James Wallbank on Fri, 31 Jul 2020 12:23:28 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

Re: <nettime> Manifestos, Twitter, and Action Against The Autocrats.

Hi Max, Hi Nettime!

Thanks for your response! I certainly think that the analogy you make between the current social/political/cultural conflict and biological systems is highly appropriate. Both involve complex, interlinked systems that exhibit non-linear characteristics.

I think that the key misperception on the part of internet progressives has been encapsulated by the idea of "The Hack". The appealing notion that, with the amplifying power of the network, one clever exploit can enable an individual freedom-fighter to transform the whole system.

Hacks only work with precarious systems. An avalanche will only happen when a snow is piled up, ready to cascade. Dominos will only topple when they're balanced in lines, ready to fall. A bridge will only resonate in response to a wind of a particular velocity if it's poorly engineered.

The systems of power that are being put in place by populist authoritarians are not brittle. They're not precarious. They're not balanced.

A hack will not work.

But that doesn't mean that the individual is powerless. Complex systems, involving many elements, go through phase transitions - raise the temperature of water by 1C and nothing much happens. Unless that 1C is the difference between 99C and 100C.

The phase transitions involved in the socio-political realm are not well understood. But it's clear that they exist. I believe that one is educational, and it connects through to attention. People don't have to BE stupid to ACT stupid. They just need to pay insufficient attention to the problem at hand. Exactly why Formula One drivers don't check their social media while they zoom around the track.

But unlike the autocratic structures of governance that are being built, our individual structures of cognition are surprisingly precarious. We rely on heuristics - cognitive shortcuts that allow us to identify the troll, the bot, the lie, the success. One heuristic is to choose a single news outlet, and decide that they are mostly reliable - you don't have to do the analysis, because they've done it for you! But, as is obvious, these heuristics can be exploited, and it's a huge cognitive load to abandon them.

A recent British phenomenon has been a heuristic exploit that goes like this:

* Announce a policy.

* Fail to deliver success by any measure.

* Celebrate your huge success. Graciously thank allies (and even opponents!)

Here, the Johnson/Cummings Regime has correctly identified that MOST PEOPLE AREN'T PAYING ATTENTION. They aren't able to distinguish between policy success and policy failure. So people use a cognitive shortcut - if the leadership looks like they're look glum and crestfallen, it's been a failure, if they're celebrating, it's been a success. The heuristic has been exploited.

Perhaps better education, greater awareness, more applied critical thinking skills, more news sources, and more diversity of news sources will help. At first, it won't make any visible difference - but there will be a phase-transition, when the public reaches intellectual boiling point. Quite suddenly, the bullshit won't work any more.

This, of course, reflects what you're saying - slow, incremental, and possibly imperceptible responses may be effective in the way that a quick, low cost intervention (made in the hope of precipitating a catastrophic collapse) may not. And in the longer term, if we're not on the case, Gaia certainly is.

All the best,


On 22/07/2020 17:58, Max Herman wrote:

Hi James,

Very interesting essay/manifesto and platform choice.  It has a direness and a necessity to it that is understandably resonant.

Section 2 reminds me of viral/antiviral dynamics:

Let's resist the illusion that the Johnson/Cummings Regime is precarious
structure or a static edifice. It's part of a complex, hybrid,
shape-changing network, only part of which is visible. Defeating it will
require ceaseless, full spectrum opposition, learning & adaptation.

This appears to me to reflect a "turning point" or change phase as recently discussed here.  Conservatism seems to have shifted its methodology away from defending institutions and traditional power centers.  It has gone network, whereas for some time it has been thought that progressivism held a fundamental advantage re networks.  This represents a natural pendulum-swing with significant past precedents.

In other words, where early internet thinking felt that virality favored progressive change, now we see that the opposite is not only true but is driving national policy for what is perhaps a majority of state power globally.

