State of the Art in Media Activism — Lovink

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By Geert Lovink

"We urge everyone in our district to organize for justice – then cars will not be burnt, stones will not be thrown." Stockholm, May 2013

"Why do folks keep expecting technology to fix social issues that society hasn't been able to fix?" dana boyd

"Why not?’ is a powerful question and something you should ask every day." Eli Broad

In this book Vito Campanelli provides a powerful overview of recent issues in net.politics and media activism. In this introduction I do not repeat his arguments, emphasize the importance of the late Aaron Schwartz or list again the numerous legal battles that are going on right now inside the cyber arena. Needless to say that net.activism these days has grown up and is huge, comparable to gender struggles and climate change. The right to communicate is vital. It is not a luxury. Yet, the revolutionary spread of connectivity and storage does not translate into an equal rise of the freedom of communication. Quite the contrary, we are in the defense with an immediate danger of falling into a lethargic state of depression.

We are all struggling to make sense of what happened during 2011, the year that started off with the Arab Spring and culminated into the Occupy movement. What we ask ourselves is why it took 3-4 years for these events to unfold—and why we are, in retrospect, already 2 years underway interpreting these chains of global events. Why didn't 2011 culminate into a larger political momentum? As David DeGraw states: "Through Anonymous, Occupy and the 99% Movement, we collectively proved that decentralized self-organizing networks of like-minded people rallying together can set the world on fire. However, we lacked an exit strategy and the resources required to build a self-sustaining movement that can truly achieve the change and evolution of society that we all know we need." This discussion is by no means limited to the role of social media and mobile phones in these mass mobilizations. We have to ask ourselves: what does this hermeneutic delay mean in an age of real-time digital networks where events (including their instant interpretations from Slavoj Zizek) travel with the speed of light? Extensive use of smart phones seems to make it even harder for activists to reflect on the range and impacts of their actions. Is 'direct action' becoming even more symbolic (and informational) than it already was? Can we speak of a theoretical deficit or rather an overproduction in terms of reporting? There is no need for increased engagement. Discontent is thriving. We can be glad that the Age of Indifference is over. But how do we shape the wave of solidarity? How do we stem the Is it only a matter to 'capture' and 'channel' political energies that are floating around us? No matter where you look, one gets the feeling that urgency is only in its infancy and that the networks have not even remotely started to explore their full potential as organizational machines, discoursive platforms and desire tools. Let's unfriend Facebook, shut down and restart the network imaginary.

Activism never restricted itself to the slow and invisible process of advocacy. 'Movimentalism' is not a preliminary form of 'collective awareness' either. In many forms of institutional politics the role of 'civil society' is reduced to that of an input device. "Thanks, we got your message, now shut up." This contradicts another neo-liberal adagium, which says that citizens should not just complain and instead 'embody' solutions. We only have a right to complain if we have alternatives on hand. In short, the current political culture can no longer deal with anger. And this processual numbness in turn furiates the popular voice. Another result is repression for nothing. To contradict in public these days all to easily leads to arrests, and sometimes worst: to shooting cops that simply kill protesters.

Resistance grows out of an existential crisis. There is violence, lack of housing, unemployment, pollution. Taking action is not a gesture of boredom or prosperity. Activists have fires to combat. Yet, urgency in itself does not easily translate into a specific political form. We need to 'invent' them, time and again. What's contemporary? How about temporary think tanks? Have you already seen mobile WiFi research units supported by portable offline libraries? As the Accelerate Manifesto writes, "we need to build an intellectual infrastructure." Think sustainable networks that spread progressive knowledge, with strong ties between all countries and continents. Yes, there is the obligation to represent and build larger structures but the avalanche of catastrophic occurrences only seem to grow. Started-off as an impulse, activism nowadays quickly mutates into a daily informational routine. The problem is not one of consciousness or commitment but one of the organizational form in which we express our discontent. This explains the shift in attention towards political parties such as the Five Star Movement and the pirate parties, but also concepts such as organized networks and The Multitude, the critique of horizontalism and communism 2.0 of Jodi Dean a.o. and the emergence of net.political entities such as Anonymous, Avaaz, Wikileaks (and their shadow meta-event Kony 2012).

Most critiques of the current impasses are known, justified--and predictable. Yes, movements such as Occupy "expend considerable energy on internal direct-democratic process and affective self-valorisation over strategic efficacy, and frequently propound a variant of neo-primitivist localism, as if to if to oppose the abstract violence of globalised capital with the flimsy and ephemeral 'authenticity' of communal immediacy" (Accelerate Manifesto). This critique may be valid for US-activism but doesn't seem to resonate the situation in Southern Europe and the Middle-East. Activism in the North-West of Europe in fact needs more discussion, more consensus, in order to strengthen its own communal ties. The problem with Occupy was not its obsession with internal decision-making rituals but with the lack of the social capacity of its members to build coalitions. The problem here is one of a lifestyle trap. When activism promotes itself as a style, the ability of its memes to travel outside of the issue-context remains limited. Cyberpolitics faces a similar problem: how can we get rid of its Californian hipster dotcom image and politicize the unemployed masses of young people arcoss the globe that will never benefit from the mega profits of 'their' Google and Facebook? When will we see the first strike against Free & Open services by its users?

Activism is about saying enough is enough, we've got to stand up and do something. The refusal is foundational. Just Say No. Cry out loud that you don't give a fuck. For the positivist managerial class is the hard part as they'd rather skip the schizo-part of today's society and prefer to deal with reasonable and balanced people. It is true that the despair of the rebel often ends up in a catastrophic, violent event, one that will be overdetermined by the agenda of others. So what is aesthetic negativity in the age of smart phones? We cannot run away from this question. Is there a pure form of techno-nihilism that is both creative and destructive? How can the hacker identity be taken out of the libertarian context? The Anonymous identity design is a promising start in this respect.

What's desire in this digital networked age? This question may seem rhetorical, even utopian, but that's not how it is meant. Today's answer is all too often formulated in the language of offline romanticism. The way to out can only be perceived as an exodus of technology as such whereas technological proposals are often condemned as 'solutionism' (Morozov). How can we design a radical agenda that ignores both? As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said: "Never allow a crisis to go to waste. They are opportunities to do big things." Let's seize that moment and become technical together. Let's forget reformist agendas that emphasize individual solutions. In fighting censorship, surveillance and control of both states and monopolies there is a promise of a new culture of decentralization that is able to negotiate its rights on federated level with standards and protocols that benefit all. This techno promise is up in the air, and Vito Campanelli reports about it.