I Can't Hack This Brand of Revolution
Call out the instigators Because there's something in the air We've got to get together sooner or later Because the revolution's here, and you know it's right And you know that it's right. — Thunderclap Newman, 1969
Those were the days, my friend. The days when songs with "revolution" in the lyrics weren't yet used to market cars and running shoes.
We thought we could change the world, rearrange the world.
In some ways, we did.
The U.S. media actually brought down a president for 18 minutes of missing tape while today, missing White House emails are lumped in with Alec Baldwin's voice mails.
Millions of us took to the streets and demanded an end to segregation, to war, to nuclear bomb testing. And end them we did.
We had women's lib and we had gay lib. We had causes, and leaders. In 1970, Abbie Hoffman, co-founder of the Yippies — the Youth International Party — wrote Steal This Book, a sequel to his F--k the System. Both were guides to anarchic living. The former preached exploiting the establishment while the latter was about overthrowing it.
The irony was that, even though many actually did steal the book and some retailers refused to stock it, it became a New York Times bestseller.
From Steal This Book, I learned how to make a Molotov cocktail. The throwing firebomb kind. Not today's rum and vodka tossing back kind.
Times have changed.
Which brings us to last week's much-vaunted Internet "revolution." It was sparked by a series of 32 letters and numbers that math types call a hexadecimal code, but which looks like a series of bingo calls to me. (God, I feel old.) In fact, last week, when I first saw it plastered all over the Web, I had no sense of its significance, even when it hit the top of Digg, the user-structured site that links to and ranks stories by popularity.
It was all geek to me.
Long story short, according to a U.K.-based hacker blog, last January a Canadian hacker named Muslix16 cracked the HD-DVD encryption system. It was F--k the System and Steal this Movie all in one!
The code ended up on the Web, even landing on YouTube, but not many would-be movie pirates latched on to it right away.
But nothing stays secret for long online — remember that you kiddies who post silly things about yourselves on Facebook — and the code spread to more users. Lawyers' letters from New York and Hollywood went flying, sending the e-rebels into an anti-corporate media frenzy — even though most are clueless as to how to exploit the code. Still, they posted it all on Digg.
So, last Tuesday, the San Francisco company issued a ban on the code or links to the code because, as an independent site, it couldn't deal with the lawsuits that the media giants who own the studios would crush it with.
That's when all hell broke loose: Digg users bombarded the site, posting and re-posting the code. It spread faster than a "Dear Beloved" email scam from Nigeria. Songs were composed with it as lyrics and posted on YouTube and elsewhere. Facebook pages went up demanding the Facebook pages with the code stay up. Even mainstream media published it, albeit in crafty ways with screen shots of websites showing the code.
Codebreakers rallied around the cause of freedom of speech.
"You'd rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company," blogged co-founder Kevin Rose. "We hear you, and effective immediately we won't delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be."
The talk of revolution was in the air, with cyber rebels and pundits claiming that this was the digital equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. Nothing could stop the Internetters now. They had proven that they could fight the power.
But there used to be a time when fighting the power meant liberating people, not DVDs.
True, you have to go to the wall for freedom of expression. But would today's e-rebels go up against the wall? Would they feel the same if their bank accounts were being hacked?
This was no revolution.
This was a virtual mob.
The real revolution will come when Web warriors get off their butts and into the streets for something really worth fighting for, not when they stand up to see Spider-Man 3 for free.