Monday, 24 October 2016

A land of no Trust

With the advent of the Internet, as with the advent of all great technologies in the past, we have witnessed a slow, but noticeable transformation of our understanding of fundamental human and social values. That is not to say that our values themselves have changed - though I can understand people making claims otherwise - but the way we perceive, evaluate, and understand traditional values certainly seems to be evolving.

When we make an online purchase these days, we rarely think twice about the fact that we're buying a physical product without seeing it in front of us. We throw all caution to the wind and punch in our credit card details in online forms (that is of course, if the merchant doesn't possess our credit card details already). In the pre-Internet era, such an act of disclosing one's confidential financial information to an unknown entity would be considered unthinkable, naive, and foolish. However, the millions of people today who do it every hour points to a changing landscape of how we've changed our attitudes to things that we value, and continue to hold dear.

Thus, when we save our credit card information in Amazon or Walmart, we "trust" the respective corporations to not use it till we choose to buy something ourselves (though even that may change in the near future). This really isn't unlike the faith that we have in our banking institutions to ensure that our money is used correctly. In both cases, we choose to "trust" a central entity.

Let us consider a somewhat different scenario: how does one go about choosing a good place on Airbnb? Once we shortlist down to a few hosts, we take the final call based on price, location, and often most importantly, the reviews received by the hosts from other Airbnb users. Here again, we put faith in Airbnb, by trusting them to show us genuine reviews left behind by real people.

And indeed, it has worked. Airbnb has proved to be such a successful business model that it has made established hotel chains sit up and take notice. Apps like Uber and Lyft have had a similar effect in the ride-sharing industry.

In both the aforementioned cases, we have changed the ways in which we trust. We trust our Airbnb hosts to not be sociopaths by reading their reviews online. We trust our Uber drivers to not be inebriated while driving by looking at their ratings. This behaviour is but, a natural extension of our propensity to trust an online seller to send us something that we had only seen on a computer screen. This propensity is one, that two decades of e-commerce has helped us inculcate.

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In October 2015, the Economist ran a cover story on what they called "the trust machine". It was about the blockchain, the technology underlying cryptocurrencies like the bitcoin. The story referred to the blockchain as "the great chain of being sure about things".

In the "online trust" landscape, the blockchain poses an interesting idea. Here, I choose to differ with the Economist's labelling it as a "trust machine" because I think that it goes way beyond what we perceive to be trust today. In fact, the blockchain threatens to disrupt this evolution of trust. It strikes at the very basis of the need for trust online and simply proclaims, "you don't need trust". Well, maybe not in so many words, but if one were to read the first few lines of Satoshi Nakamoto's bitcoin paper, it is made all but patently obvious. "What is needed," it reads, "is an electronic payment system based on cryptographic proof instead of trust, allowing any two willing parties to transact directly with each other without the need for a trusted third party" Notice how it uses the phrase, "instead of trust". And that is where things get interesting. While traditional internet applications have, over the years, tried to make it easier for us to "trust" online, the blockchain tries to do away with the concept of trust completely. At the very least, it tries to reduce the concept of trust to having faith in 1+1 being 2.

A lot of the blockchain rhetoric that we hear today is often bereft of the simple and basic ideas that underpin it in the first place. Sure, superficial blockchain evangelists wax lyrical about how its genius formulation bypasses the need of a central regulatory authority. Those who are a bit more in the know praise its economic innovation - that it provides a platform to generate an economic artefact that can work as both, an asset as well as an inflation-proof currency. But the broader idea that the blockchain really brings to the table is a new concept of trust - that is, if one can at all, call reliance on mathematical algorithms, trust.

