[page 94] The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory posits that a perfectly “normal” human being will, when given online anonymity and an audience, give in to their darkest impulses to hurt, abuse, and manipulate others; in my Liberal Arts seminar “Humanism, Science, and Technology: anonymous, Anonymous,” we take this as a starting point. Our examination of hackers, reddit/4Chan, the dark web, and the lulz--the typically mean-spirited laughs that a “good” trolling seeks to generate at the expense of its targets--encourages students to participate ethically in the exchange of ideas that the Internet, social media, and 24/7 connectivity make possible and also to curate and protect their own online presence.
I originally conceived of this class immediately after #GamerGate, then immersed myself in the work of Gabriella Coleman and Parmy Olson on the hacker collective Anonymous and similar online entities; as Gamergate, reddit, alt-right social media, and the early days of Anonymous show, the web can be a more wretched hive of scum and villainy than any seedy bar in a galaxy far, far away, and I wanted to prepare my students for the things that they would be reading for the class, which included primary sources--discussion boards, comments sections, subreddits, etc.--in addition to secondary sources. A syllabus content warning seems insufficient given the misogyny, racism, classicism, homophobia, xenophobia, and related vitriol, much of it directed at people like my students.1 Thus, we spend an early class watching “The National Anthem,” the first episode of Black Mirror, because nothing puts online abuse into perspective like pig-fucking, and once we’ve crossed that line, students tend to self-censor a bit less, which enriches class discussions when we move into issues of online harassment. Additionally, the episode is an excellent exercise in close reading and not being distracted by smoke and black mirrors themselves: if one gets too caught up in the spectacle, one misses the man behind the curtain, and students tended to miss the episode’s big reveal--that it was a work of art, essentially using a brutal kidnapping, threats of bodily violence, and televised bestiality to make a statement about media and the modern age. [page 95] Too, “The National Anthem” is an introduction into the ostensible pursuit of the lulz that drives so many online attacks.
Later in the semester, when we have looked more closely at some notorious hacks and other acts of internet vigilantism, we watch “Shut Up and Dance,” screening the episode over a two-hour class period with discussion breaks to springboard considerations of the roles of individual moral codes in making ethical judgments, the relativity of hacktivism, and the chimera of disinterested justice being meted out by individuals, whether independent of or as a feature of systems of justice. Students write short responses on how their ideas--their sympathies as well as their insights--developed and changed while watching and after reflecting on the episodes.
We use these episodes to illuminate our reading from texts including Coleman’s Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous and Olson’s We Are Anonymous: Inside the Hacker World of LulzSec, Anonymous, and the Global Cyber Insurgency, with one end product being a research-based essay or multimedia project that engages with an ethical question generated by our texts. Even as they were developing web-wariness, they were researching topics on the free web, gauging biases, and falling down research rabbit-holes with wild abandon, learning to love the free exchange of ideas beyond their own social media use and consumption of mass media.
Over two iterations of this class, students have written about the Ashley Madison hack and doxxing more generally; censorship and free speech online; Silk Road, #OperationDarknet, and the dark web; WikiLeaks; #Pizzagate; catfishing; and a range of other topics in nuanced ways that reflect Black Mirror’s tendency to contradict, challenge, and undermine first impressions and the status quo, developing arguments that started rather than ended with “it’s complicated, and there are many sides.” Beyond the course itself, though, students became more skeptical, more likely to question, more critical consumers of the Internet’s double-edged sword.
1. At LaGuardia, more than 85% of the students are People of Color, and the student body is largely lower-income, with many students born outside the U.S. and at various stages of documentation status. (www.laguardia.edu/About/Fast-Facts/)