware of this global trend, and is dumping lots of money into understanding how to maintain what I will call online superiority. Just as nations fight for ground, air, and sea superiority in a given conflict, they must now maintain a presence in online meeting spaces. Surveillance and intelligence efforts have always been a part of warfare, and monitoring and disrupting information flows has always been a tactical advantage. While previous engagements in informational warfare have been about information exchange, what we see now are efforts to gain online superiority in order to directly disrupt physical, financial, or tactical resources.


The Anonymous Twitter Feed Announcing the NATO Breach


On July 21st, 2011, Anonymous—the 4chan-associated hacker collective with a cyber-libertarian bent—announced that they had breached NATO’s secure database and retrieved roughly a gigabyte of restricted data.  To verify their claim, Anonymous posted a “NATO restricted” document to Twitter.  Interestingly, Anonymous has been very cautious in leaking the documents it has obtained, publicly declaring that it would be “irresponsible” to publish most of it.  Much of what has be published is “Redacted, for sanity.” more...