Being in pandemic, of course ideas of antiviral phenomena are front and center and they may apply to information of many sorts.  Immune system is a relevant analogy, perhaps, for social mood, politics, even economics, or indeed any systems based significantly on human information processing (both bio and tech, and all their intermixed forms).  

Soviet information theory used ideas from advertising to advance its aims, as have many revolutionary movements (both good and ill) down through history.  Successful revolutions switch quickly to antiviral work after "winning."  Whether symmetric or asymmetric, conflict between systems would seem necessarily to involve both viral and antiviral elements -- per game theory, each "side" will learn the tactics of its opponent and adapt accordingly, even if they don't know they are!  🙂

We know what viruses are in cell biology and in computer systems, and how antiviral systems work.  In the realm of human intelligence, we may have to think a bit more figuratively -- fear and hate as viral, calm and compassion as anti-viral, or any number of similar analogies -- but such adaptation of our mental and emotional lives, as you suggest, may be at least as important as medical and IT measures when it comes to the work of avoiding autocracy.

Therefore the antiviral aspects of system work may need to be brought more into focus, even in areas like meditation, art, and neuroscience, in order for progressive and anti-autocratic efforts to be most effective.  

Encouragingly, viral tactics are not always necessarily "faster" or "better" than antiviral ones.  Viral are certainly more opportunistic and nihilistic, and can rapidly overwhelm weak defenses.  However, consequences do accumulate and people "connect dots" whether they want to or not; all systems learn and adapt to threats.  This latter process may embody the idea of "hurry slowly" or "festina lente."  Who knows, maybe even an antiviral adaptation in art and culture has already occurred.

All best regards,


From: nettime-l-bounces@mail.kein.org <nettime-l-bounces@mail.kein.org> on behalf of James Wallbank <james@lowtech.org>
Sent: Monday, July 20, 2020 10:01 AM
To: nettime-l@mail.kein.org <nettime-l@mail.kein.org>
Subject: <nettime> Manifestos, Twitter, and Action Against The Autocrats.
Hi Nettimers,

Yesterday I published a substantial thread on Twitter, which seems to
have gained some traction. I'm sending it to you, here, because I'm
aware that Twitter, along with other many other social media spaces, is
corporate, pseudo-public space, vulnerable and temporary.

Only after I posted it did I realise that this action was a very similar
modus operandi to my publication of the 1999 "Lowtech Manifesto" - [
http://lowtech.org/projects/n5m3/ ] a very short piece of text that
precipitated more than a decade of intensive digital, cultural and
community activity.

Now, the stakes are far higher, and the field of play is not simply the
world of cultural and digital production, but the whole political
context in which we operate. I can't tell you how much I hope that this
small action helps to precipitate progressive change.

It is orientated towards a British audience, but already I've had
responses suggesting that it's far more widely applicable, to anywhere
where populist autocracy is emerging. The USA is an obvious example - as
is Brasil.

It may seem that what follows is just a couple of pages of writing. Yes
it is, but it's been informed by a decade or more of learning and
observation. It's what I can do. As I say at the end, I hope it helps.



This is not a normal time. I think we're at the early stages of an
attempt to turn the UK into an autocracy. There follows a thread about
the military methodology that I think the Johnson/Cummings Regime is
using to wage information war against you, and how you can fight back.\1

Let's resist the illusion that the Johnson/Cummings Regime is precarious
structure or a static edifice. It's part of a complex, hybrid,
shape-changing network, only part of which is visible. Defeating it will
require ceaseless, full spectrum opposition, learning & adaptation.\2

The Johnson/Cummings Regime is part of a generalised global direction,
facilitated by digital technologies and driven by the impulse of the
vastly rich (not just common-or-garden millionaires) to locate their
wealth above and beyond democratic national governance.\3

It isn't a conspiracy. Nor is it a structure like dominoes, or snow
before an avalanche, vulnerable to one intervention that'll topple the
lot. It's a worldwide tendency, with many drivers. To prevail against
this sort of diffuse opponent demands a Systems Thinking approach.\4

