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From: Ryan Griffis <grifray {AT} yahoo.com>
Subject: Gift(wrap)ing New Media
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this is a draft for a text that's part of a larger
project ( http://www.artofficial-online.com/contextin
). it's kinda long, and probably not the most clear,
but i'm trying to apply some of Rosalyn Deutsche's
arguments about spatial politics to "New Media" and
"Gift Economics." any response would be welcome.
thanks + take care,

Gift(wrap)ing New Media (in an Authentic Chilkat

"The Internet is actually a social condition where
everyone in the network society is 
connected directly, without intermediation, to
everyone else."
Eben Moglen
"Totalitarianism ruins democracy by attempting to fill
the void created by democratic 
revolution and banish the indeterminacy of the
Rosalyn Deutsche  

	A lot has been written in recent years about the
"Gift Economy" operating 
within the confines of networked art and culture. This
economy of information and ideas works in contrast to
the monolithic economy of financial capital, or so it
is said by many of its proponents. The electrified art
world has seen the rise (and some say the decline) of
large-scale projects based on cultural capital trading
like Rhizome.org, the Nettime lists, and various
components of international festivals and conferences.
There are counterparts in the business sector, in the
proliferation of open-source products and services
like Linux and the late Napster, and links to the
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tradition of punk, indy and craft
cultures as well as the politico-philosophy of
	Critiques of the "cyberlibertarianism" of the
high-tech industry have spelled out the paradox that
is the dominant ideology of the Wired world.   The
desire for "free markets" from the neo-liberal,
high-tech sector has been criticized for taking from
commons, but not giving back. In tandem with this
"cyberselfishness," some camps put forward theories of
anarchy and information as a naturally open system.
Unlike the traditional libertarians, who believe in
traditional methods for keeping the market "free" and 
"competitive," proponents of open-source movements
prophesize the (natural) death of copyright law. The
restriction of information through legislative methods
is an anachronism that stands in the way of the
natural, unimpeded flow of technical progress.
	This brings me to the use of the opening quotes
above, neither of which are actually all that recent
(in Net years anyway). At first glance, I don't think
there's much of a relationship between them,
oppositional or complementary. However, there's been 
something about the utopic/dystopic/cynical debates on
"New Media" that has kept me going back to Deutsche's
critical analysis of re-masculinizing, totalitarian
calls for a unified "Public Space." Her critique of
the depoliticized rhetoric of the public sphere, and
slippages in representation, seems to offer some
insight into our current debates over electronic
"space." While Moglen's, and others', utopian belief
in anarchy and the direct democracy offered by
Networked culture would seem to suggest a belief in 
heterogeneous and decentered politics, Deutsche warns
us to be skeptical of utopianism, especially when it
seems to have solutions for the "problems of
democracy." As Deutsche's "Agoraphobia" argues, claims
of solutions to social and political instability - 
whether of the nostalgic or futuristic kind - often
have authoritarianism as models, that is, the desire
to eliminate conflict. Well-intentioned Great
Societies should, by now, generate some apprehension,
especially when technology is claimed as their New
	"...if you start from the facts the facts are always
on your side. It turns out that treating software as
property makes bad software." (Moglen)
A major tenet of this techno-anarchist philosophy
(which is by no mean monolithic) is that copyright law
is not just wrong because it controls access to
information, but also because the results of
practicing the law result in naturally inferior
products. If more people have access to the means of
production for software, then more flaws will be
designed out and 
the software will be adapted to more individuals. A
basic bottom-up design structure, 
designed as evolution, no?
	This all sounds very good, and even sensible, but how
does the "infowar" between the cyberlibertarians,
technoanarchists, and old-school managers get played
out? And what, exactly, is a qualitative statement
like "bad software" to mean when many don't see making
money from work as "bad." Outside of the debates over
digital information distribution, another group of
activists has aligned themselves with some notion of
anarchist philosophy in their resistance to the
neo-liberal economic order. Seeing themselves in
direct combat with consumerism and corporate
conglomeration, they wage battle on a local level,
with their eyes on its global, historical
significance. In the turn of the millennium street
protests in the US, Genoa, Prague, etc., a relatively
small group of self-
described (and press-labeled) anarchists decided that
marching was not enough. Breaking windows, spray
painting, and other tactics were used, the most
publicized US incident being their minor part in the
1999 WTO event in Seattle. This form of property
destruction served two purposes for participants: the
literal and symbolic breaking of the sanctity of 
property; and the infliction of real monetary damage
to the corporate infrastructure - hitting them "where
it hurts... the wallet." 
	My problem with the so-called anarchists' acts of
property destruction is theoretical, as well as
pragmatic. Aside from the obvious arguments made by
many of the "peaceful" civil disobedients that
property destruction resulted in the state coming down

