Pit Schultz on Thu, 20 Jun 96 00:50 MDT

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nettime: Electronic Civil Disobedience - Critical Art Ensemble - 1/2

Electronic Civil Disobedience*

Critical Art Ensemble

One essential characteristic that sets late capitalism apart from 
other political and economic forms is its mode of representing 
power:  What was once a sedentary concrete mass has now become a 
nomadic electronic flow. Before computerized information 
management, the heart of institutional command and control was 
easy to locate. In fact, the conspicuous appearance of the halls 
of power was used by regimes to maintain their hegemony. Castles, 
palaces, government bureaucracies, corporate home offices, and 
other architectural structures stood looming in city centers, 
daring malcontents and underground forces to challenge their 
fortifications. These structures, bespeaking an impregnable and 
everlasting solidity, could stop or demoralize contestational 
movements before they started. Indeed, the prominence of this 
spectacle was a double-edged sword; once the opposition became 
desperate enough (due to material privation or to symbolic 
collapse of a given regime's legitimacy), its revolutionary force 
had no problem finding and confronting the powerholders. If the 
fortifications were breached, the regime would most likely 
collapse. Within this broad historical context emerged the 
general strategy for civil disobedience.

This strategy was unusual because the contestational groups 
decided they did not need to act violently toward those who 
occupied the bunkers of power, and chose instead to use various 
tactics to disrupt the institutions to such an extent that the 
occupants became disempowered. Although the smiley face of moral 
force was the pretext for using this approach, it was economic 
disruption and symbolic disturbance that made the overall 
strategy effective.  Today acts of civil disobedience (CD) are 
generally intended to hasten institutional reform rather than 
bring about national collapse, since this style of resistance 
allows the possibility for negotiation. For this reason, modern 
first-world governments tend to be more tolerant of these acts, 
since they do not necessarily threaten the continued existence of 
a nation or its ruling class. While civil disobedience does not 
go unpunished, it is generally not met with extreme violence from 
the state, nor are participants in CD ordinarily labeled as 
revolutionaries and treated as political prisoners when arrested. 
(There have of course been some notable exceptions to this policy 
in the first world, such as the persecution of American civil 
rights activists in the deep South). 

Although CD is still effective as originally conceived 
(particularly at local levels), its efficacy fades with each 
passing decade. This decline is due primarily to the increasing 
ability of power to evade the provocations of CD participants. 
Even though the monuments of power still stand, visibly present 
in stable locations, the agency that maintains power is neither 
visible nor stable. Power no longer permanently resides in these 
monuments, and command and control now move about as desired. If 
mechanisms of control are challenged in one spatial location, 
they simply move to another location. As a result, CD groups are 
prevented from establishing a theater of operations by which they 
can actually disrupt a given institution. Blocking the entrances 
to a building, or some other resistant action in physical space, 
can prevent reoccupation (the flow of personnel), but this is of 
little consequence so long as information-capital continues to 

These outdated methods of resistance must be refined, and new 
methods of disruption invented that attack power (non)centers on 
the electronic level. The strategy and tactics of CD can still be 
useful beyond local actions, but only if they are used to block 
the flow of information rather than the flow of personnel. 
Unfortunately, the left is its own worst enemy in developing ways 
to revise CD models. This situation is particularly ironic, since 
the left has always prided itself on using history in critical 
analysis. Now, rather than acknowledge the present shift in 
historical forces when constructing strategies for political 
activism, members of the left continue to act as if they still 
live in the age of early capital. This is particularly strange 
because contestational theory always stresses the importance of 
dramatic shifts in political economy (early capital to late 
capital, industrial economy to service economy, production 
culture to consumption culture, etc). Indeed, the left's lapse of 
insight on this matter indicates that the schism between theory 
and practice is as bad as (or worse than) it has ever been. 

