Hacktivism: the intersection of advocacy and technology

Anyone who has attended protests or been involved with activism in the last few years can tell you: The times, they are a changin’.

Tools of activists used to include self-published pamphlets and posters. Networking happened in person at organizational meetings. These days, in a time of advancing and evolving technology, the tools have evolved as well. Where direct action used to mean blocking intersections, now it can also be used to describe defacing websites.

This isn’t a new idea. From religious reformers in 16th century Europe using printing presses to distribute bibles to activist-run mailing lists during the early days of the Internet, activists have been quick to adapt new technology to their needs. However, the rise of tech-savvy activism has also spawned a new movement, especially in the Bay Area. They call themselves “hacktivists.”

The term is subject to a fair amount of controversy, but that doesn’t stop SF State senior Gregg Horton from identifying as a part of this diverse movement. A student in SF State’s Conceptual/Information Arts program, Horton describes hacktivism as “socially conscious technology.” According to Horton, examples of hacktivism can range from a hacker defacing a website with a message of their own to creating independent media outlets.

“The concept has existed before the term,” Horton said. “The wedding of hackers and activism isn’t that far-fetched. They kind of go together.”

A member of a loosely-organized movement called Hackbloc also sees that connection. Hackbloc is part zine and part news and networking site. Ringo, who wished to only use his first name, serves as the administrator for Hackbloc.org.

“If you look at who the heroes of the hacker culture are, they all embody some level of defiance of authority and many also embody anarchist social values,” Ringo said.

Horton has also been directly involved with connecting activists with technology. He and a group of volunteers recently hosted a conference called Hackmeet. The two-day event attracted activists, hackers, artists and more. Talks covered topics from electronic civil disobedience to knowing your digital rights.

“People were very much into it,”  Horton said. “I think it connected a lot of people who didn’t know each other.”

Horton also noted that the ongoing Occupy protests helped energize the conference.

“It would have been a much different experience if people interacted and then had nothing to put that energy into,” Horton said.

One of Horton’s ongoing projects is a sound system that can be mounted on a bicycle trailer and mobilized. Horton has dubbed the system the “iRiot.” It frequently appears at critical mass rides, and has also used as a PA system during general assembly meetings at Occupy Oakland.

Hand-built systems like the iRiot aren’t the only mutant protest-enabling machines out there. Jake Sternberg, a local self-taught engineer, recently constructed two bicycle-powered generators for the Occupy Oakland and Occupy SF camps.

The generator was used in Oakland until police confiscated it during the Oct. 25 raid on the camp at Frank Ogawa Plaza. A similar generator is still powering Occupy SF’s camp.

“Geeks are a subset of humanity,” Sternberg said. “Geeks are predisposed to deep understanding of specific technical fields, and are highly motivated to use that power for the benefit of their community.”

Whether you call them geeks, hackers or hacktivists, it’s undeniable that they are having an impact on activism.

“We expect lawyers to donate their time to the public good and doctors to give a Heimlich maneuver to a choking person near them in a restaurant,” said Ringo of Hackbloc. “Why can’t we have this same expectation of hackers?”

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