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Interview With a Sniggler

Over the years, many people have asked me to answer interview questions via email. Some were journalists, some were students, others were just curious. I’ve gathered some of these questions and answers together here.

Sniggling

=> Can you tell me more about yourself. Age, occupation, where are you based, etc.?

I’m 37, and live in San Francisco, California. Until recently, I was working as a project manager for a software company. Now I’m a full-time troublemaker.

=> How did you get into sniggling?

I don’t remember, exactly. Back when I was just a young, garden-variety liberal activist I remember admiring stories of the political theater of the Yippies, but I don’t remember when this grew into a more intense interest or why. I can remember as far back as elementary school that I looked at social rôles the way that hackers look at network protocols — as brittle algorithms vulnerable to clever cracks.

=> Who is part of the group? I am interested in knowing who is involved in this movement in a general sense, for example, male, female, age, race, class, profession, ethnicity, urban/rural, etc.

There really isn’t a “sniggling movement,” I don’t think. Sniggling is a technique that is used by a creative fringe of some activist groups, and by some individuals independently of any groups or movements.

=> How did you come up with sniggle.net?

At first I just started collecting links about various historical pranks and hoaxes and impostures and such. I was researching these as a hobby — scratching the itch of a curiosity I have about the weak points in our epistimological filters. I’m interested in learning the many ways in which people come to believe things that aren’t so, and what weaknesses in our evaluation of ideas allow nonsense to sneak in. Some related projects of mine deal with urban legends and memetics.

I’m very interested in how we use conceptual categories, language, and tacit social agreements to generate our visions of how the world works — and I’m interested also in how this leads us astray. I study memetics and urban legends for another couple of angles on the same question, and my more-or-less lapsed study of Buddhism also touched on this. Even my tech writing career concerns itself with the limits of language when trying to describe reality precisely and unambiguously.

Anyway, as the site grew, I started categorizing it and providing some write-up and commentary — as well as creating more in-depth pages on some subjects.

=> What do you hope to achieve with the site?

I’d like the site to be a source of inspiration for sniggling performance artists who are looking for inspiration from historical practitioners of related performance genres.

=> Can you provide a definition of culture jamming?

I can’t. At least not an authoritative one. There’s lots of disagreement. I think the term was invented by members of the sound collage group Negativland, so they may have meant the phrase to refer to the practice of using the ambient cultural noise as a palette for creating new art. The folks at Adbusters magazine use the phrase to describe activist critiques of and assaults on advertising and the consumer culture. I can’t even really find sharp boundaries of my own definition, but it has something to do with creative violations of usually-unspoken social norms that serve to point out and allow for a critique of those norms — the prototypical culture jammer may be the crafty salesman in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” who convinced the king to wear the conspicuously consumptive yet intangible duds. My site also deals with things like fraud, psychological blind spots, hysteriæ, and other stuff that isn’t really culture jamming but that illustrates methods that might be used for the purpose of sniggling.

=> What do you understand as the goal, the chief aim of sniggling?

I can only offer my opinion — different people have different ideas of what this is all about. For me, it’s all about helping people discover the unwarranted assumptions they’re making, particularly in rôle-based and mediated social interactions. The assumptions are pointed out by creating a situation in which they are most pointedly invalid or absurd.

=> When did it start?

God drops a tree in Eden, says “don’t eat the fruit, kids, cause that’ll give you the knowledge of good & evil, and you wouldn’t want that.”

Ulysses yells over the walls at Troy — “okay, okay, we give up. No hard feelings, okay? Here, have this big wooden horse. We’re outta here.”

Trickster sneaks up on the Goddesses at the party and tosses a golden apple toward them engraved with the message “a gift for the prettiest one.”

=> Why is it important?

A whole lot of the evil of the last century was conducted by people who followed rather sheep-like the twisted consensus reality of their societies. What the trickster does is to find flaws in that consensus reality and to construct creative performances to exploit and uncover those flaws. If this happens enough, perhaps people will come to develop an instinctive distrust of consensus reality and will be more likely to see reality as it is.

=> What does the slogan “No Suspects; No Motive” mean?

The phrase comes from a newspaper description of an installation I did. The installation was an enigmatic piece of sculpture: Some small rings of broken glass arrayed in starburst patterns and surrounded by police tape. It kind of had a similar feel to crop circles. Anyway, the newspaper was in a bind — they felt like they had to fit the story into one of their unstated coverage categories, and the closest thing they could think of was “crime,” and so they immediately started trying to identify the suspects and the motive so they could fill in the blanks of their boilerplate.

So inadvertently, in the course of whimsically making this sculpture, I drew out the weaknesses of the pigeon-holeing of news stories.

