Book of the Day: Networked Disruption

* Book and PhD: Networked Disruption: Rethinking Oppositions in Art, Hacktivism and the Business of Social Networking. Tatiana Bazzichelli. PhD Dissertation Department of Aesthetics and Communication. Faculty of Arts Aarhus University. 2013

First published in 2013 by Digital Aesthetics Research Center, Aarhus University, Helsingforsgade 14, DK-8200 Aarhus N, Denmark. PhD Dissertation: Tatiana Bazzichelli – Aarhus University, 2011. Supervisor: Søren Pold, Aarhus University, Denmark. Co-supervisor: Fred Turner, Stanford University, California. Examining committee: Franco Berardi, Geoff Cox, Olga Goriunova.

Excerpted from the introduction by Tatiana Bazzichelli:

“This research reflects on the status of activist, hacker and artistic practices in the new generation of social media (or so-called Web 2.0 technologies) analysing the interferences between networking participation and disruptive business innovation. The main objective is to rethink the meaning of critical practices in art, hacktivism and social networking, analysing them through business instead of in opposition to it. The increasing commercialisation of sharing and networking contexts and the key innovatory role of the open source community in the development of centrally controlled client-server web applications, have changed the scenario of participatory culture and brought hacktivist and artistic strategies into question within the framework of net culture. In the context of both underground artistic movements and that of digital culture, the concept of networking has been used to describe collective practices based on the principles of exchange and equal one-to-one collaboration. Participation, interaction and collaboration have been the conceptual starting points for much art of the 20th century, from Dadaism to Fluxus, from mail art to hacker art. However, since the emergence of Web 2.0, networking has become not only an everyday practice, but also a pervasive business strategy.

The current economical framework of the Internet bubble 2.0 is generating new contradictions and paradoxes, in which on the one hand we find the development of a critical vocabulary and practices highlighting the exploitation of networking and the cooptation of peer2peer culture from Web 2.0 companies; while on the other, we face incremental opportunities for sharing and for social contacts between a large number of Internet users, who are producing a huge mass of Internet content without necessarily being technology experts. Many Web 2.0 start-ups have adopted business strategies for generating revenues, formulating a rhetoric of flexibility, decentralisation, openness, sociability and do-it-yourself. Internet entrepreneurs have adopted in different contexts, and for other purposes, similar values to those which characterised the emergence of hacker culture and net culture over the past decades. Alongside this phenomenon, many hackers and developers who contributed to the rise of the hacker culture and open source movement in the Eighties and Nineties have now been employed by communication technology corporations, especially in the US, and more particularly, in the Bay Area. The opposition to a communications monopoly and capitalist mindset expressed by many members of the underground digital culture over the past few years has now reached a state of paradox whereby those involved in opposition are also those being opposed.

Such coincidentia oppositorum (or unity of oppositions) also mirrors the crisis of encompassing political ideologies and confrontational activist strategies in Western countries. Since, as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus stated, “the road up and the road down are the same thing” (Hippolytus, Refutations 9.10.3), this begs the question as to whether the dualistic conflict between capitalism and anti-capitalism should be considered a path to provoke social change.

The departure point for this dissertation is the assumption that, on the one hand, networking grassroots communities of hackers and artists have served to accelerate capitalism since the emergence of digital culture and cyber-utopias; on the other hand, they have also served to strengthen antagonism against it, by generating critical artistic practices and hacktivist interventions based on technologies and methodologies of sharing and networking. Such mutual disruption and coexisting oppositions between art, business and networking, shows how hackers and artists have been both active agents of business innovation as well as those undermining it. By identifying the emerging contradictions within the current economical and political framework of informational capitalism, the hypothesis of this research is a reformulation of the concept of criticism in art, hacktivism, and in the business of social networking. The purpose of this investigation is to analyse hacker and artistic practices through business, therefore suggesting a coexistence of layers rather than a process of oppositional negations.

