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<nettime> ECD, Simulation, and the Public Sphere
Steven Kurtz on Tue, 12 Jan 1999 01:16:51 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> ECD, Simulation, and the Public Sphere

Electronic Civil Disobedience, Simulation, and the Public Sphere

Critical Art Ensemble

What counts in the long run is the _use_ one makes of a theory....We
must start from existing practices in order to retrace the fundamental
--Felix Guattari,  _Why Marx and Freud No Longer Disturb Anyone_

In 1994, when Critical Art Ensemble first introduced the idea and a
possible model of electronic civil disobedience (ECD) as another option
for digital resistance, the collective had no way of knowing what
elements would be the most practical, nor did it know what elements
would require additional explanation. After nearly five years of field
testing of ECD by various groups and individuals, its information gaps
have become a little more obvious and can finally be addressed. Of
particular concern in this essay is the recent turn of events that has
produced an ECD model that opts for public spectacle over clandestine
policy subversion, and emphasizes simulated action over direct action.
CAE contends that these are unfortunate currents in the general research
on ECD. CAE still believes that ECD is an underground activity that
should be kept out of the public/popular sphere (as is the hacker
tradition) and the eye of the media, and that simulationist tactics as
they are currently being used by resistant forces are only modestly
effective if not counterproductive. 

Civil Disobedience in the Public Sphere

Those familiar with CAE~s modeling of ECD* know that it was an inversion
of the model of civil disobedience (CD). Rather than attempting to
create a mass movement of public objectors, CAE suggested a
decentralized flow of particularized micro-organizations (cells) that
would produce multiple currents and trajectories to slow the velocity of
capitalist political economy. This suggestion never sat well with more
traditional activists, and recently even Mark Dery (in both _Mute_ and
_World Art_) criticized the model because there would be conflicting
goals and activities among the cells. To the contrary, CAE still holds
that conflicts arising from the diversity of the cells would function as
a strength rather than a weakness; this diversity would produce a
dialogue between a variety of becomings that would resist bureaucratic
structure as well as provide a space for happy accidents and
breakthrough invention. If resistant culture has learned anything over
the past 150 years, it~s that ~the people united~ is a falsehood that
only constructs new exclusionist platforms by creating bureaucratic
monoliths and semiotic regimes that cannot represent or act on behalf of
the diverse desires and needs of individuals within complex and
hybridizing social segments. 
    The second key inversion of the model of CD was to aim directly for
policy shift, rather than trying to accomplish this task indirectly
through media manipulation. CAE~s position is still that the direct
approach is the most effective. The indirect approach of media
manipulation using a spectacle of disobedience designed to muster public
sympathy and support is a losing proposition. The 1960s are over, and
there is no corporate or government agency that is not fully prepared to
do battle in the media. This is simply a practical matter of capital
expenditure. Since mass media allegiance is skewed toward the status
quo, since the airwaves and press are owned by corporate entities, and
since capitalist structures have huge budgets allotted for public
relations, there is no way that activist groups can outdo them. A
soundbite here and there simply cannot subvert any policy making process
or sway public opinion when all the rest of the mass media is sending
the opposite message. Any subversive opinion is lost in the media
barrage, if not turned to its opposition~s advantage through spin.
    There was a time when CD and media manipulation combined were
successful in disrupting and shifting authoritarian semiotic regimes.
The civil rights movement is an excellent example. The movement~s
participants understood that the Civil War was still being fought on an
ideological level, and hence one social/political/geographic region
could be turned against another. The northern and western regions of the
