sc&i honors day

After four years of teaching as a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University’s School of Communication and Information, as I prepare to transition into a new full-time job, the Journalism and Media Studies department surprised me with the 2018 Roger Hernandez Memorial Part-Time Faculty Award! Maybe even better than winning the award, though, was how I was introduced: with metaphors about corpse shrouds and eclectic, glowing student comments across all of my evaluations.

In Which I Become the Body in the Classroom. Literally.

In any city, in any country, in any university in which you have been enrolled, go into any classroom and silently say, I seek the Holder of the A. If when you open your eyes a professor stands at the lectern, then you have failed, class will proceed as normal, and your journey ends here. But if when you enter you are greeted by a prostrate woman, eyes-open and non-responsive, then quickly assemble in groups of five or else prepare for a horrific end. The mind is more fragile than you know, and there are worse things than death.

If you seek the Object clenched in the body’s hand, you must tell the corpse its own story: the myth of the Holder of the A.

Do not forget as you write, this is no myth. Do not touch the Holder or attempt to take the Object by force. If you do either, or if you fail to reinvent her in the allotted time, she will stay dead and you will be forever destined to fail no matter the task you undertake. Succeed, and the corpse will awaken, and offer you a crumpled, bloodstained note promising intellectual supremacy.

The note is Object 537 of 538. If you can attain it, success is yours.

If, like me, you lurked or participated on 4chan’s /b/ or /x/, you may be familiar with the generic conventions in the short prose piece above. It mimics the style of the Holders Series, a collection of creepypasta chronicling the tasks of reckless, curious individuals seeking to collect mystical objects that should never come together. In the vein of open-source fiction, the individual stories in the Holders series lack attribution and the mythos is collaboratively, transparently constructed based on communal negotiations concerning the generic conventions of horror and expectations for the story itself. The mythos is unstable, unfixed, and thus can be continually modified and augmented. As a case in point, while the first Holders story states there are 538 Objects, stories exist after #538, telling the story of Objects 539 of 538, 540 of 538, etc., and a sequel series, Legion’s Objects, was started to chronicle an additional 2000 Objects.

I wrote the piece quoted above as part of an experimental class on open-source fiction, fandom, and amateur production online. I did this exercise in a media studies course, but I think it would work equally well, or better, in a composition or creative writing classroom. More after the jump if you’re interested in replicating the exercise or just want to hear how it went.

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Tricksters, 50 Days of Lulz, Effecting Change.

On June 26th, LulzSec faded back into the woodwork, ending their hacktivity with “50 days of lulz,” in which they leaked internal data from AOL, AT&T, the FBI, gaming forums, NATO bookshop, and navy.mil, among others. The leak marked the end of the Lulz Boat’s “planned 50 day cruise,” leaving its 6-member crew to “now sail into the distance, leaving behind–we hope–inspiration, fear, denial, happiness, approval, disapproval, mockery, embarrassment, thoughtfulness, jealousy, hate, even love. If anything, we hope we had a microscopic impact on someone, somewhere.  Anywhere” (LulzSec).

This begs the question I’ve been dodging forever: does spectacle, ultimately, constitute impact? What did X, Y, or Z actually do? Apart from gathering numerous followers, supporters, and participants, LulzSec’s antics have impacted the way organizations view cybersecurity, drawing statements from NATO and prompting the Obama administration to propose stricter anti-hacking laws. (This is one year after the Australian government proposed that DDoS and script hacks be termed “cyber-terrorism” following Operation Titstorm, so that their import could be easily recognized. Notably, these attacks were performed in response to ISP-level censoring measures proposed by the government that year.)

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LulzSec, Anonymous, and AntiSec: Thoughts on Lulz and Ethical Hacking

By now I think most people are familiar with LulzSec, Anonymous, and other anonymous hacking groups, as they are receiving more and more media coverage in mainstream outlets as well as tech-only reporting sources.  I’ve hesitated to blog about this, namely because I have yet to comprehend everything that is happening, but the longer I wait, the more I realize I’m never going to fully understand it.  Like much of the stuff I’m interested in, it’s too big to judge or sum up in a single blog post.

So instead, I’m going to try to break down my observations and thoughts about this phenomenon in a very basic sense.  I may have attempted in previous posts to make a distinction between malicious hacking and DDoS (distributed-denial-of-service) attacks, but I would like to refine that further using more appropriate terminology.  For some time now, the term hacker has been reclaimed in a positive or at least neutral usage, while “cracking” has been used to describe malicious hacking attempts.  A better classification system, and the one more popular with the hacking groups themselves, runs from “black hats,” or straight-up computer criminals, to “white hats,” or computer security experts.  Most pertinent to this discussion are “gray hats,” those hacking not for personal gain or out of malicious intentions but who technically commit crimes during their hacking endeavors.  Gray hats may seek improved security by breaching the cybersecurity of various organizations, or may leak internal governmental data in order to promote awareness of and accountability concerning human rights abuses by those nations.

DDoS attacks, which flood a server with so much data that the website is forced to go down, are considered gray-hat tactics.  I think I’ve stated previously my belief that DDoS attacks serve as modern-day peaceful protest.  However, I do think the gray area becomes even grayer for some when you take into consideration the motives behind these attacks.  Taking down and even defacing the Zimbabwe government’s website to protest its oppressive regime, for instance, seems more morally upright than taking down cia.gov for anti-establishment lulz.  But ultimately, neither attack is harmful, especially when compared to black-hat(?) tactics such as leaking 62,000 random logins into the hands of Twitter users, who promptly used the information to gain access to innocent individuals’ email, gaming networks, PayPal, Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and so on.

