Hackers as vital disruptors, inspiring a new wave of activism in which ordinary citizens take back democracy.
Hackers have a bad reputation, as shady deployers of bots and destroyers of infrastructure. In Coding Democracy, Maureen Webb offers another view. Hackers, she argues, can be vital disruptors. Hacking is becoming a practice, an ethos, and a metaphor for a new wave of activism in which ordinary citizens are inventing new forms of distributed, decentralized democracy for a digital era. Confronted with concentrations of power, mass surveillance, and authoritarianism enabled by new technology, the hacking movement is trying to “build out” democracy into cyberspace.
Webb travels to Berlin, where she visits the Chaos Communication Camp, a flagship event in the hacker world; to Silicon Valley, where she reports on the Apple-FBI case, the significance of Russian troll farms, and the hacking of tractor software by desperate farmers; to Barcelona, to meet the hacker group XNet, which has helped bring nearly 100 prominent Spanish bankers and politicians to justice for their role in the 2008 financial crisis; and to Harvard and MIT, to investigate the institutionalization of hacking. Webb describes an amazing array of hacker experiments that could dramatically change the current political economy. These ambitious hacks aim to displace such tech monoliths as Facebook and Amazon; enable worker cooperatives to kill platforms like Uber; give people control over their data; automate trust; and provide citizens a real say in governance, along with capacity to reach consensus. Coding Democracy is not just another optimistic declaration of technological utopianism; instead, it provides the tools for an urgently needed upgrade of democracy in the digital era.
I’ll admit it: Hacker triumphalism makes me nauseous. Ever since Anonymous strapped on Guy Fawkes masks and started digitally sticking it to Scientologists and the Westboro Baptist Church, certain parts of the internet have become convinced that God is a hacker, here to wash the hard drives of the impure with cleansing viruses. Especially hackers. Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance, and Authoritarianism, by lawyer and human rights activist Maureen Webb, managed to reach through my comfortable layers of snark-justified disinterest. Webb doesn’t just praise cypherpunks for being the edgy little hornets’ nest kickers they are. She’s building a powerful case for the fact that technology as we know it—omnipresent, flawed, world-improving—has become so entrenched and static that it really does need the hackers worrying the edges of its firewalls. In Webb’s telling, hackers aren’t heroes destined to bring the world to a grand new order of their own transgressive imaginings. They’re agents of positive chaos. —Emma Grey Ellis, WIRED's 13 Must-Read Books for Spring
Maureen Webb is a labour, human rights and constitutional lawyer. Her book, Coding Democracy: How Hackers Are Disrupting Power, Surveillance and Authoritarianism, published in 2020 by The MIT Press, made Wired magazine’s “Thirteen Must Read Books for Spring 2020” list. Also the author of Illusions of Security: Global Surveillance and Democracy in the Post 9-11 World (San Francisco: City Lights, 2007), Maureen’s work has been praised by voices as diverse as Craig Newmark, Randi Weingarten, Cory Doctorow, Andrew Feenberg, Jeremy Waldron, and Mark Danner. She’s been invited to speak in many venues, including Chatham House, Virtual Futures, the Oxford Literary Festival, the London Front Line club, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, the World Affairs Council of California, and most recently the Toronto International Festival of Authors. Part of the activist community in BC, she’s served on the boards of Lawyers Rights Watch Canada and the BC Civil Liberties Association, and from time to time, taught public interest law at UBC law school. In addition to her writing about technology and democracy, she’s written many pieces on the human rights dimensions of national security. An article she published on the Canadian Anti-terrorism Act was cited extensively in the trial judgment in R. v. Khawaja.