Activist Networks… No More Neutrality

Ten Theses on Non-Democratic Electronics
Organized Networks Updated

By Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter
(thanks to Bifo from the Rekombinant list for passing this along)

1. Welcome to the politics of diversion. There is a growing paradox between the real existing looseness, the ‘tyranny of structurelessness’ on the one hand, and desire to organize in familiar structures such as the trade union, party and movement on the other. Both options are problematic. Activists, especially those from the baby boom generation, do not like to speculate on the potential of networks as they fluctuate too much – an anxiety perhaps fuelled by the instability of their pension funds. Networks are known for their unreliability and unsustainability. Even though they can scale up in unprecedented ways, and have the potential to perform real-time global politics from below, they also disintegrate in the same speed. Like Protestant churches and Christian sects, leftist political parties and traditional union structures can give people a much needed structure to their life. It is hard to argue against the healing, therapeutic value that such organisations can have on societies and neighbourhoods that are under severe pressure of disintegration. What we observe is that these two strategies are diverging models. They do not compete, but they do not necessarily overlap either.

2. Uphold the synthesis. Think Global, Act Local. It sounds obvious, and so it should be. But what is to be done in a situation of growing gaps, ruptures and tensions? It is naive to think that old trade union bosses are likely to give up their positions, in the same way as political parties will not risk their institutional commitments for some digital hipsters. The question then becomes how to arrange temporary coalitions, being well aware of the diverging interests and cultures. We see this happening in unique ways amongst activist bloggers and, for instance, the Muslim Brothers in Egypt. Instead of ‘managing’ disruptive technologies, it should be also taken into consideration to radically take sides with the new generations and join the disruption. It is high time for radical politics to take the driver’s seat and suppress the compulsive response to point at ‘damaging consequences’. Let’s get rid of moral pedagogies and shape the social change we envision.

3. Applied scalability is the new technics. How to crack the mystery of scalability and transformation of issues into a critical proliferation of protest with revolutionary potential? With the tendency of networks to regress into ghettoes of self-affirmation (the multitudes are all men), we can say that in many ways networks have yet to engage ‘the political’. The coalition building that attends the process of trans-scalar movement will by design create an immanent relation between networks and the political. Moreover, it will greatly facilitate the theoretical and analytical understanding of networks. Tension precipitates the will to utterance, to express and to act. And it is time for networks to go to work.

4. Dream up Indymedia 2.0. No more Wikipedia neutrality. Where are the social networking sites for activists? The Internet flagship of the ‘other globalization movement’, Indymedia, has not changed since its inception in late 1999. Of course the website has grown – there are now editions in dozens of language, with a variety of local and national nodes that we rarely see on the Net. But the conceptual basics are still the same. The problems have been identified a long time ago: there is an ongoing confusion between the alternative news agent model, the practical community organization level and strategic debates. All too often Indymedia is used as an ‘alternative CNN’. There is nothing wrong with that, except that the nature of the corporate news industry itself is changing.

5. The revolution will be participatory or she will not be. It there is no desire addressed, not much will happen. YouTube and MySpace are fueled with no shortage of desire. Rightly or not, they are considered the apogee of participatory media. But they are hardly hotbeds of media activism. Linux geeks – leave the ecosphere of servicing free software cartels. The abbreviation policy, from G8 to WTO, has failed, precisely because abstract complex arrangements within global capitalism do not translate well into the messy everyday. By contrast, the NGO movements, at their best (we won’t go into a catalogue of failures here), have proven the efficacy of situated networks. The problem of trans-scalar movement, however, remains. This was made clear in the multi-stakeholder governance model adopted by government, business and civil society organizations throughout the UN’s World Summit on the Information Society (2003-2005). Here we saw a few CSOs find a seat at the negotiating table, but it didn’t amount to much more than a temporary gestural economy. At the same time, as CSO participants scaled the ladder of political/discursive legitimacy, the logic of their networks began to fade away. This is the problematic we speak of between seemingly structureless networks and structured organizations. The obsession with democracy provides another register of this social-technical condition.

6. The borders of networks comprise the “‘non-democratic” element of democracy’ (Balibar/Mezzadra). This insight is particularly helpful when thinking ‘the political’ of networks, since it signals the fact that networks are not by default open, horizontal and global. This is the mistake of much of the discourse on networks. There is no politics of networks if there are no borders of networks. Instead of forcing ‘democracy’ onto networks, either through policing or installed software, we should investigate its nature. This does not mean that we have to openly support ‘benevolent dictatorships’ or enlightened totalitarian rule. Usually networks thrive on small-scale informality, particularly in the early existence of social structures.

7. The borders of networks are the spacings of politics. As networks undergo the transversal process of scalar transformation, the borders of networks are revealed as both limits and possibilities. Whereas in Organized Networks 1 we emphasized what happened to the ‘inside’ of a network, we will look here at what happens to the edges. In the process of growth the kernel of a network crystallizes a high energy. After some months or, for the lucky ones, a few years, there is no longer an inside of networks, only the ruins of the border. This is an enormous challenge for networks – how to engage the border as the condition of transformation and renewal?

8. There are no citizens of the media. Find and replace the citizen with users. Users have rights too. The user is not a non-historical category but rather a system-specific actor that holds no relationship to modernity’s institutions and their corresponding discourse on rights. What is needed, then, is total reengineering of user-rights within the logic of networks. As much as ‘citizen journalists’, liberal democratic governments, big media and global institutions are endlessly effusive about their democratic credentials, organized networks are equally insistent in maintaining a ‘non-democratic’ politics. A politics without representation – since how do networks represent anything? – and instead a non-representational politics of relations. Non-democratic does not mean anti-democratic or elitist. It has proven of strategic importance to loosen ties between ‘democracy’ and ‘the media’. Let’s us remember that the citizen journalist is always tied to the media organs of the nation-state. Networks are not nations. In times of an abundance of channels, platforms and networks, it is no longer necessary to claim ‘access’. The democratization of the media has come to an end. People are tired of reading the same old critique of NYT, CNN and other news outlets that are so obviously Western and neo-liberal biased. It is time to concentrate our efforts on the politics of filtering. What information do we want to read and pass on? What happens when you find out that I am filtering you out? Do we only link to ‘friends’? And what to make of this obsessive compulsion to collect ‘friends’? Would it be alright if we replaced friends with comrades? What could object against the tendency to build social networks? Wasn’t this what so many activists dreamt of?

9. Governance requires protocols of dissensus. The governance of networks is most clearly brought into question at the borders of networks. Control is the issue here. Borders function to at once regulate entry, but they also invite secret societies to infiltrate by other means. The contest between these two dynamics can be understood as the battle between governmental regimes and non-governmental desires. We do not have to decide here as we have split agendas: we long for order in times of chaos and simultaneously overload and dream of free information streams. This brings us to the related issue of sustainability. If the borders of networks consist of governmental and non-governmental elements (administration vs. inspired sabotage and the will to infiltrate), then we can also say that the borders of networks highlight their inherent fragility. How can this be turned into a strength for the future of networks? There are always overlaps of identity and social structures.

10. Design your education. At the current conjuncture we find inspiration in the proliferation of education-centred networks, of non-aligned initiatives, of militant research. Education, of course, has always been about the cultivation of minds and bodies in order supply capital with its required labour-power. Organized networks have a crucial role to play in the refusal of subjugating labour and life to the mind-numbing and life-depleting demands of post-Fordist capital. And it is through these ‘edu-networks’ that we see some of the most inspiring activities of new institutional invention. This, we believe, is where energies can be directed that engage in practices of creative collaboration. What we need is a conceptual push and a subsequent ‘art of translation’ in order to migrate critical concepts from one context to the next. It is time to reclaim an avant-garde position and not leave the further development of such vital techno-social tools to the neo-liberal corporate sector. What we say here about new media and Internet can also be transposed to other sectors of education and research. Over the next decade, half of the world population will use a mobile phone and two billion the Internet. How are we going to use this potential?


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