A monetary transaction between two individuals, thus, no longer needs "trust" between them or in a third party, in order to be "valid". It is up to the unforgiving laws of mathematics to ensure that it is valid, and that's it. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how it percolates into our daily lives, if at all it does. And I must admit, outside of the bitcoin, things certainly do look pretty bleak for the blockchain. The DAO has bombed. The Ethereum is on a one-way ticket to hell (read my rant about it here). A number of other blockchain based ideas - though brilliantly conceived - might just be too little, too early - given the tempestuous state of the crypto-ecosystem right now. Arcade City - a novel ride-sharing app that tries to put drivers first, aims to run solely on the ethereum blockchain - using a new cryptocurrency called Arcade City Token (ARC). Wave wants to re-imagine international trade by redesigning the basics of supply chain on a blockchain. Onenname is trying to assemble all human identities on a blockchain. And this is of course, just a tiny peek into the beehive that is the blockchain startup community in 2016.

A lot of it is noise. Arcade City for example, has raised several concerns about its functioning. But notwithstanding the static, the hope for a signal, howsoever minute, is worth paying attention to. Because, if and when the blockchain does become big, we would have witnessed the erosion (probably not the extinction), of one of the most fundamental human values that binds societies together - trust.



Images courtesy:  http://washington.cbslocal.com/2014/05/29/us-appeals-court-in-god-we-trust-on-currency-not-a-violation-of-first-amendment/ and  http://www.blockchaintechnologies.com/blockchain-definition

Monday, 1 August 2016

Smart contracts and dumb principles: a primer on ethereum, the DAO hack, and the hard fork

source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5qJ7t2GFVM
When Satoshi Nakamoto conceptualized the blockchain in his bitcoin whitepaper back in 2008, the emphasis on its inherent immutability was patently obvious. "The network timestamps transactions", the abstract ran, "by hashing them into an ongoing chain of hash-based proof-of-work, forming a record that cannot be changed ..."

Of course, he wasn't using the term blockchain yet ... but it would pick up soon.

Eight years hence, the blockchain has become more than just a buzzword in a select set of silos around the world. Computer scientists and math nerds are excited about the technology for what it is. Finance folks are peering in its direction, their noses quivering in anticipation of what this strange entity could mean to them. Law practitioners are, unsurprisingly enough, trying very hard to make it all about them. Government officials are still (mostly) scratching their heads and trying to figure out whether they can make easy money out of it. And if not, how to diss on it.

Some people have heaped enormous praise on the blockchain, calling it the next big thing, in terms of the magnitude of disruption it will cause on society. Others have been more cautious, calling it an un-sexy, un-glamourous, but important milestone in the history of accounting - much like double entry bookkeeping. Yet others have dismissed it as a fad, as a huge bubble that will one day burst. But whether they appreciate it or not, people on both sides have generally acknowledged a few things about the blockchain, that are pretty neat. And somewhat ground-breaking.

The first is transparency. Being a public ledger of transactions, anyone, at any time can trace the flow of money through the system on a blockchain. Users are of course, anonymized, but as long as the movement of funds through the system is visible to all, chances of fraudulent transactions happening are massively reduced. The second is immutability. Once a transaction has been verified, it's essentially set in stone in a block on the blockchain. Any attempt to tamper with it, will require someone to re-verify every single block from that point right up to the end. Because the process of verification requires one to do the proof-of-work for every subsequent block of transactions, it is virtually impossible to amass the computational power required to execute it, and "change" the entire blockchain to reflect this one tampered transaction.

These, and just these two things is what makes the blockchain so very interesting, and dare I say, revolutionary, to a certain extent.

Unfortunately enough, it is one of these two principle strengths of the blockchain, that is under threat today. What is sadder is that this threat is internal.

