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02 December, 2016

How hackers broke the myth of the independent cyberspace

The hackers were questioning whether Barlow’s utopian rhetoric about cyberspace might really be a convenient camouflage hiding the emergence of a new and growing power that was way beyond politics


We could say that the latest film of Adam Curtis, HyperNormalisation, is an update of some of his previous films, which is enriched with the most recent global events and developments. The new film presents also interesting stories about some key figures in the development of cybernetics and the modern perception of non-linear politics.

A special "chapter" describes an interesting story concerning the idea of independent cyberspace and how some hackers managed to prove that this was only a kind of illusion.
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One of the leading exponents of the idea that cyberspace could be a place where we would be liberated from the old, corrupt hierarchies of politics and power and explore new ways of being, was John Perry Barlow.

In the ’60s, Barlow had written songs for the Grateful Dead and been part of the acid counterculture. In the 90s, he organised what he called “cyberthons”, to try and bring the cyberspace movement together.

Barlow then wrote a manifesto that he called A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. It was addressed to all politicians, telling them to keep out of this new world. It was going to be incredibly influential, because what Barlow did was give a powerful picture of the internet not as a network controlled by giant corporations, but, instead, as a kind of magical, free place. An alternative to the old systems of power. It was a vision that would come to dominate the internet over the next 20 years.

But two young hackers in New York thought that Barlow was describing a fantasy world, that his vision bore no relationship at all to what was really emerging online. They were cult figures on the early online scene and their fans followed and recorded them. They called themselves Phiber Optik and Acid Phreak and they spent their time exploring and breaking in to giant computer networks that they knew were the hard realities of modern digital power.

In a notorious public debate online, the two hackers attacked Barlow. What infuriated them most, was Barlow's insistence that there was no hierarchy, or, controlling powers in the new cyber world. The hackers set out to demonstrate that he was wrong.

Acid Phreak hacked into the computers of a giant corporation called TRW. TRW had originally built the systems that ran the Cold War for the US military. They had helped create the delicate balance of terror.

Now, TRW had adapted their computers to run a new system, that of credit and debt. Their computers gathered up the credit data of millions of Americans and were being used by the banks to decide individuals’ credit ratings. The hackers broke into the TRW network, stole Barlow’s credit history and published it online. The hackers were demonstrating the growing power of finance. How the companies that ran the new systems of credit knew more and more about you, and, increasingly, used that information to control your destiny.

But the system that was allowing this to happen were the new giant networks of information connected through computer servers. The hackers were questioning whether Barlow’s utopian rhetoric about cyberspace might really be a convenient camouflage hiding the emergence of a new and growing power that was way beyond politics.

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