Saul Albert on 24 Oct 2000 20:38:25 -0000

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[Nettime-bold] Root Festival- Hull Time Based Art goes mad for RDOM and Zapatismo

Last weekend was the end of the Root festival hosted by Hull Time Based Arts

The theme this year was "Tricks, Pranks and Interventions" and I was there
helping my friends the Space Hijackers
( some trouble.

The general attitude of knowing cynicism I had expected from the crowd that
turned up, hung-over for the Sunday session of presentations was completely
shattered by Ricardo Dominguez's presentation about and the
Zapatismo inspired "floodnet" system ( As he finished
the audience erupted into a feverish applause and whooped and shouted for
several minutes; almost unheard of enthusiasm at such events in my

There was something other than Dominguez's amazing voice and public speaking
style (described by my swooning friend as 'Barry White with a brain') that
sparked off this reaction . This post is an attempt to make some sense of
that rapturous response (which I felt too) and to use it to think about the
Electronic Disturbance Theatre's (EDT) brand of art "hacktivism".

The day before the presentation Ricardo Dominguez had performed his "Stories
of Mayan Technology" action on the street, chalking the Java code for the
floodnet system onto the cobbles outside the Root meeting centre. He wore a
balaclava with "EZLN" stitched into it and was leaping around frantically,
engaging passers-by with impassioned story telling about Zapatismo and the
history of Chiapas ( and the Electronic Disturbance Theatre's
flood net actions. (

Initially I was slightly taken aback by the dramatic contrivance of the
performance, having followed these stories as they unfolded through the more
physically removed media of e-mail and browser. Seeing the workings of the
applet written out in chalk it was easy to dismiss this as wrong-headed
translation from the effective computerised practice of "hacktivism" to
ineffectual street theatre. Didn't Dominguez himself declare that "the
streets are dead" as a theatre of protest before putting Electronic Civil
Disobedience into action? In any case I didn't realise the tactical
significance of this performance until the talk he gave on Sunday.

Prior to his presentation I had seen him sitting the  cafe (unmasked) when
he was approached by a 12 year old girl with a "PRESS" sticker on her
T-shirt who had been interviewing people the day before. I overheard their

PRESS GIRL:     "I interviewed you yesterday...didn't I, it was you outside
with the mask on..."
RDOM:              "No"
P.G.:                     "Yes it was, you were telling stories"
RDOM:              "It must have been someone else".

He wouldn't even give her a knowing wink. Many of the  interventions at the
festival gave me the feeling of being allowed "behind the scenes", and being
shown the insecurities and fragility of the performers and their work.
Dominguez gave no ground in that respect, but was maintaining the simulation
of this masked character even when he was apparently off-duty. He wore his
mask again during his talk on Sunday and the consummate skill of his stage
presence was overwhelming, testament to his training as a classical actor.

At first I was slightly suspicious of the way he had whipped the crowd into
a frenzy. As we walked out, exhausted, a member of the ostentatiously
cynical Molotov organisation (, whose motto is "whatever
it is, we're against it") gurgled "I feel like I've been saved" with no hint
of sarcasm whatsoever.

This unquestioning acceptance of Dominguez's presentation reminded me of the
way the international media reacted to the release of the floodnet. As was
argued by derisive hackers after the media frenzy surrounding the initial
floodnet strikes, the floodnet's code is not very effective. It worked a few
times, and slowed the systems it attacked down, but was not very effective
in terms of infrastructural damage and as a denial of service attack (DOS),
was easily routed around. The servers were up again immediately afterwards,
and when the Pentagon was attacked it  responded, idiotically with military
info-weapons that aggressively crashed civilian user's computers.

This, of course, gave huge weight to the grievances of the protestors using
the floodnet system as it contravened constitutional law (surprisingly
enough, military attacks on civilians are illegal in the US).

The effect of the floodnet attacks was not felt in the actual damage of the
DOS attack, but in the hysterical response it elicited from the press and
then the institutions against which the attacks were directed.