=> What is your favorite example of sniggling?

Hmmm… Never tried to rank them before; they’re hard to compare with each other like that. I’ll tell you this story instead:

Orson Welles, back when he was a radio personality, panicked a number of people by doing a radio show version of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds,” much of which sounded like a newscast of an actual alien invasion. Later on, as a film director, Welles went to a Greek island to do a documentary on Elmyr DeHory, a flamboyant and ambitious art forger. Also on the island was Clifford Irving, who was writing “Fake!,” a biography of Elmyr. As Welles is doing the editing for the film, Irving is making off with tons of his publishers’ money by claiming to be editing the autobiography of the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes. The autobiography was a fake, and Irving did time — a story that was told in the book “Hoax,” co-written by Magnus Linklater of the London Sunday Times — the same Magnus Linklater who later assembled the Times’s credulous coverage of the (fake) Hitler Diaries.

=> How do you understand and conceptualize the actions of snigglers within the broader social and cultural context of the late twentieth century/early twenty first century?

I think that sniggling has been around in various forms for pretty much all of human history. The forms it is taking today are very much influenced by the deluge of mass-media, state control, and consumerist economy that mark the 20th Century.

=> Is sniggling an alternative form of protest? Is it always connected to political ideologies?

Sniggling can be used effectively in protest, but it’s not always politically-oriented, and even when it does have a political message, that message is often not “ideological” (although it may harmonize with one ideology or another). The best sniggling cuts through the invisible ideology of consensus reality to demonstrate the reality behind it, without resorting to additional ideology.

=> Does sniggling address and help alleviate material, physical concerns, or is it more of a program of “consciousness raising?” To use a quote from Marx, “the atmosphere in which we live weighs upon everyone with a 20,000 pound force, but do you feel it?” Is this the aim of sniggling, to make people “feel it?” If so, to feel what exactly?

Yes — I think sniggling is more of a “pointing out” in the sense that the child in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” points out the emperor’s nudity. It is implied that once the audience sees through the illusion that there will be some sort of political consquence — but this is implicit rather than explicit in the jam.

=> What do you see this form of cultural activism as achieving that more traditional or conventional forms of activism have failed to achieve?

There are certain enemies — lies, illusions, mass hysteria, etc. — that do not have institutional edifices or infrastructures to protest or disrupt. The only way to defeat them is to go after them where they live — in people’s minds and in their mediated representations.

=> Can change be facilitated by a form of symbolic action? Will sniggling wear itself out in the world of discourse? That is, is it just a political, intellectual exercise dealing with discourse and structural concerns or do you believe that it can affect some form of material change?

I think it’s much more effective than, say, straightforward advertising or picket signs or letters-to-the-editor or so many other direct forms of persuasion. It’s a “show me, don’t tell me” variety of message-giving. You can recite sutras about unclouded awareness all day, but often it’s only when the zen master hits you over the head with a rubber chicken that you actually notice that she’s been holding a rubber chicken.

=> Why are young people not so interested in politics? Is interest in politics something that evolves with age? According to a research in Viewpoint magazine (#9), teenagers have no problems with brands. Labor issues or brand ethics have made little or no impact on them.

Some are, some aren’t. Young folks are often downright enthusiastic about brands and logos. But what do you expect — there’s an awful lot of time and money devoted to making this so. Really, there are well-funded armies of propagandists preaching the gospel of dishonesty, greed, and the vicarious fulfillment of human needs through product purchases. Is it any surprise that only a minority escape?

=> Do you think that the changing nature of community is necessitating formulation of a new form of activism, i.e. sniggling?

I’m not sure I see the connection. I think perhaps that in an urbanizing world where communal structures (families, churches, etc.) are weaker and people are more separate and individual, it is more difficult to create social change by appealing to people from the point of view of a shared set of values. You need an appeal that is more vivid, less abstract.

=> Writer and academic, Noreena Hertz believes that “protest is becoming a more political weapon than the ballot box.” Do you agree?

Yes. The ballot box is pretty darned useless. At least in the U.S.A. — there may be other places where it’s more useful.

=> Do you think that all future activist movements will, and must, embrace the media? How do you think that this will alter activist movements in terms of dictating that their actions become more and more outlandish and shocking so that they are more newsworthy?

I don’t think that’s necessary. The media are good for certain sorts of messages, but there are important things that the media don’t convey, and there are certain unintended messages that are inevitably carried along with media representations. That said, it certainly pays to be aware of how the media are going to react to activism and try to work that to your advantage. And some times the media are just the amplification/distortion mechanism that you need.

=> It is uncertain how long the Internet will be able to retain its irreverent and anti-establishment leanings. Takeovers, corporate influence threatens to police the Web. What’s your opinion? Did you have any bad experiences yourself?

