Today’s Dead End Kids

Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos
People wearing Guy Fawkes masks to identify themselves as members of Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013

William Gibson, who invented the word “cyberspace” for his futuristic 1984 novel Neuromancer, has said that the notion came to him when he watched kids playing video games at an arcade in Vancouver. They stared into their consoles, turning knobs and pounding buttons to manipulate a universe no one else could see. They seemed to want nothing more than to vanish through the looking glass:

It seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

“Cyberspace” was a nonsense word. He hoped it would pass muster for his science-fictional purpose: to evoke a domain that might be created by networked computers—“a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Thirty years ago there was no such thing.

Now billions of legitimate (and illegitimate) operators live simultaneously in two worlds, or in two divided and contrasted modes of experience. Terminology is still a problem. On one hand is “cyberspace” or “the online world” or “virtual reality” or, not quite accurately, “the Internet.” On the other hand we speak of “the real world” or “meatspace.” IRL is a standard geek acronym for “in real life,” and Wikipedia, an institution of cyberspace, helpfully explains, “The real world is another term for reality.” Of course the dichotomy is flawed. Billions of people live their entire lives offline; and the smartphone-bearing zombies plodding blindly down our sidewalks still inhabit the real world even if their souls have gone elsewhere. And as for that other place, it may be virtual, it may involve that metaphorical “cloud,” but cyberspace is real, too. It intersects with, and clashes with, the old world.

One of its defining creatures—to some its most intrepid, to others its most fearsome—is the entity known as Anonymous. I say “entity” because it is so difficult to pigeonhole. Organization? Movement? Sometimes it seems like little more than a brand, or an attitude, that anyone can adopt or discard at will. “Leaderless Internet hive brain” was the phrase Time magazine used in declaring Anonymous one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People (yes, “people”) of 2012. “Shadowy, snide international collective of hackers and online activists” was how The New York Times identified it this summer, when members of Anonymous crashed the municipal Web servers of Ferguson, Missouri, and revealed the name of the police officer who shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown—except that it turned out to be the wrong name.

Gabriella Coleman likes the word “collective.” She is a cultural anthropologist, now a professor at McGill University, and for several years…

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