In this way the EDT floodnet system can be seen as operating on several
levels of "information warfare". The three forms of information warfare
weaponry are defined by their effects, rather than by specific
characteristics. They can be defined like so:

"Information Warfare Weapons can be Physical, Syntactical, or Semantic. The
use of a physical weapon will result in the permanent destruction of
physical components and denial of service. A Syntactical weapon will focus
on attacking the operating logic of the system and introduce delays or
unpredictable behaviours. A Semantical weapon will focus its effects on
destroying the trust and truth maintenance components of the system. "
- R Garigue INFORMATION WARFARE - Developing a Conceptual Framework

The floodnet clearly works on both the syntactical and the semantic level,
the semantic effect clearly being the most interesting and effective in this
context. Although Dominguez could have encouraged hackers to help him by
bringing these servers down destructively (physically or syntactically) he
must have seen that in the wider informational context of an international
media saturated with high-tech news and .com stock market madness, the
semantic attack could be far more effective. There have been some recent
incidents that show how devastating such attacks can be in a commercial

Bruce Schneier describes a semantic attack in the recent case of Emulex Corp
in  "Semantic Attacks: The Third Wave of Network Attacks" in CRYPTO-GRAM,
October 15, 2000 (posted to nettime last night and available from Here is the part from his piece which describes
how this "Semantic attack" worked:

> On 25 August 2000, the press release distribution service Internet Wire
> received a forged e-mail that appeared to come from Emulex Corp. and said
> that the C.E.O. had resigned and the company's earnings would be
> restated.  Internet Wire posted the press release, not bothering to verify
> either its origin or contents.  Several financial news services and Web
> sites further distributed the false information, and the stock dropped 61%
> (from $113 to $43) before the hoax was exposed.
> This is a devastating network attack.  Despite its amateurish execution
> (the perpetrator, trying to make money on the stock movements, was caught
> in less than 24 hours), $2.54 billion in market capitalisation
> only to reappear hours later.  With better planning, a similar attack
> do more damage and be more difficult to detect.  It's an illustration of
> what I see as the third wave of network attacks -- which will be much more
> serious and harder to defend against than the first two waves.

This simple fraud is an old trick, but as the spread of stock-market
relevant information has become the driving force behind so many internet
services and companies, the simple forgery has become an increasingly
powerful information weapon. The effectiveness of these tactics in a
commercial context was further proved by etoy's toywar victory over
toy-retailer etoys last Christmas, a better example than the above, really
because it was far more imaginative and engaging (if not so dramatically
effective in munitary terms). (see

It was one of Dominguez's points in the talk, that his tactics of Electronic
Civil Disobedience (ECD) would have increasing clout as more and more
corporations, governments and organisations became reliant on flows of
information that are susceptible to new and devastating semantic attacks. He
didn't make the distinction between syntactic and semantic though, but it is
a useful way to look at the relationship between his ECD practice and his
stage presence and street actions.

His performance as a Zapatista, his techniques of public speaking and the
dramatic devices with which he peppered his speech, operate first as a
syntactic intervention, then as a full-on semantic attack.

The action itself (engaging with a member of the public at random, telling a
story, chalking slogans on a wall) no longer has much of a syntactic impact.
As the Critical Art Ensemble put it in "Tactical Media" (available from the effectiveness of subversive, interventionist,
tactics were completely undermined immediatly after May 68' when slogan
scrawling and situationist reclamation of public space last seemed to hold
some potential to unravel the power of "spectacular society". Many of the
would-be interventionists at the festival didn't seem to have taken that on
board. Ricardo Dominguez's street action, however, worked in parallel with
the semantic effectiveness of the floodnet. Using dramatic techniques to
semi-hypnotise and charm people and then hype them up into a reverent
frenzy, Dominguez was able to get them extremely excited about going out and
participating in or initiating electronic civil disobedience.
The minor syntactic hacks of street intervention and the floodnet software
both ride a wave of hype and excitement until they build up enough momentum
to become a far more powerful semantic hack, and spread through diverse
information networks. The people at that talk will be raving about it and
(like me) telling everyone they can about how brilliant it is.

The stories he told during the street performance came back to me as I
finished writing this. He had told stories about people using "Mayan
Technologies"; a little boy in Chiapas using a stick to make military and
drug-war aircraft vanish from the sky, the sea as a speaking voice mediating
information across time and distance... stories about imaginative semantic
manipulation. What seems to be made possible by his use semantic information
weapons is the production of  powerful effects on major financial and
govornmental institutions without resorting to physically or syntactically
violent means.

Download the Electronic Disturbance Theatre's DDK (Disturbance Developer's
Kit) from:

Saul Albert 24/10/2000

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