Cole Stryker is a real name, but it belongs to a writer who has written two books in as many years that investigate the ways that people push culture forward — or in some cases, backward — under the cloak of fake names.
Epic Win for Anonymous is about memes, hackers, lulz, 4chan, and the other strange things on the web that perplex and disgust us when they’re not pushing for internet freedom. Cole’s new book is called Hacking the Future, and it takes a tour through historical and contemporary efforts to protect identity, from early political pamphlets through the heyday of the 1980s cypherpunks up to the virtual barricades of online protests against the incursions of big data, big companies, and snooping governments, all for the purpose of preparing us for the future.
The best weapon we have online, Cole argues, is anonymity, which, far from the days of AOL, is now under attack from governments and big Internet companies. “Anonymity doesn’t just allow you to be who you want to be — it allows you to be who you truly are,” he writes. This isn’t a manifesto, per se, but there’s an underlying message: we need to be conscious and proactive when it comes to sticking up for one’s own privacy and identity online. Point being, no one else is going to, nor should they. It’s up to you, whoever you really are. I started our conversation on Gchat with the obvious question, and we wandered all over, from his teenage internet use to his third book (on the darker side of anonymity), to how to keep on anonymizing in the free Internet.
How did you get that amazing name? It’s a pseudonym, right?
It is real. It’s always come in handy when naming video game avatars. There’s not really a cool story behind it. My parents were hippies I guess. My sister’s name is lily. Stryker is dutch. The original Strykers were some of the earliest settlers, way before the revolution.
Where did you grow up?
Am I on “This American Life”? I grew up in Pittsburgh, PA.
Fresh Air. You’re writing about the Internet, but did you ever say, ‘okay, enough, I’m getting off this damn internet and getting some work done’?
I can’t decide if it’s a good or a bad thing, but when I write I always have a few tabs open because I’m constantly looking stuff up as I go. So I would actually feel less productive without Internet. I don’t see it as a distraction so much as a natural extension of the writing process.
How many tabs are you on right now?
Ten tabs currently. I have five tabs pinned, always open: gmail, tumblr, twitter, facebook, reddit. I love pinning. It separates my usual feeds from everything else.
Did you always want to write?
When I was a kid I wanted to make video games. Around the time that I was old enough to realize that “making video games” wouldn’t consist of just thinking up cool ideas for games, I decided instead I wanted to write about video games. Then in high school i discovered Napster and Pitchfork and the hipster aesthetic and thought it would be cool to write about music. Then i started following a bunch of music journalists’ blogs in college and realized that most of them were miserable and underpaid. But during this whole time I never really imagined any of this was achievable. I grew up in a very blue collar environment and thought I would be lucky just to work at a desk pushing papers. So I always saw writing as a hobby and studied marketing in college. I graduated, worked a series of thankless copywriting jobs.
I was working for a startup doing copywriting three years ago. It paid well but I hated what i was doing with my life. I got laid off along with half the company so I decided to just go for being a full-time writer because my friend Nick Douglas had experienced some success in that arena. I moved to NYC with no other contacts, took a bunch of horribly-paying writing gigs, but I loved the city, loved the people I was meeting, and felt “at home” like never before covering tech and weird internet trend. That experience eventually led to my book deal, and here we are.
When did you first get online? What was that like?
Not ’til I was 14. My grandparents bought our family our first computer one Christmas. Apparently my grandfather thought that computers were going to be pretty important someday — this was in 1998 — so we got a Compaq Presario with a Pentium II processor and a monthly AOL dial up subscription. I was mostly only interested in computers at the time as a game console. This game called Starsiege: Tribes pretty much consumed my life in high school. Ever hear of it?
No. l was too busy with aolHell.
Haha, yes. I spent most of my time complaining about lag to my teammates. “sorry for teh lag guys.” Anyway, I used the internet to read about games, learn how to get games to run on my machine, etc. But over time i discovered sites like The Onion, Pitchfork, Something Awful, and more … and I realized there was this world outside that I’d never been exposed to IRL.
Can I ask what your handle was?
I’m not going to share it, because I don’t want to expose my high school Republican blog posts to anons who would use that information for blackmail. But I will tell you that it was based on the stage name of a Christian rockabilly band I was really into at the time.
