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<nettime> Reverse Engineering Freedom and make world paper#3
florian schneider on Tue, 23 Sep 2003 22:52:47 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Reverse Engineering Freedom and make world paper#3


hi!

here is a text geert and me were writing in the last few weeks as the
third part of a series which started with "New Rules for the New
Actonomy" <http://www.kein.org/actonomy> and "A Virtual World is
Possible" <http://www.makeworlds.org/?q=node/view/22>

the new text has been published in makeworlds paper#3 which appeared
on september 11, 2003, and is distributed for free in 5,000 copies.
paper#3 is geared towards the world summit on the information society
in geneva, in december 2003.

you can order paper#3 (freight forward) by sending a message to
<mailto:shipping {AT} kein.org> all texts as well as a pdf-version are
available online: http://www.makeworlds.org

there you will find also the two earlier issues of the make-world
paper which have been published during the make-world festival 2001
and the european social forum 2002,  as well as the text and
video-archive of the festival.

cheers,
florian

---

REVERSE ENGINEERING FREEDOM

by Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider

During a noborder camp in a small town in Romania a young guy passes
by. He works for a corporation that manufactures hardware for
brand-name electronics companies near the border to Hungary and Serbia.
He tells the story of an unsuccessful attempt to unionise the workers of
this factory. About 3500 Romanians are employed there for a wage of
eight dollars for a twelve hour working day. Their dispute was not
about salary. The workers’ discontent grew out of despair – how were
they to overcome the powerless position they were in as an outsourced
post-industrial reserve army, fully exposed to the fluctuations of
just-in-time production while forced to be graceful for the privilege
of having a job in the first place? His story ended as it happens
every day around the globe. Snared within the boundaries of the local,
the struggle of the Romanian workers didn’t have a chance to be
recognized. Irrespective of whether the free lunch includes desert, a
few extra dollars are thrown into the pay cheque, or health insurance
is part of the salary package, management will not hesitate to fire
all those who start a union within the factory. It’s a vicious circle.
Every attempt to self-organize leads to nothing but an affirmation of
and increase in the power of a corporation that operates globally and
constantly blackmails workers in Romania, Scotland or Singapore with
threats to close down the factory site and move production to China or
Mexico.

Such powerlessness is no matter of quantity: even the biggest union of
the world, the German Metal Workers, failed in their half-hearted
attempt to finally achieve equal wages in East and West Germany,
almost 14 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Their strike in
summer 2003 turned out to be the greatest disaster in union history
after World War II – and the reasons are not all that different from
the situation in Romania. The post-Fordist organization of labour
fragments workers in a way never seen before. The results come into
effect at the level of subjectivity: The classical values of
collectivism and solidarity turn out to be incredibly weak and
practically useless as soon as a struggle leaves its
one-dimensionality and enters the realm of distributed power within
networks around the world.

Nonetheless, the power of workers in the global factories is
potentially unlimited. Their mind-blowing virtual strength comes as no
surprise. The Net still holds the capacity to articulate differently
situated actors; in doing so, new socio-technical formations
accumulate with unforeseen political force. Call this globalization
from below, if you like. One could easily imagine how campaigns of
culture jamming and image-pollution could support a tiny, anonymous
wildcat strike in a maquiladora factory like the one in Romania.
Precisely because of the dependency of global markets on just-in-time
production, any deliberate and well-aligned refusal is very likely to
create a considerable material threat. Activist campaign  – from
McLibel to Deportation Class, from Toywar to The Yesmen – have
demonstrated how immaterial protest can short-circuit the incalculable
and immeasurable layers of creative refusal in the most effective and
cost-efficient way. A wide range of different conceptual technics are
now ready to be further implemented, translated and abstracted in a
variety of other contexts. What we now need to figure out is how to
bypass the Cultural Divide without reducing or underestimating the
complex antagonisms and incommensurabilities that define the plurality
of cultures. In the age of networks, how can concepts transform and
pop up in other social contexts?

