Life in a Network for Survivors (Part 4)

Life in a Network for Survivors:

The Thermonuclear Apocalypse and the Protocols of Freedom

 

A text on the impact of Cold War era apocalyptic fantasy today. A search for the missing ideological history of internet protocols. An essay by P2P foundation’s Nicolás Mendoza, presented this week in four daily parts. The final version of this essay will be published later in 2012 by the EnterText journal, Brunel University – West London UK.

Complete series: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4

Part 4

 

The Next Aftermath

In 2011 something unprecedented happened. What I have called above the global machinic life-form, meaning the global assemblage composed of networked hardware, code, humans, and the environment, started exercising meaningful political agency in national and global scales.

For the first time a government was helpless against a leaderless and yet coordinated multitude, conceding defeat. When the Egyptian government turned off the Internet, the Internet refused to be turned off: an effort to sustain access to communication was rapidly coordinated from around the world. Google provided a service that allowed people to get information out of the country by converting voice messages into Twitter messages[1], Anonymous devised a workaround that enabled free long distance dial-up access, mass-faxing set-up instructions to Cairo[2], and people in the streets adapted the messages previously distributed through Facebook and email to leaflets for street distribution[3]. It is significant how all these actions had a common objective: to restore not ‘Internet access’ but something deeper: the flow, the machinic assemblage itself, regardless of whether the mediums were now telephone, fax or paper. This kind of system challenging, spontaneous, multilateral and yet uncoordinated movement was suddenly appearing all over the world, all one and the same phenomenon. 2011 was what Deleuze called a ‘machinic phylum’. Manuel DeLanda defines the ‘machinic phylum’ as “all processes in which a group of previously disconnected elements suddenly reaches a critical point at which they begin to “cooperate” to form a higher level entity.”[4] The Net reached such critical point in 2011 -a stage of maturity after which there is no going back.

This seems strange as the Net is now more restrictive and protocologically controlled (and here I do mean in the sense of controls from above) than ever. In the face of unprecedented censorship, surveillance and control, and even after physically disconnecting the web (it doesn’t get more counterprotocological than that), the assemblage continued to operate until revolution succeeded in Egypt. Machinic life is not made only of metal machines and their code. Its life is in the “acquisition, use, retention, and transmission of information”, and when a new level of intensity in these processes started to occur in ‘the flesh’, it led to qualitative transformations of the information. Messages of apathy and cynicism transformed into revolutionary messages, which, as they proliferated in the voices of friends, and neighbours, and co-workers, the voices of pop stars and scholars alike, led to resolve and coordination and tighter interconnection and entanglement.In the words of an Anonymous insider:

“Q: Anonymous started out as online pranksters but has gotten a whole lot more serious in the last two years. What happened?” 

A: I believe Egypt was really a turning point for us emotionally in Anonymous. Obviously there was always that sort of prankster edge to us. But people often ask me, “Why are you so mean nowadays?” It started in Egypt – when you work for days to set up live video feeds and the first thing you watch through those feeds is people killing your friends with machine guns – that becomes personal. And then it’s not just Egypt, it’s Libya, Tunisia, over and over again these Freedom Ops are really what gave us a sort of take-no prisoners attitude. We get to know these people. It may not be the same as you and I sitting here, but when you Skype with people and spend hours and hours talking with them on IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and they share their hopes and their dreams with you for their country, their future, when they tell you how they’re risking their lives so their children can have a better future in some far-off land, you bond with those people and they become your friends and family.” [5]

This transformation is pure feedback life. The newfound ability to directly observe the other inevitably changes the trajectory of the observer, a change that then changes the path of the observed, who is observing the observer. Anons helped keep information flowing in Egypt, yes, but their involvement transformed them as much as it transformed Egypt.

The chance to debate is now opened to everyone who can communicate on the internet. Which is not everyone, but it’s a sizeable chunk of people. More importantly, the people now actually have some power. People who have absolutely no power cannot do anything politically, they cannot have an effect.

We can look at the House of Commons, or Congress, and look at the debates that occur there, and say: ‘That’s the seat for political debate.’ But now, the seat for political debate is also on the internet.

I recall seeing this phenomenon three or four years ago when I saw a completely technical discussion on the internet suddenly turn to a political matter. A taboo was broken at that point: the taboo that technical discussions couldn’t step over into the political and that the proper place for political discussions wasn’t on the internet, but in the mainstream press. Only once something appeared in the mainstream press did it truly have political importance.

But those ground rules were broken and those technical individuals started to lose their political apathy. I believe that people are apathetic because they are powerless, not powerless because they are apathetic. So this new way of communicating was actually giving them power, and they then started to consider political matters.

They’re being educated, as a result of the internet, about how the world really works in terms of economic flows and political flows and hypocrisy, and they are also being given a power to express their opinions to a potentially very large audience, billions of people.

People outside the media and political sectors never used to have this, but now we all have it, and that’s such an empowering understanding.

