A short story about the hacktivist group Anonymous that may yet become the first chapter of a novel.
In the beginning, we were nobodies. We had tousled hair and acned skin and we hadn’t yet done anything worth remembering. Many of us were still being bullied, getting stuffed in lockers or pelted with gum or having horrible things said about us online. We hoped it would end someday, impossible as that seemed at the time. Many of us were still living with our parents, and were angry that we had to do chores at home and work part-time at the McDonald's downtown and had no exit for the foreseeable future. We felt angriest at ourselves—for not figuring out a way to leave and for not having the courage to do so. Many of us were already surfing the Internet with great verve, picking up on new and exciting ways of using that great gray ocean of data as our newest plaything. It took us a long time to learn what all the acronyms stood for, how to back up an important file, and where to pick up quality porn without also picking up quality malware. Almost all of us had one thing in common, shared a single defining characteristic: apart from our peers and our parents, no one cared who we were. No one cared because no one was interested. In retrospect, it seems obvious. Although we didn’t know it yet, we were Anonymous.
In the beginning, we hated our anonymity. We felt that it was tantamount to being voiceless and invisible and often in pain. At a certain point, some of us hated almost everything, and didn’t care to differentiate between a friend or a foe or a friend fending off a foe. We were pleasant and well-behaved at home and at school and at the cafes and arcades and cheapo dives in between but because of our anonymity hardly anyone knew what we felt or believed or wanted to do with our lives, and that feeling killed us inside. Some of us were so alienated by our circumstances and their unavoidability that we became unruly and got kicked out of our high schools and were sent to institutions devoted to dealing with “hopeless cases.” Some of us enjoyed the specialized care that these programs afforded and participated in group therapy and peer review and even got ready for college in some rare cases but most of us did not. Many of us became withdrawn and quiet and tried to bore ourselves out of existence. Our counselors could only do so much with the pills they prescribed and the sessions they set up. Why isn’t any of this helping me? some of us would ask. “What else can I do?” some of them would say. After all, each of us constituted just another case they had to deal with, just another face in the crowd.
In the beginning, almost all of us felt out of whack. Aslant. Askew. Adrift. It was a weird feeling, and it took us a while before we realized what the deal was. We were usually in middle school—occasionally, we were in our first year of high school—before this realization hit: We were inept. We were late-bloomers. We were the ones who never knew what to do or how to act or why any of it mattered in the long run. That was the bad news. The good news was that what we lacked in instinct, we made up for in the density of our thoughts. We learned by analyzing and abstracting, not by barreling through a tough equation or an involved science project or the inner workings of the trendiest fashions and hoping for success. We fiddled and tinkered and took things apart with ease, and often wondered in the back of our minds why we couldn’t apply the same principles to our own lives and all their complexities. If this analytical edge taught us anything, though, it was that every system has bugs, not all of which are parasitic.
In the beginning, many of us didn’t realize how lucky we were, for we had parents and teachers, friends and counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists who knew—marginally in some cases, extensively in others—exactly how much pain we were experiencing and who wanted to help us out however they could but didn’t know where to begin.
In the beginning, we had no idea that some of our generation’s forerunners considered us a total failure as a generation. This, we would later learn, was one example of a generation gap. The gulf it formed between our generation and our forerunners’ never failed to fuel commentary. Our parents called themselves “Generation X” and they were basically more mature versions of us, unbelievable as that is in retrospect. They told us that they’d been in our shoes and walked along the beaten path and been lucky enough to grow up within range of the first mass-produced TVs, and for the longest time we didn’t know what to make of their gratitude. For obvious reasons—at least, reasons that are obvious to us now—we couldn’t always see eye to eye. The things they admired and admonished, everything from MTV and Ferris Bueller to the presidency of Ronald Reagan, were about as alien to us as the moon whose surface their parents had worked so hard and spent untold sums to walk on. If we didn’t understand our parents, we couldn’t even fathom their parents. The “baby boomers,” they were called. They had grown up in an economy that thrived, that pulsated with prosperity the way the 1990s had for us. They took pride in their work ethic and feared the threat of nuclear annihilation and thought that with enough perseverance they could literally accomplish anything. We thought that they were fools without realizing how foolish we were for feeling that way. It’s embarrassing to admit but no less true. To them, we were the obverse of the millennium, of all their apocalyptic fears for the future rendered real. We had no idea and we wouldn’t care what their reasons were until it was too late and by then none of it would matter.
In the beginning, the very beginning, the Internet divided us. Contrary to what many people seem to think, not all of us saw it as a sanctuary. Most of us did. Most of us sat down at whatever PC we happened to be nearby and logged in via the dial-up connection that everyone still used back then and crawled aimlessly around for hours at a whack, sponging up whatever we came across without caring how it could be applied. Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner? we would excitedly ask the friend or parent or teacher who’d first showed us how. This is so much fun it’s freaky. But some reacted differently. Some of us were so overwhelmed by the abundance of info—always random, often useless, and occasionally disturbing—that it felt like we were being buried beneath an avalanche of pixels. Some of us got so addicted to the screen that we had to quit surfing for weeks at a time and undergo a kind of self-imposed rehab. Some of us even took it a step further and jerry-rigged our PCs so that access was impossible. “Why the hell did you glue a USB cable into your computer and saw off the cord?” one such innovator was asked. I did what I had to. You should think about taking a break, too. Everyone should. You won’t believe what a week without eyestrain feels like.