We can't win immediately, but we can work to change the rules, to shine
a light on the political activities of the ultra rich, & to disconnect
money from undue media & policy influence. Transnational cooperation
will be crucial, as will educating the public.\5

In Britain, the Johnson/Cummings Regime is, whether it knows it or not,
the primary tool of the ultra-rich, who are working to replace genuine,
functioning democracy with opaque, managed states that amplify their
wealth, reinforce their power and maintain their low visibility.\6

Successful opposition will involve many actions across multiple domains.
To succeed it must be continuous, fast, agile & transformative.
Interventions must be visible & invisible, direct & indirect, fast &
slow, at all scales. Most of all, it must be a learning process.\7

This isn't just something dragged out of my fervid imagination—this type
of complex conflict is a developed methodology (that originated,
incidentally, in Russia). "Operational Art", or "Operational Mobility"
is, essentially, Strategy and Tactics meets Systems Thinking.\8

It'll be helpful for more people who oppose the corrupt, incompetent
Johnson/Cummings Regime and the plutocratic influences that appear to
drive it, to get to grips with this type of conflict. It is certainly
something that Cummings understands—I recognise its fingerprints.\9

Read Cummings online, and you can be absolutely sure that he understands
Operational Art. That doesn't mean he knows exactly what's going on—it
means that he acknowledges that he doesn't know what's going on, and
operates a system to learn, adapt, reorientate and respond.\10

He has used terminology like the OODA Loop – Observe, Orient, Decide,
Act. This is an instance of an operational method developed for aircraft
combat. But that's just one, glamorous example (I have no doubt that
Cummings fancies himself as "Tory Top Gun"!)\11

But Operational Art has much wider application. It was developed by the
Russian military, at a period in which they were in a serious jam.
They'd just had a revolution. They were weak and underdeveloped, and
they had a strong, hostile, militarized neighbour: Germany.\12

How do you win when you're weak? Operational Art makes use of complexity
and confusion, mixes up information flows in the battlespace, and
prevents a more powerful opponent from bringing their forces to bear. It
suggests continuous experimentation, learning & repositioning.\13

It can even use the strength of an opponent against itself. It doesn't
have boundaries (spatial, temporal, or conceptual). First adopted by
Soviet forces for warfare, it's also been implemented by the KGB, who
(possibly not coincidentally) trained Vladimir Putin.\14

Operational Art is particularly relevant because governance is getting
more complex. Digital and transport technologies are linking citizens,
businesses & trading partners ever more quickly and cheaply. These links
aren't all visible or predictable. The world is complicating.\15

Why now? Capital is concentrating in ever fewer hands. Increasing
complexity means the right policy responses to emerging issues aren't
obvious. Voters aren't experts, so we use gut instinct & rules of thumb
to decide how to vote. This situation is vulnerable to exploitation.\16

Numerous indications suggest that the Johnson/Cummings Regime sees the
British public as targets. They are engaging us with operational
methods, with objectives in mind that are not in our interests. It's
time to fight back using the tools of information warfare.\17

As we engage, we must use each incident as a learning opportunity. The
objective is to identify the Johnson/Cummings Regime's critical
components, & what they depend on to operate—its "centre of gravity".
This will suggest critical weak points that will allow us to disrupt it.\18

At the same time, we must preserve our own centre of gravity—the things
that are essential for us to be able to act—so that however long the
conflict lasts, we can keep taking actions. During this process we may
need to change form, appearance, position, relationships & focus.\19

You can consider centres of gravity on different organisational scales:
you (an individual), a community group, a campaign, a business, a Local
Authority, a movement, a political party, a government, a transnational
organisation… Resources may flow between scales.\20

It's a mistake to think that just one of these scales is everything, or
that the biggest scale is the most significant. Frequently, in dealing
with complex systems, transformation emerges from changes at smaller or
larger scales than the one under consideration. You matter.\21