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Enter, the ethereum.

source: http://www.gaebler.com/Human-Resource-Law.htm

While the Ethereum project launched only in 2015, it had been proposed way back in 2013. Between July and August of 2014, the project had raised close to a staggering $18.5 million in bitcoins in crowd funding. Its idea was simple, but extremely audacious. It embraced a very utopic vision that all  human contracts could be rewritten and/or replaced by smart-contracts in computer code, which could be implemented in any programming language that is Turing complete. Thereby, one could do away with the pesky ambiguity that plagues existing man-made contracts and have a new set of contracts that could be evaluated by the same unbiased and unforgiving logic that makes 1+1, 2 and governs computer software. The EtherScripter website even referred to it as a new kind of law

The hype was understandable. Smart-contracts became a rage in the world of cyptocurrencies. The DAO - the world's first perfectly autonomous organization was created on the ethereum blockchain. Investors were absolutely enamoured by the idea of a self-governing organization that pays dividends  regularly, yet was outside of any human's direct control. As a result, the DAO raised a record-breaking $120 million by crowd-funding in 2016. People didn't care that the ethereum blockchain was woefully buggy. People didn't care that the blockchain had a million security loopholes that could attract (and were attracting) hackers like moths to a brightly lit light bulb. People didn't care that they were putting their money into a computer program that hadn't even passed the bare minimum levels of robustness testing that such a program should have passed. The idea was all that the people loved. Not one gave two hoots about the implementation.

And indeed, it did sound like a great idea - and yes, I must admit, it still does. But unfortunately, real-world laws don't quite work like clockwork (or like computer code). An attempt to forcibly impose a set of perfectly logical rules on a society that is largely emotion driven and non-deterministic is the stuff of dreams that social scientists have long yearned for. Sooner or later, the human element that is at the base of any such approach is bound to buckle under itself and fail miserably.

For the ethereum dream and the DAO enthusiasts, it might seem that this happened in the form of the hack.

Except that it didn't.

No, and let me be very clear here: the hack was not the epic, miserable failure that beset ethereum. The hack was a setback, certainly, but it was not the failure. The failure was the reaction to the hack. The failure was the DAO community voting to rollback the blockchain to a point in time before the hack, thereby reinstating funds into their investors wallets.

In blockchain parlance therefore, the failure was the hard fork.

By choosing to hard-fork, the ethereum community really hit itself where it hurts the most. The hard-fork essentially meant that for all practical purposes the DAO was a majoritarian anarchic community. The voting scheme that led to the decision to hard fork - which gives shareholders who possess more tokens, more clout, now looked like a rigged system simply meant to create an oligarchy.

Let's now take a step back and consider the hack from a more subjective perspective. The word hack has a certain negative connotation to it, and therefore makes it sound more illegal than what it really might have been. For all that we know, the "hacker" played by the rules of the system to transfer funds to his wallet. If you consider the Vegas Poker machine hack case, charges against the "hackers" were dropped because of that same reason. If past legal rulings set any precedents, then the move to hard-fork, which seized the hacker's wallet to reinstate the investors' funds, seems like a far more illegal move than the actual hack.

Speaking of precedents, let us consider the dangerous precedent that the hard fork now sets for the future of blockchains and decentralized organizations: if a simple majority of the community votes to seize any single person's funds, irrespective of who this person is, and what he or she has done, this individual has nothing to protect him or her from this act. This isn't like "traditional" law that the affected parties can fight out in courts; it is all up to a simple majority of voters to decide whether you get to keep your money, or not.

Moreover, by rolling back the blockchain, the community sacrificed its biggest, most revolutionary feature - immutability - at the altar of investors' happiness. If smart-contracts are supposed to be inherently immutable (which is what makes them so very special, and "better" than that dratted ambiguous human law), what keeps a simple majority vote from mutating an established contract on an apparently immutable blockchain? Nothing at all.

So what should the community have done, you ask, in response to the hack? Again, nothing at all. They should have taken the hack in their stride, and devoted more time to fixing the bugs in the ethereum blockchain in the first place. Unleashing a bug-riddled investment instrument to the public, at the behest of its investors was an audaciously criminal-esque act to begin with. What's worse is that, even today, in the aftermath of the hack, no one in the community seems to care about that aspect even one bit. What they do care about, instead, is congratulating  themselves on a job well done following the hard fork. This is surprisingly unbecoming of them, given that it really wasn't anything that warranted even a pat on anyone's back - except on maybe the hacker's - who had wonderfully put the community's integrity to the test. A test that the community so spectacularly failed.


