[iDC] : Internet as Boho Art-Space and Heaving Public Square: play, Iran, Twitter, cybernetics

Brian Holmes brian.holmes at aliceadsl.fr
Thu Jun 18 20:35:34 UTC 2009

Dear all -

It seems to me we are making progress here. Play, labor, 
cybernetics, the Internet, popular uprisings: we are 
seemingly recognizing that all of these things are as 
multivalent, as ambiguous as something like the the human 
brain. Marty Lucas writes: "It is, and it will continue to 
be, difficult to make  overriding judgments of 
internet-based communications technologies as either 
'machines for generating inequality' or as 'tools for 
empowerment'." I agree, and I think that in addition to the 
case-by-case approach to the uses of technology that Marty 
advocates, one can proceed by aspects. That is, rather than 
defending A against B, or vice versa, one can look at how A 
and B (say, "play" and "labor," or "control" and 
"emancipation") are opposing aspects of a single human 
reality.  Why adopt such a weird and inconclusive approach? 
Because almost all social phenomena are multi-causal, they 
are generated by a multiplicity of agents and give rise to 
states of unstable compromise in which principled actions 
can easily have unwanted consequences when they are 
interpreted and redeployed by others.

Pat Kane writes:

> Part of my definition of a 'play ethic' is partly that the  
> sheer non-moral openness of play compels us to think "ethically", in  
> that Foucaultian sense of ethics as a practice of freedom.

Ethics as I understand it involves first of all a continuous 
awareness of the actual social effects produced by the 
necessary expression of one's own singular will; and then 
additionally, a necessarily willful judgment of the effects 
that others, and groups of others, are producing, as a way 
both of revealing those effects and of helping the others 
and ourselves become more aware of what they/we are doing. 
In simpler words, ethics involves both the assertion and the 
continuous critique of power. Power is always part of the 
equation because the expression of any human faculty, even 
one as seemingly innocent and indeterminate as play, will 
always transform the environment that others exist in; so 
there is no escape from power. Continuous critique, of 
oneself not least of all, is equally necessary not only 
because of the malignant designs of ill-intentioned 
individuals and groups, but also because of the frequency of 
undesired consequences stemming from the expression of power 
in any form.

"Resistance is the secret of joy," reads a picture that I 
see when I raise my eyes to look out the window. A feeling 
of solidarity immediately draws my attention to the 
experiences of those demonstrating in the great Iranian 
cities. I am certain from the many testimonies I read that 
these events are changing the lives of hundreds of 
thousands, and that those personal changes will have 
aggregate effects both on character of day-to-day life and 
the institutional exercise of power in Iran. That people 
should seize whatever media are available and necessary is 
fantastic! Maybe someday I will participate, somehow, in 
Iranian society, there in the country itself or through 
encounters and exchanges with diasporic communities and 
individuals whom I may meet elsewhere. But for once, I 
approve of the stance taken by the US government and by the 
Democratic party. John Kerry's op-ed in the NYT today warns 
very wisely of the unwanted consequences that any official 
US government interference in the Iranian electoral process 
could easily have.  The possibility of Tiananmen-style 
repression is clearly real. Just because I can receive 
messages from English-speaking Iranian bloggers does not 
mean I understand the politics enough to throw myself into 
their movement. More could be gained, for someone in my 
position of ignorance, by learning how to positively 
influence the government here in the US where I reside. More 
could be gained by learning about the situation in Iran, why 
the revolution happened in 1978-79 and the effects it has 
had over thirty years. As the norms of world society -- 
expressed through telecommunications among other vectors -- 
impinge increasingly on the national and regional scales, 
the great challenge is to avoid the bloodbaths that were so 
widespread in the twentieth century.

Pat Kane continues:

> Bauwens' constant refrain on this  
> list is that an autonomous digital counterculture can "fight/hack for  
> user rights, open standards, free network service principles" with  
> the commercial platforms: they can establish a 'social contract' (a  
> social democracy?) from a strong base in which they build their own  
> "radical distributed infrastructures". I go with Pekka Himanen that  
> hackerism is the first real instantiation of a 'play ethic' in the  
> network society. ... And hasn't hackerism deeply enabled -  
> indeed, "conditioned" - the openness and iterability of the platforms  
> currently being used by the Iranian people?

What is so very interesting about the word "play" is that it 
frequently describes situations where the activity depends 
on an awareness and a conscious encouragement of the other 
players' pleasurable expression of their own potentials. 
When it works like that it becomes a model and a real 
experience of positive social relations. I am writing on a 
PC running Ubuntu Linux and through the long process of 
learning to use it I have come to think that in addition to 
a play ethic there are really interesting relations of 
emulation going on behind the functioning of this OS that I 
start up every day -- social relations where the respect for 
the excellent work of others drives you to do better, not 
for personal gain or aggrandizement, but for everyone. These 
kinds of social relations permeated various professional/ 
cultural/ intellectual/ political circles in the 1990s, 
including but not limited to the counter-globalization 
movements, and they launched something very interesting 
indeed, which I still feel part of, gladly so. Could those 
ethics of consciously critical play and respectfully 
exuberant emulation be deepened, extended, made into a more 
powerful social force? Could they help clean up the horribly 
inegalitarian mess that the predatory economies of networked 
society have fallen into? Can grassroots communications 
continue to be a force for peace in this dangerous period of 
expanding world society? These are among the key questions 
of our debate, I would say. They make that debate important, 
they pull it free of the atrocious clichés and refusals to 
think or even perceive that one so frequently encounters in 
the contemporary public spheres.

My approach as a cultural producer is to set seemingly 
opposite aspects of social existence off against each other: 
tightly analyzed descriptions of deterministic traps on the 
one hand, because they abound under present circumstances; 
strategies of rupture, freedom and cooperation/emulation on 
the other, because it's the only way to go on imagining 
egalitarian social change and pressing for it in a complex 
reality. It is very interesting to find a cooperative space 
like this list, where through both friction and conviviality 
we achieve a more coherent and useful understanding of a 
damn confusing world!

best to all, Brian

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