The Strategy of Questions

What is to be done in order to realize our potential, to liberate net
activism from the art ghetto in which it was suspended during the
nineties? What is to be done in order to overcome social boundaries
and explore the power of the immaterial workers of the world, to
render more precisely the new forms of subjectivity and connectivity
that might constitute the next generation of global struggles?
Hacktivist and net.art techniques can travel a long way. Why not use
and reuse concepts that have been successfully implemented in one
context and integrate them into other contexts? Such operations are,
after all, ones of translation and transformation rather than
reproduction of the same. We’ve transcended the impasse of
postmodernist identity politics and academe’s game of culture wars,
and can freely debate our political directions without the fear of a
return to party doctrines. The current multiplicity of struggles,
models and forms of organizations makes it possible and even necessary
to repose a question, that has been taboo for a little while: What is
to be done? There is one main difference to the old-style Leninist
attitude. It will most likely generate no answer, only more questions.

What is to be done in order to envision a notion of the global that is
not a synonym for the unavoidability of continuous pauperisation? Why
not invent a conceptual technics of the global as a social potential,
as the experience of enormous creativity of the multiplicity and
diversity of all creative and productive practices? How can we leave
the realm of the hypothetical and purely speculative and mobilize
concepts into the ordinary everyday, yet resist a demise into
banality? How do concepts leave the safe environment of art and
activism and enter the realm of the popular? Is commercialisation of
the avant-garde the only route open for a broader distribution of
political concepts? In short: how do political and cultural concepts
travel in a post-1989, post-911 world that is so deeply networked and
so profoundly mediated? How do movements scale up and metamorphose
into something much more powerful and imaginative?

We do not believe this is just an issue of branding and marketing,
backed up by sufficient financial resources. That would be the answer
of tired transnational NGO bureaucrats. There is something else going
on that taps into the desire and discontents of millions. This makes
the question what is to be done? even more open. There is no urgency
to make ‘decisions.’ We do not need to make up a crisis – there is
already plenty of it around. The end of history vanished long before
September 11th, 2001. The creeping recession of the old powers and the
new markets revealed new forms of political subjectivity that
culminated in one slogan: “Another world is possible.” Many fear this
slogan remains an empty phrase. For us that’s not a given deal. Beyond
the old fashioned dialectics of revolution and reform, radicalism and
opportunism, there is not only one alternative, but numerous (network)
architectures to be invented – and probed.

Who dares to have the courage to write “we,” provoking everyone by
stating that there is something like a global strategy, a common
debate of initiatives, movements and multitudes? The general
intellect, the connected intelligence, the roaming intelligentsia that
travels from one tribe to the next can only be fragrant lie.
Deconstruction of general claims is an easy job. Yet we are so
flagrant to believe that people can have certain strategies in common
and debate them. We have to look at the next generation of networking,
which will be based on a culture of mutual exchange and syndication,
not just pointing and linking – no matter how material or immaterial,
real or virtual.

Beyond the Hyperlink

The hyperlink was once an adequate metaphor for a primitive version of
global networking based purely on its potential. With its spamming,
the dissemination of digital porn and open publishing, its
hacker-culture and corporate firewalls, free software and the new
economy, open access and wireless mobility, the Internet built and
configured a fin de sičcle that was stamped by all sorts of artificial
euphoria and enthusiasm. Nineties networking was a culture of no
commitment, spontaneous adventures and loose appointments; it was
liberating from crusty bureaucracies and we liked it a lot. Net
culture offered unexpected advantages in the fight against the ancient
brood of corporate power and we succeeded many times; it gave a first
taste of a new freedom, but we are no longer satisfied with it.