So, what can we really learn from this saga? The simple truth that man-made systems, even those claiming autonomy from human control, can never really be truly autonomous, and be outside the scope of human flaws and fallibility; that popular vote is perhaps not the best way to channel the wisdom(?) of the crowd; and lastly, for all of that is in store for the future, moral scruples and unflinching principles can be axed at the slightest inconvenience, if the right people want.

In other words, the whim-driven world of human agreements and social contracts can perhaps, never be tied down by the laws of hard science and perfectly logical systems.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Dream Theater – The Astonishing – live in New York City, 23rd April, 2016

This post was written for Top Five Records. You can read the original post here.

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If you follow the concert reviews that I write for this blog (for example, this, or this, or this, or well, even this), you would notice my incurable – almost clinical obsession – with a rather particular genre of rock music – viz. progressive rock.

The one band that opened the floodgates of my obsession for this genre was Dream Theater. Of course, I had been listening to Pink Floyd before, not quite knowing that A Dark Side of the Moon was “prog”. Or that the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Heart Club Band had actually laid the foundation of the concept album – which has become central to prog music today. And of course, once the floodgates had opened, the usual prog suspects followed – from the 70s British scene right up to the progressive metal of today. But Dream Theater was that one band that really introduced me to the genre, made me aware of what the genre really entailed, and taught me how to appreciate music that’s instrumentally elaborate and technically sound.



Thus, when Dream Theater announced their 2016 tour to support their new album, “The Astonishing”, it wasn’t long before I had a ticket for myself for their NYC show at Radio City Music Hall, on the 23rd of April.

Now, I am well versed with most of Dream Theater’s discography, but The Astonishing is a new album. It was certainly brand new when I booked my tickets – it had released only a week or so back. So getting to “know” the album would be central to the concert experience. Thus, during the next few months – right till the hour before the concert – I was on a mission to familiarize myself with the album, to the very best of my abilities. I’ve written before, how prog songs don’t hit you immediately. They aren’t like “Hey Jude”, or “Stairway to Heaven”, that you fall in love with, the moment you hear them. They require multiple listens; they grow on you slowly, steadily; and after you’re well aware of the various twists and turns that the song takes during its generally expansive lifespan, do you really begin to appreciate them in their entirety. The Astonishing is no different. However, from a Dream Theater perspective, it does see a marked departure from their usual albums. There are no longer gratuitous instrumental solos in each and every song. There’s no 20+ minute opus towards the end. Lastly, and most interestingly, there’s a lot more focus on vocals – arguably more so than on any other Dream Theater album so far.

All in all, by the time the concert began, I had assimilated The Astonishing thoroughly. I had poked and prodded every section in it with my my scalpel of musical critique. I had examined virtually virtually second of the album under my magnifying glass. In the end, I felt fairly prepared to enjoy the concert. It was after all, going to be my first Dream Theater concert – and I was determined to make it a memorable one.

The Astonishing is a concept album. In other words, it’s not a set of unrelated songs like a general music album. The songs make up a narrative, and they follow in logical sequence, one after the other. The narrative generally has characters, a plot, and a denouement. The story line in The Astonishing is a fairly typical one that one finds in progressive music. It explores themes such as dystopias, futurism, and creates a storyline set in a post-apocalyptic United States, where freedom of musical expression does not exist. Instead, all the music in this world is regulated by the Great Northern Empire of the Americas and produced by noise-machines or NOMACs. The plot follows the Ravenskill Rebel Militia in their efforts to defy this Empire using the power of their own music. Yes, the story does seem heavily inspired by Rush’s classic 2112, and also seems to draw from modern/popular fantasy franchises like Game of Thrones, and even Star Wars – but let’s get this straight – you really don’t get such albums these days. Sure, the world moved on from progressive rock in the 80s, but there’s still something about an album of this type – be it in the amount of thought that goes into it, or the incredibly high level of musical talent it showcases – that simply sets it apart.

