[iDC] Activism

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Mon Dec 5 13:20:00 EST 2005

What does it mean to live a radical vision in this network society? There
are a great number of different visions. For one, there is the Che Guevara
mutiny rhetoric of radicality. Today, that has really nothing to do with the
radical politics of the Argentinean medical doctor who took off into the
Congo and later the Bolivian jungle. Come on. We need immutable
contributions that force social change and contribute to crisis. But the
raised fist, closed, is empty. Your fingers bent in toward the palm and held
there tightly don't signal a blow anymore. At worse they may even stand for
a type of self-contained, liberal "feelgoodiness" of the traditional
artworld. Stencil aesthetics is instantly sucked into the event-culture of
the spectacle. Culture jammers become special-interest communities. Often
hand and hand with the rhetoric of radicality goes conceit. Revolution?
Where, in the US, do you see the millions who are desperate enough to put
their lives in jeopardy. Show me. You can't just cook up a revolution
without the necessary ingredients. Vast numbers of people here are muted by
consumption and disinformation. They still have glimpses of hope lulled by
lies about class mobility and the "American Dream." The millions here work
boundless hours and they are poor. But they are not impoverished enough. And
they are not even loosely joined.

How do we affect the fundamental nature of what surrounds us? How do we
reflect meaningfully on the technologies that saturate our lives? Foucault's
notion of biopower describes our bodies as being guided by political
technologies. Therefore one form of resistance is about the insertion of the
blip, like a high-pitched interruption, into the algorithm of societal
software. I am writing this in New York on a snowy day. The situation here
is different than in Munich or Chiang Mai, for instance, where the tentacles
of the network have not sunk in their teeth as deeply. But in the US the
always-on-lifestyle permeates our daily lives in full. How can deviance not
be, at least partially, defined in relation to the cooperative technologies
of the Internet? If you want to take protest to the centers of power then
you will have to consider the geographically distributed network as much as
the town hall. The corporate headquarters that ActUp attacked in the 80s
dissolved like soap in the streams of the network. The centers of power are
now distributed. Deviance is about hot bodies and the dark fiber of cold
cables. Resistance is about the "streets," about demonstrations,
door-to-door grassroots campaigns, in-flesh sit-ins, and other affective
manifestations of contestational presence.

Pressing our hands tight against our eyes does not help us. The network
still recognizes us even if our eyes are wide shut. People have good reason
to be skeptical about the networked lifestyle. But there is both, the gray
network clouds and the sun that sparkles through them. To reject network
technologies altogether is unreasonable. There are the military-industrial
roots of the Internet. But then there are also the cybercommunist uses of it
with all the alternative economies of gifting and sharing and commons-based
peer production that clearly make the original DARPA masterminds irk.
Equally, claims that digital communication devices take away from warm
face-to-face encounters are only partially correct. The stereotype of the
white, obese, socially alienated teenager in the basement needs to be
calibrated. The studies of University of Toronto cybersociologist Barry
Wellman show that in-flesh social connectedness increases for those who are
more frequent email users. Also in the realm of education horrible examples
of misguided, corporate long-distance learning indeed show the dark side of
the network force. And it does not stop there. Skeptics question the
efficacy of online resistance in the face of the anywhere and nowhere of the
Internet that supposedly does not speak to the class, race, or gender
disparities in a particular locale. They may even argue that people try to
hide behind the screen so that they don't have to smell the sweat of "real
people" at a demonstration. But in actuality deviant practices are
increasingly mixed. One foot is on the plaza and the other online. Activists
still go from door to door. They do powerfully demonstrate as we saw on
February 15, 2003. They use blogs and mailinglists and online artworks to
further their objectives, organize, and document their urban interventions.
Locative media projects and the notion of situated software (Shirkey) put
Virillio's argument of a lack of place to the test. A thousand flowers will
bloom for locative activism.

