Friday, January 31, 2014

My Log 404: Some thoughts stimulated by a movie on hackers, screened by Cinema Politica at McGill

Scientology: anti-psychiatry demonstration in ...
Scientology: anti-psychiatry demonstration in Edinburgh, Scotland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica netw...
English: The logo for the Cinema Politica network. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I went last night to a screening of Cinema Politica at McGill, of a film about computer hackers called We Are Legion. When the film was over I asked if they had an English-language version of it, but the rather smallish audience didn’t get the joke. They were all about a fourth of my age so I guess that explains it. These kids seem to be accustomed to the appalling jargon these hackers use.
The film dealt with those serious hackers who have emerged on the public stage under the generic name of Anonymous. They explained that in this group were earlier well-known hackers, such as one that operated under the name 4Chan, which, as someone in the film explained, was established by a teen-age kid, the nicest, mildest, pleasantest person you could imagine, who presided over the most disgusting, reprehensible web site in existence.  I didn’t get a clear idea of what was so disgusting about it, but those who espouse this type of activity said it was a place where anyone could produce anything that might wander out of their imagination, however bizarre or appalling it might be, and thus represented a notable step forward in freedom of expression.
The first serious appearance of Anonymous came, if I got my facts right (I cannot really guarantee that, because these people talk in such strange, convoluted language that it was hard to pick up the essential facts from the film)   when they decided to make a global assault against the Church of Scientology, using such tricks as hacking into their web sites,  (again I apologize if my description of the actual event is slightly garbled but their description of it was slightly garbled, at least in my ears) and hitting a button which sent a single message 800,000 times to the Scientologists, thus disrupting their absurd machinations. The Scientologists, as everyone knows, is really a cult that has nothing to do with religion, and until confronted by these hackers, they routinely brought legal proceedings against anyone who murmured a whiff of opposition to their activities. The spokespeople for Anonymous said in the film that that was no longer so; the confrontation with the hackers had so disturbed the cultists’ customary behaviour as to free critical people from the fear of legal action, since the Scientologists no longer use this tactic to quiet opposition.
One up for the hackers, in my book.
I didn’t get any other major achievement of the hackers from the film, although they did fight back against the actions of Mastercard and Paypal in refusing to carry the financial affairs of Wikileaks in an effort to cut off at the knees that troublesome group --- which themselves are backed on the work of hackers, Julian Assange having started out as a hacker.  On another occasion they launched a day for street demonstrations, and one of the spokespersons said that by carefully collecting the numbers of people who had gathered in the streets of cities around the world, they came to the incredible figure of 10,000.  To me, that doesn’t sound much like an incredible figure, but, in comparison, for example, with the one million who gathered to protest  against the American war in Iraq, a rather pitifully small one.
Of course, if one considers that hackers are a select group, in advance of others in their knowledge of computers, and in their social obligation to correct the ills of he world, then these 10,000 could be thought of as a vanguard, in much the same way that the Communist party, though small in numbers, used to think of itself as the vanguard of the working class.
The trouble with that comparison is that we knew what Communists stood for, whereas it isn’t at all clear that these hackers stand for anything except to use their technical skills to create trouble. I didn’t get any clear description from the film of what these organized hackers stood for. In this sense, hacking would seem to hold out promise that they might stimulate social reforms, or, on the other hand, that they might just as easily destroy much that is good, depending on the will or social consciousness of the hacker.
One of the authorities called on in the film several times was a young anthropologist from McGill,  Prof. Gabriella Coleman, who, when the film finished appeared and took questions from the audience. She obviously knows a lot about the subject, but she had to admit that hackers had made many mistakes, had sometimes negatively affected innocent people, had paid insufficient attention to their personal security, making them easy for governments and others to pinpoint them, arrest them, and charge them.  One of my overwhelming impressions from the film was that at the end, many of the hackers seemed rather chastened as they tamely discussed what might lie in store for them as a result of having been caught in their activities. In general, I certainly didn’t get any impression that they are putative leaders of our coming revolution against the evils of capitalism.
One of the most interesting facts I picked up from the evening was when Professor Coleman said there are “millions of hackers” around the world. That is a sobering thought. One can hardly escape the fear that a good number of them might eventually be hired by, say, the Koch brothers, to aid them in their nefarious, right-wing, fascist-tending work.
A few words about the Cinema Politica as it is represented in McGill. In general it can be said that it is but a shadow of the more established variety in Concordia. There the man who founded Cinema Politica, Ezra Winton, seems still to be in charge, 10 years after they began, and it is he who seems to have presided over their expansion into many countries around the world, and dozens of universities.  Concordia appears capable of drawing an audience of around 500 people, and even more, week after week. They have a collection box at the door into which people are invited to place their donations as they walk in, whereas the four or five pleasant young women who are running the show in McGill have not so far --- at least not in my presence --- been able to do more than indicate to the audience a bottle that sits on a bench at the bottom of the room to which anyone who wants to contribute must climb down, resulting, I would think, in very few donations.
It is definitely amateur hour as the young women in McGill prepare the computer from which they are transferring the image to the screen in the steeply-banked lecture room. Their programme for the rest of the semester indicates only five more screenings, whereas Concordia has 10 further screenings scheduled. So far, to judge by the two shows I have attended at McGill, the audiences have been relatively sparse, which suggests that the young women have not really undertaken a vigorous effort to drum up interest within the University.

The first screening I attended at McGill concerned the firing of a celebrated McGill professor who, after a couple of decades of loyal service, was handed his papers without so much as an explanation. Unfortunately the movie explaining all this droned on for a good 80 minutes, 30 minutes of which could easily have been dispensed with by cutting irrelevant and repetitious material. Then, when the professor turned up to dazzle us with his celebrated teaching technique, he declared the movie was a work of remarkable genius, which any of us could plainly see was not the case. Putting his judgment somewhat into question.
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