It's a social world out there.

Hacktivism and Its Origin

Posted on: October 11, 2009

The origin and development of hacking and social activism that have today formed the trend known as hacktivism relate directly to the culture and area from they were built, the Bay Area of California.  Hacktivism, which uses technology to express and promote ideas such as human rights and free speech, has a direct connection to the kinds of free-spirit or hippie culture found in the Bay Area. This area is home to a culture of people who live lives closely tied to and influenced by technological development and the increase use of technology in everyday life.  The people of the Bay Area are often the first to feel technological advances, the west coast has built itself into the technology of the country.  The people of the Bay Area have also been the first to backlash against some of the advances and infringements on technology, always keeping in mind their rights as United States citizens. While they are a tech savvy group, they are also a strong, smart body that has formed hacktivism to stand up for their rights as American Citizens.  Hacktivism, which is currently being traced back to 1998 (9) was built and developed by the people that care a great deal about technology and their rights the most; they come from the Bay Area of California.

The Bay Area, and specifically San Francisco, California have always had stigma attached to them, a certain kind of culture and person came to mind when talking about this area of California. The population in the Bay Area is one composed largely of a young to middle aged group. This Bay Area is home to a population including almost 40% of people ages 25-34. (1) These early adopters, not only like to stay on top of changing technology, they like to be ones to make the changes, think of the a new way to use technology, build and grow what technologies they already have.

The Bay Area is not only home to those free spritits, this area is also home to Silicon Valley, the birth place of many things technology.  This group of hardcore technology salesman and developers along with the edgy San Francisco population have built themselves into the premier hub of technology in the United States. While New York was once know as the hub of numerous industries and cultures, recent decades have lent the world to look to the West Coast of the United States for the latest in technology. According to a Media Week article from 1996; “Since Jann Wenner moved Rolling Stone from the Bay Area to New York in 1978, very little magazine publishing has happened in San Francisco, but the city’s proximity to Silicon Valley has changed all that.  The Bay Area is not home to a growing Intenet-related publishing culture.   ‘San Francisco has always drawn creative, spirited people,’ says Angela Young, ‘When you couple that with people who understand new technology the result is fascinating’” (4)

The Bay Area has always been home those who are not afraid to stand up for their rights, people that will do whatever it takes to maintain the rights given by the American Government.  These people are also ones who are very technology smart, they know new and old technologies.  The combination of strong will and technological smarts is what make the Bay Area home to many hacktivists. The group of edgy people that build and maintain Bay Area culture are the kinds of people who begin grassroots movements. This culture is one that is resistant and build opposition to repression of all kinds.

There once was a time when we didn’t feel the need to go online, we never felt that tug to check e-mail and we still used the United States Postal Service every day. Today, as a society, we rely on e-mail, the internet and many interactive elements it has provided thus far.    Fred Turner explains the phenomenon perfectly; “Even the individual self, so long trapped in the human body, would finally be free to step outside its fleshy cofines, explore its authentic interests, and find others with whom it might achieve communion. Ubiquitous networked computing had arrived, and its shiny array of interlinked devices, pundits, scholars and investors alike saw the image of an ideal society: decentralized, egalitarian, harmonious, and free.” (7)

Turner find the words that best describes how and why use the internet in the 21st century.  It is used in a way that allows for increased interactivity and two-way communication.  The tools it provides for communication and interaction far exceed anything the world has ever seen. Social networking and interaction through the internet has risen a great deal in recent years, making sites like Facebook and Twitter extremely popular. The technological advancements seen in the past decade can arguably relate back to the Bay Area, as Fred Turner explains; “In a 1995 special issue of Time magazine entitled, ‘Welcome to Cyberspace,’ Stewart Brand wrote an article arguing that the personal computer revolution and the Internet had  grown directly out of the counterculture, ‘We Owe It All to the Hippies,’ claimed the headline. ‘Forget anti-war protests, Woodstock, even long hair. The real legacy of the sixties is the computer revolution.’ According to Brand , and to popular legend then and since, Bay area computer programmers had imbibed the countercultural ideals of decentralization and personalization, along with a keen sense of information’s transformative potential, and had built those into a new kind of machine.” (7)  Turner explains above how and why the Bay area and their so-called hippie appeal is one that when combined with growing interactive communications and technologies will no doubt have a powerful result.

Because of interactive communication technologies the world has to come to a point in which it is as just as easy to talk to your brother, who lives down the street, as it is to keep in touch with a college roommate living across the globe.  Programs and services that are free no less are now in place to keep us connected as a world. Not only is it extremely easy to keep in touch with or connect with people across the world, it is extremely easy to keep up with world events.  Up-to-the-minute news is available everywhere you turn on the internet.