This particular form of cultural lag prevents activists from 
devising new strategies for reasons that are difficult to 
pinpoint. At least one factor responsible is the continued 
presence of the remnants of the 60s New Left within the ranks of 
activist groups. Preoccupied as they are with the means used to 
achieve past victories (primarily the contribution that the New 
Left made to the withdrawal of American troops from Viet Nam), 
members of these groups see no need to invent new approaches. 
Nostalgia for 60s activism endlessly replays the past as the 
present, and unfortunately this nostalgia has also infected a new 
generation of activists who have no living memory of the 60s. Out 
of this sentimentality has arisen the belief that the "take to 
the streets" strategy worked then, and will work now on current 
issues.  Meanwhile, as wealth and education continue to be 
increasingly distributed in favor of the wealthy, as the security 
state continues to invade private life, as the AIDS crisis still 
meets with government inaction, and as the homeless population 
continues to expand, CAE is willing to go out on a limb and say 
that perhaps an error in judgment has occurred. This claim is not 
intended to undermine what has been accomplished on local levels; 
it is intended only to point out that contemporary activism has 
had very little effect on military/corporate policy.

CAE has said it before, and we will say it again: as far as power 
is concerned, the streets are dead capital! Nothing of value to 
the power elite can be found on the streets, nor does this class 
need control of the streets to efficiently run  and maintain 
state institutions. For CD to have any meaningful effect, the 
resisters must appropriate something of value to the state. Once 
they have an object of value, the resisters have a platform from 
which they may bargain for (or perhaps demand) change. 

At one time the control of the street was a valued item. In 19th 
century Paris the streets were the conduits for the mobility of 
power, whether it was economic or military in nature. If the 
streets were blocked, and key political fortresses were occupied, 
the state became inert, and in some cases collapsed under its own 
weight. This method of resistance was still useful up through the 
60s, but since the end of the 19th century it has yielded 
diminishing returns, and has drifted from being a radical 
practice to a liberal one. This strategy is grounded in the 
necessity of centralizing capital within cities; as capital has 
become increasingly decentralized, breaking through national 
boundaries and abandoning the cities, street action has become 
increasingly useless. Since cities have been abandoned by 
business and left to rot in a state of bankruptcy, and have 
become plagued by crime and disease, it seems reasonable to 
assume that they are no longer useful in the expansion of power. 
If they were of use, surely they would be continually renewed and 

Dangers do lie in this often tautological line of argument. Is 
the city of no value because it is not maintained, or is it not 
maintained because it is of no value? This error in logic is 
inescapable, since the question of who or what is in control 
cannot be answered. Power itself cannot be seen; only its 
representation appears. What lies behind the representation is 
lost. The location and nature of cynical power is purely a matter 
of speculation. Macro power is known only as a series of 
abstractions such as  "straight white males," "the ruling class," 
or best of all, "the powers that be." Macro power is experienced 
only by its effects, and never as a cause. Consequently, certain 
indicators must be used to determine what is of value to power, 
or to find the (non)location of power. The assumption here is 
that key indicators of power-value are the extent to which a 
location or a commodity is defended, and the extent to which 
trespassers are punished. The greater the intensity of defense 
and punishment, the greater the power-value. These indicators 
have been derived from experience, but they cannot be given 
theoretical justification, since a second principle will 
eventually have to be used to explain a first principle.

If the traditional location for deploying power has been 
abandoned, where has power moved? If we assume that the flow of 
capital is still crucial to the present system, then there is a 
trail to follow. (Un)common sense tells us that we can follow the 
money to find power; however, since money has no point of origin 
but is part of a circular or spiraling flow, the best we can 
expect to find is the flow itself. Capital rarely takes a hard 
form; like power, it exists as an abstraction. An abstract form 
will probably be found in an abstract place, or to be more 
specific, in cyberspace. Cyberspace may be defined as a virtual 
informational landscape that is accessed through the phone 
system. (For the purposes of this essay, the association between 
cyberspace and VR proper should be ignored). The degree of access 
to the information located in cyberspace suggests how 
institutions are configured in real space. In complex society, 
the division of labor has become so differentiated that the 
organizational speed necessary to keep the many segments 
synchronized can only be achieved by using electronic 
communication networks. In turn, the controlled deployment of 
information and access to it becomes a central clue in solving 
the puzzle of social organization. When access to information is 
denied, the organizational properties of the institution from 
which it is withheld become unstable, and-should this condition 
be maintained for too long-the institution will eventually 
collapse because of a communication gap. The various segments 
will have no idea if they are working at cross purposes against 
each other or if they are working in unison against competing 
institutions. Blocking information access is the best means to 
disrupt any institution, whether it is military, corporate, or 
governmental. When such action is successfully carried out, all 
segments of the institution are damaged.