Critical Internet culture is ready for its next stage. The Net is no
longer a parallel universe; it’s the global condition – the world we
live in. After the loose ties of Usenet, lists and blogs it is now
important to investigate how we can design tighter bonds of
collaboration. As casual drug users we know: one would have to
increase the application rate in order to repeat the ‘rush’ of the
new. But that’s too banal and cheap for us. Stop complaining about the
decline of new media. That perhaps already happened in 1998. Let’s
dream up something else. It is important to ‘materialize’ net culture
without making the same mistakes as the NGOs of the 80s and 90s. We
don’t need consolidation but dissemination and transformation. Let’s
jump to another level and take all these experimental ideas about
interactive communication, interface culture and hypertext with us.
Rather than a renaissance of what we have already experienced, we will
start searching for radically new models of connectivity that indicate
a forthcoming revolution. A revolution in the truest sense of the
word.

Commonly, a revolution means the beginning of something very new,
something that has never been there before. And that’s what fuels the
desire. But in its literal and even original notion the term
revolution refers to a political activity that has nothing else in
mind than the restoration of some allegedly old-fashioned rights and
freedoms that were guaranteed once upon the time. It is precisely such
contrariness that characterizes the current situation. The revolution
of our age should come as no surprise. It has been announced for a
long time. It is anticipated in the advantage of the open source idea
over archaic terms of property. It is based on the steady decline of
the traditional client-server architecture and the phenomenal rise of
peer-to-peer-technologies. It is practised already on a daily basis:
the overwhelming success of open standards, free software and
file-sharing tools shows a glimpse of the triumph of a code that will
transform knowledge-production into a world-writable mode. Today
revolution means the wikification of the world; it means creating many
different versions of worlds, which everyone can read, write, edit and
execute. This revolution is very different from the depressing
indictment that, historically, revolutions simply reinstated that
which they sought to overthrow. Today’s revolution is not one of
expulsion followed by reincorporation; it is one of invention,
transformation and connection. No one has any hope of capturing the
emergent info-political formations; there’s too many of them.

On a theoretical level this revolution has been discussed in many
books and lectured on at many universities. Abstract knowledge and the
general intellect are replacing parcelized and repetitive labour, the
industrial division of labour and notions of ownership. The key
content of production and wealth accumulation is no longer the
exploitation of human labour: it must be allocated to the development
of the social networker. The cyberpunk phrase, “the future is now,”
has come true. Planet earth has reached a stage of science fiction. We
will not get distracted by Hollywood blockbusters where technology is
a spectacle that refracts from ‘real life.’ It is time to transcend
media (theory) and face the fact that technology (in)forms the lives
of billions. On a conceptual level the tangible assets of an oddly
bashful digital commune appear as the logical, quasi-natural
consequence of technological progress. Even though this commune
consists of much more than just propagandistic values, its full impact
remains unfeasible under the despotic rule of an info-empire that
seems to act without even the simulation of being capable of solving
any of the problems of its own creation other than on the symbolic
level of occasional interventionism.

Open Source Imagination

‘New media’ are only one amongst many struggles. Having said that,
today’s network technology may as well be described as a rich metaphor
machine, whose concepts penetrate a wide diversity of political,
economic and cultural aspects of life. For decades the democratisation
of media has been announced. But nothing seemed to happen. Instead,
the babyboom generation has been whingeing for decades about evil
media conglomerates, portraying ordinary people as victims of media
manipulation. It is about time to crack down on this passive,
politically correct view and radically focus on networked empowerment.
We are the media.

