InfoReal

CyberRevolution
I wrote this in the late 1990s for a book called CyberRevolution, edited by Yoshihiro Kaneda – this was translated into Japanese and was published only in Japan. Yoshihiro also interviewed me via email.

It’s time to wake up and do some critical thinking about the information highway, which we know will be a reality, at least next century, because we can already see the construction of infrastructure in Japan, the United States, and other countries (though the nationalist/geopolitical thing is increasingly irrelevant), and because we can sense the demand for expanded information services not just within online cultures but in the proliferation and success of neighborhood video rental stores. The videoplex explosion is an important key to the inforeality of the near future because it reveals a pent-up demand for entertainment software, not just film on video, but games and even audiotapes, all of which can be delivered digitally directly to the consumer over the high-bandwidth fiber optic networks that will comprise the infobahn. The potential power of these networks still hasn’t sunk in; infotainment corporations are still attached to the concept of product embodied in a particular hard medium that can be sold over the counter, like the compact disk or digital audio tape. They haven’t quite got the message that this superhighway we’ll building will render obsolete those vehicles that travel so much slower than the speed of light.

Those of us who live on the cultural fringes might want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of global high-speed digital links forming high bandwidth networks with sufficient capacity for unimaginable numbers of information channels. Those of us who’re hanging out on today’s Internet have already experience some crazy affects of high-volume internetworking, a handful of which I will mention here:

1) Chaos rules. Information spews from every conceivable direction, and it’s difficult to filter any clear sense of stable reality when you’re barraged with this degree of infoglut. This heightens the postmodern sense that there is no real truth, that all laws are relative and all reality is open to multiple interpretations all of which may be pure baloney…as the Firesign Theatre said, “Everything you know is wrong,” and an internetworked reality only serves to emphasize this disquieting fact. Though this is a disorienting perception, it carries the advantage that no single ‘truth’ can dominate, which means that tyranny is difficult to sustain. Politically, networked cultures seem to be more anarchic/democratic. This feels pretty free, though a community that is structurally democratic can sometimes feel like a mob.

2) People think they have community when they don’t. “Virtual community” is hot terminology, but misleading. You get some pieces of community online, a sense of unity with others, even a sense of common (virtual) location in cyberspace, but there’s something missing, a 3D flesh-and-blood element that the dictionary definitions of community don’t mention. But it’s clearly an issue: for example, members of the floating online community built around the Leri-L discussion list on the Internet decided that virtual meetings weren’t enough, so they began holding ‘fleshmeets,’ informal gatherings at various geographical locations. I haven’t been to a Leri-L fleshmeet, but I’ve been in similar situations with other groups, and there’s clearly a sense after such a meeting that the virtual community was “community” only in an abstract sense before the face-to-face connection completed the social transaction from which true fellowship is formed.

A related point is that a virtual community may fall apart when it’s carried from cyberspace to physical space. We can make ideal representations of ourselves in online text-based worlds, but our physical reality establishes a different context which I hesitate to say is the more “real,” but it will be judged as reality, and that reality may not measure up to the virtual promise.

3) Access will be limited. Short-term, at least, computer networks will remain more accessible to those who have an affinity for telecommunication gizmonics, and who have relatively high literacy and at least adequate typing skills. This effectively locks whole classes of folks out of the virtual world, which they perceive, if at all, as an obscure netherworld populated by various flavors of geeks. This is a clear advantage for the technical early adopters (in what other context would a Bill Gates become a billionaire?), and (down side, at least in my opinion) it may have a mainstreaming effect on constituents of fringe cultures. This happened to at least some elements of the sixties counterculture, an example being Rolling Stone magazine, which evolved from a radical underground newsrag devoted to arts and music to a middle-of-the-road yuppie scumsheet oriented, like the radio culture of the 90s, to product dissemination.

