Book review: Barefoot into Cyberspace by Becky Hogge
Bill Thompson embraces the digital revolution
Barefoot into Cyberspace: Adventures in Search of Techno-Utopia by Becky Hogge (Barefoot Publishing)
In this readable and very accessible exploration of the space where networked computers, politics and social movements intersect, Becky Hogge, a technology journalist and former director of the Open Rights Group, explores the worldview of those who believe any system can be hacked, and that “if you don’t like something, then build something better.”
She does so through a series of connected interviews with those asking how we can create and sustain an open society in the age of electronics, but the narrative thread is her own personal voyage of exploration of hacker culture, told largely through the prism of her developing engagement with Wikileaks.
The journey is framed by her two visits to the Chaos Computer Congress, the annual hacker conference in Berlin. On her first visit, in 2009, she interviews Julian Assange about the political impact of Wikileaks. Some time later she is invited to Iceland by another Wikileaks activist, Rop Gonggrip, but refuses and misses out on the chance to observe the publication of the Collateral Murder video, US army footage that shows their soldiers shooting two unarmed Reuters journalists in Iraq, from the inside.
She watches the resulting furore from afar, admitting that “I became just another voyeur. In the comfort of my study in a pretty English village, I poured myself a coffee, logged on, and tuned out, happy simply to blow my mind with the acceleration and scale of events.”
But in October 2010 she meets Assange again, and after she signs the infamous Wikileaks Confidentiality Agreement he tells her of the plans to publish the Iraq War logs. The book ends with her back at Chaos, listening to a rallying call from Rop Gonggrip, her journey seemingly complete.
Gonggrijp, a charismatic Dutch hacker and activist, is the real key to her growing understanding, and her descriptions of the time they spent together provide much of the emotional and political force of the story and a counterpoint to the tales of engaged activists she tells as her own life moves from music journalism to technology writing to the Open Rights Group and then to life in the country. Assange, for all his celebrity and apparent influence, remains curiously off-stage.
The book works on two levels. As a description of what happened during a critical period in the development of modern digital culture from someone who was present and – more or less – engaged, it offers a valuable contribution to the history of that febrile time. But it also incorporates important original material from key figures like Cory Doctorow, Phil Booth, Ethan Zuckerberg and Stewart Brand.
As a technology journalist Hogge knows just how much technical explanation to offer to ensure that the untrained can understand what is being said without boring her more geeky readers, and this helps to make the book both readable and informative, whatever your background in computing.
Barefoot Into Cyberspace is not a textbook that aims to teach you about hacking, technology or Wikileaks but a description of Becky’s Dante-like journey through the levels of hackerdom. Whether she’s on her way to Paradise or Hell is, however, left as a question for the reader.
As if to illustrate the power of the technology revolution she has described in the book, Becky Hogge has ‘flash-published’ Barefoot Into Cyberspace with help from some of her geek friends, setting it in Fanwell, an open source font freely available from the League of Moveable Type, and offering both a print edition and a downloadable e-book.