 Now, on to the concert.

A prog concert is a lot more than just a musical concert. There’s a lot of supporting paraphernalia – from sound effects, to props (remember Pink Floyd’s The Wall tour? Or Genesis during their Peter Gabriel days?) – that are used to create an experience that is more theatrical than simply musical. So was it the case with this. A number of tracks in this massive 34-track double album are purely synthetic tracks of pre-recorded sounds (Don’t roll your eyes, Pink Floyd used plenty of synthetic tracks too – like this or this). These pre-recorded tracks serve more of a narrative role than a musical role. Accompanied with videos and other props, these tracks serve the function of advancing the story. The first track for example, “The Descent of the NOMACS” – with its cacophony of electronic sounds – was used, to introduce the Noise Machines to the audience. As those sounds subsided, the instrumentals kicked in, and the music bridged into the second song, “Dystopian Overture” – a magnificent instrumental. And from there on, it was full-blown Dream Theater. The stage lit up in spectacular fashion, as John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, John Myung appeared – seemingly out of nowhere – to massive cheers from the audience. Behind them, was Mike Mangini’s absolutely sensational double-decker drum kit. One could only discern the presence of a person sitting behind that contraption owing to glimpses of his flying hair that showed through the gazillion cymbals and drums that kept him engaged. The other highlight on the stage was Rudess’ keyboard, which looked more like a spaceship than a musical instrument. It swiveled around in all directions, about every axis, while his fingers performed the wizardry that has made him one of the greatest keyboard players on the planet.



It wasn’t till the third song, "The Gift of Music", that James LaBrie appeared on stage, swinging his arms wildly, and beating his palms with the mic. The vocalist, who has been splitting fan opinions for more than two decades now, looked quite the character . However, to be fair to him, what he lacks in panache that the other band members possess, he does make up for with the effort that he puts in to every song that DT record. Sure, his voice isn’t to everyone’s taste, but one cannot deny the absolutely incredible vocal range (Learning to Live, anyone?) and technical ability that he brings to the band. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say, that The Astonishing showcases his very best efforts till date. Apart for a rather high-pitched and frankly non-melodic portion in Lord Nayfaryus, his contribution to every song in this album is fantastic. If you were to turn a blind eye to his “I’m trying to be rockstar, but I’m not” histrionics, and focus only on his voice, he really is phenomenal. Because, let’s get this straight – these songs are complicated. It’s not easy to deal with unconventional time signatures that change over time, when you are singing live. But LaBrie absolutely nailed them all. He reached every high note with the most consummate ease (Brother, Can you Hear Me?), he was well aware of every twist and turn the songs had throughout the concert – A New Beginning was particularly memorable. And in the end, one couldn’t but help feel bad for the amount of criticism this top-class vocalist draws from fans.


Nothing much needs to be said of the other band members. Being among the most decorated and critically acclaimed masters of their crafts, Petrucci, Rudess, Mangini, and Myung displayed a level of poise and technical proficiency that I’ve honestly not seen in a live concert before. Petrucci, the six-time G3 legend seemed to transcend all barriers of human ability with his guitar. Ruddess was in a league of his own, blitzkrieg-ing his way through his keyboard, and the arsenal of other fancy gadgets that he is well known to use. Myung, unarguably the most unassuming of the lot, kept the supremely difficult bass riffs ticking like clockwork. Regarding Mangini however, I had a few reservations – not because he was any less good at the drums, but because the drummer has traditionally been the virtual “front man” for Dream Theater. When the legendary Mike Portnoy left the band, the band didn’t just lose one of the greatest drummers in the world. The band lost someone who imparted an identity to the band when they performed live. If you watch videos of past Dream Theater concerts, you’ll see Portnoy, not just as a drummer, but as the real “face” of the band. He awed audiences with his techniques on one hand, and commanded their attention on the other. He masterminded the sound, and orchestrated the people’s emotions, . With him gone, and with his replacement, Mangini, being more of a drumming machine than a human being, the band sorely lacks a person who takes on that onus. Brilliant with the guitar as he might be, John Petrucci isn’t really the flamboyant performer who rivets the audience’s attention upon himself. Rudess is too cerebral, Myung, too modest, and while LaBrie gets an A for effort, he fails horribly when it comes to being a galvanizing front man.