4) We will always have an audit trail. Everything you do on the information highway will have your digital signature stamped on it (perhaps a representation of your DNA?), so it will be difficult to hide who and what you are from someone with the determination and the technical prowess to find your tracks. This will facilitate a refined targeting of marketing sludge, and it will open a few new business opportunities: authentication, for instance. We will see the proliferation of clearinghouses to authenticate your digital reality to facilitate credit and digicash transactions, among others.

Other businesses will be formed, perhaps underground, to sell strategies for digital camouflage, and to search and hack patterns within data they may reflect digital individual or group identities.

These four infobahn-related issues are a foundation for thinking about the complexity of the digital world, but if you don’t *like* it, what can you do about it? After all, it’s inescapable, we’ve gone too far into this digital frame…we’ve formed identities around digitalia, and digital identities can be hacked, another worry.

The cleanest thing you can do is tell technology to fuck off, move to the mountains and live an idyllic existence by the campfire, eschewing all connection with the digital world. Since I know you’re not gonna *do* that, I won’t address the possibility. Another thing you can do is get involved in the politics of evolving infosystems, which you can do online simply by making your presence known at high volume and with high redundancy.

Or you could drop into a fringe reality, the culture hacker’s alternative world, and hack the media in the Situationist/Immediast sense…subvert the messages of the mainstream top culture wherever you can, and toss subtle packets of dissident memes into the infosphere, allowing the winds of chaos to blow yer memes into hurricane mode. The last great advantage of the information revolution we’re into is that insurgency doesn’t require confrontation, it doesn’t even necessarily require discomfort…it just requires the sharpest possible perception of the cosmic giggle….

Technopolitics

21C: Technopolitics

Originally published in 21C, 1997

The global Internet’s awash with email lists, chats, and online conferences for discussion of governance and what goes with it: the politics of issues and of personalities, trad partisan thrashes, visionary thrusts (e.g. Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace), theoretical rants and practical spins. But is this all just talk talk talk? Or do we see action emerging from this hash?

So far no distinct political FORCE or suite of positions has emerged (unless you take seriously the dreamy anarchy of technolibertarians, who thrash about many issues but always return to one, taxation-as-theft). Though dedicated political activists increasingly use the Internet to build organizations and share information, and a growing number of orgs and individual users are finding ways to leverage net access, net.activism has found success on a limited playing field, where the issues are mainly Constitutional (First and Fourth Amendment issues, censorship, search and siezure): issues that can be supported as absolute values requiring no partisan wrangling. The movement, as it stands today, is a RIGHTS movement, without regard to the messier political questions of welfare and healthcare, environment, defense, taxation, etc.

Contemporary politics has a forest-for-trees relationship with technology; in fact, the politics of a postindustrial society is itself a technology for organizing and managing those messy piles of unique, increasingly opinionated individual products of universal education and the global media wash. Though elsewhere (third world) dictators, unrefined jerks, still rule with brute force and terror, they’re like relics, fading from the scene as the postindustrial postmodern wash pumps through media pipes worldwide.

What happens when you funnel information into a culture where force and coercion were the key determinants of power? Force is an external, but information, education and democratization work to internalize control, making the individual responsive to sophisticated forms of communication (sign the social contract, then read the daily updates). This is a reality of the cybernetic world: "they put the control inside!" as a character in Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow says. Cybernetics is the science of communication and control theory, and there’s a clear theoretical link between ‘cyber’ and ‘polis’ that predates the age of ‘a Pentium in every pot, a web in every Pentium.’ Broadcast media (a prototype cyberactive technology) changed the face of politics in the era following WWII; during the war Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill made especially effective use of radio as propaganda tool, and the concept of ‘news’ was redefined by folks like Ed Murrow and his ‘boys.’ What does news/propaganda/agitprop do but pipe suggestive memes into the heads of individuals with the expectation that the distribution of information will change the power equation big time. The mob reads the handwriting on the virtual wall, and opposes the dictator, whose machinations, once exposed, lose their mojo.