harder (literally) on other protesters, the
theoretical understanding of their actions reveals
other significant issues. The tactics of direct action
and property destruction in the US, goes back at least
to the work of groups like Earth First!, Greenpeace,
the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation
Front, as well as the direct action panhandling of the
American Anarchists of the Haymarket era. These groups
practice(d) direct interventions, like road blocking,
tree spiking, breaking and entering, destroying GMO
test fields, and general monkey wrenching, that are
designed to directly interfere with corporate activity
they disagree with, and in the mean time, and slowing
down the machine enough to open public dialogue about
those activities through media exposure. Those that
attack property as part of street demonstrations on
the other hand, claim that their actions will force
corporate behavior to change through threats of
further financial damages.
	What is dangerously absent from their analysis of
such actions is an understanding of the contexts in
which they exist. Any amount of damage that can be 
inflicted on any number of Gap, Starbucks, or
McDonalds stores is little more than damage to the
surface of an economic and cultural superstructure.
While potentially successful as symbolic actions
(breaking the "spell" of bystanders) the benefits may
actually be minimal 
compared to the negative consequences. In other words,
forcing the corporate state to show its authoritarian
face can only be good if it will be rejected by the
mainstream, which requires (at least) sympathetic
media coverage - hardly something that can be counted
for any demonstration against capital.  In the
meantime, workers and the state subsidize the costs
incurred by street-level destruction. Corporations
will get financial incentives to reestablish more
secure, developed retail districts and the state will
more rigorously enforce property protection, much like
what has happened to post 1992 LA. 
"...the most significant difference between political
thought inside the digerati and outside it is that in
the networked society, anarchism is a viable political

What does a "viable political philosophy" mean when it
is dependent on the acceptance of a technological
superstructure that, for most, cannot be separated
from the dominant economic infrastructure? And how
viable is a politic that is confined to a
technological dream 
state that is not, nor can be, universally enjoyed?
Such dualisms ignore the complexity of relationships
between different ideologies and populations to
If you're not part of their solution, where are you?
Where are the "un-plugged" (to steal Ars Electronica's
last theme) and the welfare recipient in these
"alternative" plans for the "cooperative and
ecological societies of the future"?  As capital
cannibalizes itself, an economic Call to Order can be
heard in the gasps of "pull media" as it's suffocated
by mega-mergers. And while "information wants to be
free," not many are finding the same to be true of
food and rent. 

"Subjective freedom, autonomy of conscience and the
empowerment of individual will is matched to an
inverse degree by economic and social dependence. This
dependence is only partly a result of the atomization
of artists... Its greater part lies not in relations
distribution but in the mechanisms of the system of
belief which produce the value of works of art, and
affirm the legitimacy of our activity."
Andrea Fraser  

As Fraser pointed out almost 10 years ago, we
(cultural producers) may want to start considering
some of the problems faced in the navigation of
technology and culture as more than ones of
distribution. The recent Verio plug-pull of NY based
service provider the Thing 
because of nothing more than a DMCA threat by a large
transnational corporation, should illustrate the
weakness of the technological Net that supports the
free sharing of critical cultural capital.  "ICTs do
not lend themselves to be hired for shared speculation
on democracy without steep interests attached and
monthly payments in hard, cold cash." 
One of the major tenets of gift economics is that the
winners are those with the most to give away. It
shouldn't take too much to see some of the practical
problems of interpreting this as emanicipatory for
anything but capital, or even as a more egalitarian
form of cultural distribution. The ideology of gift
economics has often been couched in ethnographic and 
humanistic sentiment that stakes its claims in
apolitical and scientistic ethics. The reference 
made by many to the Potlatch ceremonies of the US
Pacific Northwest cultures as somehow proof of another
form of wealth distribution is telling. Rarely do such
arguments attach a political economy to either the NW
cultures, or to the desire to find a universal 
referent for our current situation. While it may be
useful to point to specific models, it is dangerously
authoritarian and utopian to assert the immanence of
any cultural system. 
Libertarian and anarchist theologies both lay claim to
innate human tendencies, then cry fowl when someone
else with more power acts contrary to the pattern. The
Fittest apparently don't care for theory, whether
political or evolutionary.

"The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion
has it for government, because the more does it
regulate its own affairs, and govern itself..."
(Thomas Paine, quoted in Barbrook)