And therein was my greatest disappointment with the concert. You couldn’t put a finger on any single thing that was “wrong” with it. The music was beyond phenomenal. Each of the band members was at his very best. The atmosphere was surreal. But what was lacking was a personal connection. It didn’t feel like a truly live concert. I could well have been watching a recording of the concert, and I doubt I’d have felt anything too different than what I felt that night. Added to that was the fact that notwithstanding how well I had assimilated this new album “within” me, I still wasn’t as familiar with it, as I am with their earlier work. Therefore, while Dream Theater still remains one of my top bands, (and I will probably not give up an opportunity to see them live again in the future), this particular concert, unfortunately, did leave a few things to be desired.

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Hello, 3D printing

3D printing has been quite the rage in the past couple of years. And not surprisingly so.

Indeed, very few things can be cooler than feeding a 3D model into a software, interfacing that with the right hardware, and getting a real-life model of it, right there. A number of reputable sources have even claimed that it's going to change the world forever.

We shall see how it changes the world forever, if and when it ever does, but for now, I'm just here to talk about my first experience with a 3D printer. This was at our office at the Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard University (where I'm interning this summer). And it's actually, really cool.

video

The ink, at least for this printer (and from my understanding, for most 3D printers today) was plastic. The type of plastic that you need, depends on the kind of thing that you are printing. Here's how a cartridge looks like.



The mechanics of 3D printing is extremely interesting. One might just think that you feed in the model, and the software-hardware combo does the rest. But it isn't quite so simple. Since a 3D printer prints in layers, and builds the object from the base, upward, it makes sense to orient the 3d software model such that the output is in the best possible position to absorb shear and not flake (ah, high school physics, how I miss thee). Moreover, when you're printing a portion of the object that is jutting out, you might wonder how the liquid plastic is going to be held up in the air before it solidifies. But, a 3D printer takes your mind off that by automatically printing a support for the section that juts out, using a different plastic ink, that can be scraped off after the printing is done.





More sophisticated 3D printers allow you to feed in two different types of ink - one for the actual material, and one for the support. In fact, there even exists such ink-plastic that can be dissolved in water. So, when used as the support material, one can just wash the support away after the printing is complete.

Pretty cool, eh?

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous - a book review

In August 2010, The Washington Post ran a news report on the website 4chan and its role in fomenting massive disruptions on the internet using collective online action. That was a time when 4chan, then a seven year old website, built by a 15 year old kid, and managed decentrally by large numbers of anonymous users, had only begun to make its presence felt to the outside world. Back then, 4chan was known only by the more erudite of the Internet denizens. It was a shady place, where not too many people ventured into, even fewer returned to. The close-knit community of nameless strangers who flocked around the website, sharing messages, images, and videos, lived their own underground life - laughing at their own jokes (which were often tasteless), poking fun at the outside world, and throwing out a prank now and then. Interestingly, and as author Gabriella Coleman (2014) describes in her book, it also proved to be the breeding ground of one of the most enigmatic activist groups of all time - the Anonymous. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy details the rise of Anonymous from the seedy servers of 4chan, and their metamorphosis - from a loose group of miscreant porn loving hackers, to an online political force forever willing to take on the strongest global institutions.

Coleman is an anthropologist who stumbled upon Anonymous while studying the Scientology system of beliefs and faiths. The book begins by introducing the reader to a sinister video on YouTube, posted by Anonymous in the year 2007, in response to Fox News’ coverage of the “Internet Hate Machine”. The narrator (in the video), a faceless man, speaks in a cold, ominous voice, and announces the arrival of Anonymous. The voice concludes with a chilling threat “And you have now, got our attention”. This, as Coleman acknowledges, “certainly had [her] attention”, and was what led her down the rabbit hole of investigative research.