The often-debated effectiveness of activist art is hard to put a finger on.
There surely are countless artistic gestures online that have been
consequential. They can hardly be discounted. In the same breath I need to
address the perception of the online flaneur as "user" or "consumer" or
"customizer." This reduction is only part of the story. I don't argue with
the fact that the amazons and eBays of this world dream of calling their
online sirens to lure the swarms of online wanderers into their
commodifiable web of content production. The heads at IBM and
trendwatching.com surely steam thinking about ways in which to commodify the
word-of-mouse economy. They want to turn the enthusiastic web-drifting
"crowds" into corporate workhorses. Recent studies by the Pew Institute have
shown that 51 million Americans are involved in content production (e.g.
blog entries, Wikipedia entries, file swaps etc). Network talk is
frequently, and often exclusively, revolving around business and the future.
We are better off if we look at the clumsy heap of technology in front of us
instead of concerning ourselves with the future promises of technologies
(that always sell). Don't believe in the gibberish of network salvation.
However, there are refreshing reasons to use these technologies to improve
our lives. Wikipedia is a potent example of cooperative technologies that
benefit the public. We can form groups online that help us live more engaged
lives. Fibreculture, Nettime, Institute for Network Cultures and Sarai are
but a few examples. We can get inspired! We can have intellectual community!
We can create open, living cultural archives! We can warden ourselves from
collaboration burnout and bitterness (the worse of all). Such social
networks I call extreme sharing networks (derived from the concept of
extreme programming). They allow access to a distributed talent pool and
associated resources. Just in the spirit Peter Kropotkin people provide
mutual aid to each other. They can create visibility for discourses and
artworks that would otherwise be overlooked. They can inspire younger
generations of artists by exposing them to ideas and art projects. They have
the ability to respond to issues in a fast, and flexible way. They shape
expectations. But such extreme sharing networks are not alternatives or
heads on opposition to institutions. Such alternative social networks can't
claim snow-white innocence. They are fluid. They are inside and out of brick
and mortar institutions.

It's hard to keep up with evolving technologies. Network luddites and the
tech-fatigued can't bear the work that it takes to stay on track with
technological developments. Fair enough. It's Ok to unplug. Unlink. Throw
out technology that comes between you and the other. Data speed through
network cables like cockroaches. New hardware and software radically change
the information landscape constantly. For some people, online communication
just brings out the worse of their character. For them there is no need to
keep on rolling in the virtual world. But they should not label social
technologies as inherently inadequate on their way out of the door. We are
shaped by technologies while at the same time our uses defines them. We can
reverse-imagineer technologies. (Ani DiFranco: "every tool can be a weapon
if you hold it right"). We can use the throw-away video camera as tactical
media device.

We dance to the iTunes beats that are remotely fed into our living room. How
can we bring the (issues of the) network clash home? I first think of
self-direction. How can I really govern my own life? How can I be in charge?
So much of the day-to-day is merely uploaded just like an rss feed into our
brain. Living like a hermit, out-of-touch, sounds appealing at times.
Leaving the cellphone at home is tempting. Who does not know such moments?
The "always-on" condition is demanding. Filtering takes up too much time.

What does a politically radical life style mean for me? We live in
challenging times that demand engagement. The last that is needed are people
who are soft on the edges. Radical leftist positions are needed now. But
where do we start? What does it mean to be an activist?
There is the politics of time. An 8-hour work day sounds radical. To
introduce the habit of getting rest sounds pretty far-reaching in a society
that blends casualized work and play. In 1978 Mladen Stilinovic, for
example, created a photo series that shows him sleeping in his Lubljana
apartment. Title: "The Artist at Work." Don't let labor drool over your
leisure time! Time for reflection and thinking is rarified. Instead of
thinking we remix the content of others. Maybe the "Power of Now"-slogan
that Vodaphone advocates is best interpreted by going for a swim. Perhaps
T-Mobile's "Upgrading Downtime" should be understood as an invitation to
read a book. "Downtime-Download" could mean that I close my eyes and recall
a meaningful, moving encounter. Having actual friends (not business
associates, or people who fit into a career plan) sounds pretty unusual
today as well.

There is the moment when we close down on the possibility to meet, and get
inspired by, the stranger because we went off into "Treo land." It's that
obsessive email syndrome. It has little to do with a need for communication
and lots to do with a cry for attention. Radicality could mean to not
(immediately) respond. It could mean not to react. We can disappoint the
competition and efficiency-enhancing aspects of these social technologies!
It was historically the job of artists to disappoint social expectations.
Having a meaningful, concentrated long-term life vision is highly
unconventional and radical. How can we live our life in an engaged and
fulfilled way? Not arbitrarily drifting from one opportunity to the next is
profound. Getting less efficient is rebellious. Taking care of your body is

In addition, I teach at a research university. Here I have personal
encounters with students. This surely is an arena that makes personal
transformation and productive conflict possible. In that context the
question of rhetoric becomes important. What gets heard? Which argument
allows the young other to remain open, listen, and consider? From my
experience, a "radical" language does not get through to students. Maoist
frontier language may make you feel all so radical but in most young
American minds such references just call up associations of baby-eating
Soviets. This may be hard to understand for Europeans who perhaps assume a
leftist in every person. A Leninist rethoric effectively shuts down the
doors of thinking almost right away. Each context requires a different
language. The question of activism is obviously not new. Cooperation
enhancing technologies have somewhat shifted the debate recently. Camps now
also divide in pro-or-con technology, which is unuseful. We should support
extreme sharing networks wherever we come to encounter them.



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