Strategies of resistance in the digital era*
The emergence of the CAE collective on the artistic and theoretical stage of the 1990s marks the coming of the “new wave” of critical thinkers and new theories. Of course, this “new wave” has already been anticipated through the Lacanian critique of the subject, as well as through the deconstruction in the literary theory of the 1960s and 1970s. Going even further, Freud’s text on the discontents of civilization announced a climate of general questioning (which are the values that the modern civilization brings? and what is their cost?), and the CAE themselves frequently refer to various writers from the more or less distant past. What marks theoretical currents in the last ten years or so (gathered around different independent and anarchic groups and projects, such as the Autonomedia publishing house [http://www.autonomedia.org], the Old Boys Network [http://www.obn.org], or the VNS Matrix [http://sysx.org/vns]) is their perception of the processes such as “multiculturalism” and “globalization”, as well as the reception of the consequences of the digital revolution that swept with the force of a tsunami the aspects of cultural and political life of Western societies and cultures. One could just think of all the hysteria about the [year 2000] New Year’s Day “millennium bug”, or hyperbolas of the disaster discourse whenever a new computer virus appears – these hysterical reactions are typical not only for the (technologically) developed societies, but they spread around theglobe like an infection (perhaps THE ultimate virus) – all the way to Third World countries, where computers and high technology are mostly still toys for the elite.
The triumph of the digital paradigm requires numerous adjustments – beginning with different strategies of resistance (power today cannot be encountered on streets nor in buildings – it is on the web and within the communication systems), all the way to the changes in the ways of thinking and perceiving. Most of all, this refers to the frequently overlooked authoritarian tendencies of the members and sympathizers of the left, inclinations that reach their full effect when these former rebels and “avant-garde” get the power– whether on micro (projects, NGOs), or on macro-levels (government and various state institutions). This has an alienating effect on people who find a lot in common with the ideas, but find it difficult to understand persons who represent those ideas. On a more general theoretical level, one could argue that it all comes down to the stubbornness of the advocates of modernism and universalism, who refuse to accept the pluralism of ideas, attitudes and perspectives. This modernist tradition has had a long history in the European “humanism”, but among its most important representatives among the liberally-minded (today moreneo-liberally) recent thinkers one could mention Heidegger (who explained the annihilation of Jews during the Second World War as “the price of progress”), Popper (who – at least in theory – justified the use of violence for spreading of his own ideas), Deleuze and Guattari (with their sympathies for the likes of Stalin and Pol Pot), and Habermas (who remains locked inside his own fortress of communicative theory, afraid of any pluralism and any critique). On the political plane, the consequences of this theory imply looking for the hegemony of the one power, with unforeseeable consequences (as mentioned in 1999 by the US historian Huntington).
Technology is most frequently presented as “neutral”, as “pure” means for attaining ends, and there lies the greatest dangers and the greatest possibilities for abuse. Over a century ago, Bakunin warned that, despite the fact that the “growth” of scientific knowledge is something to be saluted, one should beware of “the reign of scientific intelligence, the most aristocratic, despotic, arrogant and elitist of all regimes”. Countries and multi-national corporations would not fight so hard for the control over the digital domain if it would be just means. However, the application of new technologies has first to be understood – and this is where new coalitions (like the one between hackers and left-wingers, as the CAE suggests) and new openness come into play.
The new openness is mostly brought around by kids who practically grew up with computers. For them, new programs, new paradigms and new adjustability come quite spontaneously and almost “naturally”. For authoritarian states (which practically means: almost all of them) or para-state institutions, this spontaneity is something very difficult to understand or accept, and this is one of the main reasons why hackers are prosecuted much more harshly than most criminals. In times of general hysteria and increasing efforts to establish the absolute control over all the available media –especially in the realm of communications – the hunt does not stop with hackers: everyone is a potential suspect and everyone is liable to control and surveillance. On the global scale, an interesting example is the “Echelon” project, a system of planetary communications surveillance, led by the US agency for national security (NSA), with estimated cost of 26.7 billion dollars. As cynically remarked some time ago by the former US national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinsky: “When you have the opportunity to get to the information, it is very difficult to establish arbitrary barriers for its acquisition. (…) Should we refuse to read?” According to the New Zealand researcher Nicky Hager, the “Echelon” project enables the constant surveillance of all the communications in Europe and America through the system of satellite stations (the one covering most of Europe is located in England). No wonder then that the programs for message coding (like the PGP – whose creator was arrested and prosecuted by the US authorities) are illegal in many countries. States and governments like to read what their subjects think. In some cases, they also like to know what the subjects of many other states or governments think or speak.