Once you’ve flattened those hierarchies, though, propaganda mode can backfire as manipulation of information replaces brute force as the source of power. After WWII broadcasting and politics coevolved, producing today’s carefully managed media circus that dilutes information with showbiz glitz and leaves a cynical populace and an ever-widening credibility gap. The average high school graduate has more facts and more cognitive skill than the best and brightest of a century ago, and broadcasting’s morphed into narrowcasting and, with the Internet, many-to-many communications that defy control by propagandists. Those who get their information from the Internet have a vastly different (though not necessarily more accurate) picture of the world than those who read newspapers or watch television, or even those who listen to NPR everyday while driving to and from work.

Originally a defense network, then used to support research and development, the Internet was no household word when the first seeds of net.activism were planted in the late 1980s, when a few adolescent "hackers" let their digital explorations carry them to the point of intrusion, just to show that they could do it. Once they’d hacked into a system, they would grab a ‘trophy’ and show it to their friends and rivals, which meant emailing it across various systems.

Just such an incident led to the creation of the seminal online activist organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). John Perry Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead and regular participant in discussions on the WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link), the BBS on which the concept of virtual community was formed and tested. He had links to the hacker community which led the FBI to question him about the theft of Apple Computer proprietary software by the NuPrometheus League. It was clear to Barlow that the FBI did not understand enough about the technology of computer networks to distinguish prank intrusion for criminal espionage, and this concerned him. Flash! Cyberspace is an electronic frontier, unsettled, poorly understood by those who don’t ‘live’ there. When the powerful misunderstand, great harm can result. Barlow talked this through with Mitch Kapor, founder of Lotus Development Corporation, and activist/entrepreneur John Gilmore, and EFF was born from those talks. Initially misunderstood as a "hacker defense fund," EFF grew through three major iterations. First, as grassroots activist org, with Kapor and then Cliff Figallo at the helm. (No time to explore the implications here, but consider that Figallo, a communitarian from Stephen Gaskin’s farm, had been director of the WELL, a true fountainhead of the virtual community concept, a conferencing system formed originally by Steward Brand and the Whole Earth bunch, virtual home of Bay Area deadheads, with whom Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, had clear affinity.) Grassroots EFF morphed as a Washington, DC wing was added, with former ACLU activist Jerry Berman at the helm; for a time EFF tried to accommodate two approaches to activism, the grassroots model, from their Cambridge office, and the Washington lobby model, from their D.C. office, with some hope that the two could derive strength from each other. However at a facilitated retreat in 1992, just before a meeting in Atlanta with potential EFF chapters, the group decided to focus on lobbying, legal work, and building industry coalitions. The organization would drop the grassroots aspect of the organization and close the Cambridge office.

The DC/Beltway version of EFF lasted until, in 1994, financial and personnel problems, along with flak from the activist community over support for compromise Digital Telephony legislation, led to a split. Jerry Berman formed his own Center for Democracy and Technology; EFF moved to the Bay Area and continues to work effectively as an activist organization, considering a possible return to grassroots development, but focusing primarily on development of a Silicon Valley pro-user response on issues of privacy, access, free expression, etc. This is market-oriented political activism: convincing the Silicon Valley companies that their markets depend on a free and open cyberspace.

From EFF’s influence several influential cyberactivist groups have emerged. "Electronic Frontiers" groups span the globe: EFF-Austin, EF-Australia, EF-Canada, EF-Florida, EF-Georgia, EF-Houston, EF-Ireland, EF-Italy, EF-Japan, EF-KIO (Kentucky, Indiana, Idaho), EF-New Hampshire, EF-Norway, and EF-Spain, in addition to CDT and its spinoff, CIEC (the Citizens’ Internet Empowerment Coalition), VTW (Voters Telecommunication Watch), and New York’s SEA (Society for Electronic Access), which was originally named NTE for "Not the EFF."