As a teenager, can you tell what it did to you, socially?
Growing up I didn’t know a single person who did anything approaching creative work. All of the adults I knew worked in factories or shop floors or retail. My peers at the time were juggalos. The internet basically introduced me to alt culture, and the people that I met online were into all these weird things that I found very compelling, things that i never would have found IRL. I was surrounded by lowest common denominator mainstream culture growing up. If it hadn’t been for the internet it would have been nothing but Creed and Adam Sandler. So getting online for the first time was like…finding out your’re an alien and going back to your home planet.
B-). The web shows you things you don’t see elsewhere. I didn’t mention that when I was 12 my parents moved to a farm in the middle of nowhere. So I was desperately yearning for something interesting to do… It was all cornfields. The internet was such a garden of earthly delights. If you live in rural PA and you’re not into football and butt chugging, the web is a house of refuge.
What’s butt chugging?
Oh. I see.
An almost completely fabricated youth trend. But my shorthand of saying that i wasn’t into partying.
How fabricated? Jenkam fabricated?
It probably has happened a handful of times but the media is doing it’s usual “could your kids be butt chugging RIGHT NOW?” routine.
“The internet is far from a perfect meritocracy but I think it approaches such an ideal more closely than any previous social system.”
And these memes, for lack of a better word, spread faster than ever. What are the values the network promotes — and what are the values that it might ignore?
The internet seems to reward quality of content and punish people who would attempt to gloss over their bad content with flash and reputation. At least in the long term. The internet is far from a perfect meritocracy but I think it approaches such an ideal more closely than any previous social system.
So, while the internet is a machine for spreading lies and awful things, it’s also good at policing itself.
I tend to vacillate between a techno-utopian view and a cynical, Morozovian view. Did you read Neetzan Zimmerman’s thing for Gawker about how the principle of karma and upvoting ensures that the best content always rises to the top and everything else doesn’t matter? As much as I’d like to have faith in the reddit-ization of the web and a subsequent pure meritocracy of content…. i think his theory has some serious flaws. I was on Youtube the other day watching one of my favorite rap songs, “Still Tippin”, and the top comments were just the usual nerd talk, and I think it’s a great example of how skewed the discourse still is toward a very narrow subset of geeks.
It reminds me of the the conversation about whether bloggers are journalists. Which I guess related to the role that editors play. And the talk about the web giving you what you want to know. Confirmation bias. The filter bubble. The web echoes bad things as easily as good things?
“In the end, the Internet will always tell you what you need to know because it is a digital extension of the world writ large, and out there, as in here, the greatest story will always be retold.” Neetzan’s a smart guy, and I bet that he’d want to rethink that last sentence if given the chance.
i.e., it becomes easy to get led toward content that has lots of views, and Business Week headlines that are like “How to Find Porn on the Internet”
Of course this whole discussion completely ignores the widespread practice of “buying” hits, views, shares, and followers.
Two things: is it really “a digital extension of the world writ large”? Is that fair? And the idea that “out there, as in here, the greatest story will always be retold” — I kind of agree with that. But right — buying likes, search engine optimization, and media’s tendency toward lowest common denominators, et cetera …
Like I said before, the internet gets us closer to that than anything else. But the greatest stories of…I don’t know, Cambodian sex slaves…might not be retold! Because…look, shiny iPhone 5s!
Are you worried at all about culture online — how have things changed since you first wrote about 4chan / anonymous?
I am not too worried about internet culture. Although memetic culture that used to exist only at places like 4chan and Something Awful now happens everywhere, especially Facebook, there are still weird, interesting corners of the internet.
The darknet — where various illicit and awful activities now take place — how dark is it really? I mean, how dark have you gone?
It got pretty dark. I just barely scratch the surface in Hacking the Future. The deep web or darknet or whatever is pretty broadly defined. But yeah, child porn, killers for hire, drugs, etc. I am planning to explore it in a third book. I’m putting together the proposal now. No deal yet.
So … is anything what’s darker than the darknet?
Actual physical child brothels. But if you’re up to something creepy and illegal online, you’re doing it there.
Speaking of the dark web, and considering that Innocence of Muslims video, what kind of protections should we have on the network against the spread of anonymous hate or general awfulness? Or should we just learn to live with it?