Anonymous was born in 4chan when a group of members got involved in an online tussle with the Church of Scientology, over their censorship of the internet. Project Chanology, as this movement came to be known as, tried to disrupt the functioning of the Church by launching DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) attacks on their website. Dabbling in these small skirmishes emboldened Anonymous and by 2010, they had scored their first significant political victory when they took down the PayPal website using similar DDoS attacks. This was in reaction to PayPal’s refusal to let people donate to the whistleblower organization Wikileaks, which had in 2010 caused worldwide ripples by releasing classified government secrets. From then onwards, Anonymous went from strength to strength, exposing corrupt government organizations (particularly in Tunisia during the Arab Spring), lending support to activist movements (like Occupy), and taking its own brazen moral stand on a number of political issues around the world.

Coleman’s account is engaging, primarily because she is always in the thick of the action. Her narrative flits around virtual, as well as physical spaces. She is seen, at times chatting with anons (as members of Anonymous chose to call themselves) over IRC, at other times meeting them physically, befriending them, gaining their trust, and curating all the information they give to her. The pages are fraught with logs from IRC chats, where she showcases various aspects of her conversations. Though her research is meticulous and her writing, excruciatingly detailed, the book doesn’t read like an academic book at all. She uses vivid imageries to nail down the idea of Anonymous - describing it as an “amorphous and formless entity existing in some mythical and primordial state of non-being, only solidifying when an outside agent utters its name” (p 113). She espouses Anonymous parlance, describing their work as “ultra-coordinated motherfuckery” (p 6, 60, 81, 396); she talks about how the group grew like a “wily hydra” (p 47), with the sole intention of “trolling” people and institutions who they believed deserved to be trolled. She proffers vignettes into the functioning of Anonymous by profiling some of their most influential members, whom she had had the luck of getting to know personally. These included the firebrand Jeremy Hammond, the propaganda master Topiary, and the intriguing Hector Monsegur (Sabu). The development of the character of Sabu reads like a thriller within the main narrative through lines and lines of IRC chat. Sabu is originally shown to be a radical anon, responsible for much of the work of the two splinter groups of Anonymous, the LulzSec and the AntiSec. Later however, he is revealed to be a snitch, planted by the FBI within Anonymous itself. The emotion during this revelation is palpable, which points to one of Coleman’s major objectives while writing this book, that of destroying the notion that Anonymous is unanimous. She is dogged in her pursuit of bringing out the individuality of the various members, thereby attempting to systematically deconstruct the idea of uniformity that hacktivists in general, and Anonymous in particular, are often associated with.

In her general assessment of Anonymous, Coleman is diligent in her efforts to remain unbiased. She extols much of the work they have done, stating that Anonymous generally fights for democratic institutions and for things that most of us support - privacy, government transparency, internet freedom, and so on. While she is also critical of much of their handiwork, her loyalty and sympathy towards the group - probably the result of her deep involvement with them - often shine through her writing, thereby compromising on her intended objectivity (“What began as a network of trolls has become, for the most part, a force for good in the world” (p 50), “The emergence of Anonymous from one of the seediest places in the Internet is a tale of wonder, of hope, and of playful illusions.” (p 50-51).

Despite its lack of a scholarly level of objectivity, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy is an important work for several reasons. For one, it is the most exhaustive account of one of the most sensational social movements of the 21st century. Two, it creates an extremely readable story out of “wires, transistors, and Wi-Fi signals” (p 115) - by invoking the human element behind the lines of computer code. It turns faceless, nameless anons into human political actors who we can all relate to, and have emotions for. Lastly, it establishes a strong case that the changing shape of 21st century protest is there for everyone to embrace and adopt.

In fact, to put it in Coleman’s own concluding words, “the power of Anonymous’ eponymous anonymity is that we are all free to choose, whether or not to don the mask” (p 400).