I’ve been on-line long enough that I remember the internet before there was any commercial content on it. I remember the first Spam (Canter & Siegel’s “green card” spam) and the furious response to it by the internet community. Things have really gone downhill since then. But there has also been much to celebrate in the expansion of the net and the web. Corporations are leaning on the government to regulate the internet in ways that are favorable to the homogenizers and profit-extractors, and they may succeed, but they may also fail because the net is awfully organic and resistant to central control. It’ll be interesting to watch.

=> Do you see the Internet as the key site for future activism, in terms of organization, publicity, communication, and also as a site for actually protesting in various forms?

Maybe. I dunno; to me it’s like a big public library with some bells and whistles. I don’t mean that in a demeaning way — I think the idea of a big public library that I can browse from home or work is really cool. I think it can be very helpful to activists, but I think the potential for “virtual activism” is limited.

=> I find it difficult to get in contact with hactivists. Can you give me any advice?

These days, it’s wise to stay underground. You might try posting your questions to some public forum at which people can respond anonymously.

Hacktivism

=> How are website defacements and denial-of-service attacks generally viewed among the hacking community?

Well, first off — I’m only peripherally involved in the “hacking community.” I’m a long-time software engineer, but don’t have a broad, fraternal “community” sort of identification. I read SlashDot and get many of the in jokes, though, so maybe I do qualify.

But secondly, to the extent that I do know that community, I know it’s infrequently of one mind on issues. The hackers I know are most likely to see these sorts of activities as evidence of the vulnerable and shoddy nature of Microsoft products.

I have my own interest in these sorts of things when they are used for activist / prankish purposes, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of evidence of this.

=> What can you tell me about hacktivism that uses neither of the above-mentioned methods?

I’ve commented on a number of examples at my hacktivism page — the DeCSS-related hacktivism is a good example worth exploring, because many techniques were used.

=> Do you consider hacktivism civil disobedience or criminal mischief or both?

Well, sometimes criminal mischief is just criminal mischief, but it’s almost always the case that one person’s civil disobedience is another person’s criminal mischief.

The exceptions are when hacktivism is directed against institutions and displays that are themselves unambiguously illegal, in which case it’s more like vigilantism; and when hacktivism is used in warfare, in which case it’s just another field of war. But keep in mind that a lot of hacktivism isn’t criminal at all, it’s just non-traditional and technologically-informed activism.

=> It seems to me that traditionally, hackers sought the respect of the public at large by saying they were out to learn a system or a piece of software, to find its weaknesses and thereby facilitate its improvement. Is there this same kind of respect looked for by hacktivists who break into computers for a cause?

I think you may be confusing hackers & crackers here, but maybe this is a hair that is only split in the “hacker community” — in that sphere, “hackers” are people who are demonstrably proficient in mucking around in code and protocols and such; “crackers” are the people who go around breaking into other machines and seeing what they can get away with.

But anyway…

Sometimes hacktivists are simply trying to do real economic or P.R. damage to some institution they disapprove of. But there are other motivations that to me are more interesting. For instance, the various tools used to confuse email address harvesters are a form of hacktivism, but in this case they’re protecting people and their computers from being exploited by spammers, rather than doing damage.

The “HugeDisk” prank I describe on my site exploits the behavior of search engines for propaganda purposes in the same way that an advertiser will exploit a ballgame in an outdoor stadium by flying banners behind small aircraft overhead to attract attention. This is a hack that has more to do with learning and understanding an algorithm than cracking into someone else’s machine.

The various DeCSS hacks both explore how much freedom can be defended on the net (and conversely, how little control can be exercised over it), and help to inform the larger legal debate over intellectual property (for instance, by converting the “illegal” DeCSS algorithm into prose, poetry, song, and T-shirt to ask implicitly whether the ideas in the DeCSS algorithm would be protected as free speech if expressed in another form).

Some hacks are done for artistic purposes. For instance, Amazon.com encourages people to post reviews of books. But they can’t possibly review all of the reviews for how appropriate or meaningful they are. Fans of the “Dysfunctional Family Circus” web site took to posting reviews of the various compilations of “Family Circus” comics that were full of sly in-jokes and commentary, while disguised as straightforward reviews.

And now I hear that there’s a “Munchausen by Internet Syndrome” in which a person will pretend to have some heartbreaking medical malady, which they share with the world on their personal weblog, basking in falsly-earned sympathy. That’s a kind of hack-for-performance-art slash -pathology.

