Technopranks: Carving out a message in electronic space

An infamous subliminal image in a Disney film
An infamous subliminal image in a Disney film

Jesse Drew writes for Processed World magazine on how workers and citizens have used modern technology to assert their humanity, from using subliminal images to blogging.

Submitted by Steven. on December 13, 2010

I knelt to examine the floor, and there it was, in tiny writing, quite fresh it seemed, scratched with a pin or maybe just a fingernail, in the corner where the darkest shadow fell:
Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

I didn’t know what it meant, or even what language it was in. I thought it might be Latin, but I didn’t know any Latin. Still, it was a message, and it was in writing, forbidden by very fact, and it hadn’t yet been discovered. Except by me, for whom it was intended. It was intended for whoever came next. (1)

This passage from Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale provides a nightmarish projection of where US society is possibly headed, a place where communication between two people about their common oppression is forbidden. This simple message, scratched into the wall of a kitchen cupboard, will represent to some the utter futility of the protagonist’s situation. Yet it also presents the potential spark of resistance and the fragile but triumphant re-emergence of truth. It has been the preservation and distribution of many such small truths that have shattered many a dictatorship, tyranny and autocracy.

A Public Sphere

At the root of most conceptions of democracy, lies a very simple supposition, that a well-informed public engages on even ground in a contestation of ideas within a public sphere of communication and media. Vestiges of such ideas live on in the New England Town Hall meetings, and within our ideas of a free press.
Today, democracies like to present themselves as harbingers of a healthy public sphere, with traditions of a free press and the free association of citizens. Such window dressing seeks to conceal the anemic state of public discourse, particularly within the United States. The near-monopolization of all media by corporate conglomerates, and the paranoiac control of information by the State, with its vast Public Relations apparatus, its “embedded ” reporters, and its system of “official ” leaks and disinformation has made a mockery of claims to a well-informed citizenry. This corporate/government media nexus has locked communications into a one-way stream of messages from the centers of power to the periphery of spectators and audiences. Today an individual’s ability to compete in the marketplace of ideas is akin to throwing a message in a bottle into a vast ocean of corporate and government entertainment, punditry and infomercials, a Huxleyan stew of “feelies, orgy-porgy and centrifugal bumblepuppy. ”As Huxley himself said:

For conditions even remotely comparable to those now prevailing we must return to imperial Rome, where the populace was kept in good humor by frequent, gratuitous doses of many kinds of entertainment —from poetical dramas to gladiatorial fights, from recitations of Virgil to all-out boxing, from concerts to military reviews and public executions. But even in Rome there was nothing like the non-stop distraction now provided by newspapers and magazines, by radio, television and the cinema. (2)

Long ago, corporate power, like some kind of Frankenstein monster, arose from the dead scrolls of their articles of incorporation to become recognized alongside average citizens as “individuals” with the same individual rights accorded by the Constitution. In today’s corporatocracy, Microsoft Corporation has the same rights as Joe Blow from Vermont to persuade the public with their point of view. In other words, the law, in its majestic equality, allows Microsoft and Exxon the same rights to buy primetime television time and nationwide billboard campaigns as you or I.
So, is public discourse dead? Are you reading these words scratched onto a cupboard wall? Hopefully not yet. Undeniably, there is still contested terrain in the mediascape, especially within th
e realm of electronic space. There is a vital tradition of independent and alternative media that historically has had two primary emphases: one aims at creating new channels of independent media, the other aims to expose the complicity of mainstream media. This division of labor is still evident within new electronic communications. Today’s electronic media activists seek to create free spaces where information can be exchanged and discussed unfiltered and uncensored by power, as well as to subvert, expose, and hack away at the veneer of objectivity that shrouds corporate media.

An Electronic Public Sphere

There has been much discussion in recent years about whether the expansion of cyberspace constitutes the creation of an electronic public sphere, centered around the Internet. In the early years of usenet groups, gopher sites, and on-line communities, many envisioned the birth of the nationwide town hall meeting, where each individual was equal to any other, and where all had equal voice and access to information. According to Benjamin Barber, in a nation the size of the U.S. with its great distances, electronic communication can assist in facilitating such a grassroots democractic process:

Once it is understood that the problem of scale is susceptible to technological and institutional melioration and that political communities are human networks rooted in communication, scale becomes a tractable challenge rather than an insuperable barrier. (3)

