The Data Angels are an artifact of the late 90s. The dotcom bubble was still in effect, and it was possible to make stupendous amounts of money by simply having a web site consisting of properly formatted HTML. Cyberoptimism loomed large in the public imagination – information technology would solve a great many problems and transform huge swathes of society in ways we did not even know yet. The movie Hackers had just come out (relatively speaking), and if only one thing was certain, it was that information technologies and the Net (not to be confused with the movie) was novahot. Psychoanalyzing avatars used on primitive visual online forums was a real thing. Computers and hackers were in.
Then, things changed. The attack on the World Trade Centers meant hackers went from being wiz kids to being terrorists (a perception which, as the case of Aaron Schwartz shows, is still in effect), and as the bubble unequivocally popped, all the money went out of information tech. if the early 00s did anything, it was to curb the relentless cyberoptimism that had led up to it. Things went from postmodern to hyperreal, and the ambitions of all things cyber had to become dramatically more realistic.
After that, information technologies solved an untold number of problems and transformed huge swathes of society in ways we do not even know yet. If the stupendous nineteen billion dollar acquisition of WhatsApp by Facebook something to go by, the money does seem to have come back to the cyber – or at least the corporate structures which manage it. But it is not the same kind of beast as the one we saw twenty years ago, and thus it would be a mistake to read the Data Angels as an extension of the state of the online world of today. These were times before Facebook, YouTube, Twitter; Google lived in someone’s basement, barely more than an idea. These were also the time before Anonymous, 4chan and everything related to that. If a phone was in any way ‘smart’, it was probably a bad thing; ‘apps’ were known as programs. We can not use these contemporary (but somehow also real) things as our baseline reference points. Instead, we have to read them in the light of the late 90s hacker ethos. An ethos that is visible in this leader quote:
What’s more important, the data or the jazz? Sure, sure, ‘Information should be free’ and all that – but anyone can set information free. The jazz is in how you do it, what you do it to, and in almost getting caught without getting caught. The data is 1’s and 0’s. Life is the jazz.
– Datatech Sinder Roze, “Infobop”
This is not hacking in the sense of Uber ‘disrupting’ local labor laws using an application, or Facebook creating a distortion in the economic space-time continuum through sheer monetary weight. This is hacking on an individual level, where amazing feats are performed through sheer force of personal intelligence, dexterity and extensive knowledge of complex systems. Sometimes for personal gain, but more often than not for the prestige, the thrill or – as Sinder Roze puts it – the jazz. It was an intensely personal thing, something to be bragged about to the closely knitted communities one happened to belong to, offline and offline. It was hacking as a performance, in the many senses of the word.
Basically, it’s the movie Hackers, but with less rollerskating. And the Data Angels are a whole faction of these people.
This presents us with the interesting question of what such a society would look like if confronted with the task of building a state. It is one thing to 1337 h4xx0r pwn into someone else’s digital ecosystem and peruse whatever secrets might be contained within; it is quite another to build working infrastructure, put in place resilient societal institutions and – a notion which seems somewhat anathema to the whole basic idea – field effective armies. It is not altogether clear how the hyperindividualistic anarchistic old style hacker ethos transforms into any kind of collective governance, or how it would manage to sustain any kind of legitimacy if it through some miracle achieved it.
It is possible that there might emerge some sort of cutthroat meritocracy where the most leet haxxor calls the shots, where the definition of just who is the top hacker is always open for debate and – more importantly – being challenged. There is always a better hack, a better way of going about things, and “the best” is always only ever thus until someone else comes around doing something better. This might be in terms of a spectacular hack of someone else – the Planetside equivalent of hacking the FBI – or hacking each other to such a degree that any degree of respect evaporates on the part of the hackee. The result being an ever changing cast of characters being in charge (for any given definition of ‘in charge’), and any policy put in place provisional pending upcoming potentates.
This would, to say the least, make for a very volatile workspace environment. On the one hand, it would mean that continuity of governance becomes something of a fluid concept, akin to the sentiment expressed in the statement “the king is dead, long live the king!”. On the other hand, it would ensure that those in charge were those best equipped and prepared to hack and be hacked; a meritocracy of computer enthusiasts, with or without rollerskates. Or, to quote the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. [/] We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
Given what we now know, twenty years of actual history later, this vision of society takes on a slightly different tone. The notion of someone having a boring office job by day and being an elite hacker alter ego at night – Matrix style – only ever works if there is an ordinary boring world to blend in with. When computers became mainstream – economically and culturally – this fell apart, as you could simply get a job as an official hacker. This strips the proposition of some of its glory, where hacking becomes the boring ordinary job of keeping capitalism alive. To be sure, the process could reinvent itself as yet another layer of 1337 taking place in the shadows of this new normal, but this presents a new and rather uncomfortable question: why would you build an ideal society and then hide away from it?
Perhaps this is a flaw in the writing of the Data Angels as a faction, or a flaw inherent in the 90s conception of hackers as seen through contemporary eyes. Either way, there is more to unpack here than can reasonably be covered in a readable number of words. What happened to 90s cyberoptimism and how we ended up where we are now is, I maintain, one of the bigger questions of our time.
The thought of a transcended humanity using the Manifold as a computer network does have its appeal. Given that Planet is not unique of its kind, and that there seems to be some sort of communication (albeit interstellarly slow) going on between Manifold planets, it is not unthinkable that the Data Angels would try to establish more formalized (and hackable) connections with the rest of the network. They would, quite literally, hack the planet. While the details of how such a network-building would be a massive feat of posthuman engineering, I suspect it would quickly fade into a new status quo. As the leader quote suggested, it is not the data that is important. What is important is the jazz.