|The WikiLeaks logo 'works as a sort of graphic manifesto', argues the author [AFP]
Melbourne, Australia - There is something eerie about the WikiLeaks logo (see above). It works as a sort of graphic manifesto, an image of dense political content stating a notion of ample consequences. A cosmic sandglass encloses a duplicated globe seen from an angle that puts Iraqi territory at the centre.
Inside this device the upper and darker planet is exchanged, drip by drip, for a new one. The power of the image lies in the sense of inexorability it conveys, alluding to earthly absolutes like the flow of time and the force of gravity: a bullish threat that grants the upper world no room for hope. The logo narrates a gradual apocalypse, and by articulating this process of transformation through the image of the leak, WikiLeaks defines itself as the critical agent in the destruction of the old and the becoming of the new world.
What has become manifest since late November 2010, with the release of what is now known as "The US Embassy Cables", is that the narrative implicit in the WikiLeaks logo, that of a world disjunct, describes a greater struggle against the global power held diffusely by transnational corporations and enforced by governments around the world. This power is under attack by a relatively new actor that can be called, for now, the autonomous network.
The conditions that allow the network to challenge the power of governments and corporations can be traced to the origin of the Internet and the Cold War zeitgeist that made the network we know possible. It was only because Cold War strategists had to narrate to themselves the unfolding of convoluted thermonuclear apocalypse scenarios, a dark art that peaked with Herman Kahn's surreal book On Thermonuclear War, that a computer network with the characteristics of the internet was implemented.
"I loved this concept of the purest things in the universe being unowned. The early Internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense. "
- Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak
The idea of imminent apocalypse was so extraordinary that it allowed for the radical thinking that over a decade evolved into the TCP/IP computer protocol suite, a resilient network protocol that makes the end user of the network its primary agent. The design philosophy of the internet protocols represents a clean break from the epistemes and continuums that had historically informed the evolution of Western power, as traced by Foucault and Deleuze from sovereign societies to disciplinary societies to societies of control.
Steve Wozniak has written, "I was also taught that space, and the moon, were free and open. Nobody owned them. No country owned them. I loved this concept of the purest things in the universe being unowned. The early internet was so accidental, it also was free and open in this sense".
To produce a commons is indeed an accident for Empire. Dismissed as a never-meant-for-the-masses autonomous zone, by and for the military and academia, it was allowed to evolve out of control. But this accident that happened because of daydreaming an extreme future never stopped happening.
At some point it gained an accessible graphic interface, and spilled all over the globe. By then it was too late to disarm what is now the increasingly contentious coexistence of two worlds, as the WikiLeaks logo registers. One world is a pre-apocalyptic capitalistic society of individualism, profit and control; the other a post-apocalyptic community of self-regulating collaborative survivors. The conflict arises from an essential paradox: Because the web exists, both worlds need it in order to prevail over the other.
The "cyber war" announced so spectacularly (in the Debordian sense) in the days following WikiLeaks' US Embassy Cables release is not really about the DDoS (Distributed Denial-of-Service), "denial of service" attacks that barely obstructed access to the MasterCard website for a few hours. If anything, the ephemerality of the disturbance leaves the sensation that Anonymous, the group that launched it, is far from being a structural threat. What journalists around the world have failed to narrate is the tale of a network that increasingly challenges, bypasses and outcompetes the global corporate-government complex. This is a struggle about the obsolescence of the very idea of the nation-state, and an almost unanimous coalition of governments, led by the US, fighting furiously to regain control by exerting legal, financial, symbolic and, perhaps most concerning, technical violence on their adversary.
Approaching the history of the internet through the Cold War zeitgeist helps us see a sort of Schumpeterian quality in the network. It is essentially a destructive entity that, like the Terminator, comes from the future (the imagined end of civilisation) and is set loose in an arcane environment (the present) that fights back. Perhaps the fact that Anonymous defines itself using a tone and vocabulary that closely resemble the description of the Terminator in James Cameron's 1983 film is not a coincidence but a sign of the epistemic brotherhood of two post-apocalyptic entities.