As hard as it is to swallow with people getting killed, I think it’s something we’ll have to learn to live with. The kind of person who wants to kill someone over a movie trailer will probably kill over anything. I support Facebook’s attempts to mitigate hate speech, and law enforcement should do what they can to punish people making actual violent threats.
Right (there are a lot of different issues here — extreme belief among them). But on the opposite side of that anonymous equation is surveillance and the mining of personal data. So there’s been this dramatic increase in law enforcement requests to social media sites this year. Are you ever worried that your conversations online — this one — are being in some way monitored?
Yeah, it’s a concern, mostly because of what i call the permanence problem. Once this stuff is logged, it’s sitting on a server somewhere. Forever. So even if we can rely on our benevolent representatives and corporate overlords now, what about 10, 20, 50 years from now? Also, what if those servers get hacked?
Well, those servers have been hacked, and information has been used and collected and abused in order to do all kinds of things. People have lost their jobs over stupid Facebook posts. So we’re adjusting. Maybe the concern vis a vis privacy is that most people don’t care very much?
Well, they certainly aren’t aware of the risks. I think education is an important tool. Thus, Hacking the Future.
It’s that Jeffersonian ideal. An informed citizenry. Which also makes it a big class issue … That is, that the wealthier you are the more capable of protecting yourself from privacy violations. Is it worthwhile to think about our personal data, or our privacy, as a kind of asset, a currency?
I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of privacy as contingent on class. A lot of people believe that the privacy question only matters to a bunch of white male libertarian geeks who don’t have any real problems to worry about, like putting food on the table or adequate medical care. But I’ve found that often the most marginalized people are the ones who suffer the consequences of privacy intrusions most. The wealthy have ways of sweeping things under the rug. The poor, not so much. I prefer to think of “identity” as the currency, and “privacy” as an adjective that can be used to describe how much control one has over his/her identity.
For all the talk about educating people, it seems like we are having trouble just getting people on the network to begin with. Understanding the terms seems a whole ‘nother challenge. You say, for instance, that regulation isn’t as important as education, and I like that idea. But we need regulation, no? What kind of laws would you like to see in the U.S., or globally? What are our hopes of making progress?
I think there are a lot of well-meaning people at big tech companies who legitimately want to make the world a better place. I don’t think there are dark machinations at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, or Google. But scrutiny is required to prevent well-meaning data collection from being used for creepy ends. This is a tough one. I think it’s important to consider regulation, but historically media regulation tends to have unintended consequences. I just don’t trust elected officials to have the best interests of the people in mind. Right now they are colluding with the entertainment industry to pursue stupid, freedom-limiting copyright claims and content regulation. How long before Big Data gets powerful enough to similarly sway the gavel against the people? Right now we see tech companies as heroes for how they’ve helped fight off SOPA et al. But they’ll be the enemy before long, and we won’t have a powerful lobby to act as a counterbalance.
What are the best things that people can do to bridge the anonymity gap in a meaningful way beyond throwaway Reddit accounts? I know you’ve covered the FreedomBox, people like the Free Network Foundation, and you’ve talked about the huge digital divide in the U.S. But between the masses using Facebook or Google+ and those with the wherewithal to use something with special cryptography like TOR, what can people do?
I think the easiest thing people can do to take control of their identity is to be more mindful of the laws, the technology, the corporate policies. I always love it when bloggers latch onto a change in ToS on Facebook for instance. Following the EFF is a great way to be continually educated on these matters. More practically speaking, I think people should consider un-linking their social network profiles. I don’t want Facebook to follow me all over the web when I’m logged in, so I tend to not use Facebook Connect for anything. Separation between accounts can also protect against malicious hackers, as Matt Honan found out the hard way.
What kind of hacking / attacks / trolling have you yourself been subject to? And how do you deal?
The worst thing that’s happened to me is my home address was posted online (easy info for anyone to find) and I got some nasty emails, junk mail, prank calls, that sort of thing. Nothing too serious. I would advise most people to just get offline for a while if they’re being “cyberbullied” because trolls have a tendency to lose interest if their victim isn’t giving them the emotional reaction they crave. We have to take actual threats seriously, and in some cases authorities need to get involved. But I feel that often the best solution is to starve the troll of lulz.