Hacking for the Greater Good

When we consider the term “Hacker” it typically sparks negative connotations surrounding selfish, invasive actions for personal gain. However, there are individuals who hack for global purpose, known as “Hactivists”.  An essay by Joel Nixon defines Hacktivism as the “use of technology to promote political ends, such as freedom of speech and the right to information.”  While they may violate the protection of data, Nixon states that the law should recognise hacktivists are seeking to benefit society, through the distribution of documents acknowledging government corruption. Nevertheless, the law should be stringent on citizens who seek personal gain or profit by attacking global sites and companies.

At present, hacktivists are using their abilities not only to advantage citizens but also to expose corporate nepotism and corruption. One key objective for hacktivists is to generate public availability of academic sources via universities and online libraries.

An example of this would be the case of Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), whose aim was to benefit others and not himself, which Nixon describes as ethical hacking. Swartz downloaded 4 million publicly funded JSTOR articles with the intention of distributing them freely among MIT students, resulting in fraudulent charges.

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One could argue that hacktivists, such as Swartz, who utilise their skills for a constructive purpose should not be convicted. On the other hand, some abuse their skills for unethical purposes. Hacktivist Barrett Brown, labelled spokesperson for hacking group Anonymous, was out to obtain political advantage by distributing credit card information of Stratfor operatives and threatening a federal officer. As a result, Brown was not charged with committing the hack, but for obstructing justice and transmitting stolen credit card information. Evidently, existing laws don’t specifically reprimand the action of hacking, but regulate the ownership and dissemination of illegally obtained contents. Thus it is important to note the disparity between ethical cases of hacktivism and online fraud.

Hacktivism is a significant issue as it is closely associated with two main rights within a democratic country – freedom of speech and right to information. People such as Aaron Swartz, who intended to expose corruption through the dissemination of data, can be considered activists who aim not to benefit themselves but to advantage others. A blog in the Washington Post states that Swartz also aimed to produce an understanding of the powerful influence the Internet can have in shaping popular culture. Swartz stood out from other hacktivists as he was identifiable – he existed inside and outside the system, striving to advance societal change.

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The Significance of Social Media

Interaction is a significant aspect of human culture. An article by Mike Laurie investigates the different ways social media has changed us. Over time many different forms of communication have evolved. From inconvenient, labour intensive technologies such as Morse code and carrier pigeons, to instantaneous connections through wireless devices. Rather than posting a letter or buying a newspaper we are now able to share, produce, and circulate endless amounts of information in simple and effective ways.

Skeptics consider social networking to be straining society with regard to social etiquette and identity. However, I would deem these to be issues within the media as a whole and not just social media. Consider a teenage girl reading a magazine – the collaboration of articles and images would produce something to the effect of: “Wear this. Wear that. Act like this around boys. If you’re thin and pretty you will be happy and popular”. In this sense, the consumer only has the option to do just that – consume. And while these same messages may be sprawled across the Internet, we are no longer lazy consumers of passive messages – we are active participants. Social media is about being connected, engaging with old friends and creating new experiences. Instead of being limited to the information in a 25-page magazine, we can now explore what feels like infinite amounts of content. Laurie describes time before the Internet to be when limitations of learning existed due to poor literacy and lack of access to books. If “knowledge is power” and you have access to continuous information distribution, your desire for knowledge is legitimately within fingertips.

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An article By David Wallace outlines the statistics with regard to the influence social media has had beyond the notion of socialising. Employment, news, law enforcement, education, political participation, economy, music industries and marketing systems have all been prompted and enhanced through social media. A report by PEW suggested that social networks have encouraged younger generations to be more involved in political issues, a fine example of society being more interested and informed with the world around us.

Through citizen journalism comes the rise of “gatewatchers”, where user-generated content flows freely among platforms. Axel Bruns (2003) states that social networks fabricate participant communities through various understandings and interpretations. Bruns states that blogging should be recognised as a significant form of journalism. Online gatewatchers may actually compliment the mainstream journalism industry through the diversity of discussion and debate, no longer being limited by the “gatekeeper”.

The Alternate Dimension… of Attention

The most important thing in the attention economy is relevancy. An article by Alex Iskold explores the way users interact with online content, and why their attention is valuable. Iskold states that the more relevant a website’s content is, the more likely visitors are to stay on the page, thus increasing sale opportunities. But what can companies do to improve the likelihood of visitors buying their products or clicking on an advertisement? Personalisation. Sites such as Google and Facebook use personal information to filter content specific to your needs. Consumers tend to forget that their favourite search engine or social networking site are businesses (because they are free to use) – and the more information they know about you the better. Iskold claims your tailored search results and ads are typically stemmed from browsing history, online profiles etc.