This increase amount of global connection can been in both positive and negative light, it is all about how we use and care for the technologies we use.  According to an article by Sandor Vegh, regarding the ongoing media discussion on hacking; “The use of encrypted messages on the Internet can empower oppressed people in authoritive regimes to evade their government’s censorship and surveillance, just like it can assist al-Qaeda members to communicate in confidence.  What must be realized is the Internet is just like any other tool; it can be used for good as well as bad, just like the proverbial hammer.” (8)  The Internet and the global community it has formed is something that must be treated with care, it is a  tool more powerful than most realize. A tool that is its life has created monsters and destroyed good people, it is something that should be treated with respect.  The people of the Bay Area realize the power behind technology more than most, they have seen the rise of the .com era and its impact on Silicon Valley, they know well its power. This group of people, most often use hacking with the best interest of their nation.

Hacking, the word alone can almost make you cringe, however its implications today are not exclusively negative. Hacking, which in the past, almost exclusively brought to mind identity theft, plagiarism and stealing,  today often means much more.  As explained by Otto Von Busch and Karl Palmas in Abstract Hacktivism; “Hacking is rooted with the class Do-It-Yourself (DIY) culture, but became hacking with the introduction of computers. Hacking is modifying something beyond the pre-defined design field of original intentions and customization. It is about scratches ones own itch, but using unexpected methods. Hacking is to find an own way, to encourage exploration, collecting curiosities into action.” (2) To hack is not always to destroy, but to ask questions, dig deeper and change how people think about and use a certain technology.

Hacktivism, which sounds almost as harsh as hacking, is a phenomenon that truly shows the power of interactivity and global community. According to Chicago Magazine article by Stuart Luman, “”All conflict comes from social inequality and those who use this to their advantage,” Hammond said, growing more impassioned with each word. Citing dependence on oil, overpopulation, and climate change as heralds of the end of comfy first-world capitalism, he continued: “Our civilization is facing a radical, imminent mass change. The alternative to the hierarchical power structure is based on mutual aid and group consensus. As hackers we can learn these systems, manipulate these systems, and shut down these systems if we need to.” (6)

Luman gives a bare bones look at how and why people choose to hack, in this, we see the foundation of hacktivism.  The culture of people who take part in hacktivism truly feel what they are doing will better the world they live in. While hacking, at one time, always held a negative connotation, is today being more widely accepted.  Michelle Delio explains in her Wired article from 2004; “’The combination of hacking in the traditional sense of the term – not accepting technologies at face value, opening them up, understand how they work beneath the surface, and exploring the limits and constraints they impose on human communications – and social and political activism is a potent combinations and precisely the recipe I advocate to students and use to guide my own research activities.’ said Deibert. She said real hacktivism is fast becoming understood and accepted by mainstream human rights activists and is now being supported by large foundations.” (3)

To consider the implications a phenomenon like hacking can have on our global community can be overwhelming.  It is important to consider how and why hacktivism has evolved and it today an accepted means of expression. Tim Jordan and Paul Taylor explain this well; “The existence of popular political protest is a mark of all communities; whether it is manifested in spectacular street demonstrations or grey-tinged meeting of local associations. The self-activity of people marks their desire to affect, even control, the spaces and times they live in, even if that means attempting to do so within conditions of no one’s choosing.” (5) The people of the Bay Area are those who feel strong about having some control over the space in which they live and at the same time keep up with technology.  The free-spirited, technologically mindful aspects of this culture are ones that binds well with hacktivism.  It is obvious that the Bay Area is largely responsible for the introduction and building of hacktivism, there is no telling how far this phenomenon will lead those grass roots leaders of the area.

Hacking and the development of hacktivism are directly related to the cultural values from which they came.  The Bay Area of California has always drawn a certain kind of person.  Early adopters, people who stand up for their rights as American’s, techies, people who think outside of the box, these are the people that built hacktivism. This group took technological advancements that could easily be seen as threatening and used them to stand up for their rights to free speech or work to make positive changes to the culture around them.


1)    Bay Area Census — San Francisco City and County. (n.d.). Retrieved September 26, 2009, from

2)    Busch, O. V., & Palmas, K. (2006). Abstract Hacktivism: The making of a hacker culture. Breinigsville, PA: Openmute.

3)    Delio, M. (n.d.). Hacktivism and How It Got Here . Retrieved September 24, 2009, from

4)    Gremillion, J. (1996, September 9). Bay-Area byte boom. MediaWeek, 6(34), 26. Retrieved September 24, 2009, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

5)    Jordan, T. & Taylor, P. (2004). Hactivism and Cyberwars: Rebels with a Cause. New York: Routledge.

6) Luman, S. (n.d.). The Hacktivist – Chicago magazine – July 2007 – Chicago. Retrieved September 26, 2009, from

7)    Turner, F. (2008). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

8)    Vegh, S. (n.d.). Hacktivists or Cyberterrorists? The Changing Media Discourse on Hacking. Retrieved September 26, 2009, from

9)    Wray, S. (n.d.). Electronic Civil Disobedience and the World Wide Web of Hacktivism:. Retrieved September 24, 2009, from


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