The aim is not to create an historical or philosophical analysis of social and artistic practices, but to reflect on different modalities of generating criticism, shedding light on contradictions and ambiguities both in capitalistic logic and in art and hacktivist strategies, while rethinking oppositional practices in the context of social networking.

The notion of disruptive business becomes a means for describing immanent practices of hackers, artists, networkers and entrepreneurs, which will be analysed through specific case studies. Such case studies shed light on two different but related critical scenes: that of Californian tech culture and that of European net culture – with a specific focus on their multiple approaches towards business and political antagonism. Within the framework of this analysis “business” is not analysed from a business school perspective, but as a means towards working consciously on artistic, political and technological practices. The model of analysis as proposed here could be visualised as follows: hackers, activists and artists focus on social networking with a critical dimension, creating an intertwined feedback loop between art, business entrepreneurship and methodologies of disruption;

The phenomenon whereby the development of business proceeds alongside a reformulation of radical practices is nothing new: the rise of cyberculture and hacker culture during the Sixties in California is a clear example of this, as has been described by Fred Turner in his research. Today a new coexistence of oppositions influencing each other is coming to the forece again within the framework of Web 2.0. Artists and hackers use disruptive techniques of networking in the framework of social media and web-based services to generate new modalities for using technology, which, in some cases, are unpredictable and critical; business enterprises apply disruption as a form of innovation to create new markets and network values, which are also often unpredictable. Disruption therefore becomes a two-way strategy in networking contexts: a practice for generating criticism and a methodology for creating business innovation.

The history of cyberculture, and today the phenomenon of Web 2.0 demonstrate that opposites co-substantiate one another and often become a symbiotic necessity for each other’s continued existence: in many cases, hackers, activists and business entrepreneurs are part of the same unity. Is it still meaningful to consider hacktivism as a radical criticism of a system, when hackers have contributed to its creation and its strengthening? And, if capitalism and what was once called “counterculture” now share similar rhetoric and strategies, is it possible to imagine alternatives to the current state of capitalism? My intention is to propose an additional layer to this analysis: to investigate artistic and hacker interventions that create business disruption as an art practice. Since contradictions and dichotomies are nowadays inherent in business logic, the challenge lies in the exploration of symbolic dissolutions of power, where hackers and artists directly perform such contradictions and provoke unexpected consequences as an art form.

The Art of Disruptive Business is a possible path towards investigating the deconstruction of power structures through experiencing them from within, exposing the contradictions of business logic and appropriating it both critically and ironically.

Rather than trying to resolve the overall contradictions in the economical and political framework of the networked economy, the artists and hackers at the core of my analysis empathise with them, their field of experimentation being the mutual disruption between hacking, business and distributed methodologies of networking. The concept of disrupting business in social media sheds light on the practices of artists, activists and hackers who are rethinking critical interventions in the field of art and technology, accepting that they must act inside the market scenario, while also deconstructing it.

Challenging the market does not mean refusing it, but transforming it into a “playground”, both to appropriate it and expose its incongruities. How is disruption in this perspective different from classical methodologies of conflict and antagonism? Starting from the assumption that to understand capitalism today is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations (for example, hacktivism and business), the goal is not to frontally oppose the adversaries, but to trick them by “becoming them”, embodying disruptive and ironic camouflages. Bypassing the classic power/ contra-power strategy, which often results in aggressive interventions that replicate competitiveness and the violence of capitalism itself, to apply disruption as an art form means to imagine alternative routes based on the art of staging paradoxes and juxtapositions. Disruption becomes a means for a new form of criticism. Beyond the concept of coexistence of oppositions as dualistic tension between two forces, and the idea that one of the opposed conditions will prevail over the other, my analysis focuses on the mutual interference of multiple layers. Instead of dualistic tension, the challenge is to analyse holes in the system in which one-to-one oppositions are loosened up into distributed infiltrations. This does not mean that oppositions disappear completely, but that they become multiple, mutual, viral and distributed – as the many nodes of a network.