Technological innovation came along with new regimes that restricted
the use of media and rebound their liberating potential to ever more
advanced systems of command and control. Technological change has
always been accompanied with great enthusiasm and new aesthetical
paradigms that in the last instance reinvented the wheels to carry
forward the same old industries. Nonetheless, we were amongst these
enthusiasts. We are not so naive to believe that the ‘media question’
might be a matter of technology or aesthetics. It’s a matter of power.
Still, the passion is there, time and again, to stretch the
possibilities of software, experiment with new forms of narrative and
dream up even better feedback loops for the users-producers. As
post-situationists we well know that reality has been transformed into
images. It was this reduction and abstraction, carried out by artistic
avant-gardes, that finally destroyed the relation of an image with its
authenticity, the relation of a cliché with its archetype, the
relation of the signifier with its referent. Nonetheless our
fascination with screen culture remains as strong as it ever was. If
we want the media universe to proliferate, we have to push the
question of intellectual property as far as it can go. To whom do all
these images belong? To the one who is mapped or to the one who
produced them? To those who draw copies from it or to everyone? New
films, radio stations and code produce new degrees of freedom. They do
so by reassessing the mediatic heritage of previous generations;
broadcasting the general intellect; empowering collective story
telling; fast sharing of content, skills and resources; and enabling
multiple connections between creative nodes and networks. Discipline
is not the answer – neither to the corruption of the entertainment
industry nor to the endless ennui of bourgeois individualism.
Discontent in pop culture is on the rise. There is only so much you
can consume; boredom in shopping malls, on the streets, in classrooms
and factories is becoming endemic. We don’t believe in the postmodern
‘death of the author’ or the techno-libertarian ‘giving-it-all-away
for free.’ Still, there is a significant deprivation in the
reappropriation of image production and distribution by the digital
multitudes. The phrase ‘people have to somehow make a living’ is a
truism going nowhere. The drive towards digitisation and free
replication is simply too powerful. Politically it is of strategic
importance that the movements back this idea and openly defend and
practice piracy. The idea of a ‘fair’ intellectual property regime is
an illusion. The luring idea of protectionism has to be exposed as a
perfidious fraud. Narrow-minded authors and hysteric owners who claim
to protect their property against free flows and mutual exchange are
nothing but hypocrites. It reminds one of unionists who once pretended
to protect employment but in fact long ago lost face with their
position against ‘illegal immigrants’ by defaming them as ‘wage
dumpers.’

Celebrate Freedom

All too often we have encountered a ‘fear of freedom’ amongst radical
activists. There is a deep desire to call for regulation and control
that, in the past, the nation-state and its repressive apparatus had
to enforce upon the out-of-control capitalism. As true
techno-libertarians we have to state: the struggle is about nothing
else other than freedom (Everyone is a Californian). There is a
freedom of sharing, exchanging, multiplying and distributing
resources, no matter how material or immaterial. So far, freedom has
always been connected with equality, and therefore tied up with the
possession of or alienation from property. Today this link is broken.
It is exactly the complete farce of all sorts of management scenarios
(from border management to digital rights management) which make
evident that property is an absolutely inadequate juridico-political
relation to handle the potential and the complexity of social
relationships within the immaterial sphere of production and
distribution. It is an essential and unalterable fact that ideas
circulate online and people are free to move around offline. Content
should not be restricted to the Internet or any one medium for that
matter. For its own sake the multitudes will refuse to be handcuffed
and fettered by the myths of a nation-state or some global government.

Freedom of movement means liberation par excellence: the emancipation
from the forces that hinder one to decide for oneself where to go and
where to stay. It is the power of negation and self-valorisation:
everywhere is better than just here. Freedom of movement gives the
guarantee that one can leave one’s place behind. We are no longer
slaves of territory. Freedom of communication is the freedom par
excellence: The autonomy of the social networkers to produce and to
distribute the products of their living labour from peer to peer. Free
communication is not only one of the most precious human rights, it is
also the only one absolutely inalienable freedom. All obedience and
command that undermines the possibility of collaborative, distributed
knowledge is null and void. Theoretically as well as practically we
insist on blending the autonomy of migration and communication.
Universal citizenship and universal access are subjects of a new
circle of struggles for freedom that may sound old-fashioned in the
first instance, but certainly will shape the future of the digital
multitudes.

The Source Code of the Revolution

Reverse engineering consists of taking apart an object to see how it
works in order to duplicate or enhance the object. It is a practice
taken from older industries that is now frequently used on computer
hardware and software. In the automobile industry, for example, a
manufacturer may purchase a competitor’s vehicle, disassemble it, and
examine the welds, seals, and other components of the vehicle for the
purpose of enhancing their vehicles with similar components. Now is
the time to begin with the reverse engineering of the proprietary
libraries of freedom. Such a project has to be approached in a
collaborative and organised fashion. We need a critical and empirical
hybrid research project in the form of manifolded militant inquiries
that are simultaneously globally distributed, exploring everyday forms
of refusal and resistance beyond the monoculture of breaking protest
news and the all-to-easy spectacle of semi-professional media
activism.

