Archive for July, 2010
I am not an internet sceptic. I am excited by the possibilities of the internet; I consume social media; I spend hours every day playing in the surf. I genuinely think we are in the midst of the greatest techno-social revolution since heavy industrialisation. But nor do I ride the waves of internet utopianism.
The latest effusion in internet utopianism is the idea of web 4.0, an amorphous and ethereal mess of ideas around cloud culture, artificial intelligence theory, and the politics of information distribution. I don’t think I understand it. I don’t think it understands itself.
Who Controls the Internet? is still a vital critique of the internet’s political dreamers, exposing the problems with the idea of net-borderlessness, pointing to how economic hegemonies and semiotic power-blocks can hold sway. But what I want to see now is a critique of the materiality of the internet, pointing to how it, like all advanced technologies, is threatened by extreme resource scarcity in this culture of waste.
The internet and its enthusiasts constantly aspire to escape their material trappings — the reality of wires, servers, resource extraction.
But the net can no more be freed from its material underpinnings than could Descartes successfully divorce mind from body.
Nevertheless, philosophers continue to pretend that reason is not embodied, and informational utopias always ignore resource scarcity.
Like any other technology, the possibilities of the internet are shaped by the social and economic conditions of its societies. This is not to say that the internet does not shape politics and economics – there is a cyclical relationship – but State and Capital have awesome power to control things. Technology is never neutral, but neither is it the most powerful agent in the game; the internet does have a certain potential to reshape our societies, but I feel that, at least at the moment, our societies have more potential to shape it.
Readers of the world unite! Seize the means of semiotic production!
If nothing else, we should be tremendously excited about the internet as a platform for performance. ARGonauts must break the barriers of advergames; new media theatre types must see more potential than Such Tweet Sorrow; ChatRoulette can be used for more than comedy. The internet is already a giant playground of freaks, geeks and automatons; let’s play some more interesting games now.
We should feel as though we are in the early days of a new artform. The internet is currently like Los Angeles in 1915; artists and vagrants are migrating there, fleeing punitive licensing and seeking the white heat of competitive creativity. We’re making nonsense that people in a hundred years (or fewer? Does art change at an exponential rate, alongside technology, or is it slowing down?) will only be interested in as historical research, but we’re just starting to produce lasting memories.
But this kind of thinking I find abhorrent. For those too tired or jaded to click on a link, that leads to a video about new ideas for e-readers, trying to find ways of using internet connectivity to enliven ebooks and foster social reading. But the result is to import the attention-deficit gimmickry that characterises the worst of the internet into the book form. I follow the work of the Institute for the Future of the Book quite closely, because I think we need to reimagine the book for this new platform (obv.), but this is a recipe for hyperactive disaster. I read books for a depth of concentrated experience, for an immersive and relaxing linguistic experience, not to gather statistics, or send short messages to friends, or to skittishly skip around sources, or any of the other things internet reading allows. There should be no doubt now that internet reading is reshaping our minds – we form connections faster, think abstractly better, but can’t concentrate as well, and can’t maintain attention for as long, to gloss crudely – and that book-reading shapes us differently. For me, the book, even an e-book, though I love the feel of paper, is an escape from the debauched madness of the internet. Let me keep something.
Found in the Forest Café, Edinburgh, 5/7/10
Don’t get disheartened. In this world of constant competition and greed, it’s pretty easy to go flying off the rails if you don’t stay optimistic. Here’s a few things to remember that might help:
- The world is full of really kind people. They might not seem it on the surface of things, but just talk to them and you’ll see!
- Nothing lasts forever!
- Everyone makes really stupid mistakes!
- You are beautiful in one way or another. Hollywood stereotypes of glamour are hollow and vacuous, they are not true beauty.
I’m sure you can think of plenty others!
Love from a complete and utter random. XXX
A part of me reacts with cynicism at the presumtion the attempt to engineer a FOUND Magazine entry, the riding of the meme wave of pseudo-randomness, the fruitless desire to create spontaneity in a culture of monotony.
But the far greater part of me is warmed, charmed and comforted.
Is there an equivalent of found objects on the internet? Detritus left in caches and site archives, left by accident, or deliberately, in a hidden corner, to delight the iFlaneur?
The Harry Potter Alliance is a US-based charity and campaigning group which takes inspiration from JK Rowling’s books: “Harry and his friends start a student activist group called Dumbledore’s Army when the adults and politicians of their world fail to address the concerns of the day.” When I fund out about them, something bothered me about their mission — and it wasn’t that it seemed a bit cheesy, and it wasn’t anti-pop snobbery. It was that they took inspiration from a guerilla fighting force (albeit a fictional one) that takes violent direct action, and yet HPA’s tactics are the usual liberal rote of petitions, letters, votes and charity. So I wrote them a letter about it.
Dear Harry Potter Alliance,
Well done! You’re doing tremendously well in the Chase Community Giving Challenge, and I think you deserve to be congratulated for the way you’ve used your increased profile to continue to bring awareness to some very important causes. While it’d be easy to be cynical about your mission – and I admit when I first heard of HPA I did smirk a bit! – I think it’s genuinely wonderful that you’re harnessing the power of popular culture and a dedicated fandom to do something important in the world.