Listen. Understand. That Terminator is out there. It can't be reasoned with, it can't be bargained with… it doesn't feel pity of remorse or fear… and it absolutely will not stop. Ever. Until you are dead. (James Cameron, director, The Terminator)
Your feelings mean nothing to us. … We have no culture, we have no laws, written or otherwise. … We do not sleep, we do not eat and we do not feel remorse. We will tear you apart from outside and in, we have all the time in the world. (extract from entry on Anonymous in the Encyclopedia Dramatica)
Network-native structures and their resulting communities are fuelled by hybrid motivations often alien to the material struggles seen by Marxism to lie behind the motion of history. In his book Hacking Capitalism, Johan Söderberg proposes the notion of "play struggle" as opposed to "class struggle" as the force that drives hackers as well as diverse realms of the network society.
Similar to labour in that it is a productive engagement with the world, play differs in that it is freely chosen and marked by a high degree of self-determination among the players. At its heart, the politics of play struggle consist in the distance it places between doing and the wage relation. Play is a showcase of how labour self-organises its constituent power outside the confines of market exchanges.
Söderberg proposes that play is labour within an exchange system external to the autocratic determinations of materialism. With the notion of "play struggle", we can understand Anonymous and its instant response in the wake of the WikiLeaks attack.
Anonymous emerged spontaneously from 4Chan.org, which has a curious set of features: (a) anonymity, (b) "lack of memory" (as opposed to "cloud computing", no record is kept in its servers but rather in the collective memory sedimented in the minds and hard drives of its users), (c) emphasis on visual conversation (through the intervention of images), and (d) a non-censorship policy that is only afraid of the police (as opposed to the market). Therefore, Play: These characteristics are all instrumental to placing in 4Chan an insurmountable distance "between doing and the wage relation". Its unique policy, its origin, ownership and ethos, and its substantial and highly engaged playful community make 4Chan the internet's most prolific semiotic laboratory.
It is telling that the software used to perform the denial of service attacks on MasterCard, PayPal and Amazon is a relatively simple programme called LOIC, for Low Orbit Ion Cannon, a fictional weapon in the Command & Conquer series of video games. Play drives Anonymous. It is the glue that ultimately holds it together, and the threat of state/corporate control triggers its reaction. Serious play is at the core of the rogue episteme. When play follows only its own logic it necessarily escapes commodification.
To play seriously is often counterplay, to set the system itself as the locus of play (even 4Chan has been a victim, because it is funny, of its own DDoS attacks). Instead of commodification by the mainstream, it is 4Chan that exploits the mainstream deconstructing its text, inverting and problematising its original intentions in a way that exceeds fan culture. 4Chan.org is a primary node in the fundamental clash of the centre and the indigestible fringe of contemporary digital culture.
For an average individual, visiting 4Chan, and particularly its main forum called simply '/b/', can be either repulsive or disappointing. Its content is distasteful to sensibilities constructed by the twentieth century's mammoths of consumption-driven mass media, and their resulting version of reality. Its autonomous project requires a stage of disorientation because its method is continuously to produce and evolve a language of its own. After all, how can autonomy be claimed while using the language of the oppressors? How can a new epistemological commons come to be if not by the crafting of an alternative language? Perhaps 4Chan is not exactly what Sean Cubitt had in mind when interrogating digital aesthetics, but it is certainly a model that seems to hold its ground against the "insidious blandness" of the corporate site:
Digital aesthetics needs both to come up with something far more interesting than corporate sites, and to act critically to point up their insidious blandness and global ambitions. Subversion of the dominant is inadequate. In its place, it is essential to imagine a work without coherence, without completion and without autonomy. Such a work, however, must also be able to take on the scale of the cyborg culture, a scale beyond the individual, and outside the realm of the hyper-individuated subject. By the same token, aesthetics must move beyond the organic unity of the art object and embrace the social process of making.