The problem with CD as it is now understood is that it has no 
effect on the core of organization; instead, it tends to 
concentrate on one localized sedentary structure. In the case of 
national or multinational institutions, such actions are no more 
disruptive than a fly biting an elephant. Back when power was 
centralized in sedentary locations, this strategy made sense, but 
it is vain now that power is decentralized. To dominate strategic 
sites in physical space was once the key source of power, but now 
domination rests on the ability of an institution to move where 
resistance is absent, in conjunction with the ability to 
temporarily appropriate a given physical space as needed. For an 
oppositional force to conquer key points in physical space in no 
way threatens an institution. Let us assume that a group of 
dissidents managed to occupy the White House. It might prove 
embarrassing for the administration in power and for the Secret 
Service, but in no way would this occupation actually disrupt the 
efficient functioning of executive power. The presidential office 
would simply move to another location. The physical space of the 
White House is only a hollow representation of presidential 
authority; it is not essential to it. 

In measuring power-value by the extent to which actions are 
punished and sites are defended, it is readily apparent that 
cyberspace ranks high on the scale. Defense systems in cyberspace 
are as well-developed as they can be. The Secret Service 
(previously an agency whose job was to protect individuals 
connected with the office of the President and to investigate 
counterfeiting rackets) has become increasingly swept up in its 
role as cyberpolice. At the same time, private corporations have 
developed their own electronic police forces, which function in 
two ways: First, they act as security forces, installing 
information surveillance and defense systems, and second, they 
act as a posse of bounty hunters to physically capture any person 
who breaks through the security systems. These forces, like the 
legal system, do not distinguish between actions in cyberspace on 
the basis of intent. Whether private information sources are 
accessed simply to examine the system, or whether the purpose is 
to steal or damage the source, these forces always assume that 
unauthorized access is an act of extreme hostility, and should 
receive maximum punishment. In spite of all this security, 
cyberspace is far from secure. It has expanded and mutated at 
such a rapid rate that security systems are unable to reconfigure 
and deploy themselves with equal speed. At present, the gate is 
still open for information resistance, but it is closing. 

Who is attempting to hold the gate open? This is perhaps one of 
the saddest chapters in the history of resistance in the US. 
Right now the finest political activists are children. Teen 
hackers work out of their parents' homes and college dormitories 
to breach corporate and governmental security systems. Their 
intentions are vague. Some seem to know that their actions are 
political in nature. As Dr. Crash has said: "Whether you know it 
or not, if you are a hacker you are a revolutionary." The 
question is, a revolutionary for what cause? After poring through 
issues of *Phrack* and surfing the internet, one can find no 
cause mentioned other than the first step: free access to 
information. How this information would be applied is never 
discussed. The problem of letting children act as the avant-garde 
of activism is that they have not yet developed a critical 
sensibility that would guide them beyond their first political 
encounter. Ironically enough, they do have the intelligence to 
realize where political action must begin if it is to be 
effective-a realization that seems to have eluded leftist 
sophisticates. Another problem is the youthful sense of 
immortality. According to Bruce Sterling, their youthful 
fearlessness tends to get them arrested. A number of these young 
activists-the Atlanta Three, for example-have served time in what 
has to be recognized as political imprisonment. With only the 
charge of trespass against them, jailing these individuals seems 
a little extreme; however, when considering the value of order 
and private property in cyberspace, extreme punishment for the 
smallest of crimes should be expected. 

Applying the maximum punishment for a minimal offense must be 
justified in some way. Either the system of punishment must be 
kept hidden from the public, or the offense must be perceived by 
the public as a horrific disruption of the social order. 
Currently, the situation in regard to crime and cyberspace seems 
neutral, as there is no solid commitment by the state to either 
path. The arrest and punishment of hackers does not make 
headlines, and yet the law and order alarm has started to ring. 
Operation Sundevil, a thorough sweep of hacker operations in 1990 
by the Secret Service and corporate posses, received minimal