So people are losing their political apathy, not just because they’re being educated and radicalized by examples like Wikileaks’ battle with the Pentagon or the Arab Spring, but because they actually have a power that they didn’t have before. And they’re starting to understand that.[6]

 A feedback loop: a global feedback loop that after just a few months led to the birth of a previously unthinkable Occupy Wall Street Movement. A large scale decision to change course, it seems, is being made without the need of a UN assembly. The new course and the means to achieve the change it supposes are being discussed and mobilised. As new connections and a sense of interdependence emerges, autonomous structures of increasing complexity appear, supported on more simple ones. Such is the machinic phylum: a radically diverse self aware protocological wilderness that transcends the separation between human and nonhuman, repairs itself when violence is inflicted on either realm, and craves for release from the stench of old rotting power.

David Graeber’s 2004 diagnosis grows accurate as history reignites:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the age of revolutions is not over. It’s becoming equally clear that the global revolutionary movement in the twenty first century, will be one that traces its origins less to the tradition of Marxism, or even of socialism narrowly defined, but of anarchism.

Everywhere from Eastern Europe to Argentina, from Seattle to Bombay, anarchist ideas and principles are generating new radical dreams and visions. … everywhere one finds the same core principles: decentralization, voluntary association, mutual aid, the network model, … anarchism, as an ethics of practice -the idea of building a new society “within the shell of the old”- has become the basic inspiration of the “movement of movements” (of which the authors are a part), which has from the start been less about seizing state power than about exposing, de-legitimizing and dismantling mechanisms of rule while winning ever-larger spaces of autonomy and participatory management within it.[7]

Imaginary apocalypse was made bearable by achieving survival in an unliveable world through disembodiment: the annihilation of the territory required the creation of cyberspace for the disembodied to gather. Modernity, with its territorial rigidities and its hegemonic structures continued to exist because the apocalypse never came. Like survivors finally coming out to the surface after discussing it in their nuclear shelters for decades, large numbers of people started gathering in real spaces in 2011, occupying them to contest the late-modern social order consisting in a world divided between ‘decision makers’ and consumers. A speculation of how the transformations might unfold can help spark debates, imaginations, and further action:

First, corporations will be substituted by autonomous networks of peer-to-peer production, as conceptualised by Michel Bauwens[8]. The first half of this process is already complete as corporations themselves have gradually de-materialised over the last decades into outsourcing-management networks for shareholder profit[9]: there is nothing TNC’s do that can’t be done by coordinated swarms, except perhaps influence military strategy.

Second, different flavours of direct democracy will take over increasingly large aspects of life, in an uneven but ever advancing process of autopoiesis, relentlessly eroding institutionalism, towards social arrangements like those envisioned by contemporary anarchist thinkers like David Graeber.

Third, as the qualities of peer to peer exchanges mature, national currencies will become irrelevant. We are already seeing this through phenomena of peer-to-peer collaborative, post customer consumption like Couchsurfing, and the emergence of a credible decentralised currency like Bitcoin and its incipient services ecology[10]. However, the endgame and more powerful project in this area is to redefine value, and therefore exchange systems, in terms that acknowledge the subtle and complex realities that constitute social wellbeing.

Finally, as the political, economic and cultural purposes that the Westphalian state model was useful for are fulfilled by networks through dynamic free association, borders will become diffuse like ecosystems, and regions in Africa and Asia that were forced to adopt arbitrary boundary lines by Western invaders will be able to be free again. Capital trembles, government grows irrelevant, East and South rise. The post apocalyptic society of self regulating collaborative survivors knows nothing about the old world, and as a generation of  ‘script kiddies’ able to defend the right to play matures, change so profound that it is hard to foresee will come to be.

 


[1] Official Google Blog, Some weekend work that will (hopefully) enable more Egyptians to be heard, n.d., http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/some-weekend-work-that-will-hopefully.html

[2] “Amid Digital Blackout, Anonymous Mass-Faxes WikiLeaks Cables To Egypt – Forbes,” Forbes, n.d., http://www.forbes.com/sites/andygreenberg/2011/01/28/amid-digital-blackout-anonymous-mass-faxes-wikileaks-cables-to-egypt/.

[3] “Egypt protest leaflets distributed in Cairo give blueprint for mass action,” the Guardian, January 27, 2011, sec. World news, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/27/egypt-protest-leaflets-mass-action.

[4] Manuel de De Landa, War in the Age of Intelligent Machines (Zone, 1991), 7.

[5] http://news.nationalpost.com/2012/05/12/insider-tells-why-anonymous-might-well-be-the-most-powerful-organization-on-earth/

[6] Kelsey-Fry, Jamie. 2012 “‘I Was the Fall Guy’: Julian Assange in His Own Words — New Internationalist.” New Internationalist Magazine. http://www.newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2012/04/01/julian-assange/.

[7] David Graeber, “Anarchism, Or The Revolutionary Movement Of The Twenty-first Century,” zcommunications.org, n.d., http://zcommunications.org/anarchism-or-the-revolutionary-movement-of-the-twenty-first-century-by-david-graeber.

[8] Michel Bauwens, The Political Economy of Peer Production. (Arthur and Mary Louse Kroker: CTHEORY, 2005)

[9] Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society: The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture Volume I, 2nd ed. (Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

[10] P2P Foundation, Bitcoin – P2P Foundation, n.d., http://p2pfoundation.net/Bitcoin.

 

Nicolás Mendoza is a scholar, artist and researcher in global media from The University of Melbourne and a member of the P2P Foundation. His recent work can be found here.

Follow him on Twitter: @nicolasmendo

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