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While browsing websites is technically free, you are still supplementing their value. For the currency of the online economy isn’t money, but attention. And by having the freedom to select where your attention is, your attention has worth. This is the attention economy.

“We want a world where you don’t have to ask for help or permission to write out loud.”
Clay Shirky

While online content value may be depreciating, this is what makes blogging more significant. The overflow of content indicates an innovative and progressive world, where everyone has the freedom to express themselves. If there’s so much of it this suggests that we have found a way to make global publishing effortless, and seem natural. Sounds pretty good to me.

Convergence Culture

Communication between individuals constitutes a lot of what makes us unique. Mark Deuze explores participatory culture and media convergence in his journal Convergence Culture in the Creative Industries. Deuze states that the emergence of a media environment where we are not only consuming, but also our whole online behaviour involves participation, co-creation and collaboration to some degree. Engaging with content through social networks can be defined as citizen journalism. When commenting on a YouTube video or sharing something on Facebook, you are propelling the flow within this online ecosystem. A clip by Henry Jenkins explores convergence culture as a world where stories, sounds, brands, images and relationships plays itself out across the maximum number of media channels. For those of us born in the digital age, this technological shift is one that we can adjust to and advance with little effort required. We are so used to doing everything instantaneously, at the click of a button. One of the most significant themes of media convergence is the ability to send more information further and faster.

Technology is so intertwined with our lifestyles now that we consider traditional forms of media as being “old” and useless on some levels. Why go out and buy a newspaper when I can read it on a website? Why rent a DVD when I can stream it online? Cartoons such as South Park often reference technological convergence in a humorous way. South Park’s episode A Nightmare on Facetime (Season 16, Episode 12) mocks physical media distribution when the character Randy buys a Blockbuster video store and is certain it’s going to bring his family into wealth. ’We’re going to have customers up our ass!’ Randy is proven wrong while the store poses as a “haunted” and “creepy” place that everyone avoids. This was a clever imitation addressing the death of DVD’s and video rental stores.  While Randy’s son Stan is stuck at the Blockbuster with his family, he is still present with his friends trick-or-treating via Facetime on his iPad. The use of the iPad was quite witty – throughout the episode Stan is constantly streaming videos and chatting to his friends, which really contrasted well with the eerie feel of the DVD store. While he was physically stuck in one place, he was also using multiple media platforms and entering cyberspace. South Park really utilised the relevance of convergence culture and this idea of an online environment.

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Fandom featuring “Fanpires”

Popular Vampire series’ Dracula, Buffy, Twilight, and 50 Shades of Grey have all been prevalent influences for the vampire subculture (aka fanpires). A research report on WordPress blog “fivedotone” explores the way the vampire genre has created fascination and obsession leading to vampire fandom, and has become an iconic phenomenon in popular culture. Vampire fandom became increasingly popular as it began to appear through various mediums. While traditionally there are novels, television, and film – cyberspace has allowed fans to create fan-fiction literature, as well as engage in vampire fashion, music and gaming.

Common values and social structures were reflected in Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula, the most lucrative vampire novel of its time. The character Count Dracula had a sophisticated appeal about him, and created a sense of revolution with regard to everyday relationships and anxieties. Dracula represented themes such as sexuality, gender and race in a progressive world, which audiences could relate to and thus began literary reinterpretations of vampires.

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This clip “Real vampires and the vampire subculture” features the ways that different people appropriate vampire identities. There are people in this actively growing subculture who believe the stories aren’t fictional, and consider themselves real vampires. Not the kind who roam cemeteries, melt in the sun or participate in satanic sacrifices, they are regular people living as contemporary and symbolic representations of vampires. There are different groups of vampires within the subculture – while many adopt the fashion (i.e. clothing, accessories, permanent fang teeth), the most controversial are those who feed on real human blood to acquire energy, and there are actual websites dedicated to finding vampire blood donors. Others absorb energy from the atmosphere or people around them, and dub themselves as psychic vampires. Many fans contribute to fan fiction literature by reworking and rewriting their favourite vampire texts. Fans employ varying levels of semiotic productivity and merchandise that has supported the ongoing fanpire community. Research on fanpires cultural interpretations has demonstrated a strong creative and devoted foundation for the vampire genre to thrive.

Thanks evolution for the extra limb, I shall call it technology.