U.S. had advanced not only in terms of industry, but also in their
methods of public (and particularly minority) control. The Civil War had
eliminated the retrograde political economy of the south, but had failed
to shift its ideological structure (a far more difficult element to
change), and hence had not altered its symbolic mechanisms of control.
All the civil rights movement needed to do was to call attention to this
failure, and the fully modern northern regions would force the south to
comply with an ideological position that would be more compatible with
the socioeconomic needs of advanced capital. The images produced through
acts of civil disobedience suceeded in provoking outrage at the
retro-ideology of the south and rekindled the state of war between the
regions. Student volunteers, community organizers, and eventually
federal police agencies and the military (mobilized by the executive
office) became allies and fought for the movement.
    At the same time, the civil rights leaders were not naive about this
matter. They knew that the only racist policies that would change were
those not held by the north and that racism was not going to disappear;
it would only be transformed into a more subtle form of
endocolonization, as opposed to its then current status as an explicit
set of segregationist norms. Indeed, the general understanding of
African Americans--that there was a hard boundary beyond which policy
would shift no further--was key in the rapid decline of the civil rights
movement and in the high octane fueling of the black power movement. 
Unfortunately, the latter fared no better with its media campaign,
because it lacked the infrastructure to support its own material needs. 
    As a means of media manipulation, CD worked in the case of the civil
rights movement because the historical dynamic of capitalism acted as
the foundation for its success. History was still heterogeneous and the
normative manifestation of capitalist ideology was still a striated
space at both national and international levels. But what do we do now,
having reached the point where visible, diversified ideologies in the
West no longer exist, and history is nothing more than a homogeneous
construct that continuously replays capitalist victories? From where
will public outrage originate? What army, government, corporation, or
any other power base will support the disempowered when exploitive
endocolonial relationships are precisely what allow these agencies to
flourish? This is why CAE has argued for direct confrontation, by using
financial leverage obtained through blocking privatized information
(since this form of information is the gold of late capital).
Appropriating media gains nothing in undermining an authoritarian
semiotic regime because no power base benefits from listening to an
alternative message; however, appropriating profit through blocking
information sends a clear message to any chosen capitalist
institutions--for them, it may be cheaper to change policy than to
defend militarily a semiotic regime under pressure. Accomplishing this
task is possible in the virtual realm, and it takes only the most modest
of investments to act (compared to forming an army); however, for such
resistance to endure requires clandestine activity.
    Currently, the one weak exception to rejecting (E)CD as a means to
manipulate mass media is in cases where history and ideology have not
been homogenized. These tend to be situations in which a resistance
movement is in conflict with a dominant power that is still viewed by
pancapitalism as being in some form different from itself. For instance,
the democracy movement in China used CD and media manipulation with a
degree of success. Outrage was generated; however, rigid national
boundaries kept it from manifesting in any way useful for the movement
other than the granting of asylum by western countries for those who had
to flee the Chinese authorities, and in generating a modest amount of
diplomatic pressure on China. Even in this best case scenario (and in a
way very similar manner to what occurred during the civil rights
movement), while the ideological order of pancapitalism was offended,
the western economic order perceived China to have more similarities
than differences, and hence little was done by the ~outraged~ west to
support the democracy movement or to materially undermine the Chinese