Online activists focus on issues like censorship, privacy, encryption, intellectual property, and universal net access, i.e. issues associated with transmission and protection of, and access to, information. Organizations and coalitions emerge ad hoc from hot issues of the moment, though momentum’s not always sustained as issues lose their sense of urgency, e.g. activist energies diminished after Steve Jackson won a decision against the government, and after the Communications Decency Act was overturned by a lower court in Philadelphia. However activists still don’t focus on the partisan model to build support. Rather than constructing elaborate philosophies and platforms, cyberactivists build networks, replacing belief systems with cycles of information and opinion.

Given the brief of the history of net.activism, it’s hard to draw conclusions about potential long-term efficacy and feasibility of a broader appeal. Consider the barriers to entry, not only for the activists themselves, but for their constituents. Moving to the Internet with a sense of purpose requires a commitment of money (for the technology) and time (for the learning curve and ongoing maintenance of the information flow). "Netizens" are inherently members of an elite group, well educated, with discretionary money and discretionary time. Some have decent incomes, others are students with decent potential incomes…but it’s not a large group, compared to traditional political parties. Traditional politicians don’t get the smell of cash from the Internet just yet, and many of the issues of relevance to net activists are considered fringe issues. Cyberactivists have yet to establish focused and well-financed (i.e. "real") political clout, and have been unable to influence legislative initiatives in major ways.**

**But what we call ‘technopolitics’ or "net activism" is not about politics as usual and not a short-term blip on the radar of political evolution. A focus on core civil liberties issues narrows the scope of netizen activity so that consensus is possible among those with diverse political positions. On the net.politics scene we see broad-based coalitions formed ad hoc with minimal partisan wrangling and little reference to any particular agenda other than constitutional integrity.**

When Senator Jim Exon and friends proposed a bill to squelch ‘indecent’ speech on the Internet, opposition to the bill was initially unfocused, but had the advantage of established paths through electronic networks to spread the word, the warning, of Exon’s proposal. Activists thought the bill was dead ’til it was glommed onto the Omnibus Telecommunications Act as a rider, a political trick that called for quick response. Shabbir Safdar and Steven Cherry of Voters Telecommunication Watch organized an online campaign with just the focus and energy that urgent issues demand. CDT and EFF joined in, too. They didn’t succeed in blocking passage of the CDA, but the thousands of phone calls and letters to legislators that resulted from VTW’s bulletins led to some revisions, and psyched the ACLU and other opponents of the bill, leading to a court challenge fought successfully by a coalition of activists and civil liberties organizations. The bill was overturned, but that decision’s been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. However, as Mike Godwin noted, the findings of fact in the lower court decision, informed as it was by highly effective opposition arguments (assembled with substantial online support), make it difficult for the Supreme Court to reverse.

When VTW emailed bulletins to its email list, those bulletins were retransmitted to others who again retransmitted them, so that the CDA updates were reaching many thousands of "netizens." A political force was building, ad hoc, and the campaign was so successful that opposition to the CDA seemed near universal among Internet users. If there were online critics of VTW’s campaign, they found fault only with the lack of focus on other potential problems within the Omnibus Telecommunications Act. However many opponents of the CDA found the OTA otherwise acceptable if not desirable; VTW showed smarts in keeping the message focused on the issue about which broad agreement was possible.

This ad hoc opposition to the CDA demonstrated the potential of online organizations to build powerful organizations around particular issues. This kind of networking’s not new, but computer mediated communications enhance the speed and effectiveness of networking by factors of magnitude. There’s a sense that decisions could be made within global online communities so fast that legislatures and executives will always lag, and will eventually be considered archaic. It’s the virtual equivalent of taking the power to the streets, creating either more effective democracy (if you listen to the angel on your right shoulder) or inchoate mob rule (if you listen to the devil on your left shoulder).

Partisan politics reflects the government’s hierarchical structure: parties, like nations and states, have leaders, committees, hierarchical bureaucratic structures, and set articles or principles to which members of the party (or subscribers to the doctrine) must adhere. Computer mediated chaos politics is way different: there are no established parties, no hierarchical structures, no established principles; groups form around particular issues, but group members may agree with each other only about this one issue.

