52 – #FIGHT

At the start of 2008, Anonymous went to war. A YouTube video, posted that January, featured actor Tom Cruise extolling the virtues of the Church of Scientology. The Church, lawyers ever at the ready, claimed the video was ‘pirated and edited’, and threatened YouTube with litigation unless they removed from the site.

That seemingly minor act proved the casus belli of one of the oddest conflicts of recent times. Anonymous, at that time more of a loose association than a coherent force, used Scientology’s act of censorship-by-threat-of-lawsuit as a rallying cry, which concretized in the hyperpolitical ‘Project Chanology’.

Project Chanology began with Anonymous (hyperconnected via the 711chan.org and 4chan.org websites) sharing strategies and techniques for an attack on the Church of Scientology. Lacking any explicit command-and-control structures, ideas could be quickly proposed and implemented (by some group, somewhere), or ignored.

Black faxes – which kept lines busy while quickly running through the supply of expensive ink – started popping out of Church fax machines. Church websites went down in Distributed Denial of Service attacks, assaulted by thousands of computers simultaneously. Prank calls jammed Church phone lines. To the Church, it probably seemed as though the machines had revolted against their masters — or that teenagers had taken over the Internet.

The Church of Scientology, never one to turn the other cheek, went on the counter-offensive, branding Anonymous ‘cyberterrorists’ perpetrating ‘religious hate crimes’. But though the Church issued numerous statements and declamations, they could do very little to stop or even slow Anonymous. The Church had always been able to sue any opponents of its practices into silence, because those opponents had a body that could be targeted. Anonymous, everywhere and nowhere, potent yet invisible, had no face, and could not be threatened. Like a will-’o-the-wisp, striking out at Anonymous only left the Church spinning, dragged along in the wake of its own punch.

Gradually, Anonymous developed another battle plan, one which struck the Church at its root – its tax-exempt status. This effort – predicted to take months to years – completed the transformation of Project Chanology from a momentary blip of hyperempowerment into hyperpolitics, a persistent force confronting a poorly-matched enemy.

Anonymous used just a tiny portion of the spectrum of hyperpolitical techniques available to it. Had its hyperconnected, hyperempowered constituents been sufficiently interested, they could have laboriously trawled through the Church’s public financial statements, looking for inconsistencies, an effort in crowdsourcing similar to that performed by the UK Guardian newspaper, as it analyzed hundreds of thousands of expense reports from Westminster MPs, igniting the greatest political scandal of recent British history. Or someone could have written an app – like an inverted Foursquare – allowing Anonymous to track the movements of the Church hierarchy, and inviting anyone within range to participate in spontaneous protests, ensuring Church leaders never have a moment’s peace. Or an app which highlighted all of the products manufactured or sold by Scientology-affiliated companies, allowing Anonymous (and its friends) to easily boycott them.

The possibilities are practically endless, and reveal the half-hearted nature of the ‘war’ between Anonymous and Scientology. Anonymous didn’t really try to destroy the Church; if anything, Anonymous acted more like a cat toying with a mouse. We could destroy you, Anonymous seemed to be saying, but why bother?

The war between powers formally constituted, and those hyperconnected and hyperempowered has been going on for over a decade – ever since Napster, strangled in the crib by the recording industry, posthumously gave birth to Gnutella and BitTorrent. But it’s never been a fair fight; it’s only ever been a rout. Power uses the law and the threat of force in an attempt to bend the world to its will, while the hyperempowered invariably find a way to route around every obstacle thrown in their path. Worse, every time power strikes at hyperempowerment, the hyperempowered study the attack, learn from it, share that learning, and put it into practice, emerging with amplified levels of hyperempowerment. This is the Taoist paradox: only by doing nothing can power achieve anything at all.

Over the next billion seconds, as power becomes powerless, the triumph of the hyperempowered will be complete. At times, the hyperempowered will engage power directly and defeat it utterly. Most often, hyperochlocracy will simply ignore power, and carry on in its actions without even breaking stride.

Every encounter with an opponent is a learning experience. From the first, every fight has always been a period of rapid-fire connecting and sharing. Enemies learn from one another, becoming like one another as each battles toward supremacy.

When the hyperempowered land a killing blow and lay waste to power, they transform power into hyperempowerment. With every fight and every connection knowledge is transferred. Over the next billion seconds, through this mechanism, all power becomes hyperempowered, and all politics hyperpolitics.

This is the realm of the bellum omnium contra omnes, the ‘war of all against all’ prophesied by Hobbes in Leviathan, nearly 400 years ago. However, this is not the selfish, grasping behavior of individual Homo Sapiens – whose only salvation, according to Hobbes, lay in a benevolent but absolute monarch – but the hyperconnected, hyperdistributed, hypermimetic, hyperintelligent, hyperempowered, hyperochlocratic hyperpolitics of Homo Nexus. The war of all against all is the war of multiple manys against other multiple manys.

War is the health of a new state of being; a communion of many, the cohesive connection around something deemed sufficiently salient to command continuous involvement and attention. Flying apart means coming together, though differently constituted.

Where the hyperempowered fight one another, when like strikes like, there the sparks fly. Each hit accelerates the transfer of learning, and each combatant rapidly comes to resemble its opponent. Conflicts of hyperempowerment either end quickly – as one side overwhelms and consumes the other – or grind into stalemate, as each seeks an advantage unavailable to the other, a near impossibility.

The next billion seconds will look more like pandemic civil war than any time in our recent past, as the hyperempowered collude with one another to fight against one another. Hyperpolitical polities will rise, and in rising, produce their own opposition. The paradox of Taoism plagues hyperpolitics as well: every maneuver generates a precisely opposed countervailing force. As before, two sides grind on, although everything has changed.