I met Cole Stryker at a secret party last summer, just before his first book came out, called Epic Win for Anonymous. Cole described Epic Win as a cultural study of trolling, 4chan, memes and the hacker darlings known as Anonymous. Invitees were asked not to bring a guest, not to tweet, not to take pictures—just have fun, enjoy the party and forget the world beyond. The idea of disconnecting New Yorkers from their social networks for a few hours seems so extreme as to be almost a social experiment. With this event in the back of my mind I eventually wrote an essay in The Brooklyn Rail called “Alias Anonymous,” in which I explored the ways we use pseudonyms and other means to protect our eroding privacy. In the time it took me to write this essay, Cole Stryker wrote his second book: Hacking the Future: Privacy, Identity and Anonymity on the Web. The publisher describes the book as a “look at how anonymity both on and off the Web influences politics, activism, religion, and art and why the identity issue may be the most important decision we face in the coming decade.” Throughout our discussion, I kept thinking: how do you write so fast? But first I asked him about the book. –Robin Grearson
THE BELIEVER: Okay, anonymity. About a blogger, you write, “her desire for anonymity boils down to the need for self-expression without consequence.” Why shouldn’t self-expression have consequences?
COLE STRYKER: It’s important for people to have a choice and decide for themselves whether or not to be anonymous or to use their given name to back up a certain idea. I don’t think anonymity is a Platonic ideal. But the choice is.
BLVR: You write about the ways people abuse privacy. With all the technology we have, why can’t we disarm just the bad guys?
CS: As optimistic as I am about the world of technology, I have a cynical view of human nature, and the ability of people to figure out ways to work around any form of either legislative regulation or technological solutions. Also, any form of regulation that would inhibit the free speech of others would be a net negative, because it wouldn’t get rid of all the bad stuff, it would just make us well-meaning people a little less free in the process.
BLVR: So there is no way to de-fang the trolls, then?
CS: I don’t know if there’s a solution to the trolling problem, because assholes will find a way. On the one hand, you have Anonymous pushing for pure chaos and anarchy, and then you have Facebook and Google pushing for tightly regulated environments. I interviewed Clay Shirky for Epic Win, and we discussed the benefits of both. Shirky told me that in the ‘80s, to solve the problem of how to engage both new and veteran players in multiplayer games, the creators of early MMO game Habitat built towns. These were well-manicured, safe spaces where players could get to know the environment and the manners and mores of the community. Game veterans could explore frontier country, where anarchy reigns. In this metaphor 4chan and the deep Web and places like that are frontier country; Facebook and Google Plus are the towns.
BLVR: Where parents can feel that their kids will be safe.
CS: Right. I’m not such an anti-Facebook person that I don’t feel anybody should be there. Some privacy geeks think I’m insane for being on Facebook. These guys put tape over their Webcams. The creepiest thing about Facebook is the permanence problem—once this information is up there, it’s there forever. And even if Facebook is generally cool now —. And Larry and Sergey at Google, too, I have a tremendous amount of respect for them. Tyranny creep is a real thing, and companies that began with a vision and good ideas trend towards making money, and whatever nasty things they have to do to get it. It really concerns me that you have almost a billion people uploading very intimate details about their lives.
BLVR: I hate that companies save my information. Will we see Facebook alternatives that delete our data after X amount of time?
CS: People are attempting to provide an alternative to Facebook. But the trend is towards data collection and data mining. Philip Zimmermann mentions security cameras that can see from 1,000 yards away and what it would be like to sync that technology with all the faces in Facebook. Then you have a tremendous tool for government to find out where you are and what you’re up to, instantly. Data is saved now because it’s technically possible. AT&T couldn’t record every phone conversation and keep those cassette tapes in a warehouse somewhere. But it’s easy for Facebook to host a server farm.
BLVR: Every email, chat log, text.
CS: Right. The potential for privacy intrusions and violations of personal freedom is just so overwhelming that it almost makes you want to give up and just acknowledge that this is coming and not even try to fight for freedom. But groups like WikiLeaks and Anonymous, as imperfect as they are, give me hope that there will be a widespread pushback against this trend.
According to David Brin, author of The Transparent Society, yes, surveillance society is happening. But also, surveillance technology is so cheap that every citizen has the power to also look at governments and corporate entities. He cites mobile technologies, where an unprecedented number of videos of police brutality exist, because everyone’s carrying a video camera. But entrenched powers have a way of ensuring their privacy in ways the public cannot. When push comes to shove, everyone’s gonna try to obfuscate things that make them look bad. And if people are doing that, everyone should have an equal ability to do that.
BLVR: Does pseudonymity support an idea that we’re supposed to be some flat, TV sitcom version of ourselves? As though some macho construction worker isn’t supposed to also be a guy who’s into doll collecting, for instance.