This utopian notion seemed to build steam with the advent of the World Wide Web, which allowed anyone to build a simple website with a few lines of html code and a couple of gifs. Such an opportunity proved irresistible to venture capital, however. Society launched headlong into the web-frenzied explosion of the late nineties. Within a short time, the .edus and .orgs were swallowed in a tidal wave of dot.coms, and the Internet was transformed from a decidedly anti-commercial space to a one-way commercial shopping platform.
Now that the wicked witch has melted down, perhaps we can begin to sort out what is left behind that still suits public discourse. When does electronic media space facilitate public discussion and exchange? Numerous exemplary cases and projects abound, from public access on-line discussion groups, to activists’ networks, to political groups like
Behind such newly emerging online activism, however, lies a legacy of radical, prankster and hacker practices that has blazed a path for such conventional communications. Some of these techno-practices are politically conscious, some unconscious, and some downright inane, ranging from the poetic to the polemical to the pornographic. Some are clearly legal but push the law, some are in gray areas, and some are illegal. But they fall within the classic traditions of pranksterism, where a sense of humor can be razor-sharp, or wielded as a blunt ax. The perpetrators are individuals claiming their place within public discussion. Such is the messy process of democracy.
Rapidly advancing technologies are making media production tools increasingly accessible, but channels for delivering these messages are increasingly restricted by a tightening noose of corporate and governmental control. The Committee for Democratic Communications of the National Lawyers Guild took on an important legal case, involving the opening up of FM radio frequencies to community–based Low Power FM radio broadcasters. Their position was ultimately upheld by the courts and even the FCC:

Although “full and free discussion ” of ideas may have been a reality in the heyday of political pamphleteering, modern technological developments in the field of communications have made the soapbox orator and the leafletter virtually obsolete.

This decision helps to open a front in the electronic communications realm for real two-way exchange, since it effectively argued that to communicate electronically is a fundamental right of all citizens.
There have been few attempts to unify activities such as hacking, pranking and culture jamming. They spring from the same desire to have public input into a closed communications system. In the U.S., we have substituted a system of mass communications for the public sphere. This has eliminated public discussion in favor of the mass reception of messages from the centers of power. In an age of ruthless confiscation of public space, prankster forays into the mediascape are increasingly popular. The synthesis of humor, graffiti-writing, technical showmanship, grassroots activism and the DIY punk rock aesthetic appear in many of these media interventions. Rather than being mere background noise to cultural, social and political life, these practices represent a common effort to reshape the climate of ideas in the U.S.
Two main divisions in “technopranksterism” reflect two primary camps of media activism—those working to build alternative channels of information and those who focus on disrupting corporate media. I refer to these two areas respectively as “New Electronic Spheres ” and “Breaking the Façade.”
Microscopic graffiti etched in silicon wafers, only visible through an electron microscope.

Breaking the Façade

It is hard to ignore that we are subject to a mind-numbing barrage of commercial messages, public relations ploys, political spin and other modern propaganda techniques. “Breaking the Façade ” refers to the types of hijinks that chip away at the smooth veneer of these manipulative practices. Whether consciously or unconsciously, Dadaism, Surrealism and the Situationists contributed to the ways electronic pranksters expose the fallacy of mainstream media objectivity, corporate responsibility, and the benevolence of the State, often while violating our “common decency”!

Photoshop Pranks (The Jackalope Tradition)

These images follow within a grand tradition of Tall Tales and satire, a blend of tongue-in-cheek and cut-and-paste, frequently mixed with dark sense of humor. Often designed by creative but bored office workers, these images proliferate on the distribution model created from a loose network that arose primarily to share jokes via Xerox and fax machines. With the massive and instantaneous distribution offered by the Internet, this material takes on greater significance. At times, even the mainstream media steps in to “set the record straight.”

Labor Traces

The desire for one’s labor and creative effort to be recognized is a long-standing one, going back to early craft workers who branded or initialized metal work, pottery or woodwork. In an era of global labor, where pieces of labor come from disparate corners of the globe to be assembled and mass-marketed, individual recognition for work is almost non-existent. This is particularly true in the software and entertainment industries, where the name Disney or Microsoft subsumes the creative talent of tens of thousands of workers. There is evidence of leaving traces of one’s individuality in much of these products, however. Some, like “permission ” walls for graffiti, are let past the gate. Others surface later, often to the embarrassment of the megacorporation.
An infamous "flashing" frame embedded in a Disney film.
Disney characters zoom by a stripper in a window in another embedded Disney cartoon (top center).

Fair Use Versus Copyright Infringement

Where culture is increasingly trademarked, and all life seems to be “branded, ” it is only natural that many people want to speak back to the “LOGO.” When we live in a media environment saturated by advertising and brands, these icons and symbols become just part of the environment, and fair game for commentary. In an era when corporate power has surpassed State power, these logos become political and ideological symbols, not just stand-ins for products. Besides, many members of the public are increasingly incensed at seeing their own culture stolen from them, to be repackaged and sold at the mall. Copyright infringement may be your greatest entertainment value, but it is increasingly litigious one.