This isn’t new. Traditional politics emerges from the same tendency to form constituencies around issues; partisan politics hardwires these constituencies and holds them together from election to election, hoping to have the winning numbers. Participation in partisan politics is still limited; no party has the numbers to win an election. Political parties build and sustain power by playing to the ‘great silent majorities’ of the world, appealing and winning votes on focused, carefully researched issues, with more or less charismatic personalities fronting the elections.

With computer mediated, relatively instantaneous communications, you can toss this institutional approach. Netizens respond in blocs to particular issues but are increasingly reluctant to join parties or vote party lines. Technolibertarians particularly share this mindset. Libertarian thinking is widespread in virtual communities on the Internet, its proponents voluble in their opposition to the complexity, intrusiveness, and evident inefficiency of big government. Libertarians are at the edge of a movement to dismantle government bureaucracies and decentralize governance wherever possible. This resonates with the tendency to move away from established, monolithic political parties. Even the big-L Libertarian party has difficulty recruiting small-l libertarians.

Netizens, libertarians, and cyberactivists orgs are not going to replace party politics in the near future, but given the mood of cynicism and the growing opposition to large institutional approaches to damn near anything, and you wonder whether this is the handwriting on the wall.

On the Radar, 2018

I created the list below for the State of the World 2018 conversation (which is something I do every year with Bruce Sterling).

2017 was a nervous year of overwrought blustery political cultures, a year of normalized psychosis amplified by media distortion, a year in which we all learned to live in the upside-down, losing our hats in the process of flipping.

Wary though I am of year-end top-ten lists, I couldn’t help assembling such a beast as a way to organize my thoughts and generally keep track. These were the blips on my radar…

1. The normalization of deceit in US politics, melting reality into surreality, a postmodern politics constructing “alternative facts” and liquid narrative. Donald Trump is in the lead here (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/06/23/opinion/trumps-lies.html), and Russian propaganda engines have contributed many bits of misinformation and disinformation. Reliable, accountable news sources have been labeled “fake news,” undermining the credibility of accurate news reporting vs false narratives polluting the information ecosystem. Don’t get me started about Fox News (and a shout out to Shepard Smith, still trying to practice real journalism in that difficult context.)

2. Mainstreaming of fringe whack, dismissal of evidence-based research and science, resulting potential for institutional rupture. Alex Jones at Infowars accurately says “there’s a war on for your mind!” Hopefully Jones and his ilk aren’t winning.

3. Climate change kicks into higher gear while we argue whether the scientific consensus is just another shaggy apocalypse story, or whether economic interests have priority over human sustainability. Meanwhile ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and extreme weather events probably related to climate change are wreaking havoc. (I say “probably related”: always important to note that weather and climate are different but related things.)

4. The blockchain, still confusing, with use cases unclear, has become more of an established phenomenon, even as Bitcoin seems imperiled by the expansion of an apocalyptic bubble. Related: hard currency is increasingly replaced by plastic cards and electronic transactions (electronic fiat), but not so far by cryptocurrency. Will there be meaningful and sustainable alternatives to fiat money? See the infographic at https://holytransaction.com/blog/2014/07/bitcoin-vs-banking-infographic.html

5. Platform Cooperativism. Emerging interest in egalitarian worker co-operatives meets platform-based business structure (as in gig economy platform-based powerhouses Uber and Freelancer.) Platform co-ops have multistakeholder governance that is, as with worker co-ops in general, more democratic and inclusive. See https://platform.coop/about – “Platform cooperativism is a growing international movement that builds a fairer future of work. It’s about social justice and the bottom line. Rooted in democratic ownership,co-op members, technologists, unionists, and freelancers create a concrete near-future alternative to the extractive sharing economy.”

6. #MeToo: Sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein triggered an avalanche of similar reports by women and some men, shining a light on a whole, previously hidden, culture of misogyny.