Anonymous and 4Chan currently play a strategic and necessary role in the struggle: the construction of an alternative episteme based on the commons of play rather than on consumption and commodities. Yet their political impact, in the case of the WikiLeaks embargo, was blown out of proportion. Mainstream journalism focused on the ultimately symbolic skirmishes starred by Anonymous, hyping the spectacular narrative of a cyberwar fought by an otherised and widely misunderstood cultural movement that cannot be called "hacktivist". As Richard Stallman has explained, a DDoS attack is not really hacking, but the digital version of mass protest.
If code is law, then protocol is the constitution.
Coup de net
"There is no remote corner of the internet not dependent on protocols." The point Laura DeNardis wants to get across in her book Protocol Politics: The Globalization of Internet Governance is that network protocols are a matter of huge political value, value that only grows as the net spreads. Lessig inaugurated this line of thinking when he famously stated "code is law".
But protocol runs deeper than software: If code is law, then protocol is the constitution. This is why, as long as attention is diverted towards the spectacular (like tactical and superficial DDoS attacks), governments can start the demolition of the protocols that grant the possibility of autonomy to the network. In reaction to the release of the US Embassy Cables, the UN called for the creation of a group that would end the current multi-stakeholder nature of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to give the last word on internet control to the governments of the world. The almost illegible resolution calls for the UN:
"to convene open and inclusive consultations involving all Member States and all other stakeholders with a view to assisting the process towards enhanced cooperation in order to enable Governments on an equal footing to carry out their roles and responsibilities in respect of international public policy issues pertaining to the Internet but not of the day-to-day technical and operational matters that do not impact upon those issues."
I have emphasised the fragments where the meaning hides: to "enable Governments to carry out their roles and responsibilities in respect of international public policy issues pertaining to the internet" is of course a nice way to talk about enabling the surveillance, censorship and control that the current protocols still make porous. The closing "concession" gives away the true intentions, "but not of the day-to-day technical and operational matters that do not impact upon those issues" means that once control is reinstated, people shall go on thinking they are free.
After Hillary Clinton stated that the leaks are "an attack on the international community", the move to gain control of the IGF is unsurprising. It fits the conflict outlined by the WikiLeaks logo. Even if the motion is defeated, which is currently possible, a card has been shown. More moves of this nature, on all possible fronts, will follow until the coup de net is complete. The IGF episode matches Douglas Rushkoff's analysis of the ongoing "net neutrality" debate:
"The moment the 'net neutrality' debate began was the moment the net neutrality debate was lost. … [the internet] will never truly level the playing fields of commerce, politics, and culture. And if it looks like that does stand a chance of happening, the internet will be adjusted to prevent it."
Protocols are the defining battlefield in the struggle between governments and corporations and the autonomous network. The UN’s attempt to take over the IGF is a true act of cyber war with the strategic warfare plan of hacking the internet to finally eradicate its aspirations for autonomy.
In an ambivalent world that is simultaneously exploring new territories of freedom and being subjected to heightened measures of control, the gradual reclamation of the commons is the crucial operation. The internet fosters processes of decommodification that effectively challenge capitalism. Rather than being the result of a violent class struggle, the end of capitalist hegemony might be the result of a slow internet-enabled process of migration, a dripping (to abuse once more the WikiLeaks logo) towards societies that organise around commons.
What is interesting is that WikiLeaks, after all, is still up and running. Someone still hosts it (poetically, a hosting company located in a Cold War-era anti-nuclear bunker), and their fund-raising channels have diversify to bypass the embargo (with partial success). WikiLeaks is an example of how a rogue can still thrive against the will of Empire, supported by an emerging ecology of more autonomous actors. MasterCard, PayPal and Amazon don't need to be shut, just bypassed or outcompeted. As the autonomous ecology matures, it allows for more complexity. This is where the war stands to be won: in the building of autonomous structures of all sorts (structures that bypass and outcompete existing ones) on top of other new structures until the entire old world is unnecessary.
Nicolás Mendoza is a scholar, artist and researcher in global media from The University of Melbourne and a member of the P2P Foundation. His recent work can be found here.
Follow him on Twitter: @nicolasmendo
A version of this article was previously published in the Journal of Radical Philosophy.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.