Category Archives: Barefoot Into Cyberspace

Tonight! Pick one: utopia/dystopia

Update!: The recording of this event is now available for download.


I’ve already mentioned that I’ll be at the Free Word Centre tonight, chairing the “Which way to techno-utopia?” event. There are still a few tickets going and if you’re in the area, you should come.

That starts at 6:30pm, so I imagine we’ll wind up in time for you to whizz home to catch the first of Adam Curtis’s new three-part documentary on the perils of digital utopianism and the fallacy of the liberating network “All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace“, which airs on BBC2 at 9pm.

Together with Neil Denny, I interviewed Mr Curtis last Friday for Little Atoms. If you didn’t catch the broadcast, the podcast will be up soon. Adam Curtis is someone whose work has shaped mine and whose approach I admire deeply, and it’s been a wrenching experience watching him dismantle the ideology I’ve spent a good part of my life not only believing but promoting. I confronted him about this on Friday, and he was very nice about it, while firmly standing his ground.

Episode two airs next week, and touches on many of the themes I explore in Chapter 3 of Barefoot Into Cyberspace, which regular readers will know is available for free download.

Here’s the trail for tonight’s broadcast:

Why I signed the Wikileaks NDA

Posted today on New Statesman:

I confess I didn’t think too hard before I signed a non-disclosure agreement with WikiLeaks in October 2010. It helped that I wasn’t planning on doing anything to undermine the organisation’s operations, that the penalty mentioned for doing so was a mere £100,000 – and not the £12m detailed in the document released by the New Statesman last week – and that, unlike last week’s document, there was no clause gagging me from speaking about Wikileaks’s own operations. I skim-read the document, noted how badly drafted it was, saw it was to expire a fortnight or so later, and took my chances.

As a result, I got something I have taken to regarding as a quaint souvenir from the heady days of information anarchism, embellished with the signature of the world’s most wanted man. I’m not particularly proud of this attitude, especially as I ended up doing almost no work for the organisation in exchange for my trinket.

What a cynical and misleading headline for a blog post, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But then, isn’t that sort of eye-catching sensationalism the stock-in-trade of the mainstream press? Yes, it is, and that’s the point.

Read the rest here.

Download a chapter of my book!

Tomorrow, I’m hoping to give a lightning talk at Book Hackday, an event being hosted at the Free Word Centre in London for hackers and writers to explore the next step in the evolution of the digital book. Tucked under my arm will be the third chapter of my book Barefoot Into Cyberspace, as well as an audio recording and transcript of the interview with Stewart Brand that contributed to the chapter. This is the first time any of this book has been published anywhere, so I’m getting a bit excited.

The chapter is called “Information wants to be free”, the observation made in 1984 at the Hacker Con in Marin County for which Brand will probably go down in history. I’ve chosen this chapter because I think it lends itself particularly well to being enriched by supplementary materials available online. The history of the development of the personal computer and the net is very well represented online: so many of the original materials which bear witness to this history are freely available, from a video of Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 Mother of All Demos to John Perry Barlow’s 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace“. I’ve highlighted the major references and material used in Chapter 3 in my delicious feed – hopefully the hackers at tomorrow’s event will be able to make use of this, too.

I’m licensing the chapter CC-BY-SA, in the hope that people will share it as widely as possible. You can download the pdf below via Scribd. You can also download the transcript (for now licensed CC-BY-SA-NC) of the interview with Brand, which I recorded in January last year. If you can, do please come to the event tomorrow, show some support, and get hacking. But if you can’t make it, mail me at becky DOT hogge AT gmail DOT com for a copy of the html files. And if you come up with anything interesting, please share it in the comments.

New essay for openDemocracy: The Freedom Cloud

Today, openDemocracy published my first essay for them in just under four years, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called “The freedom cloud” and it poses the question: what if what we’re witnessing in the Arab world is the end of the web’s liberating promise, and not the beginning?

The essay takes a tour of some of the ideas about the internet’s global development that most got me thinking recently, including Ethan Zuckerman’s observations on hypergiants, and Evgeny Morozov’s take on the need for cyber-pragmatism. It ends up at Eben Moglen’s recent call for a recovery of the net’s original system architecture, through the development of “freedom boxes”, a call that has been echoed by Douglas Rushkoff.

Here’s an excerpt:

Hackers are an inclusive bunch, and usually don’t object to extended use of the term. In their own way the dedicated, self-motivated activists that helped seed Egypt’s revolution are also hackers. This is reflected in the media’s resort to the jargon of the techno-utopian world of the 1990s to describe them: “small pieces loosely joined” in a “network” that is “connected”, whose news and appeals spread “virally” in a way that allows them to act in an “agile” yet “loosely coordinated” way, organising protests that become a “meme” and ultimately even the revolution – a “network effect” itself.

Yet the promiscuity of language is also a trap, in that the web tools of the Arab renaissance are very far from those of the cyber-utopians. Facebook is a hierarchy, not a network. Twitter is a hierarchy, not a network. Gmail is a hierarchy, not a network. Yes, those of us who use these tools are “networked”: we are, as the utopians would say, loosely joined. But we are also fused to the corporate giants that provide and profit from these tools, through whose buzzing servers our intimate or banal exchanges pass.

Read the rest.

It also gets into Wikileaks territory – although, on the advice of oD’s excellent Deputy Editor David Hayes, I’ve cut-and-saved a lot of this material for a subsequent piece. Given the proliferation of comment on Wikileaks since events escalated in December last year, more of the same is probably not too thrilling a proposition for most people. Wikileaks took discourse on net freedoms into what I heard one participant at last year’s Chaos Computer Congress describe as “a different theatre of operations”, and I don’t mind telling you that it freaked the hell out of me. So finding myself in a position where I feel able to write something useful and interesting about it is, personally, a big deal.

There is much more to come. For the last year-and-a-bit I’ve been writing a book which explores the origins and the future of cyber-utopian ideals and which features interviews with Stewart Brand, Rop Gonggrijp, Cory Doctorow, Ethan Zuckerman, Daniel Schmitt and Phil Booth. It also has one of the earliest interviews you’ll read with Julian Assange. Thanks in part to Wikileaks, as I was writing it, the metaphorical ground I was on shifted under me, making what was an exercise in cultural anthropology turn into something more like an adventure story. The book is called Barefoot into Cyberspace, and it will be published in the coming few months.