The departure point for this dissertation is the following question: what happens when the coexistence of oppositions, in art, hacktivism and the business of social networking, becomes a layer of mutual interferences? The analysis of the mutual feedback loop between hackers, artists and business in the nodes of social networks, implies rethinking cooptation as a process so as to understand social change as well. Analysing artistic practices in the framework of social media implies an acknowledgement of the fascinations of consumerist goods and the consequent strategies of being constructive and destructive at the same time, to innovate business by criticising it. To investigate the progressive commercialisation of sharing and networking platforms, it is necessary to understand business culture from within. Artists become viruses, working empathically with the subject of intervention. They disrupt the machine by performing it.

Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s notion of the dialectical image, I propose to adopt a vision of dialectics in which the oppositions remain open, without generating encompassing synthesis, but are transformed into heterogeneous and distributed practices. The aim is to generate a polyphonic dialectic in which pluralities of approaches coexist. My hypothesis is that the concept of dialectics has to be reframed in the context of disruption, where disruption does not mean rupture, but acting in ways that the market does not expect, generating innovations from within the confines of business logic. The dialectical tension between business and opposition to it therefore shifts in a synergetic opposition where one is part of the other, and they mutually contribute in shaping each other. This does not mean dismissing dialectics altogether, but framing them in a perspective which instead of emphasising the symmetric tension “Either/Or”, shows the contradictory paradoxes of “Both/And” (as Marshall Berman suggests in his 1982 book All That Is Solid Melts into Air).

Furthermore, adopting a perspective of “Both/And” means opening up to possible heterogeneous and distributed interventions, all of which together contribute to a shaping, or at least to an imagining of social change.

The dialectical perspective of Walter Benjamin, which he described as ‘dialectics at a standstill’ (The Arcade Project, p. 463, N3, 1) proposes a construction of history where the past and present interlock (as exemplified by Benjamin’s figure of the Angelus Novus), and where the signs of modernity emerge from a crystallisation of progress which dissipates the illusion of continuity in history. This view of history as an interruption of time, where past, present and future coexist forming a dialectical image, calls for an understating of the present condition as a phase of crystallisation. The concept of dialectical image is used in the present research to imagine processes of de- crystallisation of singularities in a phase of crisis. As a metaphor for a phase of impasse in which the opposites coincide to create a frozen blockade, the de-crystallisation comes from inside, by performing the system’s contradictions and understanding its logic.

In this stage of crystallisation, normalisation tends to embrace disruption and make it a form of stasis, as pointed out by Franco Berardi describing the present era of informational capitalism, where critical ideas are subsumed by repetition, automatism and hyper-velocity, and by Claudia Mongini, describing the precarious crystallisation of critical and creative forces in contemporary society.

As Claudia Mongini points out, trapped in a vortex of acceleration, the collective brain reaches a point of stasis, where the opposites of zero- and hypervelocity meet, preventing the creative formation of any critical idea. Inspired by the analysis of morphogenesis in the book Run: forma, vita, ricombinazione (2008) by Franco Berardi and Alessandro Sarti, where social morphogenesis is seen as a process of de-crystallisation of the financial state of the world, I propose the hypothesis of disruption as an immanent tension that emerges from within the crystallised systems. In my analysis, art intertwines with disruption beyond symmetric oppositions or radical ruptures, leading to a discovery of a subliminal and distributed strategy, which grows from within the capitalistic structure.

A possible path is to adopt business logic to “experience” them, by generating new forms of criticism. The challenge is to create disruption by creating innovation; to create paradoxes, pranks and tricks, and to discover decentralised holes in the system. Morphogenesis is born within the system and by recombining its rules, acting as chameleons which absorb the logic of the system and recombine them by finding the weaknesses within that logic. The suggestion of this thesis is to exit from the scheme of power/contra power, implying that one of the pairs of opposites is stronger or better than the other. Rather, a possible vision implies a process of contamination and interference, where business is performed from within. Drawing on Walter Benjamin’s approach of flânerie – from his writings on Baudelaire – the direct experience of the fascination of goods becomes a method of understanding the consumerist culture from within, and thus of critically performing it.”

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