NATO uses a common symbol system for mapping conflict. It includes large
objects, like "Aircraft Carrier" or even "Theater Missile Defence"
(which indicates a whole network of installations) through to tiny
presences in the battlespace, such as "Graffiti" or "Pastor".\22

Failure to consider large & small scales can be our undoing. Coronavirus
is microscopic, but it's disrupted global travel & trade. Massive
events, like global warming, may have even more disruptive consequences.
Fast events can be unmitigable. Slow events may be imperceptible.\23

It could be that your individual efforts at a local scale end up making
a difference at a much larger scale. If you're engaged in local action,
talk about what you do. Other people may copy or adapt your activities.
Together you may effect large scale changes.\24

Another way to understand this conflict is as a battle of information.
They're attempting to get information to flow from us to them. We're
attempting to get information to flow from them to us. Either side may
poison the information their actions generate with misinformation.\25

You can see this in the Johnson/Cummings Regime's preoccupation with
surveillance tech & data analysis. They were preceeded by Vote
Leave—connections to Cambridge Analytica, Faculty, Facebook & NHSX
aren't coincidental. They conceal or obfuscate their internal processes.\26

These types of conflict do not necessarily involve optimisation.
Pursuing the most direct, most efficient course of action has the
unfortunate side-effect that it makes your intent obvious. It generates
a very clear signal that your opponent can interpret.\27

Actions should be high speed and chaotic, should generate confusion and
confound analysis. If they appear to be random—even senseless—so much
the better, as long as they inform you and don't exhaust you. Taking
advantage of random, unplanned events is additionally useful.\28

When devising actions, bear in mind that the ideal "Operational Idea"
should be (1) Quick to Execute; (2) Deceptive and (3) Ambiguous. It
should be (4) Unpredictable, not Stereotypical; should provide (5)
Multiple Options for the next steps; and be (6) Creative and Novel.\29

Now do you see why the Johnson/Cummings Regime often appears to be a
shitshow? Sometimes it's incompetence. Sometimes they're caught out.
Sometimes, their buffoonery is deliberately provocative. While their
visible actions are chaotic, their intended actions are obfuscated.\30

Interestingly, it can be useful to mix up deceptions, provocations &
stochastic obfuscations with undisguised actions & accurate disclosures.
By making your genuine intentions public, it becomes all the more
difficult for your opponent to perceive what's real & what's not.\31

The highest value actions are ambiguous & provide multiple options. They
may discover something, they may provoke a response, they may attract or
avoid attention. Once deployed, should an idea's initial intent fail, or
circumstances change, it can be recast as something else.\32

The plutocratic right is currently much better at this type of conflict
than is the traditional left, which values stasis, structure, clarity
and consistency. "This far and no further" is as effective in
Operational Art as was the Maginot Line. Progressives can and must

Right now, we can only guess at the Johnson/Cummings Regime's centre of
gravity—the critical factors and linkages that allow it to act. We can
guess that the relationships between Johnson, Cummings, the "Vote Leave
Gang" and the Parliamentary Conservative Party are crucial.\34

This said, it's possible that Johnson & Cummings are more peripheral
than they appear to be—get rid of them, & their apparently deliberately
destructive programme may continue undisrupted by another leader. So we
must continue to harass, probe & reconnoitre, learning as we go.\35

Remember that significant parts of the Johnson/Cummings network are
invisible. The relationships between the visible parts of the network
and its plutocratic funders may be few and critical, or they may be
manifold and redundant, but money appears to be an important enabler.\36

We may guess that Johnson, Cummings, the Vote Leave Gang, The Cabinet,
The Parliamentary Conservative Party or others are simply bumbling
idiots. This is a mistake. We should take them very seriously, and
assume that each move they make is quite deliberate.\37

