Happy Friends met on February 26th.
The significance of “Electronic Civil Disobedience,” the text by Critical Art Ensemble that had been chosen back in January, had somehow shifted over the course of a month that had elapsed rather dramatically throughout the world.
A month before, the most salient resonance with the text in the present had been the ongoing case of Wikileaks.
Written in 1994, the text identified the new horizon of political resistance in the global world had to include, or prioritize, the electronic dimension (albeit with the stipulation that it pertained mostly to the Western, advanced capitalist one). Following a decade or so of economic and technological walls being toppled worldwide and the unfastening of space and time restrictions on the most powerful, characteristic of the flourishing neoliberal era, the democratic means to challenge power had mostly been dissolved. Civil disobedience, once an actual threat to kings and factory foremen, had gradually shifted into a spectacle that could not challenge the authority that was no longer there. If workers rose up in one country, an assembly line could just move somewhere else; if citizens occupied the White House, the head would be revealed as only symbolically tied to the building; the commands would still be received from somewhere in the electronic ether.
Critical Art Ensemble had in their text therefore called for a strategy of “cyber-elites” to use their computer-hacking skills in the still-ambiguous strategical, legal and moral boundaries of the time. These could be quite small groups, and as such CAE linked the idea with the historical concept of the avant-garde. This, they said, was a necessary evil because of the current dominance of the electronic over life in general, and the uneven development of skills required to understand and intervene in it. This has consequences for the ideas of what effects one imagines traditional forms of democratic civil disobedience to carry on. CAE argued that it wouldn’t simply make the traditional obsolete, but that in tactical actions that are only capable through electronic disturbance, the democratic movement should better not get involved. Further to this, CAE admitted that the dynamic involved in electronic disturbance is still that of a gamble; a shift or irritation that could provoke vindictive responses, or the tyranny of a new technocratic class. “The odds are not good,” they say, “but at present, it’s the only game in town.”
Turning to the current situation, would Wikileaks be a contemporary illustration of such a gamble? Could the (only mildly edited) thousands of documents released to the media and the public constitute a vast game of roulette, whereby the transparency of information and its revelations of how power functions or is abused (depending on your own particular interpretation of the various materials), must be weighed against the unintended consequences for innocents and the candidness of diplomacy? These were divided viewpoints in our meeting. Some said that the premise of decentralization was inaccurate, and that in fact the power is still centralized but in a different “space.” Information as such was also regarded with suspicion by several participants, as the means to knowing things without caring about them, without experiencing them firsthand. Especially in China, expressed one reader, where the culture of door-to-door communication and active participation in neighbor’s lives has been replaced by electronic media, of which it was simply exhausting to sort through all the misleading threads in search for some real sense of what is happening, information is alienated from lived experience. One receives news of revolutions in one’s own country from thumbnails transferred from a friend in Norway. Meanwhile we have to work, which is (seems) very real.
Other participants wondered whether trusting neighbors had unsavory precedents in the past, and in China; and whether one could really understand one’s own conditions, hard and concrete as they may be (for instance working every day, while living costs of every sort continue to escalate), without recourse or access to external information. In any case, people shared the belief in the possibilities inherent in daily life, in “the street,” or in “the world,” that open up reality in novel ways that even a successful hacking unit would be unable to do, bound as they are by persistent power narratives. But what is “the street,” “the world”? asked another; how is it different from the space occupied by the consumer, continuing on their merry way?
Irrespective of the debate on the futility of traditional civil disobedience, the past month or so has indeed seen the streets reappear as a site where change happens through democratic movements. Granted, this was facilitated and stoked through a hybrid means that included mass social networking campaigns, and even technologies that bypassed the shutdown of the Internet in order to distribute news of the events. Was this only explainable within the terms of CAE’s article because of the regional and national differences in political systems and economies? Has it been a false sense of reclamation, involving symbolic seizures (occupations of physical space) of a power that has already been absent, that is not actually challenged or troubled by a popular uprising? Have we witnessed gambles that have paid off (Tunisia and Egypt), offset by those that seem far too costly (Libya…), or over-speculated upon (China)?
One participant recounted a Sunday afternoon spent in front of a McDonald’s in Beijing: a swarm of cameras, a column of security subtly adjusting the angle and pitch of the gathering, a few scattered individuals speaking muffled into a crowd of onlookers and their onlookers. Quite ambiguous and incoherent: the participant saw in the “unsuccessful” occurrence a potential more exciting than the other examples we had discussed in the meeting.
It is apparently scheduled to happen every Sunday.