=> Is there a division between hacktivists whose causes are mainly in the realm of technology, open source, intellectual property, etc. and those who protest things like the WTO and environmental degradation? Along the same lines, I wonder about which camp boasts more hacktivism and which camp boasts more “legit” hackers as opposed to “script kiddies” etc.

Couldn’t say. It seems to me like the vast majority of website defacements and DOS attacks are coming from people who either want to show off that they’re capable of doing it, or are curious if the net really is as vulnerable as it seems so they have to try it to find out. The next largest group consists of more-or-less-large corporations who primarily use legal intimidation to shut down or modify sites. A smaller set comes from government-sponsored groups who attack dissidents or other governments. And also in this general size range come the freelance activists who want to express their anger or cause damage to a particular target.

=> How sincere do you think most hacktivists are and how effective do you think hacktivism is as a form of protest?

Couldn’t comment on sincerity — I don’t know enough hacktivists. As far as the effectiveness goes, there’s probably some potential effectiveness of DOS attacks as a weapon of war, whether as a tool of a state or of guerrillas. As a protest technique, neither DOS nor website defacement seem to have much going for them.

A more subtle, prankish website changing might work better — something that’s too subtle for company insiders who see the site day-after-day to notice, but which damages the image of the company. I’m imagining something like a racist joke casually inserted into the CEO’s “about me” profile.

But once you move away from the vandalism arena of DOS & defacement, I think there’s a lot of potential. Memetic warfare, for instance, will be big news now that a viral idea can spread like wildfire through email.

Sniggle Art

=> I don’t know of a single artist who came of age in the nineties who doesn’t participate in some sort of culture jamminess, but nobody seems to define it in the same way. What is culture jamming art to you?

Well, sniggling has pretty fuzzy boundaries, but I’m not sure most of what gets called “culture jamming” art really qualifies. To some extent “culture jam” is like one of those buzzwords that sweeps the software or web industry twice a year — everybody changes their marketing material to call themselves “b2b” or some such, whether or not that accurately describes what they do.

Shepard Fairey, for instance, had a project that could have been a sniggling project or could have just been a branding project. If he’d left his name & URL off of the posters and just had them appear without comprehensible motive — that’d be sniggling. If instead, he created a recognizable style, left a URL on the posters, and used his logos to create a line of clothing (as he’s done), he’s just doing what a hundred other marketing professionals do. Nothing new or interesting there.

Tongue-in-cheek tagging can be used to jam the tagger subculture. Fun for shits and grins, or perhaps more pointed (I don’t know much about the tagger subculture). Tagging itself seems like it could be read as a soy-bomb directed against the omnipresence of corporate logos.

Flyers announcing nothing, I consider legitimate sniggling. Especially in an urban, flyer-rich environment. Mimic a common flyer motif but advertise an event that’s impossible, anachronistic, or misdescribed. For a while, I was advertising meetings of the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission as though it were an avant-garde play in which actors were playing the parts of a government board having a meeting. I don’t know if anyone ever sat through a meeting interpreting it as a piece of theater, but if even one person did, that would be wonderful.

Graffiti art in the museum is just art in a museum. Graffiti art beautifying a concrete wall without permission — that’s sniggling. The medium is the message here.

=> So if this is just an art world trend, what happens to sniggling when the trend passes?

“Fine art” is just another culture to be jammed; some of the jamming will be pretty cool; some of it will later be recognized by the art community as good art and will be reassimilated and lose its jamminess. No biggie: Most sniggling evaporates quickly. There’s a lot of jamming that goes on that doesn’t really touch on the art world, so whatever ways the trend winds blow in artist circles won’t really have a lasting effect on sniggling as a whole.

I haven’t found much evidence that performance art sniggles — artistically designed “breaching experiments”or large-scale impostures a la Emperor Norton or George Psalmanazar — have developed a “movement.”That could be a real development. There are folks, like Joey Skaggs and Alan Abel, or like the cacophony societies, who do this sort of thing in a sustained and deliberate way, but they tend to be seen as and to see themselves as subversive wise-guys and not as artists working within a tradition.

And I’ll get in trouble with Adbusters, who think they own the term “culture jamming,” but their advertising parodies are just that — parodies. That’s not culture jamming. Culture jamming might include making an ad that looks like it could be a Nike ad but is just offensive or unintentionally revealing enough to unhypnotize, and then putting it in a context where it could be misinterpreted as a deliberate Nike statement. Just making a parody ad and putting it in Adbusters is not culture jamming. It’s smirking for the world to see. And who wants to watch people smirk?

“You can recite sutras about unclouded awareness all day, but often it’s only when the zen master hits you over the head with a rubber chicken that you actually notice that she’s been holding a rubber chicken.”



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snig·gle (v) — To fish for eels by thrusting a baited hook into their hiding places.