We need to get to know in detail how the daily exercise of freedom of
movement undermines the hierarchies of a global labour market and how
it perforates the system of borders that operate as filters for
over-exploitation. By enabling a worldwide circulation of social
struggles and their experiences, the networks of migration act as a
catalyst for a globalisation on the ground. It would be an enormous
waste to withhold the crucial experiences, skills and resources of the
90’s new media experiments from the next generation of social
struggles. And it would be a fatal mistake not to bring the
accumulated street-knowledge of political activism from previous
decades into the evolving struggles around piracy and intellectual
property. There is an abundance of know-how around, most especially in
how to deal with repression. We need to strengthen and expand the
everyday practice of freedom of communication as it attacks
intellectual property, licenses and patents; as it undermines the
global hierarchies of knowledge. This is the key factor for
contemporary production: To question the logic of valuation and
wage-slavery as a whole. Free associations of knowledge production
have the potential to break up despotic borders and identities and to
cause a true globalisation of struggles on an immaterial level.

Since the cold war, the desire for freedom has been abused as the
machine code of capitalism. It has been reduced to what is still
labelled as freedom of trade, but appears only as an off limits
license to kill, destroy and exploit. In turn, nothing and no-one will
restrain the multitudes from re-appropriating the idea of freedom for
the sole purpose of copying, duplicating and multiplying the beauty of
free communications and a new commons based on unfettered and equal
access to open sources and resources. That is the only way we will
retrieve the source code of a revolution that will be immune against
being televised, digitized, betrayed, corrupted or even directed.
Avant-garde is being replaced by new ways of surging ahead. There must
be at least a certain number of unknown files or strangers in your
backpack or your shared folder. Going ahead means either tracking,
trafficking or offering any other form of illegitimate linkage
service, otherwise it will appear as totally ridiculous.

With a sense of irony we could say: Learning from the New Economy
means learning to claim victory. Free your speculative energies from
within! This means writing off our losses. It means learning how to
file bankruptcy. Demand creative accounting for all. Dotcom
entrepreneurs did not end up in jail – and neither should you and me.
While the nineties were the great times of the speculative thinking
and peaceful revolutions, identity politics and political correctness,
what was an emerging culture of global networking and electronic
resistance has now become submerged into endless virtual guerrilla
wars: From the absurd spectacle of suing individual users of Linux or
peer-to-peer services for copyright infringements to the constant
battles around software patenting; from preventing the cheap
manufacture of generic medicines to raids on flea markets, arresting
and even executing trade-mark pirates. Rather than fooling around in
white cubes or sandboxes, a constant political recalculation involving
a precise evaluation of consequential charges as well as changing and
moving and adding up and multiplying identity elements may
increasingly become a matter of bare survival. This time their
strategy of tension will not work. We will not go underground and
insist on the absolute taboo of armed struggle. There is a lot to be
learned from the failed transformations of the babyboomers’ movements.
There are other ways to radicalise and integrate movements – just
witness the power of the global demonstrations against the Iraq war on
February 15, 2003.

Postmodernists have deconstructed the world; it is now up to us to
change it. No one will do it for us. We do not believe that utopia
will automatically arise out of the ashes of the Apocalypse. It is
vital to constantly unveil power relationships, but this is no
absolution from standing up to act. There is an irresistible drive
towards freedom. It is essential for a movement of movements to claim
and celebrate the freedom concept and to not give this strategic term
away to neo-conservatives. Freedom is irreducible to the demand to
consume and the rhetoric of economism, whatever its brand. Freedom
consists of precisely that which escapes such structures in the
simultaneous movements of refusal, invention and transformation. 

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