7. Net neutrality interpreted as damage, and routed around by the Trump/Pai FCC, arguing that net neutrality rules are heavy-handed, stifling the Internet. In fact, net neutrality was a support for digital freecom and equality. It’s not clear yeat how this will play out: most likely result is that the Internet will be more expensive. (See https://boingboing.net/2017/12/26/creeping-blackmail.html.)

8. UFOs get real, Oumuamua suggests a rendezvous with Rama scenario. As the supposed asteroid Oumuamua shot through the solar system, its odd properties caused speculation that it might be an alien ship or artifact. Meanwhile the government revealed a secret UFO study program and two F-18 gun-camera UFO videos. A boon for the credibility of UFO research, at least, though Scientific American says “The world already knew that plenty of smart folks believe in alien visitors, and that pilots sometimes encounter strange phenomena in the upper atmosphere – phenomena explained by entities other than space aliens, such as a weather balloon, a rocket launch or even a solar eruption.” (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-truth-about-those-alien-alloys-in-the-new-york-times-ufo-story/)

9. Transportation meltdown, probable ascendance of autonomous vehicles and mass transit. The transportation infrastructure in many parts of the world isn’t up to managing the increasing load, and individually-owned vehicles burning fossil fuels, as primary contributors to the climate change problem, seem less sensible (unless you’re a climate change skeptic and/or fossil fuels enthusiast). Some cities are adjusting urban infrastructure away from support for individual vehicle traffic, and all sorts of transportation alternatives are under consideration – even gondolas, which do a great job of moving people up and down mountains. Something’s gotta give… I suspect a combo of increasing use of mass transit, more “transportation on the fly” services like Car2Go, ascendance of autonomous vehicles, and – of course – more bicycles on the thoroughfares.

10. Psychedelics reconsidered for therapy, especially the treatment of depression and PTSD. When I first heard about LSD in the sixties, it was through and account of Cary Grant’s therapeutic use of psychedelics, before hippies took it to the streets. (Grant’s use was recently documented in a Guardian article, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/may/12/cary-grant-how-100-acid-trips-in-tinseltown-changed-my-life-lsd-documentary) LSD and other psychedelics became class 1 drugs (i.e. illegal) via the Controlled Substances Act of 1970. This means that, in the eyes of the government, they have no accepted medical use – so your physician or psychiatrist can’t prescribe LSD for therapy. However there’s a renewed interest in therapeutic use: see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/17/upshot/can-psychedelics-be-therapy-allow-research-to-find-out.htmls Will psychedelics be legal to prescribe in the near future?

The Abolition of War, suggested by Krzysztof Wodiczko

War Vehicle

We recently watched all episodes of HBO’s intense, realistic miniseries about the brutal and devastating war in The Pacific; it was a jaw-dropping experience – watching human beings blow each other apart, a real nightmare of violence. I was realizing how transformative that experience would be – you can’t go home again after that kind of experience.

Artist Krzysztof Wodiczko has an exhibit in London currently that is dedicated to war veterans who “might have a roof over their head but it doesn’t feel like home anymore. They are traumatized to various degrees and feel like they’ve become strangers to the place where they used to live. They don’t function like they used to. They have been conditioned to be constantly on alert, to react on the spot to any unexpected light, move, noise, etc. It is difficult for them to turn off that aggressive instinct once they are back to civilian life.” This resonates with the thoughts I was having as I watched the miniseries. We should wonder about the role of post-traumatic stress disorder in shaping postwar culture.

Shown above: “His War Veteran Vehicle is a ex-military vehicle complete with missile launcher converted into a mobile video projector with loudspeakers. Words, coming from interviews with homeless veterans were magnified and projected from the vehicle in buildings and monuments in Liverpool two years ago (a year before, a military Humvee had screened the words of American veterans on the facade of a homeless shelter and of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts during the Democratic National Convention.)”