alex galloway on Thu, 11 Feb 1999 08:52:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Hacking Activism

[NETTIMErz- The following dialogue grew out of a request by the
Electronic Disturbance Theater to collect interviews on the topic of
tactical media in general and FloodNet in particular. This interview and
others will be excerpted and collected as supporting documents in a
forthcoming chronicle of the EDT's actions entitled "Hacktivism:
network_art_activism." -ag]

Hacking Activism
An Email Dialogue
Between Alex Galloway and Geert Lovink

Alex Galloway: Let's talk first about the Zapatista FloodNet actions
( in the context of tactical There was a lot of talk at this year's Ars Electronica festival
about how the FloodNet was technically flawed. Do you think it works? Can
electronic civil disobedience ever move past simple "consciousness
raising," to actually realizing material change?

Geert Lovink: I don't think this is the best way to approach this issue.
"Flaws" are something for the hackers and sysops to address, like Rop
Grongrijp or others. FloodNet has bad karma because of particular
mistakes they made; I cannot defend them, nor do I particularly want to
attack them. We have been working for several years on a thorough
foundation for net activism. For example, this was a major topic at the
Galactic Hackers Party in 1989, one of the first big "new" media events
we organized in Amsterdam. Today, the net is no longer merely a tool, it
is our everyday (artificial) life. For us it is a strategic theatre of
confrontation. Yet the hackers still have that fresh, almost utopian
attitude about the internet. For them the net is something precious,
something that shouldn't be destroyed by things like denial of service
attacks. Activists these days are not properly informed of the delicate
balance within technology. For them, a corporate server is just another
artifice to be destroyed, or rather, disturbed.

AG: Let's talk about software more generally. I think that, perhaps, the
Web Stalker ( was the first real piece of
tactical software (at least for our recent net.history). And now I'm
searching for sequels. The browser seems like a perfect place for
tactical interventions. Where else do you see this happening? The open
source movement is one place... But what about network infrastructures?
Operating systems? Where should we, as tactical programmers, *go* today?

GL: The open source movement is clearly an interesting area but what
interests me most is how to build a public interface for movements like
this. To be successful the movement must both effectively disseminate its
software and surround the software with a lively, appealing political
discourse. It could be our task, as mediators, journalists, artists and
critics, to transform the issue of, for example, operating systems into a
political question. Paul Garrin's has failed so far in this
(and so has nettime). The question is this: How do we turn all these
abstract issues, which are debated in a very closed circle and only
understood by a hand full of technicians, into a large topic, understood
by the millions, so to speak. Minor decisions in the realm of technical
standards taken today will have enormous effects on society later on. We
are all aware of that. So, much will depend on our political skills,
imagination and willingness to make coalitions, if we want to succeed.

AG: You are right to note that and others have failed so far
to address a larger audience, yet I don't think we should discount It preceded the Web Stalker (right?) and in some ways is more
massive, more effective, and more tangentially artistic (making it all
the more appealing). As for operating systems, there's Jodi's new OSS
project ( which, although purely aesthetic, somehow
also seems to be a real tactical intervention into how computers are
used--especially since it exists as a stand alone application (as well as
a CD-ROM) that mimics an operating system. I'm delighted at the fact
that, with, one can't really distinguish the tactical from the
purely aesthetic. I think this is what will prove its ultimate importance.

I may have a slightly different take on the question of publicity and
coalition-building. Why can't the ultimate success of tactical media
projects be simply to produce temporary autonomous zones (TAZs) rather
than liberate a larger public? (I realize this sentiment is probably not
very popular with the Dutch/German tactical media community.) New
technologies seem, finally, to be able to give us this TAZ option as a
widespread reality for the first time. Look at our own projects--nettime
and rhizome--I think that communities of this nature are virtually
unprecedented. And, hey, that may be enough for me.

About the open source movement. I am in favor of software development
that seems to be in the public interest. However I'm skeptical of the
politics associated with some of these groups. Hackers and programmers
have historically never shared the same politics as the avant-garde,
especially one with such a lively surrounding discourse as ours does.
I've read the various hacker's manifestos floating around and I think
they're garbage. They specifically avoid political analyses at the
expense of the "freedom of knowledge." This is at the heart of why EDT's
FloodNet was criticized heavily by HEART (Hackers for Electronic Art) at
Ars Electronica this year. What we have is two groups, both doing
interesting work, but with two different political styles. I'm on the EDT

Let's move to the issue of translating traditional leftist strategies
into the tactical media framework. A new method is critical. We've
experienced bottom-up political movements for some time now. But, what
about *distributed* bottom-up strategies? This is the machinic model,
where there is no coalition, there is no core, yet there is a "movement."
Is electronic activism like the FloodNet too rooted in old school leftist
politics? The real question here is: How do we make the network into a
medium for action and resistance?

