Newstweek is a wireless networking hack in which wifi devices are added to unsecured wireless networks to subtly change the content of popular news sites as users on that network browse them. For example, you leave one of the Newstweek devices in a Starbucks, and everyone in that Starbucks reading the BBC news site sees a fake headline like “US wants Assange as head of Defence Department.”
Newstweek relies on a group of people to edit the news stories or headlines on a central server from which all of the compromised wifi networks will pull stories when those sites are accessed.
I applaud the technical achievement, and even appreciate the sentiment that “a strictly media informed reality is a vulnerable reality.” But I think this project is ideologically flawed. First, it is driven by precisely the kind of biased thinking and contempt for the public that the people behind the site believe motivates the major news outlets in the first place. In other words, they assume that all of the news is biased propaganda, but then all they do is replace the original content with skewed snarky propaganda of their own that is predictably anti-US and anti-capitalist.
What is much more interesting to me is the hacker ethos on display here. The idea that because the network is unsecured, and because they have the skills to do so, it is okay for them to manipulate what others can access on that network. As if having the technical skills automatically entitles them to have their views heard. It isn’t enough to have the right to speak, but these hackers have to force you to listen.
At the root of this and many other art and technology projects is the idea of getting people to see things your way. It is deeply anti-social. It is at once an admission that convincing people through argument has failed, and also that the blame for the failure rests entirely on the public, not the speaker. The idea is that the hacker knows how things really are, he knows the truth, and he needs to get people to see it. This is also the motivation behind art that shocking or offensive, or behind endless screeds from groups that demand that the people “wake up.” These people are right, absolutely, and your rejection of your message reflects a defect on your part, not theirs.
The fact is that is none of these “radical” opinions are new, they are simply alternative. “Coverage of Libya is biased!” I could tell you that simply by looking at the price of gas. But now tell me why it shouldn’t be? Tell me why the bias is to my detriment and not in my favor?
The project’s creators have made a fundamental mistake. The media does not inform reality, the media creates it. That’s why all their alterations are immediately glaring and conspicuous. It would have been much more persuasive to redirect requests to those sites to a page that informed the reader of the provable biases in these media agencies and their relationships with and dependencies on the governments and corporations they cover. Then, after informing the reader of these, they could then give the reader a choice: to continue on to that site unimpeded but in possession of some additional knowledge or to go to a different site to get a different perspective on the news. That would be more persuasive because is gives the reader the ability to consciously choose the bias.
But these hackers aren’t interested in giving the reader a choice. But the mere knowledge of the choice is what is needed. That choice exists is the true radical idea. It takes what is implicit and unconscious and under the control of others and renders it conscious, explicit, and subject to our control. Taking the objects of media and government and making them subjects again. You can read this, but ask yourself if you believe it.