Just because it's deliberate doesn't mean it's optimised. They're
deliberately trying to obfuscate information that they generate. At this
stage in the electoral cycle, they can afford to look like idiots. They
have time for purges, new policies, new slogans & new haircuts.\38

Over-interpreting their actions may be a mistake. Their modus operandi
appears to be to deliver ineffectual governance. This may be deliberate!
One of their objectives may be to break down any notion of logic or good
sense in the relationship between government & people.\39

Don't imagine that, as we discover vulnerabilities in the
Johnson/Cummings Regime, they will remain unpatched. They will
manoeuvre, camouflage, adjust, transform, refocus & redeploy. No current
understanding is useful for good. However, each change can derive
further insights.\40

Many political impulses that I see on left and right alike are driven by
an urge to simplify—to gain the comfort and clarity of understanding
just what's happening. This may give you peace of mind, but be assured,
full understanding is an illusion, and it's not the way to win.\41

On the right, simple answers are used to manipulate footsoldiers. The
BrexiTrump dullards that tirelessly belt out meaningless slogans and
dog-whistle racism on Twitter are being manipulated. On the left,
simplification takes the form of doctrine—texts that serve as holy writ.\42

For goodness' sake, progressives, leave this stuff behind! Think about
core values, not doctrine. 19th Century manifestos were crucial in their
time, and may contribute to our understanding, but things have changed
and are changing. The game now is about continuous learning.\43

Here are five useful Operational methods—
(1/5) Surveillance: watch & learn. Don't forget to record & report your
(2/5) Demonstration: do something JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN. It doesn't have
to be useful you'll learn about your own capacities as you go.\44

(3/5) Deception: Say you're going to do something, then don't. Pretend
you're NOT going to do something. Do it anyway. Seem as if you're doing
one thing, but do something else. Say you care about something that
doesn't matter, or that you don't care about something that does.\45

(4/5) Attack of Opportunity: the enemy's in sight, so attack! Remember,
though, this wasn't planned & may be a trap. Be ready to retreat.
(5/5) Supporting Attack. This may not be the knockout blow, but you're
sure that if you attack right… there, it'll hurt the enemy. Do it.\46

All of these methods assume that you're NOT YET SURE where the enemy's
centre of gravity is. They're a dance, in which you goof around & mix
things up. The neglected one is often Demonstration. It takes effort.
Did you mean to do that? Your opponent can waste time on analysis.\47

Only once you're ABSOLUTELY CERTAIN that you understand the opponent's
centre of gravity do you strike. Then, go all out. Hold nothing back.
Overkill is just fine. We're nowhere near that stage with the
Johnson/Cummings Regime–on EXACTLY WHAT it depends is unclear.\48

This makes it important to report what you discover. The best
information comes from engagement—doing something that'll get results
and should provoke a response. It's the experimental part of the method.
If you do an action, report your conclusions back to the network.\49

This morning I remarked on the possibility that a photo of Johnson &
Symonds had been doctored. The vigour with which Brexity Boris Bots
responded was very informative. Clearly they want to provoke argument
now, today, about something that doesn't really matter. Interesting. \50

You may be one of those charming souls who feel uncomfortable with
conflict analogies. Good for you! You can re-interpret these methods
without military trappings if you like. I urge you to look into "Systems
Thinking" – the science of how to deal with confounding complexity.\51

But, while you may be uncomfortable with the idea of information war, be
under absolutely no illusion: the Johnson/Cummings Regime is at war with
democracy, it's at war with notions of transparency, honesty and
accountability. In short, it's at war with you. Good luck!\52

P.S. Why have I said all this now? Is it true? Is it a deception? Am I
saying this just because I can? Is it an attempt to absorb the
Johnson/Cummings Regime's analytical resources? I know that they already
know this stuff, but some of you don't. I hope it helps.\53

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject:
#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org
#  @nettime_bot tweets mail w/ sender unless #ANON is in Subject: