Saturday, August 6, 2011

NetPolitik: A Primer - Introduction

"This is truly a transformative event on the global scene - namely that for the first time in human history - for the first time in all of human history - almost all of mankind is politically awake - activated; politically conscious and interactive." - Zbigniew Brzezinski

"The Net's made up of billions of mice... working parallel all at the same time, all trained to touch the right plate, to register On or Off... human microcomponents inputting data, calling it up, changing the patterns over and over... They'd never imagine the real reach of the supersystem they were a part of... human brains were limited function, but they were cheap, flexible, reliable equipment... and when they were linked together into a network, with superseed access fusing them into a whole, those puny, slow-moving human-sized intelligences became something more..." - Joan D. Vinge, Catspaw, 1988


The controversy and debate over the Google+ "real names" policy, aka Nymwars, has emerged into the general public's awareness over the past few weeks and I cannot be more thrilled. The issues of identity, transparency, marketing, monitoring, data farming and security have exploded into the mainstream media and are being talked about, debated and discussed openly and with great vigor. I have waited half my life for this moment.

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Logging In To The Future

When I first logged on to the Nets circa 1983, I was very young; younger than most of my contemporaries (unlike today). I was part of a new society, and like any smart young person, I wanted to know the rules and reasons; the social codes of conduct of my new society. I wanted to know them because I wanted to be part of the community.

My training in anthropology/sociology as well as my extensive studies on symbolism, societal rituals and underlying structural assumptions made me aware of this society from an outsider's (anthropologist's) perspective. It was an elite, true; based mostly on technical knowledge and accessibility. But it was also an egalitarian and purely-democratic elite; you could elect yourself to this elite with only application and study. This was exactly the opposite of most hierarchical societal structures, which is why it was an exciting field; this was something new in human relations. You didn't have to be born into the right family or have the right connections (except for a modem). You could be as good as your intelligence, study and practice could make you. You could learn almost anything about the technology you wanted to, using the resources of that very technology [bootstrapping].

The Technical Self Becomes Political

So I began to spend an increasingly huge amount of time on the nets, eager to explore a field that was brand-new in my time; a huge opportunity for any student. Cyberpunk and cypherpunk were engaging in speculation and debate over issues of artificial intelligence, datamining, accountability and pervasive presence all triggered or inspired by the new technology explosion. People like John Perry Barlow were discussing the political ramifications of software and communications, spurred on by Operation Sundevil and the infamous raid on Steve Jackson Games. Also in the news was the Morris Worm, which became the first conviction under the 1986 Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. [for a great read of the political underpinnings to much of today's internet law, read Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier - Bruce has generously made this seminal book freely-downloadable at that link]

In my quest to understand both the tech and the society I had found, I thought, read and wrote about both technical issues (such as how to get that yummy fuschia HTML text) and... politics. I could not avoid politics; it had started to intrude on the technical net world. From my readings of cybertheorists like Donna Haraway (A Manifesto For Cyborgs, 1985) and Sherry Turkle (The Second Self, 1984), my very-extensive collection of cyber/cypherpunk and the current newspaper headlines and BBS forums, I became aware of the politics of information.

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Environmental Variables

Just as today most of us are very aware of the currents, fads, trends and common issues affecting our online presence and access to information, my world in those days was very informed by the speculation and debate surrounding the intrusion of government and corporations into what had mostly been a private playground and workspace of the technical crowd. While I was straining my poor little artist-brain to understand the equipment necessary to get online and join this society, I could not overlook the political ramifications of these intrusions (at that time, Operation Sundevil was as hot and widely-discussed an event as Nymwars).

As a socio-anthropologist I had to become conversant with the human aspects of this new technology; the affect on the societal structure, dialogue, language and behaviour. Any true study of a society must encompass the political and power hierarchies of the tribal unit; the significance of ritual, codes, religion and authority on societal structure is exactly what the field is about.

Watching The Network Grow

The reason I found all this tremendously exciting [outside the pure technical wizardry] was that I was in the right place at the right time to observe the primal foundations of a new societal structure. I could not help but relate the growth of the physical network and its effect on the members of its' society to the structures of agrarian, hunter-gatherer and industrial societies and the effect of their brand of technology on their social structures [see the effects of the cotton gin on US politics for example, or Henry Ford's sponsorship of the assembly line model or his labor philosophy]

I found that many of the early common net discussions, without an established or rigid hierarchy, would eventually respond in a self-policing manner to trolls, crackers and other "disturbers of the Commons." Sure, there were micro-hierarchies; some based purely on authoritative knowledge (Richard Stallman, Vint Cerf, Bruce Sterling) and some based on control (sysops, forum moderators, IRC channel controllers). But now, rather than one person or group being in complete control of the debate by controlling and channeling access to information, opinion and discussion as was previously the model of most human societal structure since the beginning of history, suddenly there were channels that could not be controlled. The debate could not be shut down from one central source; indeed, the structure of the politics mirrored the structure of the network; designed to be self-routing, to circumvent obstructions and restrictions and to carry the signal forward by reconfiguring the route.

Tourist or Traveler?

The Net was inventing its own codes of conduct, based on a new democratic model of access to information and open public channels. Far from being the "lawless Wild West" that the mainstream press continues to trumpet as a model, I saw it more akin to a tourist town: at times invaded by hordes of gum-chewing, photo-snapping masses of "day trippers" using the technology without a fundamental knowledge of the structure or history of the town.

[Many tourists are notorious for paying little heed to the local character, customs or ethical social structures of the towns they invade. But the way to truly know a society or culture is not to snap a photo and go away after getting drunk in a local bar and pissing on the town square's beautiful garden, where many locals come to rest, to admire, to meet-and-greet and interact]

The way to understand the rich culture of a society is to participate in it; to observe, to think and speculate; to interact and engage the locals and to listen to a different model than the one you carry around in your head. If you go to Paris and eat all of your meals in the Paris McDonalds, or you go to Hawai'i and spend all your time in the Hilton, you are only imposing your own long-held models of society and culture. You're masturbating in a mirror and thinking you are learning. All you are seeing is a pretty backdrop of scenery; you might as well have stayed home, spared the expense and spent your time looking at pretty pictures in travel magazines.

A traveler, on the other hand, goes to places to experience them as they are; as a different physical and socio-political environment. A tourist comes to skim a surface; a traveler (or socio-anthropologist) comes because they wish to participate in a different reality.

On The Dig Site

I became aware of the tremendous potential of the networking model as a state/phase transition from the linear, heirarchically-dominated model that has held sway over human discourse and politics for hundreds of years. I began to view my studies through the framework of similar sociological observations made about the impact of technology on societal structure - the assembly line, the cotton gin, the recurve bows of the Mongols, the printing press. Each of these technological inventions had a tremendous impact on the structure and behaviour of the societies that adopted them. Society adapted to the technology; in turn, the technology created new structures in that society.

I was on the ground floor observing the invention and formation of a new societal model based on the structures of a new technology. Hot dog! This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I was completely smitten, jazzed and overwhelmed with gratitude to What Powers May Be for the chance to participate in this paradigm-changing event as a serious student and member.

I studied everything - my own computer, the programs I used, the structures of the net from a technical perspective (what exactly is TCP? IP? How do they work? What's ICMP? Why should I know about it?) based on the need to configure my computer to interact with BBS systems, telnet-reachable systems and game servers. Because I wanted to play in this environment, I had to understand my environment to a greater or lesser degree in order to accomplish what I wanted to do.

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Portrait of the Artist As A Young Hacker

One of my observations was that having to think in terms of interconnected complex layers of multiple subsystems was analogous to what I did as an artist: juggle shifting layers of symbolic abstraction to synthesize an end/aim/purpose/communication. The net is a huge Magic Mirror, feeding back what is put into it in the same way a network or program produces results depending on how the data are obtained, cross-indexed and referenced. The artist functions in a similar way by self-ordering the quest for meaning, assembling data (elements), defining the desired end/function and producing a work of art. Cybernetic models were applicable to both processes.

This was a complete revelation to me; as a lazy right-brain/intuitive Generalist, I was forced to strictly discipline myself. To operate my own computer I had to understand my computer; how it worked, the subsystems inside it, the software to configure it and the theory of how it functioned in a networked environment. To say that I had many more tearful nights of frustration than the average "natural" geek is an understatement [maths != me]. I persevered for several reasons: I knew I was a lazy right-brain Dreamer type and I thought computers could at least give me some structure to exercise and expand my left-brain. I had the motivation to do so for both artistic and sociological reasons. I started to see what the concept of networking was truly about.

I made myself learn to build computers because it was cheaper, but it also required me to learn about disk drives, throughput, memory buses, sideband processes, concurrency, latency, power requirements and balancing all that off in a superior system that did what I wanted it to do (and cost me less than systems less efficient, powerful and streamlined than mine) . Understanding the complex system of a computer and observing the even more complex structures of a local network, a wide-area network and the giant metanetwork that was the result of all the minor networks linked to it expanded my mind in many directions.

I saw the art of it; the beauty and symmetry of it; I saw the logic of it; I saw how the processes linked together in a model almost biological in its ability to configure, reconfigure and self-adjust along cybernetic feedback lines. I was living and absorbing network theory and realizing it dovetailed with my socio-anthropological studies, which were in turn based on my desire to understand my craft from the roots of civilization to the present - art as a communication of human experience.

Is it any wonder I have spent half my life exploring this fontier?

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An Artist's Perspective

As I have watched the network grow and the impact of that on communication between larger groups of people than has ever been possible before, I have also watched the invasion and exploitation of that network and this new thing by the forces of both government and corporations.

I have watched as these new forces inpacted on the system which I had been studying, in the same way I would observe the effects of a new program or process introduced into my computer or a new element introduced to a socio-political matrix ["Look Ma! The Wheel!!!"]. They are an integral variable of force and vector in the program and in the structures of both the network and society. They affect the group/tribe's consciousness and their myths, stories and minds; they are as significant as the invasion of Britain by the forces of Julius Caesar.

This is my real avocation as an artist; beyond creating "stuffs" to market or expand my ego/presence in the world, I wish to/am born to/can't help but listen to the ghosts of my people; to their dreams and daydreams, their deepest hopes and most fearful demons, to their experience of humanity through a calm afternoon in a field of flowers to a raging storm aboard a ship at sea; from the feelings of aloneness and existential angst to the bright flame that is family and community.

As an artist and socio-anthropologist, a student of the system and the Net, I have objections and reservations to altering the basic and fundamental structures of the network or a society by outside forces, particularly for their own profit with no understanding or concern for the structures they are exploiting. I object to inefficient structures in the network because they are not best practices for the network. It is a politik informed as much by network structure and aesthetics as by political theory.

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Power Struggle

I have seen progress in computing and technology retarded on many fronts over the last 15 years. I have watched as the political forces of government and business have gibbered in fear when they finally realized what we meant when we labeled it "the Information Revolution." I have watched, as Brzezinski [quoted above] says, the formation of what I can only consider the emergence of Electronic Democracy - the voice and political awareness of many more people than previously imagined suddenly able to discourse between themselves, outside approved "channels" and the ability for them to provide instant feedback to decisions generated from within their respective communities.

And I have seen something else; how for moments at a time, despite inter-tribal differences and rivalries, the entire Net will sometimes come up with a world-wide consensus on some issues or become aware/discuss/interact as a whole with some issues (as we are seeing now with the Nymwars debate). And that is a completely new phenomenon, as Brzezinski says. Very exciting.

Unfortunately, this political behaviour/awareness is at a huge variance with the hierarchical power-control model of many societies. The attempt to treat a network or bandwidth as "limited" is a false model; we cannot propagate rare earth minerals in the same way we can propagate networks [add capacity]. The network is not a limited resource.

A network also functions best when it is open; from tribal structure to the internet, the free exchange of ideas and information is the best possible model for a society and for a system. This is at cross-purposes to the people who wish to be the gatekeepers of resources in order to control the chain of supply-and-demand. It is also at cross-purposes to the interests of many State actors, who wish to control their populace and the channels of political expression free from ideology. It's no different from the forces of Business and Church being united in their efforts to control the printing press and the ability of people to read and write for their separate purposes.

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The Politics of Information

I have also seen how the twin forces of State and Business have run parallel in their efforts to "reign in," control and force the network and its citizens into historical, hierarchical models in order to maintain ideological and economic hegemony.

I won't use the term "conspiracy" here; let's instead call it colluding or perhaps "trending". For varying reasons but working towards the same aims, both Business and State have sensed the threat of the Nets to their old models of control. They are viewing the network, with its multilayered levels of cybernetic feedback mechanisms, as a linear, mechanical process. This is a mistake; both the computer and the network demonstrate the synergistic effect of many logical steps creating a process that is larger than those steps, just as a collection of colored pigments, canvas and brush can result in a painting that produces an effect on human consciousness far beyond its mere physical components.