ECD and Simulation**

Very early on in the development of electronic media, Orson Welles
demonstrated (perhaps accidentally) that simulation has material
effects. The simulation of a news broadcast reporting that aliens had
invaded earth had the effect of causing a minor panic among those caught
in the hall of mirrors that emerged out of the implosion of fiction and
nonfiction created by the broadcast. Only varying degrees of
plausibility existed as to the truth of the story. Simultaneously, all
information was true and all information was false in that historic
moment of an erupting hyperreal. We have seen a replay of this narrative
in the 1990s with regard to resistant electronic culture, but with some
peculiar differences. 
    In an addendum written in 1995 for _ECD and Other Unpopular Ideas_,
CAE noted that there was growing paranoia among U.S. security agencies
about controlling the electronic resistance. Oddly enough, these
agencies scared themselves with their own constructions of electronic
criminality. It was much like Welles being scared of his own broadcast.
In that comic moment, CAE ironically suggested that ECD was successful
without ever having been tried, and that merely announcing that some
form of digital resistance could occur could have the effect of creating
a panic in security agencies to such a degree that their primary focus
would become locked in  the hyperreality of criminal constructions and
virtual catastrophe. This is a comment that CAE wishes it had never
made, as some activists have come to take it seriously and are trying to
act on it, primarily by using the Web to produce hyperreal activist
threats to fan the flames of corporate-state paranoia. Again, this is a
media battle that will be lost. State panic and paranoia will be
transformed through mass media into public paranoia, which in turn will
only reinforce state power. In the U.S., the voting public consistently
supports harsher sentencing for ~criminals,~ more jails, and more
police, and it is this hyperreal paranoia that gets law-and-order
politicians the votes needed to turn these directives into legislation
or government order. How many times must we see this happen? From
McCarthyism to Reagan~s fear of the Evil Empire to the War on Drugs, the
result in each case has been more funds for military, security, and
disciplinary agencies (fully mandated by an already fearful and paranoid
voting public), and this in turn tightens the endocolonial belt.
Considering that the U.S. is currently involved in the rapid creation
and expansion of security agencies devoted to policing electronic
criminality (and since these agencies make no distinction between
politically motivated action and criminality for profit), it seems
misguided to give power vectors increased means for raising public
support for this military growth as a well as a basis for increased
national and international legislation regarding political management of
new electronic media.
    Whether simulationist tactics could be used in a more compelling way
is difficult to say. Since the CIA and the FBI have been using these
tactics for decades, it is easy to locate examples that could be
inverted. One of the classics is the CIA~s toppling of the Arbenz
government in Guatemala in order to support United Fruit, protect oil
interests, and undermine a democracy with such leftist leanings that it
legitimized the communist party within the U.S. sphere of influence! To
be sure, the CIA built its operational infrastructure well by using
economic sabotage to create unrest, but the final act was one of
electronic subversion. The CIA simulated field radio broadcasts of
antigovernment troop movements around the capital. Upon intercepting
these broadcasts, the Guatemalan government became convinced that a
large rebel army had been mustered and was preparing for an attack. To
the contrary, the public was overwhelmingly supportive of the
government, and only a modest rebel faction existed. Unfortunately,
government officials panicked and the government fell in disarray. 
    The FBI used a similar means of subversion by employing hyperreal
communications in its attack on the Black Panthers.  Much like the CIA~s
intervention in Guatemala, the FBI~s infowar had a strong
infrastructure. The Bureau had infiltrated the Black Panther Party (BPP)
and was close to the high command, so it knew the nature of (and the
players in) the party~s internal struggles. It had also successfully
used local law enforcement to harass chapters across the U.S. The
party~s treasury was perpetually depleted due to the persistent arrests
of members by police, who intentionally abused their power in order to
drain party funds by forcing the membership to continually post bail for
those detained. Given these conditions, paranoia was the order of the
day for the Black Panthers, and when the schism between the San
Francisco and the New York chapters erupted, the FBI saw a perfect
opportunity to implode the party. As a result of a simple letter-writing
campaign that fanned the flames of mistrust between east and west
leadership, the party collapsed amid its own internal fighting. (The
FBI~s campaign consisted of the creation and delivery of documents made
to look as if they originated from internal party opposition that
criticized specific leaders and their party policies.)
    This method could be inverted and turned against authoritarian
agencies. The infighting that already occurs within and between
government and corporate institutions makes them self-subsidizing
targets. The military and economic infrastructure that was necessary for
the operations in the examples given here is not necessary for ECD
operations, since the internal warfare is already occurring (given
capital~s tendency toward predation, fear and paranoia are a part of
everyday life experience for those deep within power vectors, and hence
no expenditure is necessary to create them, as was necessary with the
BPP). Certainly, carefully written and directed letter(s)/e-mail
messages could have an implosive effect (although it~s doubtful that a
full collapse would ensue); however, the lessons learned from these
classic cases of simulationist tactics have to be understood and
applied. First and most obvious, this form of resistance would be
covert.  Second, reliable insider intelligence would need to be
acquired. This is the most problematic area in this kind of tactical
maneuvering, although it is not impossible to find solutions. For
simulationist tactics of resistance to be successfully employed, methods
and means of research, intelligence gathering, and informant recruitment
have to be developed. (CAE is willing to bet that the next breakthrough
paper on resistance will address this very problem of amateur
intelligence generation.) Until that occurs, subjective-subversive
action will be pretty ineffectual. At present, those not involved in a
fully developed covert approach can only act tactically in regard to the
strategic principles of an institution rather than to specific
situations and relationships. Obviously enough, a tactical response to a
strategic initiative makes no sense. In all probability such action will
not have the desired effect, and will only alert the agency being hit to
prepare for potential external pressures.
    We must also remember that simulationist infowar is only a
destructive tactic--it is a way to cause institutional implosion, and
has very little productive value in terms of policy reconstruction. To
continue with the example of racism, agencies that have
institutionalized racist policies (and that includes pretty much every
institution in the pancapitalist regime) will not be changed by an
infowar of institutional attrition. The semiotic regime of racist
policies will continue untouched in other institutions that are
interrelated through the shared privilege acquired by maintaining such
policies.  CAE still insists that productively challenging institutions
will not occur through nihilistic gestures, but instead through forcing
changes in the semiotic regime on an institutional basis while leaving
the material infrastructure intact for reinscription.

