Can we keep the internet open and free, a democratic medium for the rest of us? In studying this question, Becky Hogge's flash-published Barefoot Into Cyberspace joins Jonathan Zittrain's The Future of the Internet — and How to Stop It (2009) and Tim Wu's The Master Switch (and, to some extent, my own 1997 book, net.wars).
A significant difference: Wu and Zittrain are both academic lawyers. Hogge, by contrast, is a journalist and former director of the Open Rights Group. Where Wu and Zittrain look at the forces gathering to control the Net, Hogge goes questing for the radical hackers who might block them.
Her first and last stops are the Chaos Computer Club's annual conferences in 2009 and 2010. In between, while charting the disruptive emergence of Wikileaks, she interviews many sources, including Wikileaker-in-chief Julian Assange and Global Voices founder Ethan Zuckerman. Her four most important guides through this landscape are: Stewart Brand; Cory Doctorow, the science fiction writer, BoingBoing blogger and copyfighter; Phil Booth, the former executive director of No2ID; and, most of all, Rop Gonggrijp, one of four co-founders of the Dutch ISP XS4ALL.
These four guides by themselves are a grid of interconnections. Brand's Whole Earth Catalogue is the inspirational ancestor of Doctorow's BoingBoing. XS4ALL defied Scientology in one of the Net's first free-speech battles, which defined today's notice-and-takedown standard. The Open Rights Group (ORG) supported Booth's opposition to the database state and fights electronic voting. Gonggrijp was one of the people who made the Dutch voting machines play chess. Each has his role in, and view of, the mix of counter-culture and computers that enticed Hogge at the outset, fuelled by the movie Easy Rider and the book Fierce Dancing.
"Ready or not, computers are coming to the people. That's good news, maybe the best since psychedelics." Stewart Brand wrote in Rolling Stone in 1972. Yet the first generation of Net pioneers are not in general today's radical hackers. Instead, many own the businesses trying to close down the internet to incomers.
There's a not-so secret about activists that those pursuing anti-democratic policies have unfortunately spotted: they burn out. A trade association has its choice of professional lobbyists willing to be paid to argue the cause during working hours. The supply of people willing to donate their lives to sparking protest for little or no money is much smaller, however, and the toll is intense. During 2010, the year this book covers, Wikileaks becomes a disruptive force, but Gonggrijp leaves the (dis)organisation because he likes to see his kids and sleep in a bed.
It took Hogge only two years at ORG to realise how much fight was left in the old institutions that earlier campaigners thought would topple easily. Barefoot Into Cyberspace is a personal as well as a political journey, retracing Hogge's path from computer-obsessed young idealist through the counter-culture, into politics and back out again — not so much disillusioned as uncertain.
Participating in Westminster and EU politics, she writes, is like eating a bad oyster: "It left a taste in my mouth so foul I couldn't imagine eating another one for a very long time". Can cyberspace's hippies survive that taste?
Barefoot Into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of Techno-Utopia By Becky Hogge Illustrated by Christopher Scally Barefoot Publishing 241pp ISBN: 978-1-906110-50-5 Price: £8.99; £2.29 Kindle (also available as free download in PDF or HTML)