The computer is not a linear machine; it is a machine that can make itself into many types of machines; a meta-machine. The Net is not linear. The network/program has technical hierarchies, true; but they are based mostly on the best/most efficient solution to a local problem. The Net was designed from the ground up to have the intelligence to reroute its own structure in imitation of the human brain. The Net was designed to allow access from many ports over many different protocols. The Net is even more revolutionary than the linear printing press in its ability to feedback virtually instantly from more input sources than a book could possibly have.

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As a technologist, things that affect the throughput or efficiency of communication [bad programs] are undesireable. Resource hogs [rogue programs, bad allocation requests] are something to be tracked and fixed... or killed. A corporation's ability to destroy part of the functionality of a device I have legally purchased [Sony] is a technical problem, to be fixed or routed around. A State's ability to compel me to put all my personal informations in the hands of corporations to buy and sell with no regard to basic security practices [Sony hack, BofA hack, ad infinitum] or any requirement or responsibility in the handling of that data is a severe flaw in system integrity.

As an artist, I realize that I have been privileged to be so fundamentally involved in the growth of this medium. I have lived on the Net and taken part in it's tribal and societal rituals and knowledge for over a quarter of a century. I have learned the Stories and Myths firsthand; I have seen and participated in some of the Great Battles and the rise and fall of business empires. I have read its Declarations of Independence, I have been at many of its Waterloos, its Wounded Knees, its Gettysbergs, its Continental Congresses.

I find that many in the newer generation of netizens do not know how politics invaded the net or do not know where to start on examining these political forces that are causing it damage, just as many people are unaware of a virus in their system while it is wreaking havok on their data structures. They do not know the context of previous bills and events involving the Nets to place something like H.R. 1981 - (PCFIPA of 2011) in perspective as a dangerous and underhanded political maneuver. They don't know that while corporations try to marginalize techs by tarring them all "hackers," those very companies are hacking you to track you and shovel ads down your throat even if you elect to delete their spyware.

I think people make better decisions when they are informed of all sides of the debates and issues. Despite the mainstream media's silence/downplaying/ignorance of our history and politics, the current issues that are affecting the growth and accessibility of the Nets and information access have a rich history of thought, speculation and action. Today's netizens can benefit from knowing this history so that they may continue to enjoy and experience this amazing environment in the future. The nets are interactive; get involved.

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This series of posts are all tagged netpolitik and/or the politics of information for easy search on this blog. They will be my non-linear personal experience and knowledge, cross-referenced with external links where applicable. Yes, they are long and dense; no, they are not casual blog posting. Don't eat them all at once or approach them linearly - hope around, hyperlink; taste bits. Follow the White Rabbit.

I hope these posts will form an information-nexus for further investigation into these observations from a digital socio-anthropologist and artist. I also hope they will inform the newer generation of netizens with the history, the structure and the amazing possibilities of the network model and environment and awaken them to the efforts of these system hackers [political forces/viruses] to infiltrate and suborn the natural flow and functioning of the network.

I hope people will feel a sense of pride in the history of the Nets and a desire to become active participants in their community. I hope they will be spurred on to research these thoughts and opinions and make up their own minds and write about it, discuss it and communicate it. I hope they will realize what an awesome privilege and responsibility it is to be part of the World Net and how, if they wish to enjoy their home and lands, they must be informed of the underlying forces and stressors on the structure of this techno-body politic in order to take an active and informed voice in the debate over the future of the Nets.

And I hope above all for the emergence of a truly Electronic Democracy; a new model of human relations and interaction. We surely need one.

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Anonymous said...

Wonderful, impressive and very well written posting as usual Miso. your blog deserves a bigger audience <3
"A tourist comes to skim a surface; a traveler (or socio-anthropologist) comes because they wish to participate in a different reality."
Actually thats the way i always has been travelling irl. i have never been on a charter trip for example. Im too curious =)
//Mera, xxxxxxxxx

Apmel said...

I thought your link "Follow the White Rabbit" was an invitation to follow Khannea Suntzu's series of events under the name of
White Rabbit

It was NOT! But I´m happy I clicked on the link anyway :))

Miso Susanowa said...

@Apmel- no but ty for the link! I love it!

@Mera - *hug* I have always traveled this way in RL also, and on the nets.