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How a hacker congress in Hamburg shows that activism is the new political currency

the-nsa-trained-edward-snowden-to-be-an-elite-hackerBy Simon Davies

It became one of the most magnificent misjudgments of recent British political history. In October the notorious UK satirist and comic Russell Brand tapped the national psyche with a passionate call for a “revolution” of the political system – and then in the space of ten minutes spectacularly detonated his credibility.

According to Brand, modern democracy is a corrupted legacy that offers no choice and no change. People are hopelessly in debt, the world is dying and the wealthy few control the planet more than they ever have before. Democratic institutions are the rotting cadavers of past political hierarchies.

Russell Brand calls for a revolution

Russell Brand calls for a revolution

We’ve heard these notions a thousand times before, but for ideology, timing is everything. Brand’s words momentarily resonated with a population feeling sickened and betrayed by politics. Veteran television journalist Jeremy Paxman gave Brand his moment in the sun with a BBC interview that – remarkably – notched up ten million YouTube views and actually reached into the British pub environment (which historically is a crucial litmus test for political change). Sadly the pub talk wasn’t quite as Brand had imagined.

Ten million YouTube hits is a vast score for any political message. British Olympic diving youngster Tom Daley achieved the same count with his “coming out” message, but that was mainly the human interest value and the fact that he’s seen as cute. Politics is a tougher sell, particularly when the messenger uses words like “paradigm” in the first minute.

Still, this was Russell Brand’s moment to change hearts and minds and he failed miserably. It’s one thing to declare zero interest in the present political system (“I’ve never voted”) but quite another to call a revolution with no substantial alternative (“Don’t ask me Jeremy… I haven’t invented it yet”).

The word “revolution” should be used sparingly. Revolutions are rare – powerful movements that accelerate human evolution, even if through turbulence and trauma.

Political disenchantment is a familiar public sentiment, but the present climate should make all of us at least a little worried. Tribal support for bipartisan politics is disintegrating. In countries with a multi-party option – such as Italy – trust in politics has hit rock bottom.

Russell Brand blew his moment in two ways. Failing to deliver an alternative system was poisonous, but there’s much more. The word “revolution” should be used sparingly. Revolutions are rare – powerful movements that accelerate human evolution, even if through turbulence and trauma. Mr Brand had indeed tapped into a festering emotional psyche, but he failed to engage intellectual triggers that build the ideological foundation for change.

Pop history might see revolutions as planned “moments” of decisive dissent, where in reality they usually occur over a long period. The Tiananmen Square protest, for example, was merely the bloody aftermath of years of such expression. The French Revolution didn’t just “happen” with the storming of the Bastille: it was a decade-long process that arose from many years of Enlightenment ideals that had fuelled bourgeois and peasant dissent. Russell Brand is right to say that the seeds of change have been growing for a while, but seeds of change are always evident in human society. That’s not proof of a pending revolution.

For a man who knows how to work audiences Brand couldn’t understand that these days the mass of people want customisation and interaction – with immediate rewards – while opinion leaders need substantive concepts. He satisfied neither.

People who blather on about “revolution” rarely grasp the nature of change – and they often fail to recognise the forces of change that are actually making a difference. To achieve that awareness Russell Brand should have paid a visit this week to Hamburg, where a hacker conference is providing pathways that could make a difference to the corrupt and self-serving paradigms that so concern him.

The Hamburg Congress Centre was rammed to capacity with agents of change

The Hamburg Congress Centre was rammed to capacity with agents of change

At midnight yesterday thousands of hackers and tech experts gathered in the auditorium of the vast Congress Centre in Hamburg, Germany. Like their sister US conference DEF-CON, they are the visible, open-source element of a global movement that reaches deep into the tech universe. And by “tech universe” I mean the engine rooms of the future. This annual event organised by Germany’s Chaos Computer Club (CCC) is at the heart of one key dimension of change.

Such gatherings have been a feature of the tech world since the 1980’s, but there’s an important emerging dynamic in the most recent gatherings: participants increasingly appear to be sharpening their teeth for all the right reasons.

Political and societal issues have traditionally been strong in this community. Ethical – or “White Hat” – hacking has generally been a force for good, helping to strengthen or expose vulnerable or irresponsible systems. In the early days (for example the “Computers, Freedom & Privacy” conferences in the US) “big picture” perspectives on societal change were prevalent.

There are thousands here who cannot yet articulate a political position, but the hive message is strong: everyone is being screwed and action must be taken.

The dynamics went somewhat downhill in the 1990’s. The movement became a sector, with all the attendant trappings and hierarchies. Hacking shifted noticeably from an intellectual pursuit to a criminal enterprise. And tech became so vast and complex that people’s focus moved from the macro Big Picture to a micro interest infiltrating specific technologies. Now there’s every indication – perhaps spurred on by the NSA revelations – that the pendulum has started to swing back.

As with any complex community, people are here in Hamburg for many reasons. Some came because hacking is cool; others because these events have become part of their life. And in the background, as always, the security agencies and corporations are recruiting. There are thousands here who cannot yet articulate a political position, but the hive message is strong: everyone is being screwed and action must be taken.

Hamburg is the culmination of a decade of protest and dissent that goes from strength to strength. The platforms – Reddit, 4Chan, Anonymous – mirror more mainstream activism by the likes of television and film broadcast figures such as Michael Moore. In the past few years thousands of organisations and individuals have become activist campaigners that are causing disruption and friction to regressive technological and political systems.

No-one can impose a revolution on the sole basis of an ideology, but ideology can create a constructive thread for movements of change. That’s exactly what’s happening in Hamburg. Instead of  calling for some amorphous revolution Russell Brand might have done better to lend support to the agents of change that are already making a difference.