Kermit Snelson on Sun, 10 Nov 2002 17:50:04 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes

"How do you argue with a network?" -- Michael Hardt [1]

Only a few minutes after I noticed Brian saying it's "just ridiculous" to
equate the word "multitudes" with "mob", I was very amused to discover
elsewhere that the title of Howard Rheingold's new book happens to be "Smart
Mobs: The Next Social Revolution" [2].

Of course, the whole point of my last post was to argue precisely that mobs
_aren't_ smart and _aren't_ revolutionary. I'm not too surprised to find
myself in direct disagreement with Rheingold, especially since he features
prominently on the back cover of Geert's own new book, _Dark Fiber_.  But I
am comforted to know that at least Rheingold and I agree on the proper
universe of discourse.

But back to Brian.  As usual, he gets all personal and ad hominem on me and
asks if I've ever done any political organizing.  I have, in fact.  Enough
to know that the kind of people who really need activism and advocacy tend
_not_ to be intellectuals who whinge in their manifestos that '89-era new
media artists have been locked out of the art world mainstream because
'68-era baby boomers control all of the museum curatorships and university
chairs.  Arise, ye wretched of the earth!

Instead of that brand of activism, I prefer social movements like those led
by Rosa Parks.  She's the courageous African American domestic worker who
refused to vacate a "whites only" seat on an Alabama bus back in 1955,
thereby igniting the great US civil rights movement.  I prefer leaders like
Martin Luther King, who said simply "I have a dream."  Those are the kinds
of Americans with "a clear sense of self, sharply honed critical faculties,
a good background knowledge of all the issues, sound moral reflexes and a
sense of coherency in their actions" I was talking about, Brian.  And theirs
was exactly the kind of "marginal moral protest" that Geert and Florian, in
point I.4 of their post, say they want to "liquidate."

Brian writes that Geert and Florian are simply "trying to give fairly large
numbers of people a possible way into political life."  I don't doubt that
for a minute.  (I do disagree vehemently with what Brian says in the next
half of the sentence, namely that "a riot or a hacker attack" is a form of
debate, but that's another discussion.)  But how does saying things like
"encode and decode the algorithms of its singularity, nonconformity and
non-confoundability; to invent, refresh and update the narratives and images
of a truly global connectivity" really achieve that?  Wasn't "I have a
dream" a bit more inclusive and effective?  And how much respect for the
world's dispossessed is really exhibited by a concept of "swarm
intelligence" (or "general intellect", if you prefer Negri's terminology to
Rheingold's) that credits people with exactly the same kind of creative
_potentia_ as an ant colony's?  Especially when this "swarm intelligence"
concept, adding injury to insult, depends on the recent availability of
video cameras, PCs, Internet, cell phones, SMS messaging, GPS and other
advanced telematic tackle?

Now let's move on, with Brian, from "general intellect" to IP law and the
"vector class".  I think it's pretty clear that Geert and Florian's problems
with intellectual property concern the word "intellectual", not the word
"property".  I adduce as evidence the whinging mentioned above concerning
the generational control of art world institutions by "traditional"
intellectuals; their apparent solidarity with the indigenous IPR movement
within some sectors of Australian academia, and Geert's declaration in _Dark
Fiber_ that "Culture wants to be paid" [3]. Geert even follows this up
shortly with a swipe at Richard Stallman's "free" philosophy, implying that
it's simply more dreck characteristic of that favorite whipping boy, the
hated American "cyber-libertarian ideology."

All of this is mere guesswork, from the outside and based only on published
texts.  I hope I'll be corrected if I've misunderstood.  But based on
reading alone, I don't see how one can avoid the conclusion that most of
Geert and Florian text isn't really about improving the lot of the
dispossessed.  Their choice of words makes it seem to people who don't know
them personally as if they're really more interested in improving their own
lot as activists and new media artists.  About, in Geert's words, "content
workers rights to get properly paid" [4].  About breaking into the art
establishment.  About taking away control of the Internet from accountants
and engineers and giving it to -- who else? -- "artists and cultural
critics" [5].

Not that there's anything wrong with such a power play, even if that's what
it is.  As Geert has written elsewhere, altruism vs. selfishness is a false
dichotomy.  All I'm saying is that there's actually little textual evidence
in what Geert and Florian published to support Brian's contention that it's
about giving "fairly large numbers of people a possible way into political
life," unless that means content workers and not the world's dispossessed.
And I agree with Brian in his section 4 that simply calling everybody in the
world a "hacker" or "intellectual laborer" or "lay scientist" or indeed an
"expert" isn't the way out.  Even if they're riding on the Expertbase bus.
But that was exactly the point of my own post, wasn't it?

One thing really does bother me, however.  It concerns the "mass psychology"
point of my earlier post that Brian didn't address.  In his book _Dark
Fiber_, Geert proposes a new field of studies called "mass psychology of the
net" [6] based on the discipline "established by Gustav LeBon with his
famous _Psychology of the Masses_ (1895)" [7] and "re-vitalized and applied
to the Internet." [8]  Well, Gustav LeBon also proved to be a great
inspiration to Lenin, Hitler and Mussolini.  But that's not in itself a
cause for great concern, is it?  Guilt by association died out a long time

But there's more.  Earlier in the book, Geert argues for the displacement of
"American authors" by the "valuable knowledge, ready to be rediscovered,
recycled, and mutated" that currently lies fallow in a "German media theory"
whose founders he names as including Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt and
Ernst Jünger.  He goes on to acknowledge the "fascist past" of these
authors, but tells his readers "don't laugh" at their "totalitarian
heritage," saying that they are still "taken very seriously" because "secret
or unconscious fascination for authoritarian models" and "elitist disdain
over the rituals of parliamentary democracy" still resonate as "fatal
European passions" that the Cold War (which presumably means Americans)
failed to "freeze-dry." [9]  Geert then goes on to say "War is the father of
all media", and advises us to "Combine all these elements and you have an
impressive and productive research program for decades to come." [10]

OK, that's too much to swallow.  Especially as the world now appears to be
heading into World War 3 precisely because the USA's Right has finally
convinced the electorate that a new Holocaust is imminent, due to supposed
Islamist collaboration with the Left and with what they also claim are
"fatal European passions" that haven't yet been "freeze-dried."  Why give
Americans something in writing they can easily point to as justification for
their paranoia?  There's a lot of textual evidence, both on nettime and in
print, that could easily lead an uninitiated American outsider like myself
to conclude that "net criticism" advanced by Geert and Florian simply
heralds the return of a nihilistic, amoral, technocratic theory of power, a
theory of how the Internet can be used to do what searchlights and
loudspeakers did in 1930's Nuremberg.

Let me be clear.  I am charging Geert and Florian with nothing more than
publishing misleading language and treating hideous historical allusions
with a theoretical and moral casualness that has perhaps not been thought
through very well.  I am not accusing them or anybody else of hidden
agendas.  All I'm saying is that as activists in an environment of
ever-increasing repression, we owe it to ourselves and what we believe in to
declare as clearly as we can, both to our opponents and to the multitudes
that we claim to advocate, that our cause is freedom, not power; that our
motivation is justice, not nihilism; that our methods involve community and
dialogue, not warfare and agonism, and that our message is hope, not

Kermit Snelson

[1], p.5
[3] Lovink, _Dark Fiber_, MIT, 2002, p.365
[4] Lovink, _ibid._, p.366
[5] Lovink, _ibid._, front flap
[6] Lovink, _ibid._, p.137
[7] Lovink, _ibid._, p.139
[8] Lovink, _ibid._, p.137
[9] Lovink, _ibid._, p.25
[10] Lovink, _ibid._, p.27

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