Many of those benefiting from high tech gift economies
have become tiresome of critics who point out the
"dark side" of the Net. Dystopic rants on
surveillance, privacy, conformity, homogeneity, and
more have been dismissed as unfounded by many. And the
divide" argument serves as both a conservative and
neoliberal tool for diverting attention from the
structural problems of social and economic inequity by
insisting that the problem is merely access to
technology. The digital panopticon is said to be
antithetical to the current direction of media
history, a relic of Cold War fantasies of "Big
Brother." According to those making these arguments,
"almost everybody prefers the bottom-up Net over this
down version," and "even neo-liberals are realising
that the trading of physical commodities is much
easier outside the digital panopticon."  Are we to
gather from these statements that AOL really
represents a "bottom-up" approach, or that the "almost
everyone" in 
question is really a more selective group than it
sounds. An understanding of the panopticon that
positions it in opposition to the interests of "free
trade" would seem to be missing some of the
significance of the development of capital as an
evolving system. 
Clinging to a long anachronistic, but still
rhetorically functioning State vs. private property 
dichotomy, these arguments gloss over the fact that
neo-liberalism is the ideology behind the WTO, FTAA,
EU, WBCSD - organizations designed to overcome the
boundaries of nation states, and hence obligations to
the welfare of their governed people. It is not the 
State that sits in opposition to free trade, it's
people. Those that think governments are the 
sole beneficiaries of the panopticon must not be
paying attention to where most surveillance and data
collection occurs, namely commerce. It is also
important to restate one of the crucial components of
the panopticon theory, that of "self-governance."
Barbrook's use of Paine's words suggests a more
anarcho-utopian philosophy, the social goals of the
panopticon are self-regulation and internalized
control Ė thatís what makes the unmanned tower more
efficient. Ironically, a Dow representative once said,
"People do 
things more effectively when they want to as opposed
to being coerced to do them." 

