Website defacement and the ethos of the unknown

On: September 12, 2013
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About Jakko Kemper


Website defacement (along with practices like distributed denial of service attacks and password cracking) is one of the most frequently deployed methods used by hackers. Perhaps the most infamous example of this practice is the defacing of the PayPal and Mastercard websites by online protest movement Anonymous. Usually (as is the case with said example) these defacements are of a retaliatory and symbolic nature. In this blog, however, I would like to argue that website defacements actually have another, more complex dimension and that they play into Alan Liu’s concepts of the ‘ethos of the unknown’ and the ‘ethical hacking of knowledge culture’. First, allow me to elaborate on these concepts.


According to Alan Liu, our current corporate culture is characterized by a spirit of informationalism ((A concept Liu borrows from Castells which designates our current cultural constellation which is marked by ephemerality and the dominance of information rather than knowledge.)) and a marked lack of historical narratives (Liu 5-6) ((Liu, Alan. The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004)). Similar points can be found in the work of Benjamin and Basu. Walter Benjamin claims that the rise of mass media has paved the way for a new (dominant) form of communication; information. The traditional art of storytelling (and lived experience) has been replaced by this pure and impersonal mode of communication. Benjamin states that information, communicated to us through (mass) media, is always already “shot through with explanation” and therefor leaves no room for interpretation and contextualisation. Likewise, Anustup Basu describes how these relentless streams of information can lead us away from (historical) narrative and the reality in which it is grounded ((Basu, Anustup. Proud to be Flesh: A Mute Magazine Anthology of Cultural Politics After the Net. ed. Josephine Berry Slater, Pauline van Mourik Broekman. London: Mute Publishing, 2009)). He illustrates how mass media often frame certain events in such a way as to establish connections between them. In this way, variables (Basu’s example is Sadam Hussein and 9/11) that have no connection in reality can still achieve a “state of associative frequency” (Berry Slater & Mourik Broekman: 59).


As a result of this spirit of informationalism and the networked society it informs, traditional organizational structures and strategies for dealing with contemporary society are no longer sufficient. Liu asserts that cultural criticism, a traditional method of critique grounded in history, is no longer sufficient because of the database logic of our information-obsessed knowledge culture. In the database, there is no room for narrative and syntax (for more on this see Manovich’s The Language of New Media, 2001: p. 199-203). Liu proposes a new strategy for dealing with the conditions of the networked society and knowledge (i.e. corporate) culture. Liu suggests we should move towards establishing an ethos of the unknown; an ethos grounded in the withholding of information. As Liu explains in an interview with Geert Lovink, this ethos of the unknown should engender moments of supreme unproductivity where there is no information forthcoming and as such a moment of “awareness” is instilled. This is an example of what Liu calls the ‘ethical hacking of knowledge culture’.


As I argued above, website defacement is a practice that is instrumental in establishing an ethos of the unknown. Through defacing a website (especially when a hacker leaves the page blank or writes a simple message like “this site has been hacked”) hackers can cause a temporary rift in the constant stream of information. In this way, website defacement can move beyond its purely symbolic dimensions and provide a strategy for coping with the spirit of informationalism.

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