Web Hacks

Outright webhacks range from focused political education to electronic grafitti. Sometimes the work can only be described as vandalism. Because the perpetrator must crack security and surreptitiously replace files on servers, this type of practice gets much publicity on account of its illegality. Regardless of the swapped content, the result of such intrusion is what I like to call the “Wizard of Oz ” effect, in that they puncture the omnipotent strength of the victims. Who would know that the all powerful CIA, FBI, Pentagon and Department of Justice would have their ankles bitten by the teenage Totos of the hacker underground. I would argue that these frequent attacks have substantially degraded the once powerful images of these organizations.
Tali-tubby and the "recovered film" hoax filled millions of email boxes in the weeks after 9-11.

Google Hacks

There are certain other hacks, which are less illegal, but effective in delivering satirical answers to rhetorical questions. Google hacks direct questioners on the popular Google search site to phony error pages, that usually provide a humorous response to the question. News of these hacks are often relayed along the same distribution networks used by Photoshop pranks, circulated among networks of friends and colleagues, prompting the right question to ask. Probably not too many people would ordinarily go to Google and type in “miserable failure ” and click the I’m Feeling Lucky button, and bring up the website of George W. Bush.

False Websites, simulations and general disinformation

Following in the parody and satire vein, disinformation websites remain very popular and outrageous to those parodied. Since the web began, grabbing a website in the typical first-come, first-served way proved a convenient way to humiliate the party that was too slow to grab their own domain. (, for example) To add insult to injury, these sites usually imitate the object of satire, and serve to confuse and agitate innocent visitors to these sites. Powerful interests are now trying to roll these sites back, however, by tying domain names into laws around copyright infringement.

New Spheres of Discussion

The friendly accompaniment to “Breaking the Façade ” is the creation of new spaces for the free exchange of information and discussion. Incredibly frustrating to official gatekeepers of information in the powerful media chains and in the State Department, this is one of the most promising developments of the Internet. Truth often begins to emerge here, before gaining a critical mass of believers. At this point, mass media often wades in with its spin, to avoid the embarrassment of being left far behind on an issue everyone is talking about.

Public Files

One of the truly hopeful things about the web is that citizens can publish original documents, images and evidence, entire original sources un-filtered by mass media. This has led to some truly spectacular results. Recent publishing adventures include damning files from cigarette companies detailing their targeting of youth, recent documents on the instability of software for electronic voting, and health risks of eating at McDonald’s. This type of activity is probably the most frightening for powerful interests, because they allow hard data out for anyone to make up their own minds, and bypass “spin ” put on the issues by PR and the media. Legality is often questioned, as sometimes theft is involved, but it seems clearly for now to be protected First Amendment activity.

Peer to Peer

Peer-to-peer technologies have transformed the way files are shared, a decentralized activity that allows for random on-demand sharing of data. This enormously popular phenomenon is creating a new culture of mutual respect and responsibility, for it depends upon leaving ones computer folders available for public sharing, an anathema to corporate interests who have worked so hard to commodify information. Such files often consist of full-frame motion video clips, books, music, graphic arts and other cultural work. Such sharing is opening up a world of media to many people who would otherwise not have access to these resources.
from Phil Pateris' Iraq Campaign

Internet Activism and List Servs

E-mail must certainly be considered among the most powerful tools available for opening up public discussion, particularly among the burgeoning supply of dedicated list-servs available to join. For a great number of environmental, labor, cultural and other activist groups, this simple form of communication is allowing an unprecedented volume of one-to-one conversation. Although sprouting from the original model built around usenet groups, e-mail listservs bring regular information and action requests from like-minded individuals and organizations.

Blogging the Night Away

An increasingly popular media activity is the “blog ” or web log that offers instant reportage and opinion directly and instantaneously from the writer to the on-line audience. “Blogging ” allows information to travel unfiltered to a limitless audience, acting as a textual witness to events both earth-shattering as well as banal, from Iraqi battlefields to Hollywood gossip. Increasingly seen as the raw truth, blogs have started to pull the mainstream media around by the nose, as it outscoops and out-maneuvers the slower moving journalistic institutions.
Though the speed at which bloggers post their comments often sacrifices fact-checking, the proven reliability of many blogs has proven disastrous to official spin-meisters, censors and those who prefer to control the flow of information.

The Way Forward

Ultimately, what is the impact of such activities? While some pundits like to dismiss it all as the trivial work of isolated individuals, I believe that the total effect of technopranks is having a substantial impact on public life, with benefits ranging from opening up raw documents directly to the public, to questioning and satirizing powerful interests, to deflating the omnipotent power of corporations and government, to building horizontal links between millions of people. Information, however, is not necessarily power, but must somehow be translated into action. That is the challenge of our age.

from Jesse Drew's Manifestoon


1 Atwood, M. (1986). The Handmaid’s Tale. NY; Anchor Books, p. 52.
2 Huxley, A. (1965.) Brave New World Revisited. NY: Harper Row. p, 29.
3 Barber, B. (1984). Strong democracy: Participatory politics for a new age. Berkeley: University of California, p. 247.