CS: Did you see that image of that dad who let his kid wear the dress? They were walking around the city and the dad was wearing a dress and the son was, too, and the son was, like, 5 years old. And it was such a tremendously powerful image, and I think very empowering for people who feel like they have to keep a side of them a secret. For me it’s about having the choice to be anonymous if you want to be. Social progress is paved by people who are willing to stick out of the crowd and say, this is me, this is who I am. But the secret activism — or even just a secret lifestyle, that plays a role as well. It’s obviously worthy of admiration, the people who are doing it under their own name. But that doesn’t somehow diminish the value of everyone else. As we trend towards global freedom, I would almost like to see anonymity diminish.
BLVR: Your book describes Facebook’s role in the erosion of privacy.
CS: When I got online in 1998, it never would have occurred to me to write under my actual name. Facebook created a space where it was not only convenient but natural. It was a closed system, just this insular way for my college buddies to keep in touch and document our lives. Since then Facebook has become increasingly pervasive, the way it follows you throughout the Internet. Through Facebook Connect, you’re commenting via Facebook on HuffPo. Facebook wants to be the driver’s license. And every newspaper has embraced this technology, because it’s so convenient for them.
BLVR: What’s creepy to me about Facebook is how faceless it is, with all its algorithms.
CS: Facebook is now the largest form of public communication, and this communication is happening on someone’s private platform that’s ruled by robots. It’s like this weird sci-fi dystopia.
BLVR: Do users realize they’re not Facebook’s customers? The customers are the people who give Facebook money.
CS: Like, pigs don’t have to pay rent in a barn because they’re the ones that are getting butchered. It’s kind of the same thing.
BLVR: Do you think people are passive about privacy because it’s hard to visualize what having more privacy or less privacy looks like?
CS: Privacy is a hard issue to promote, because it’s so abstract. And you don’t realize it’s a problem until it’s too late. It’s a lot harder to decry a social ill than to advocate for a social good. The problem with the anonymity issue is that its very absence indicates a social ill. SOPA and PIPA activists were able to generate a lot of common outrage because the people trying to build awareness about it didn’t say, you know, this is a freedom of speech issue. They said, if this happens, you’re not gonna be able to make little animated GIFs from Glee.
BLVR: You’re planning to descend into the chaos of the deep Web for the next book. Why?
CS: It’s important to examine the darker side of human nature and try to figure out why we gravitate toward these seedier places. I think there’s a social value to that analysis. I want to try to figure out how the deep Web is a more fully detailed picture of a free society than the surface Web. I understand that you can find sex slaves on the deep Web and terrorism and buy guns and find a killer for hire.
BLVR: So it’s safer to know what’s there, than not to know? Won’t it change you?
CS: It’s safer for the world to know. It might not be safer for me personally. But it’s good for people to be aware of what’s out there.
CS: This is something I’ve done a lot of reflection about. I think exposing social evils has a way of helping us to cope with them, and also figure out ways to stop them. I think that there is something to be said for this therapeutic culture that we have. Even stuff like Dr. Phil, just the fact that issues are discussed openly makes it easier for us to figure out ways to get better. When you look at social evils like racism, for instance, it’s publicly looked down on in this country. I think that’s a result of us being constantly faced with the evils of racism. Human civilization can be viewed as a process of making certain actions so socially unacceptable that we don’t do them anymore. Taking things that are in the darkness and shoving them into the light is part of the process of human social evolution. It’s through fearlessly facing and exposing these evils no matter how uncomfortable they are that we’re able to move beyond them and drive the social evolution of civilization. So in that way, as imperfect as Anonymous is, it’s our best, like, it’s our hope for —
BLVR: —a counterweight to those who want evil to be out of sight, out of mind.
CS: Yeah. Anonymous exists for a point in time, and I hope their existence will push us to a place where they no longer need to exist. But like, in India, you have government officials meeting with Google and Facebook to ask them how to keep people from speaking out against the government. No one knows what happened in those meetings. I would love to assume that Facebook and Google were, like, “That’s not how the Internet works, we can’t do that for you.”
BLVR: How open are you online, about what you share under your own name?
CS: I’m pretty open, actually. It’s weird how integral that is to people now. The public documentation of our lives through imagery is such second nature, and until recently that didn’t exist. People say technology changes the way people behave, and it’s a lot of times the other way around, where people are meant to behave a certain way and then when the technology finally gets there, it’s, like, finally we can be who we are. Like, the whole crowdsource thing. It’s mind boggling how quickly Wikipedia grew, it indicates that there was a tremendous desire for our civilization to build this massive database of organized information for everyone to use. And it was built in a couple years, by total amateurs.
BLVR: You’ve had two books published in two years. Are you incredibly focused or just a fast writer?
CS: Jami Attenberg interviewed me about that for The Rumpus when the first book came out. I’m terribly undisciplined for someone who’s written two books in one year. It’s amazing how many episodes of Lost you can watch when you have a deadline.
Cole Stryker is not a pseudonym, it’s a real name, and it’s Dutch.
Robin Grearson is not an alias. And not Dutch.