Eric Kluitenberg on Wed, 23 Jul 2014 05:16:30 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> More Crisis in the Information Society

Dear Michael, nettimers,

I can understand your exasperation about how an urgent and critically vital real-life political discussion reverts to an apparently 'academic' one, but in this case I think this is not entirely correct. You are right, however, in pointing out hat the discussion requires a bit more real-life, and what Germans so beautifully call 'real-poltischer', context. 
Let me try to provide that to complement the argument.

So fist the core argument again:

Felix sketches the emergence of a 'Deep-State' outside of democratic / electoral accountability, revealed by the Snowden / NSA disclosures, and rightfully observes that this is primarily a political problem, not a primarily technological problem.

>From this I conclude the problem is political, and therefore the solution also has to be political. My suggestion is to engage in 'political design' and not content ourselves with 'mere' critique.

Now, political design needs to operate simultaneously on the macro and the micro level, and in between and across.

The micro-political level is crucial because focussing only on the macro-political level quickly leaves one overwhelmed. We can make a quick analysis of the problem, but to engage it practically means taking on vested powers with huge interests and exactly that, power... The micro-political intervention circumvents that and creates opportunities for immediate action. Still, without macro-political changes, the micro-political remains, well.., powerless.

Hence the need for 'political design' on both levels.

The example of the 'Ecological Design' course was simply an example of a micro-political intervention, nothing more. I would not suggest that it is anything else in and of itself. Still, I would agree fully with Florian here that one should not underestimate the generative power of the arts / artists / designers - the power to bring something into being, where before there was none. This is a highly particular aspect of these practices and we should not underestimate its evocative / generative power, in particular with regards to political / ecological design.

Question is, why is this all important for the question at hand (the reality of the 'Deep State' revealed by Snowden, WikiLeaks, etc.)?

Here is where I need to bring in the 'real-politischer' context. In this case I can best reflect on my extended tenure at De Balie, the centre for culture and politics in Amsterdam (from late 1998 till early 2011). From the start we addressed questions of surveillance, security and privacy in the new media public programs, debates, and public events we organised. These debates / events would be staged with politicians, business reps, civil society / NGO types, artists, designers, technologists, hackers, theorists, academics, activists and so on in various wondrous mixes.

I remember how in the early years we were simply waved away - nonsense, what do we have to hide?, fighting windmills, etc etc. Strangely though most support was coming from the business community. Still, in 2003, in the preparation of the 'Completely Safe Environments' / No Escape event at Paradiso, part of Next 5 Minutes 4, Rop Gongrijp (co-founder of xs4all, Dutch celebrity hacker and one of three people pursued by the US government over aiding the release of the Collateral Murder video with WikiLeaks) mourned how he had been trying to get the issue of privacy on the public agenda for over 15 years and it just didn't work.
The event made it to the evening news and created a big stir - an indication of things to come.

Ar the instigation of Maurice Wessling of xs4all and Bits of Freedom (the Dutch privacy organisation) we then started the NL series of the Big Brother Awards, and while it started small these events grew year by year. The last time it was still held in the De Balie it had become such a big thing that the national news featured it prominently, debates were staged in newspapers, the NL version of NewsNight (NOVA) devoted almost an entire show the same evening to it, and the privacy discussion moved mainstream, way before WikiLeaks rose to prominence. The next BBA had to be organised in a bigger venue, and the issue remained in the core of public debate in NL ever since.

Then WikiLeaks broke, then the Snowden NSA Files disclosures - the issues moved into the public mainstream virtually around the globe, world media haven't stopped debating it since.

Another remarkable detail here is that one of the people we worked together with in this series of so called 'info-politics' programs was a law scholar who had done a PHD on privacy issues and worked for the Institute of Information Law, University of Amsterdam - one of the regular 'academic' sites we worked with. He is now the vice prime minister of The Netherlands. Still, throughout the NSA Files disclosures he has remained conspicuously silent. The formal reason: not his department, he is minister of social affairs and labour issues. Even when his former compatriots of Bits of Freedom challenged him in an open letter to speak out on the matter he remained deafeningly silent - this was the area that the minister of the interior and the prime minister talk about, maybe the foreign office and maybe defence, but not his department.
So, he is vice prime-minister, he did a PHD on the subject, and because of how the system is construed he cannot speak on it publicly...

What's more, in 2002 we hosted an edition with many organisations, lead by Waag Society, in Amsterdam of the World-Information.Org project set up by Konrad Becker and Felix Stalder a.o. which extrapolated the info-political conundrum that Echelon (remember that?) had conjured up. But when the NSA disclosures happened it turned out with all these efforts we had simply been desperately naive. It was all way worse, way more encompassing, more massive, more deliberate, much more deeply invested than anything we had considered as a 'worst possible scenario'...

The main problem that became clear at once was: How can we hold a state, supposedly 'democratic', accountable through normal civic checks and balances and electoral systems (parliamentary oversight and control) if that state does not abide by its own rules?

What then is the point of these wonderful 'info-politics' programs and public multi-stakeholder debates, dialogues with policy makers, and public awareness raising projects?
Well, they seem in retrospect pretty pointless.

Perhaps the most apt formulation was the title of the 2003 event at Paradiso - 'No Escape'!
(though that referred to more local circumstances - we were not cynical enough at the time)

So, the practice of holding to account in the public eye does not work anymore - what then?

The conclusion to draw from all of this is that the political system as it is composed and functions right now is defunct - not the internet is broken, but democratic politics is broken. The response should not be to give up on all our democratic values and aspirations, but instead to re-emphasise them, more forcefully than ever. And beyond analysis and critique, indeed how ever important, I believe we need to engage in the design and re-design of democratic politics - at the micro and the macro level.

Hence my call for an engagement with 'political design', which will have to be an engagement for years to come.

The alternative would be to give up - that's not an alternative.


On 22 Jul 2014, at 06:47, michael gurstein <> wrote:

> I am finding it very interesting if a bit discombobulating to see my
> initial provocation turned into the stuff of common room chat. As one
> who has only one or two tremulous toes dipped in the sacred waters of
> academe the self-absorption that this represents is quite astonishing
> if not deeply saddening.


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