In the beginning, we dwelled almost exclusively in our bedrooms. While at home, these were our real sanctuaries, whether we lived in the U.S. or the U.K. or on any continent save Antarctica. At this point, a chain or deadbolt or mortise lock felt far more substantial and secure than a firewall. That’s almost funny now. But back then, our bedrooms were what we pictured when we thought of the word home. The furnishings varied depending on how well off we were and what we liked as individuals. Bureaus and bookcases were common, as were the CDs and DVDs with which we stuffed them. Radios and TVs weren’t uncommon but they definitely weren’t space-savers. (PCs, first as desktops and later as laptops, became all the more integral when we realized this.) Posters tacked to our bedrooms’ walls became a tradition: the musicians and movie stars we admired, the handsome men and shapely women whose bodies we craved, the political movements that a rare bunch of us knew about but didn’t know how to support—almost all of them were represented in this fashion at some point. The group we represented the most, though, weren’t actual people but fictional characters from the anime we’d watched and gotten addicted to and now couldn’t spend a week without. Some of us watched Neon Genesis Evangelion and were amazed at how realistic the characters were, how similar they were to us. Some of us watched Cowboy Bebop and mimed Spike’s moves. Almost all of us watched Ghost in the Shell after we heard what it was about. But the anime we watched most of all—the anime that we’d spent hours watching and rewatching on our beds, not caring that we’d already seen the same episode enough times to quote every snippet of dialogue—was Dragon Ball Z. We enshrined DBZ, worshiped it, not unlike how some of our parents worshiped the Beatles. After all, who wouldn’t want that kind of power? Who wouldn’t want the power to destroy planets at their fingertips?
In the beginning—that is, on September 11th, 2001, the beginning of what the media would soon label the “War on Terror”—most of us understood the magnitude of what was happening, of what it meant for the U.S., but some of us observed the towers’ fall with an impassionate eye and a heart of stone, our lives so hellish up to that point that caring about the deaths of more than three thousand people was beyond us, beneath us, and that fact horrifies us now, makes many of us wonder: Am I even human?
In the beginning, we knew so little about politics. Our schools would dole out the info depending on where we lived and what the PTA committees allowed. We couldn’t have imagined how divided they were, how our uncertain futures affected them: “The bible is the word of God, and I want my kids to grow up knowing that.” “Creationism is wrong. Every child should have the right to see things clearly and make their own choices.” “Let them learn it as they go. They’ll be better off that way.” “They need to know this. The sooner the better.” Some of us attended schools where our parents had blacklisted the curriculum—sometimes just a portion, sometimes a huge chunk. Some of us attended schools where our parents had made suggestions but no restrictions. But even at those more progressive schools, many of us had trouble, and whether it had to do with paying attention or fending off hazing or simply being unable to stay awake in class, we didn’t get a clue until much, much later. It’s not like we could’ve done anything about it back then. Few of us were old enough to vote, and even if we had been, what difference could we have made? For those of us who were living in the U.S. in the latter half of 2004, nothing drove this home harder than George W. Bush’s reelection. “How could this have happened?” our more liberal parents screamed. What’s the big deal? we wondered, listening with only half an ear, curious why it pleased some and distressed others. Very few of us thought to check out what had gone down in Florida.
In the beginning, most of us didn’t read books. We had bookcases in our rooms but stuffed them with CDs and DVDs and graphic novels more often than actual novels or collections of short stories or anything that contained poetry. Many of the graphic novels were manga we bought in the back of comic book stores or the local Barnes & Noble, and since some of them featured images that our parents would object to—“Why are you reading this?” they would ask when they eventually, inevitably discovered our stash—we had to come up with new and clever ways of hiding them. Under the bed or beneath the mattress or in the back of a sock drawer never worked for long, especially when they began piling up. But then, not long after our parents discovered and confiscated them, some of us found solace in the books we’d originally derided—the novels, the short story collections, and the supposedly deadening volumes of poetry. How could we have known that many of them were actually fun? That was how we discovered some of the authors that our parents had cited as important and once or twice tried to introduce us to. (The generation gap had complicated this at the time.) We read Lord of the Rings before we saw the films. We read Dune after seeing Star Wars, and noted the parts that George Lucas had cribbed from Frank Herbert. We joined groups and roamed chat rooms and had a great deal of fun talking about pieces of fiction we never would’ve touched earlier in our lives. Hey, many of us realized, this is way more fun than I thought. Our meddling parents—whom we’d vilified at the time, neither knowing nor caring about their reasons—had done it again. They had given us another one of the many pushes we didn’t even know we needed. They’d helped make us real readers. Who knew?
In the beginning, not all of us lived with our parents. Some of us had moved out as soon as we’d saved up enough. Some of us worked two or three jobs just to scrape by. Some of us attended community colleges or elite private schools or even the Ivy League. Not all of us were teenagers. Not all of us were men. Not all of us were virgins. Not all of us were white. Not all of us were poor. Even at that point, we contained a bit of everything and everyone, a mosaic of minds linked by machines.
In the beginning, at the very end of the very beginning—after
we’d spent countless hours surfing the Internet, after we’d cast off the
cumbersome chain of a dial-up connection, after we’d learned how to use email
and instant messaging, after we’d become way too restless and decided to leave
the relative safety of AOL and Yahoo and Google behind for darker, deeper
regions of the digital universe, after we’d experienced viruses for the first
time and remembered it for years afterward, after we’d seen and heard and done
enough—after all that came to pass, the majority of us began congregating on
this weird-ass website called 4chan and metamorphosing from another voiceless
rabble of tousle-haired and acne-faced nobodies into the enormous entity we
were ever meant to be: a society that would shake the world, a culture that
would shock it, and a revolution that may yet change it, for better or for