So the other day my stepdad was telling an old story and mentions that he was “running to get the phone”. One would only assume a landline connected to the wall, right? Well my 6-year-old brother interrupts innocently and confused, ‘Why would you get up and run to the phone? Why wouldn’t you just get it out of your pocket?’ even out of context, this seems to be an accurate depiction of society today. We actually have a home phone in our house, so I found it quite peculiar for him to presume it was a mobile.

As technology continues to evolve, so does the emergence of tech addicts. Does owning a smartphone make you an addict? I felt that what my younger brother said was a great way to point out the moral panics surrounding tech addiction – even though your mobile isn’t physically attached to you, he still observes that it is always on your person. It’s this device you carry around that acts as an extension of yourself, and into the wireless society. Results from 2013 Mobile Consumer Habits study indicated that 72% of respondents claimed their phone is within 1.5 metres of them most of the time.

While moral panics tend to surround media content, I felt it worthy to note that it is also media usage.  An example of this would be the emergence of “quiet zones” requiring a no mobile/device policy. Public spaces such as restaurants, Café’s and airport lounges are now introducing these quiet zones and are becoming more popular. Similar to the vigorous spread of “No smoking” areas once society became wise to the health risks associated with cigarettes. But how is being on my phone harming anybody? You may ask. Ha, this is where the moral panic is – anybody who has worked in customer service would agree that serving someone who is texting, on a call, or completely fixated on their phone screen during a transaction is rude and frustrating. It’s becoming increasingly apparent, and is a poor form of social etiquette. While (as far as we know) addictive use of hand held devices do not have fatal [physical] affects the way cigarettes do, there is a lot of psychological damage that should not be overlooked. Anxiety, stress, severe distraction and social breakdown are some of the mental health risks we all face on a daily basis.

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Research indicates that out of the 56% of Americans who own smartphones, 40% experience “Nomophobia” – fear of being without your mobile. Furthermore, studies suggest that texting while driving is six times more dangerous than drink driving, with 55% of respondents still admitting they do it. Research from Versapak indicated that 51% of the UK residents who were surveyed (1,245) stated they suffered from ‘extreme tech anxiety… feeling a lack of control when separated from their gadgets’. Constantly checking and re-checking your device, coupled with feeling anxious when you can’t, is also a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. In addition, if sometimes you think you’ve felt or heard your phone vibrate when in fact it hasn’t – this is known as “Phantom Cell phone Vibration Syndrome” which is another telltale sign of tech addiction.

Be aware of your behaviour with technology. Are you active in your surroundings? Do you lack focus? Is your work suffering significantly? Do you feel anxious? For many of us this behaviour may already be integrated into our lifestyle, but it is important to identify and minimize the risks.

However, it’s not all bad. Devices are used for productivity, entertainment and communication – I just think it’s important that we don’t depend every waking minute on it. The most common sentiment in relation to smartphones is the sense of “connectedness”, as humans, our natural instinct is to connect with others.

Below Property Line

Copyright is a big issue, especially since the rapid evolution of social media. Put simply, the most efficient way to avoid your intellectual property being appropriated online is to not upload it at all. While there are “safe” ways to share content, a lot of people just don’t do it. Typically, people don’t tend to feel they are doing something illegal if it is through their computer screen. There is no personal connection or affiliation with who you are “stealing” from. A couple of clicks and you are instantly breaching copyright laws. Piracy is a big one – while artists and large corporations missing out on millions from content they have created, there is little they can do to stop it. There is this general consensus of “if it’s on the internet it’s fair game” but really, it isn’t fair at all. You are legally responsible for all content you post or share online. Without crediting the original source or obtaining permission, you face the consequences.

Sharing someone else’s work online safely is when you only share from the original source. For instance, using the retweet button on Twitter. Sites such Facebook and Tumblr have “share” and “reblog” buttons for this purpose, but often users copy the content and post it without sharing directly from the source. This is a common example of somebody breaching copyright laws.

“A large, diverse society cannot survive without property; a large, diverse, and modern society cannot flourish without intellectual property.” – Lawrence Lessig

This quote from Lessig’s book Free Culture points out the importance of intellectual property. While copyright laws restrict the ways in which we can use previous creators’ work, it can stimulate individuals to generate new ideas. However, it is difficult to come up with something new. Most things we think of will have been done already in various ways. Subsequently, Lessig states that free cultures allow space for others to build upon, however with regard to increasing authorisations we are steering away from this. For example YouTube cases of people lip syncing/dancing to music, creating fandom etc are being sued for copyright infringement. It seems silly; as a lot of these cases include songs by popular artists that most people could identify without a reference. On the other hand, if the boundaries weren’t there I think prosumers would definitely take advantage of it even more than they do already.