This reevaluation of privacy and surveillance has its
avant-garde cultural arm as well.
0100101110101101.ORG, a net.org collective has applied
some of the concepts of the Gnu General Public License
to their works of art. Their project "life_sharing" -
based on the 
activity of file sharing between computer units -
opens up the contents of their computer to the
Internet, via a Web interface, The collective
maintains that the entire contents of the computer in
question will be available for perusal and
downloading. They position the work as an exercise in
self-portraiture, with larger and universal
implications. As they say, "...a 
computer...ends up looking like its owner's brain. If
you accept the assumption...you will also assume that
sharing your computer entails way more than sharing a
desktop or a book, something we might call
This human-computer personality complex is derived
from a universalization of the human condition as mere
information. With obvious connections to genetic
sciences and the (attempted) complete quantification
of experience, 0100101110101101.ORG's project
represents data as transcendent and self-sustaining,
as life itself. Ironically, it is similar analogies
that are being used by the corporate state to regulate
civic activity online. As hearings on "cyberterrorism"
and "cyberprotests" make clear, the rhetoric against
electronic civil disobedience relies on the ability to
equate computer crimes with acts of violent 
terrorism against human bodies.
Along with the project's linking of life and art, as
commodified lifestyle, there is also an attack 
on conventional privacy. Josephine Berry wrote of
"In a more overtly political sense, the project
identifies the attempt to ring-fence and protect 
information as both a futile exercise and a fearful
capitulation to the myth of individual 
Maybe the collective says it more clearly, " The idea
of privacy itself is obsolete."  Not wanting to seem
like a total surrender, these claims are buffered by
claims that the saturation of data prevents any
wholesale mining and utilization of personal
information anyway. I know such grand standing is
aimed at technocrats and the "digerati," but the 
decontextualization of issues like privacy are
troubling nonetheless. The people I know that work in
social services would argue that many of the people
they work with have already given up any claims to
privacy through violently intrusive interrogations and
constant surveillance. Their identity is already
intricately linked to data networks, and they're
acutely aware of it - it's not hidden from them.
Against this total digitization of life, The Institute
for Applied Autonomy's "iSee" project identifies many
groups (which seem to cover just about everyone) that
may be concerned about surveillance, and ways to avoid
the constant collection of data, if only for a moment.
 Certainly, the ideology of isolated individualism,
the public/private dichotomy, and the openness of
information are areas much in need of further
critique, but such discourse should be aware of
differences in privilege. For many, privacy has long
been (made) obsolete.
A notion of a gift economy, whether functional or
symbolic, has been a part of art world discussions
beyond the Net. In a review for the Nation, Arthur
Danto claimed the emergence of a new generosity in
contemporary art that could be seen in the last
Biennial.  Looking at the work of certain included
artists, Danto chose to see a new humanism and
spirituality being celebrated. Consider his
interpretation of William Pope.L's five-year crawl up
NYC's Broadway as having "the aura of certain ritual
enactments that require worshipers to climb some
sacred stairway on their knees." What Danto sees in
work is a kind of martyr-like redistribution of
spiritual wealth. Mundane acts of caring service 
elevated to the level of avant-garde art with recent
roots in Felix Gonzales Torres and Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Geert Lovink points out that online content providers
now find themselves in a situation of mandated
"sharing." Getting paid is often not an option. But,
here, as in the development of free software, cultural
content is provided by those that can afford it. The
problem, or rather my problem, is that this "gift
economy" that exists in a fairly contained portion of
a capital-based infrastructure is being rhetorically
universalized. While I would usually respond, "What's
wrong with a universalized gift economy?", it seems
that this gift economy, though beneficial to many
areas of independent research, production, and
distribution, can also become a tool for
marginalization and even suffocation of independent
cultural forms. Ofcourse, independent culture doesn't
require much funding for a local scale, but when that
culture is technologically dependent and at the mercy
of a larger infrastructure, it can be a fragile thing.
If one makes the small analogical leap from
information trading to many of the activities
supported by non-profits and state-run agencies, in
terms of gift economics, it doesn't look so good. That
is in fact what Bush's volunteer and faith-based
initiatives, given steam post 9/11, are meant to do .
And while such programs offer much needed services to
those in 
need, their sustainability (at least democratically
speaking) is another matter. This is capitalism
working at its best: the social costs of profit are
visibly marginalized and largely paid for by those
that can least afford it. And as many (though probably
not enough) have pointed out, even the information
economy rides on the fleshy backs of labor that
mostly invisible in the flowing data streams. 
All of this I'm saying must be taken with a grain of
salt, as I'm a benefactor of much of what's traded in
the gift e-conomy. My participation in online
organizations like Rhizome.org has been extremely
rewarding. I didn't flinch before pitching in my
(whopping) 50 bucks when I heard they were in
financial trouble, before the membership fee was
mandated. Yet, 
this was firstly dependent on my perception that such
activity would be personally and professionally
beneficial to me, and secondly, on my current
financial security. When theorizing of gift economics,
maybe we should run the theories through an
translator (the Bureau of Inverse Technology may have
something for this already )- something that reminds
us that we create and recreate the systems that govern
everyday. The desire for technological progress to be
evolutionary is blind utopianism at best and violently
authoritarian at worst. To be sure, I don't want to
criticize the practice of a gift economy, per se, but
rather the belief that such an economic system exists
apart from the necessities of expanding capital, with
all its contradictions. One question I pose to 
myself is how to deal with the agoraphobia brought on
by the "public spaces" of New Media, while hoping at
the same time that the space for conflict grows, as
history gives us reasons to fear the space that seems
free from struggle.
1. Moglen, Eben, "Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software
and the Death of Copyright," First 
2. Deutsche, Rosalyn, "Agoraphobia," Evictions, MIT
Press, 1996.
3. See Lovink, Geert Dark Fiber, MIT Press, 2002;
Borsook, Paulina, "Cyberselfish," PublicAffairs, 
4. I certainly donít mean to speak for all those
involved, as Iím sure some participants have their 
own rational, however, Iím making generalizations
based on interviews and statements by 
outspoken participants and supporters. See the videos
"Breaking the Spell," Pickaxe Productions 
and "This is What Democracy Looks Like," Big Noise
5. Critical Art Ensemble, in Electronic Civil
Disobedience, has written about the problems for 
symbolic acts of civil disobedience that take on the
force of authorities directly and publicly. The 
post 9/11 political climate makes the seeming
successes of Seattle and even the current anti-war 
efforts seem flimsy.
6. Mike Davisís Ecology of Fear, (Vintage, 1998)
recounts the reaction to the LA riots of 1992 by 
the state and commercial interests Ė retail subsidies
for relocation and more privatized security, the 
fortification of downtown, rigorous zoning, and
pulling money out of the areas most in need of 
infrastructural development.
7. Moglen, Eben, "Anarchism Triumphant".
8. As some Cyberfeminists, like subRosa and The Old
Boys Network, point out (and work to overcome), 
the old gender bending spaces of the Net have remained
fairly masculine and Anglo-centric.
9. Barbrook, "The Regulation of Liberty: Free Speech,
Free-Trade, Free Gifts on the Net", 
www.nmk.co.uk. While many are fighting oppression
using electronic means, social worker friends 
tell me that many more are numbers in vast databases
that decide whether they get into a section 8 
house or not.
10. Fraser, Andrea, "How to Provide an Artistic
Service: An Introduction" 1994
11. www.theyesmen.org/dow.
12. Flagan, Are, "The RGB Rainbow,"
13. Barbrook, "The Regulation of Liberty".
14. Tom Smolarek, Global Director for Environmental
Health and Safety Operations, Dow Chemical 
Co., from www.dow.com, 1999.
15. Berry, Josephine, "Bare Code: Net Art and the Free
Software Movement".
16. artistsí statement, 0100101110101101.org.
17. "iSee," appliedautonomy.com.
18. Danto, Arthur, "The Show They Love to Hate," The
Nation, 4.29.02.
19. see: usinfo.state.gov/usa/volunteer ; 
19. The work of the SiliconValley Toxics Coalition
(www.svtc.org) is just one group working for 
environmental justice in the US. Prema Murthyís
"Mythic Hybrid" is also interesting in its cross 
referencing of new media theory and current realities
for high tech women workers of India.
20. www.bureauit.org.

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