The Problem of Containment

Marshalling the materially destructive tendencies of hyperreality has
other problematic consequences when these destruction codes are released
into the spectacle. Most notable is the problem of containment. If an
authoritarian agency believes itself to be under attack, or under the
threat of attack (deferred virtual catastrophe), and it is in the public
limelight because of this, it will lash out in a less than predictable
way. It may act in a manner that is injurious to itself, but it is just
as likely that it will act in a way that could endanger unsuspecting
elements of the public sphere. Introducing the public into the formula
forces the threatened agency to face one major consequence: In order to
keep up with the speed of the infosphere, it must act quickly.
Hesitation, even to allow time for reasonable analysis and reflection,
is not an option. In the current marketplace of public relations,
success and failure have imploded, and all actions, when represented
well, reside in the sphere of hyperreal success and victory. The only
useful distinction to be made is between action and inaction. Inaction
is the sign of weakness and ineptitude. Caught in this high velocity
vector, a threatened agency will take action that will be explosive (not
implosive). Scapegoats will be designated, and action detrimental to
these individuals or populations will follow (The perfect macrocosm of
this sequence of events is U.S. foreign policy and the actions taken on
its behalf). In other words, once this sequence of destruction was
initiated by threat (whether virtual or actual), the often uncontrolled
forces that would be released could not be contained or redirected by
the resistant force. This inability to contain the explosion links this
model (in effect only) to terrorism. Not that the activists are
initiating terrorist practice, since no one dies in hyperreality, but
the effect of this practice can have the same consequence as terrorism,
in that state and corporate power vectors will haphazardly return fire
with weapons that have destructive material (and even mortal)
    What is odd is that such action would not be taken out of a concern
for infrastructure, but for the semiotic regime and the entity~s public
image in hyperreality. However, when the public is taken out of this
formula, the sequence changes dramatically. The agency under pressure
would not have to act quickly. It could have time to investigate and
therefore be able to deliver a more surgical strike, because the sign of
weakness (the public perception of inaction) would not be damaging its
intended public representation. In this worst-case scenario for the
activists, the response would be far more directed, and hence the
consequences would tend to fall on those who actually took the risk of
initiating the action. If the agency were unaware that it was under
subversion and an implosion occurred, the public would not be notified
or feel the direct consequences (although indirect ones such as
unemployment are probable). In either case, there would be no violent
explosive spinoff of shrapnel that could land anywhere in the landscape
of resistance. In other words, containment would be actualized. What is
of additional interest is that the agency under pressure would subsidize
containment activity. No agency wants to publicize that it is in
financial trouble, that its security has been breached, etc., and hence
it would contain itself. However, if the public is introduced into the
formula then the likelihood of containment evaporates and the
consequences become less than civil. For this reason CAE continues to
believe that all useful models of ECD (or for that matter, nearly all
political as opposed to consciousness raising and pedagogical
actions***) within the current political conditions have in common
covert action and an abhorrence of mass media as a theater of action.

Writing the Discourse on ECD

Given the desire to keep the mass media out of the discourse on ECD, CAE
thought it wise to close with a few suggestions on how to speak
semipublicly about what should only be discussed among trusted
companions. This is an old problem, so fortunately there are some
precedents--most notably the Frankfurt School. Its strategy was to write
in the most dense, arcane style imaginable so that only initiates into
the fold could decipher it; in this way the discourse stayed out of the
public sphere where it did not become a resource for market cooptation.
Happily, we do not have to go to such lengths. The writing can be clear
and accessible, but it should be made to resist the eye of the media.
Fortunately this is easy to do. All that is necessary is to make it ~bad
copy.~ This is why CAE speaks in terms of general models and
hypotheticals (and never about specific actions). Not only would we not
want to make specifics public for obvious reasons, but generalities
(models) are not very interesting to the grand majority of the popular
media audience. Models are bookish and slow, and in the fast-paced image
barrage of popular spectacle, they are simply boring. 
    CAE also suggests looking to historical analogues for examples of
tactical actions, particularly ones that have been activated by
authoritarian power vectors. None of the popular media is particularly
interested in more talk about ~olden times,~ nor are they interested in
past atrocities (except for those perpetrated by Nazis). Discussion of
such topics leaves the media with nothing interesting to bring to the
public. This strategy goes back to issues of constellations,
detournment, appropriation, etc. Use what is already available, give the
media vultures nothing, and the only option for cooptation left is
cannibalism (hence the proliferation of retro).  Now clearly it~s too
late to stop media cooptation of ECD. It has already been sold for 15
minutes of fame, and is fueling a new round of cyberhype, but
e-activists can bring a halt to this current media event by supplying
nothing more. We can also be thankful that ECD and other forms of
electronic resistance that have now been dematerialized into the
hyperreal buzz of ~hacktivism~ are just more cyberfads that will rapidly
fade on the technohorizon, leaving the committed to continue with
business as usual. 


*For more information: All CAE books, including _Electronic Civil
Disobedience_, are available from Autonomedia (NYC) or they can be
downloaded free of charge at <http://mailer.fsu.edu/~sbarnes>. German
(Passagen Verlag), French (l~eclat), and Italian (Castelvecchi)
translations are also available; unfortunately they are not available
online, so contact CAE for more information.

**CAE would like to thank Heath Bunting for his valuable contribution to
CAE~s development of a simulationist model of subversion. 

***A pedagogical situation/action gives participants the opportunity to
escape some form of taken-for-granted authority. In this moment of
liberation, they can think about alternative possibilities in relation
to the specific or general issue addressed. This kind of work is the
domain of politicized cultural action. However, such action is only
pedagogical, not political. It prepares the consciousness of individuals
for new possibilities, and in the best of cases moves them to political
action. Activity inspired by pedagogical situations is the political
action. By political action, CAE means the temporary or permanent
redistribution or reconfiguration of power relationships (material or
semiotic). We would also like to note that the distinction between these
categories should not be assumed to be totalizing, but rather represents
a general tendency in the typology of activist action.
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