But I do want to talk to you about something, which is the way you’re undertaking your mission of creating a real world Dumbledore’s Army. I think you’re right that there’s a useful analogy – that the adults (politicians, parents, journalists, teachers . . . ) of Harry’s world ignore the severity of the crisis they’re facing, just as those running our world are keeping us on a track toward global disaster. But here’s the key thing: Harry and friends don’t raise funds, donate books and videos, sign petitions and register voters. They don’t even hold peaceful protests, act as human shields, create non-violent human blockades. They don’t even stop at theft and property damage in the name of their cause. In fact, what they do is train a guerilla fighting force that can engage in an aggressive covert war. So why don’t you?
The real world equivalent of this would be direct action. Direct action is when we stop asking people to change the world, and undertake it to change it ourselves. It encompasses everything from strikes and sabotage, which seek to cause economic damage as a tool of persuasion; to workplace occupations and thefts, which seek to take control of the means of production and consumption for those exploited by them; to tree-sits and assassinations, which seek to actively prevent destruction and oppression. (You’ll note I’ve used a range of possible actions of different levels of severity and violence; I don’t necessarily approve of them all, but I don’t necessarily disapprove, either. More on this in a bit.) Basically, direct action is everything which isn’t electoral politics, diplomacy and charity, but which seeks to create change.
Direct action is often classed as either violent or non-violent, with property damage occupying a middle ground. Non-violent direct action is what was advocated by Martin Luther King; Rosa Parks’s bus-sit is a good example of a peaceful direct action. Mohandas Gandhi is one of the foremost philosophers of peaceful action (not just protest, but action): Satyagraha is the name of the body of theory and practise he helped develop. To keep examples from struggles against racial oppression, John Brown and Nelson Mandela, for example, waged violent direct actions in their struggles.
Can you imagine what would have happened if the civil rights struggle in America had been waged only by letter-writing and fund-raising? You might think that violence is counter-productive, but surely not the whole non-violent civil resistance revolt which led to the independence of India? And is violence always counter-productive? Would you have opposed the American Civil War, or the Spanish Civil War, or the Second World War? So if states can wage justified violence on each other, and if Harry Potter is justified in fighting organisations and individuals, why aren’t we, autonomous citizens and groups? I don’t mention HP in the same breath as real world wars with any sense of frivolity; I genuinely think it’s amazing that you’ve taken inspiration from a work of fiction to do good in the world. But I want you to follow through on that inspiration: what is it about Harry’s fictional world that makes it so different from our world that you don’t think his tactics are justified in your causes?
Maybe you’ll argue that you want to bring as many people on board as possible, that you want to harness that power of mass culture, that you’re frightened that this kind of militancy, even a non-violent militancy, might alienate people. I have two responses: the first is, did Harry Potter seek to gain a majority of public support, or did he seek to fight his war with a small core of loyal followers? I know HP is a work of fiction, but it’s worth considering why you accept vanguard tactics in fiction and not in reality. And the second point is: maybe a popular movement like yours is exactly what’s needed to really encourage people to engage in mass direct action. Imagine what would happen if Harry Potter fans across the world started occupying threatened forests, barricading corporate headquarters, assassinating murderous politicians! (Again, I don’t see all these actions as equal, or as equally valid, but I do raise them for discussion.)
Maybe you’ll argue that Harry Potter faced a different sort of problem, a different scale of problem. Well, I have some sympathy here. With issues of violence and non-violence, I agree with author Derrick Jensen, who in his inspiring and frightening book Endgame argues that we have to see these decisions as contingent, relative to a situation. He refuses to utterly proscribe violence, or to say it’s always justified (or useful), but he does suggest that we should consider it as a potentially justified tactic. (Remember: why should states wage wars, but not individuals?) And violence aside, non-violent direct action also has to be seen as contingent on circumstances: Gandhi was part of a culture in which he was able to organise mass armies of non-violent resisters, and maybe you aren’t.
But. What scale of a problem are we facing? We live in a world of ever-increasing inequality, in which 1% of the people own 40% of the wealth, the bottom half of the population only have 1% of the wealth, and half of humanity lives on less than £2.50 a day. In which runaway climate change threatens the planet, with the world’s scientists concluding with an extraordinary degree of consensus, that temperatures and sea levels are rising in a way that will cause death and destruction for millions of humans and other species. In which, as you well know, genocide is still rampant. In which millions upon millions of hectares of forest are destroyed every year, and in which we as a species have caused one of the largest mass extinctions in the planet’s history. Need I go on?
I think the question should instead become: how bad do things have to get before you reach the conclusion that we must fight back? I think the question should instead become whether or not we’re being disgustingly irresponsible by salving our consciences with petitions and protests, instead of taking arms together. I think the question should instead be: those in power have already declared war on the world and its people, so why aren’t we, the other side, fighting back?
Just imagine if Harry had attempted to stop Lord Voldemort by gathering petition signatures and delivering them to the Ministry of Magic! – instead, he saw the urgency of the situation and took matters directly into his own hands; he recognised that adults weren’t doing enough or accepting the severity of the crisis, and so took direct action to solve the crisis himself.
I don’t mean to attack you. I do admire you. And I hope you don’t mind that I’ve posted this publicly. I’m writing not to poke fun at you or to condemn you, but to try and understand why committed moral individuals don’t see the scale of the problem and the necessary solutions. And I include myself in that, because I believe myself that I do far too many protests and petitions are far too few strikes, sabotages and occupations. I’d very much like it if you found the time to reply and helped us to reach an understanding together.
Yours in struggle,