Despite this, I’m having a hard time condemning LulzSec.  I tend to be more supportive of them when they are targeting governments and corporations—i.e., institutions, whatever those may be—rather than when they are targeting individuals.  At the same time, if you use the same email/password for everything, can you really complain when everything is hijacked?

It’s not so simple, I realize, and the ends don’t justify the means, IRL or online.  In fact, I probably stated earlier that I support Anonymous for their ethical selection of targets, so it should be easy for me to write off LulzSec for their apparent lack of morality.  In conversations with friends and colleagues, however, I find myself against the wall trying to defend (or at least objectively view) hacker activity that can be plausibly likened to hurling bricks through a shop window IRL—damage for the sake of damage, breaking things because they can.  They have hacked, obtained, and disseminated databases from Sony, PBS, Fox, X Factor, Bethesda and other gaming servers (at the request of callers, according to them), pron.com, Infragard Atlanta (an FBI affiliate) and Senate.gov; they’ve dropped dox on Karim Hijazi, CEO/President of Unveillance and member of Infragard; they have played with the websites of individuals who exhibit unwarranted self-importance (e.g., claiming to be #1 hackers or hacker-proof).

At the same time, LulzSec has gained more media notoriety in a month or so than Anonymous has since it first entered the fray (Anon has been hacking for years, but as an ethical hacking group it really came together in 2010 during the height of WikiLeaks controversy).  And you can bet your ass Sony employees were chained to the desk toughening their defenses after being hacked multiple times in fairly rapid succession.  LulzSec has utilized “simple SQL injection and Local File Inclusion vulnerabilities, and botnet-powered Distributed Denial of Service attacks” (Ars Technica) that, to some, are too low-level to qualify as hacking.

But the Internet truly exploded on June 17, around 5:48, when LulzSec DDoS’d cia.gov.  By around 6:10, the main page had reappeared but as a facade, but none of the links were working. Immediate Twitter posts tagged #LulzSec include statements ranging from “oh shit they ddos’d the CIA” to “we’ll see who’s laughing when the FBI comes for them.”  Minutes later, th3j35t3r tweeted to LulzSec, “Gloves off […] expect me.”  And at that moment and only that moment, apparently, shit got real.

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Gay Porn, Literacy Skills, and Julian Assange: the Affinity Spaces of Rule 34 on /y/

Yes, I know: no matter how you spin it, Rule 34 on Julian Assange just sounds wrong.

At any rate, I was sorting my files yesterday and came across a series of screencaps from a December thread on Yaoi – /y/ titled “Julian Assange,” in which OP rather shamefacedly requested Rule 34 on Assange.  Part of the Anon-authored Rules of the Internet, Rule 34 expresses the notion that if something exists, pornography of it also exists, no exceptions.  OP’s request caused other Anon to admit to similar desires, whether long-term or prompted by OP’s request.  What resulted was a three-part thread of epic proportions, in which writefags and drawfags mass-mobilized to create pornographic material and discuss WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning’s imprisonment, Jacob Appelbaum, and the actions of the federal government.  After maxing out 3 threads, Anon formed its own kink meme with most of the written content from the original three threads.  This in and of itself is not a new phenomenon; the Axis Powers Hetalia fandom has long had a kink meme that overlaps with /y/ threads, and participatory culture across 4chan occurs most around requests for and sharing and creation of pornography.  But the types and magnitude of communal authorship and mentoring taking place in these threads caught me off guard.  And so, despite having my childhood raped several times by Rule 34, I began giving it some serious thought.

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The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

Authors Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva were members of the so-called Bang-Bang Club, a group of South African photographers working during apartheid and named for their propensity to photograph violence, “bang-bang” in local slang.  Though the name applied to a larger group it most commonly applied to four photographers: Marinovich, Silva, Ken Oosterbroek, and Kevin Carter.  Of these four, Oosterbroek was killed in a firefight in April 1994 and Kevin Carter committed suicide in July of the same year.

I haven’t read a large body of journalist perspectives on conflict zones—usually I’m drawn to survivor memoirs or fiction inspired by these conflicts—but The Bang-Bang Club is refreshingly honest, direct, and generous towards both sides of the conflict.  Marinovich doesn’t shrink from observing that, after Ken’s death, he and Joao attempted to turn him into a heroic icon; similarly, at the beginning of the memoir he notes without malice that Ken, at least initially, has trouble breaking free of the racism inculcated in him by national attitudes.  Marinovich and Silva also recognizes their own flawed behaviors, whether briefly wanting to deny Kevin his moment of fame regarding his famous Sudan photograph, or cutting himself off from fellow photographer Gary Bernard, who eventually committed suicide.  The straightforward, conversational telling heightens rather than diminishes the impact of witnessing people being dragged out of their homes and hacked and burned to death in the streets while policemen and bystanders turn a blind eye; of women ululating a victory cry as they beat another woman to death; of “necklacing,” the practice of placing a petrol-filled rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it alight; of slicing the tendons in a man’s leg so he can’t escape as his own friends take him to be killed; of a Walkman wired as a bomb so that the explosion rips through the head of an ANC lawyer the moment he presses play; of girls being “jackrolled,” abducted and gang-raped for days on end before being returned to her parents with the thanks of the abductors, for the enjoyment their daughter brought them.  Narrated from Marinovich’s point-of-view—albeit with startling leaps into the other photojournalists’ perspectives—The Bang-Bang Club is an honest, brutal examination of their experience chronicling apartheid conflict between 1990-1994, and additionally interrogates the ethics of photojournalism.

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