I always think of the early project called "Refresh"
(, what (I'm assuming) Alexei
Shulgin described as "the friendly web-design frenzy that we have started
on Sunday 6 October 1996." In that project no one really needed to know
who exactly was part of the chain, yet if your computer followed the
refreshes you would glimpse a sequence of interrelations. This seems to
me to be a model, albeit primitive, for some type of distributed
bottom-up strategy.

GL: You are touching here on the question of organization. It presupposes
common interests (or even "objectives," Marxists would say) and a basic
set of common ethics. Today this sense of commonality has been blurred by
the "culture wars"--in a good way, I would say. But the celebration of
differences, chaos and complexity has prompted us to pose again the
question of organization. Permanent deconstructions and cynical
criticisms have turned many of the intellectuals, artists and activists
into enlightened but powerless outsiders.

These days, one could say that new forms of organization are formed along
technical lines. For example, majordomo mailing-list software is creating
specific social structures (while excluding others). The internet has the
tendency to strengthen both global and local connections, but seems to
neglect the nation or state level. This will backfire sooner or later.

Today's organizations tend to be rhizomatic. I mean this in a negative
sense. "Mille plateaux" rules. Not by choice but because there are few
other attractive options. If we face the loose connections, the constant
danger of decay, general anxiety over ideological commitment, panic over
internal conspiracies, and the continued disintegration (after short
moments of euphoria) of groups into sub-groups and tribes, we actually
end up in a political climate of various, simultaneous micro cycles. The
fear that others will cash in with your ideas--the fear of being
appropriated--is very destructive. It has damaged common feelings, even
friendships. With ongoing technological changes we should wait until new,
more reliable forms of organization appear. Now we are caught up in a
closed circuit of tiny techno-social experiments.

"Refresh" is a good example. A good idea, but now it is somewhere on the
web, with most of the links out of use. No one seems to be responsible,
nor has any one come up with a follow-up. That is the poverty of
at the end of the nineties.

AG: Are you in fact calling for a *consolidation* within tactical media?
To be honest, I'm surprised that you say this. Is there anything other
than simple pragmatics (i.e. the fact that we have to get things done)
fueling your resistance to these distributed models? Some would say that
old, consolidated forms of resistance have a track record of failure, and
now we must follow the lead of Deleuze and others to find a new politics
based on the "molecular" model of revolution without central
organization. Personally I can testify in support of computers--they let
me do the work of 10! Don't you think that the network as such gives us
new possibilities for action and resistance?

Do you see a trajectory from progressive political theory in the '70s and
'80s, to the real material manifestations of these theories today? I'm
thinking especially of the idea of the rhizome or swarm, its correlate in
nomadic politics, the privileging of the TAZ over revolutionary action,
etc., which now, in the case of the internet, have all found their own
conditions of possibility. Now that we actually have access to real,
non-hierarchical systems do you see the future of resistive politics
changing? It seems that what you lament about "Refresh" is exactly what I

GL: Rhizomatic, molecular models of resistance are not new. I don't say
this to sound discouraging. I would just like to point out a rich and
diverse tradition. There are many histories--labeled these days as
"anarchism" or popular revolts--including invisible, lesser known

And please don't claim that these rhizomatic models are immune to
failure. Rhizomes, at times, can lead us nowhere. Nomadic praxis
specifically mystifies the question of organization and
survival--internal accountability is not its strong point. It cannot deal
with the type of sustainable infrastructures and power politics that
extend beyond the limits of one's own tribe. Today's networks cannot
answer essential questions of economic survival. Hit and run actions,
semiotic guerilla strikes, document theft, creating counter discourses
and cultures--these are just one aspect of a complete movement. It is
dangerous to extend those models to all other spheres of life. In other
words, please do not make a management guru out of Deleuze. The "rhizome
ideology," in my opinion, is to be understood within the French (and
Italian) politics of the '70s. It was a response to the democratic
centralism of the European communists at the time. Its spontaneity is its
strong point, but it cannot answer what comes next when the TAZ dissolves

AG: One final comment on this "rhizome" thread, then I'd like to talk
more about tactical You correctly situate the "rhizome ideology"
in the '70s (and '80s and '90s), and I agree that the theoretical impetus
was born then.