The fight against monopolies – be it state, para-state, or the ones of the great corporations – is one of the most important challenges of our times, and that is why hackers should have all the support. Each breaking of the information monopoly is at the same time a defeat of ideological monolithism and thinking arguing for the existence of one truth, whose exclusive and authorized owner is the state, government, or some mega-corporation.
An interesting recent case is the process that the MPAA (Motion PicturesAssociation of America) initiated against the Norwegian teenager Jon Johanssen and his father. The Norwegians have been accused of “breaking” thecode for the video digital discs (DVDs), through the computer program they created, DeCSS. The film industry representatives claim that this program violates the new copyright law, Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, there are some problems with this type of claim. DeCSS is a driver that actually translates the content of DVDs, so that it could be seen on any computer. DeCSS is not used for the copying of DVDs. What it does is decoding and re-formatting, not copying. Decryption and reformatting is translating, copying is replicating. No one makes pirate DVDs today – it is too expensive and impractical. Butwhy ban people who legally buy a DVD from watching it on their own computer? The panic of international corporations and the quest for the absolute control sometimes goes way too far.
Putting a stop to this panic should be the next step in the fight against the monopolies on thinking. One of the most important aspects is to understand how are modern technologies used to make their consumers addicted (“civilian cyborgs”). On the other hand, the importance of new spaces cannot be stressed enough – in many cases, these spaces have existed, but suppressed and brushed aside. Such is the case with the space of feminism, for example. However, cyberfeminism is an example of the new political strategy that contemplates standing up to (and against) authorities, either through analysis (Sadie Plant), or through de(con)struction (VNS Matrix, OBN). All these strategies that confront digital monopolies are essentially revolutionary ones. Their potential increases with the increase in number of users of new technologies who understand that these (new technologies) are an important (and quitedevastating) tool for political struggle against the elites and social classesin power. It is also important to stress that all the mechanisms of power– legal ones in particular – should be reconsidered, since,obviously, there are no intrinsic logical reasons that could justify automatic respect for laws or regulations (which are always made up by the class in power and which always benefit primarily the holders of power).
The importance of CAE projects is in the consideration of these strategies and in finding the theoretical and practical matrixes for their presentation. Their projects are interesting, funny, and most of all enable an insight into the possibilities of resistance at times when many think that the elites in power just crush everything that stands up to them. By presenting (in a clear, readable way) the vulnerability of the new holders of power, the CAE announces a manifesto of hope and strategies of resistance for the new millennium.
* This is a slightly revised version of the introduction into the book that I have translated and edited – Critical Art Ensemble: Digitalni partizani, published in Belgrade in October 2000 by the Center for Contemporary Arts (CSUB, Dejan Sretenovic, head of the project). The original title is “Strategije otpora u digitalnoj eri”, pp. 4-8. See also http://www.dijafragma.com/school/CAE.htm. This the first offshoot of the project “Virko” initiated in May1998 in the office of the Belgrade Circle NGO by Igor Markovic, Branimir Stojanovic (Trsa), and myself. The idea was to start publishing books dealing with aspects of contemporary theories, especially cybertheory, and its social, cultural and media implications. (In the meantime, “Virko” was transferred to the CSUB, so Igor and I have nothing to do with it.)
Richard Barbrook, “The Holy Fools”, Nettime,1998.
Paul Feyerabend, Farewell to Reason, Verso, London, 1994.
Philippe Riviere, “Le systemeEchelon”, Maniere de voir 46: 40-42, Paris, 1999.