Digital interruption

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Digital interruption – preamble

This is the first in a number of posts that are designed to expand upon a post I published in May about eight trends for the future. They appear in the order in which I bite them off, chew them around and verbally masticate as posts on the blog. For this post I am looking at digital interruption.

The U.S. civil rights movement

I started thinking about the civil rights movement in the U.S.

By the late 1950s the US civil rights movement found that discourse and letters hadn’t moved the needle meaningfully and it took events like Rosa Parkes sit-down protest and the Stonewall riots to move the process forwards towards a more equal rights for all.

If one looks at the process in terms of mechanism, rather than the politics behind it; the Greenham Common Women, the tunnels dug by road protesters like Daniel Hooper (aka Swampy); they are an extension of the tactics used by civil rights movements decades before.

The first digital protest

The first digital-powered civil rights protest was the burning of draft cards by young American men from May 1964 onwards. The cards were printed with a font that could be read by an optical card reader connected to a mainframe computer, allowing the processing of draftees more efficient. 46 Americans were subsequently prosecuted for destroying their draft cards.

Digital interruption: learning from the Max Headroom takeover

Analogue interruption of media as a form of protest hasn’t worked that well in general. Whilst pirate radio stations routinely disrupted analogue broadcast transmissions, there weren’t a form of protest media, but generally a form of expression.

Probably the most famous hack was the Max Headroom broadcast interruption in Chicago.

The takeover likely to have been done by transmitting a more powerful microwave signal at the transmitter on the Sears Tower used by local broadcast TV stations. The people behind the Max Headroom takeover have never been caught, though there seems to be a number of people on Reddit who have a good idea who they are based don the some of the discussions you can Google. There were two things with analogue interruption:

  • You had to have a good deal of specialist knowledge to do it
  • It was quite hard to not get caught, similar media interruptions that occurred earlier by the likes of Captain Midnight (aka John MacDougall) who was busted the previous year whilst protesting at HBO’s unfair charges to satellite dish owners

The roots of computer hacking come from a wide range of sources from the political movement of the Yippies providing guides to phone phreaking (getting the phone network to do things the telephone companies wouldn’t like – giving you free calls etc.) to researchers finding flaws in early mainframe programs in the mid 1960s.

By the 1980s, bulletin board services had started to become popular; mainly because local calls were bundled with the line rental of a phone and so were effectively free in the U.S; allowing a pre-internet digital culture to build up. Bulletin boards also existed in other countries but the relatively high costs in regulated telecoms markets across Europe was a major barrier to take-up.

Computer viruses that were propagated disk-to-disk could extend their reach; particularly as magazine cover disks were often compiled with shareware and freeware originally downloaded from a bulletin board as a service to their readers. Magazines were also paid to distribute trial versions of commercial software and dialers for the likes of CompuServe.

It is interesting to note that the online chat function which drove the adoption of services like CompuServe and AOL whilst mirroring much of the bulletin board function; drew their paradigm from CB radio; with CompuServe’s online chat function being originally branded a ‘CB Simulator’.

Other forms of protest such as flame wars and trolling which came out of the bulletin board culture could be seen as incubators for similar behaviour on Internet platforms from Usenet groups to Facebook pages.

Underlying internet technologies have facilitated a step-change in protest; on the one-hand functions like emailing a politician or an online petition have become increasingly ineffective. ‘Peaceful’ consumer protests against the likes of the UK’s Digital Economy Act were ignored by the politicians and petitions supporting Edward Snowden achieved nothing but provide the authorities with a list of trouble-makers.

Brands that have come under attack on their Facebook pages like Nestle have demonstrated a remarkably thick skin, showing the online people power via social media is often a fallacy.

Consumers were taught by the body-politic that vigorous discourse and petitions don’t work compared to the face-to-face interactions with corporate lobbyists from industry bodies like the BPI, the MPAA or the RIAA.

From this lack of effectiveness came the modern digital interruption. Denial of service attacks have been happening for years as a prank or financial shake down but first came into their own as a form of political protest with the use of the low orbital ion cannon (LOIC) program by members of Anonymous to attack sites related to the Church of Scientology and the RIAA. Whilst this form of protest is illegal in many countries, it is seen by those who use it as a form of civil disobedience; similar to overloading a switchboard with protest calls or a picket line.

People involved are jailed and since Anonymous, like democracy is as much an idea as an organisation; the attacks continue.

Website blackouts by authoritative brands themselves have proven to be much more effective. On January 12, 2012, Wikipedia, Reddit, Flickr and a host of other large sites were effective in overturning the RIPA and SOPA pieces of proposed legislation in the US.

On their effectiveness MPAA chief executive Chris Dodd was quoted in the Los Angeles Times:

“It is an irresponsible response and a disservice to people who rely on them for information and who use their services,” Dodd said in a statement. “It is also an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today.”

It was a tacit admission that whilst consumers could do without films and music, internet search, email and Wikipedia were now must-haves. The web blackout scared politicians because of the services ubiquity to modern life. They couldn’t be ignored like the petitions or emails and be dismissed as a fringe influence.

MPAA’s Chris Dodd takes aim at SOPA strike |

So what does digital interruption mean?

The world will break down into two types of organisations:

  • Social
  • Anti-social

From a communications point of view anti-social means not engaging for a specific reason, be it regulatory or not wanting to change controversial business practices.  Conversely a social organisation not only communicates with it’s audience but also acts on what it hears from co-creation to changing business practices. Reputation management opportunities for agencies will occur when a client organisation tries to fall between the two categories and need to be guided between one or the other. Key skills will include:

  • Closing down social presence to deny digital interrupters an attack platform
  • Being conversant with techniques to help harden non-social online presence
  • Management consultancy to bring about business process change as part of making an organisation a social one
  • Opening up dialogue with determined detractors

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