However (as said above) don't you see a trajectory from progressive
political theory in the '70s and '80s, to the real *material*
manifestations of these theories today? My only point about Deleuze (I'm
just using his name for convenience, there are clearly other important
figures) is that he never had access to real, material TAZs (or rhizomes,
or nomadic communities, etc.) that instantiated his theoretical
interventions. To take media venues as an example, I claim that we never
had access to real, wide-spread non-hierarchical systems until now, with
the dawn of radically democratic networked communities. Free radio is
different; your "'anarchism' or popular revolts" were/are different;
moments like May '68 were *very* different.

Yes, this new mode clearly "fails" in the eyes of the dominant order. Yet
*our* failure (our dissolving and reappearing) in their eyes means
something good to us... It means that a new practice is emerging. "What
comes next when the TAZ dissolves itself"? A new TAZ, of course.

Are you suggesting that we shouldn't translate traditional leftist
strategies into the tactical media framework, but rather, translate
tactical media backward into a more traditional leftist strategy?

GL: No, forget these leftist frameworks. I have never been part of that.
In most cases, people do not have the energy anymore to form a new TAZ,
or even to be part of it. The rigid time economy is eating up people's
lives. Perhaps what you are not taking into account is people's real
disillusionment and the pragmatic realities of life. When a TAZ has been
smashed by the authorities, or has dissolved itself because of exhaustion
or internal conflict, only a small percentage of the participants will
continue. They will become the survivors; they will crystallize into a
new group or TAZ. We have described this process in our Adilkno book
"Cracking the Movement"
( The phrase
"disappearing and reappearing" is way too simple, especially in this
harsh, neo-liberal climate.

I am an professional optimist (by nature) and it is my passion to create
strategies for getting new initiatives off the ground. But your analysis
of Deleuze (and his generation) not having experienced an actual TAZ is
an historical misjudgment. This is mainly because you have ignored the
numerous movements, world wide, which started in the late '60s, and have
actually existed since then. This includes the ecology, anti-nuclear, and
women's movements; squats, farms, alternative bookshops and restaurants,
music festivals; sabotage, actions, strikes; and dogmatic splinter groups
and armed guerillas. Current media/art initiatives are tiny compared to
what was going on twenty or so years ago, when the Deleuze & Guattari duo
was active. That is our sad reality at the end of the '90s.

It is true, though, that in today's technological climate a TAZ has the
ability to incorporate activities elsewhere on the planet much faster and
cheaper than in the past. Yet simply having this ability to organize new
forms of resistance does not automatically generate new social movements.
Perhaps in the (very near!) future. I remain optimistic!

AG: I'm an optimist too and I think we are living through a very exciting
time. I think our disagreement stems from the fact that I consider the
"rhizomatic mode" to be historically specific, while you're extending it
to include resistive actions in general (or at least for the past 30
years). We can agree to disagree.

Let's forget about the offline for a moment and get back to our first
topic above: electronic civil disobedience. Do you disagree with the
strategy of the so-called "denial of service" attacks seen in the EDT's
FloodNet actions? If yes, what are other possible network actions that
may emerge in the near future... the new forms of hacktivism?

GL: The US/American establishment is preparing for the Infowar. You can
read this everywhere. Secret services and military research centers have
the wildest fantasies about Muslim hackers, and the damage they can
cause. For me, these are all phantoms, orchestrated illusions put in
place to legitimize the rise (again) of the US military budget during the
late Clinton administration. Let us not fall into their trap. What is
important now is to spread awareness of the fact that we are all under
constant surveillance. Electronic media and networks are endangering
citizen's basic civil rights (above all their right to privacy).

Hacktivism should move into this area, not just temporarily shoot down
enemy servers. We need to be much more careful, flexible, remain under
cover. FloodNet originates from an actual public space lost and gone.
Perhaps it is trying to re-construct the loss in much too easy a way. In
our experience, here in Amsterdam, the digital public sphere is a long
term project, with thousands of people involved. In part, our work is
invisible, and contains many random elements. Activists, by nature, are
hasty. They want to get things done. Yet protection and restructuring of
the public sphere is not a simple problem to solve. So let us come up
with many models and examine which ones work, and which don't. That's
hacktivism for me.
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