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'Hacktivist' #1: sympathy for the internet hate machine

'Hacktivist' #1: sympathy for the internet hate machine


What happens when you turn Anonymous into Bruce Wayne?

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Nothing I say to introduce four-part comic miniseries Hacktivist can possibly be as compelling as the simple fact that its producer, Charmed actress Alyssa Milano, came up with the basic premise by imagining what might happen if Anonymous were really Jack Dorsey. The first issue, which was released in January, is somewhat more complex than that, but the idea remains at the core of a deeply, charmingly, sometimes disturbingly idealistic take on hacking and startups.

The first issue of Hacktivist kicks off a loose, heavily fictionalized retelling of the Arab Spring, alternating between a group of Tunisian dissidents and a group called sve_Urs3lf, "the most dangerous black hat hacker collective on the damn planet." Sve_Urs3lf is all but explicitly supposed to be Anonymous, whose members attacked Tunisian government websites in the midst of an online crackdown. In Hacktivist, however, the "collective" turns out to be protagonists Nate Graft and Ed Hiccox, the two youthful co-founders of wildly successful startup YourLife.

If geek-power movies like The Fifth Estate and The Social Network arguably stretch the truth to make their subjects seem more like rock stars, Hacktivist goes deliriously and hilariously over the top in creating not just boy kings but hacker god kings. The little captions that introduce Nate and Ed give us their name, age, and 10-figure (individual) net worth, and the issue ends at a penthouse party announced on Reddit. Imagine if Julian Assange and Sean Parker swapped some genes and founded Diaspora, and you’ve got the idea.

Imagine if Julian Assange and Sean Parker founded Diaspora

Beyond the premise, artist Marcus To’s sharp, polished, but non-photorealistic visuals are one of the series’ strongest features. They capture exactly what they need to: we’re in a bright four-colored world of well-dressed, well-groomed, ridiculously beautiful people who happen to also be capable of taking down New York’s electrical grid. Likewise, Hacktivist’s world doesn’t have the relentless coolhunting weirdness of some internet-related fiction, but it also doesn’t come off as out of touch. The overarching impression is that of an interested outsider’s love letter to a community, and a perhaps unintentionally revealing commentary on the myths we’ve built around the internet’s young turks.

YourLife encapsulates the weird central theme of Hacktivist’s first issue: that not only are the best businessmen hackers, we’re all safer and better off when the best hackers are businessmen. We never precisely get to see YourLife in action, but we do learn that it’s a "decentralized social network" that’s both all-encompassing and inherently private, protected from government spying thanks to Ed’s cryptographic genius. This idea has apparently made Nate and Ed billionaires several times over, but it must have done so in a world that runs on entirely different principles to ours. Almost every social media company that’s succeeded financially to date has done so by selling advertisers detailed and intimate portraits of its users’ lives, and a network that connects "everything in your life that matters" is inherently open to abuse. Remember how I mentioned Diaspora? The only money it ever made came from donations and fundraising.

This weirdness applies doubly to sve_Urs3lf. Milano has said that a one-man avatar of Anonymous would "have to be socially aware, a coder, have access, be compassionate," a bill that surely fits some people who assume the label. There are certainly hackers known as kind, passionate activists: give me Milano’s description, and I’d come back with Aaron Swartz. On a larger scale, though, this description cuts out what’s really interesting about Anonymous. Insofar as Anonymous is a "collective" at all, it’s the internet’s regiment of socially aware shock troops, a cannon that can fire at the Tunisian government or the website of a high school football team when wrongdoing is found. It’s loud and it’s messy: Operation RollRedRoll, for example, was instrumental in focusing attention on the Steubenville rape trial, but the information it exposed was often as muddled as it was inflammatory. It’s useful to remember that Anonymous was first announced in the media as the "internet hate machine." Tactics like DDoS attacks — which were deployed in Tunisia — aren’t sophisticated hacking, they’re a brute-force expression of the web’s displeasure.

Startup boy kings and hacker god kings

Like I said, it’s a four-color world, and I don’t expect gritty realism. Hacktivist’s romp is generally a welcome counterpart to the dour soul-searching of something like The Fifth Estate. But the first issue’s one-note depiction of altruistic tycoons and internet geniuses glosses over a huge number of interesting real-world questions. People love Google, but when it buys Nest, we’re all nervous enough to start making HAL 9000 jokes. Andrew "Weev" Auernheimer went to jail for the crime of pointing out a security flaw, but he also harassed a woman for virtually no reason until she left the internet and never came back.

By the same token, Nate and Ed’s glamorous lives aren’t actually all that exciting compared to those of the Tunisian activists, who spend their few pages running from riot police and throwing tear gas grenades. In giving its western hero philanthropists a suitably meaningful threat to fight, Hacktivist has come perilously close to turning into a white savior story, and even outside the political implications, the problem with white savior stories is that they end up ignoring really interesting people in order to focus on comfortable tourists.

Hacktivist’s first issue is easy to read as Silicon Valley activism agitprop, though I mean that in the kindest possible sense. It’s a vision of what our world would be like if the "Twitter Revolution" were literally a revolution abetted by the CEO of Twitter. But social media didn’t create the Arab Spring, and DDoSing a website doesn’t bring down a regime. Our heroes are less scrutable and more complicated and while our world would be great if it worked that cleanly, fiction thrives on conflict.

The Twitter revolution, courtesy of Twitter's CEO

Milano’s statements suggest the comic will stay a celebration of the two archetypes we have for brilliant young men on the internet: the self-made startup billionaire and the shadowy hacker. When Hacktivist ventures outside the world of first-world white men, it falters — plucky Tunisian heroine Sirine isn’t established as much more than a generic action girl before being upstaged, though the irony of a group called "Save Yourself" sweeping in to the rescue hopefully isn’t accidental. Even so, writer Collin Kelly has promised that future arcs will subvert this, and that debates on "gender equality, white privilege, and the egoism of the superrich ... are the secret core of our book."

That still creates a bit of a pacing problem for the series. Gail Simone’s The Movement, which can be loosely described as what would happen if superheroes joined Occupy Wall Street, managed to blend idealism with ambiguity from the start, and it had a lot more space than four installments to work in. It’s frustrating for the tone of a standalone first installment to not at least foreshadow the rest of its series. With some work, though, the idea that our two great archetypes are really two sides of the same coin — both expressing antiestablishment politics while thoroughly insulated from the rest of the world — is actually a pretty solid one. We just have to hope there’s time to get to it, and that the team is willing to pull down its heroes enough to make things interesting.