Activist Media Tomorrow*

* BH: When I wrote this text five years ago, it really was not clear whether the swarming tactics of the counter-globalization movement would get a "second chance." But they have, and now the subtitle could be "activist media today."

What happened at the turn of the millennium, when a myriad of recording devices were hooked up to the Internet and the World Wide Web became an electronic prism refracting all the colors of a single anti-capitalist struggle? What kind of movement takes to the barricades with samba bands and videocams, tracing an embodied map through a maze of virtual hyperlinks and actual city streets? The organizational aesthetics of the networked movements was called "tactical media," a concept that mixed the quick-and-dirty appropriation of consumer electronics with the subtle counter-cultural anthropology of Michel de Certeau. The idea was to evoke a new kind of popular subjectivity, constitutionally "under the radar," impossible to identify, constantly shifting with the inventions of digital storytelling and the ruses of open-source practice. Too bad so much of this subversive process was frozen into a single seductive phrase.

In the neutralizing languages of academia and in the showrooms of the electronic arts festivals, "tactical media" has come to describe playful or satirical incursions into everyday consumer reality: the digital graffiti of the neoliberal city, the info-poetics of the postmodern multitudes. But in the early days there was something much more virulent at stake: grassroots impatience with old-left hierarchies, overflowing anger against governments and businesses, an urge to rethink the art of campaigning on the fly - all of which were at the center of the Next 5 Minutes gatherings in Amsterdam in the 1990s, before pouring out into the streets at the century's turn. Only when the urgency subsided (or was repressed by the police) did the multiple inventions of daily media-life become aesthetics-as-usual, enjoyed by specialist consumers and supported by the state, for the benefit of the corporations. A decade after Seattle, we still don't understand the role of decentralized media intervention as a catalyst for grassroots action at the global scale. The concept of "tactical media" should be abandoned for another one, closer to what really happened on the streets and on the screens, and richer with promises for the future.

Pulsating Networks

Let's look back at the early campaigns and demonstrations where the political potential of the Internet first appeared in broad daylight. The mobilizing process for global resistance actions immediately became known as "self-organization" because of the absence of hierarchical chains of command. At the same time, the starburst patterns of network graphs became emblems of a cooperative potential that seemed to define the "movement of movements." As Naomi Klein wrote in the year 2000, shortly after Seattle and the IMF protests in Washington:

"What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet - the Internet come to life. The Washington-based research center TeleGeography has taken it upon itself to map out the architecture of the Internet as if it were the solar system. Recently, TeleGeography pronounced that the Internet is not one giant web but a network of "hubs and spokes." The hubs are the centers of activity, the spokes the links to other centers, which are autonomous but interconnected." [1]

Condensed here are three key ideas. The first concerns the morphology of the Internet as an all-channel meshwork, where each node is connected to others by several different pathways. Ultimately there are only a few degrees of separation between every element - a flattened hierarchy. The second concerns the property of emergence, associated with large populations of living organisms like ants and bees, where group behavior is coordinated in real time and manifests a purposiveness beyond the capacities of any individual. Emergence describes a moment when the possible becomes actual - a phase-change in a complex system. The third idea concerns the multiplicity of networked society: the poles that emerge from its interconnections are autonomous, they are endowed with intentions that distinguish each one from the others, creating a situation of irremediable complexity. These ideas came together in the early 1990s, in the image of the swarm promoted by technovisionary Kevin Kelly in the book Out of Control. It was a great insight. But now we can compare that visionary image to a few realities.

What lends form and regularity to emergent action? How to grasp the consistency of self-organized groups and networks? The word "swarming" describes a pattern of self-organization in real time, which seems to arise from nowhere yet is immediately recognizable, because it rhythmically repeats. It was understood by strategists as a pattern of attack, in the classic definition given by RAND corporation theorists Arquilla and Ronfeldt: "Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing - swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse." [2]  Arquilla and Ronfeldt studied these pulsating tactics in the complex patterns of mediated and on-the-ground support for the Zapatistas, which prevented the Mexican state from isolating and destroying them. Interestingly, the "target" of the swarm was the repressive activity of the state. But the swarm tactic only became reality for the world at large with the successful blockade of the November 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, Washington, thanks largely to the Direct Action Network (DAN).

The DAN used swarming as part of a broader strategy to draw union protesters into a radical blockade of the meeting. Arquilla and Ronfeldt suddenly had palpable proof of their theories. [3] For a short but very intense two-year period, emergent collective intelligence seemed to promise an unexpected resurgence of civil society as a stunningly agile political actor in the postmodern public realm. After the events of September 11, the threat of swarming became a major concern of Western military establishments, while informal, criminal, revolutionary and terrorist networks proliferated around the world. A decade of so-called "military intelligence" has poisoned the idea of the self-organized multitude, along with so many other aspects of our daily existence. But military analysis, focused uniquely on the destruction of its objects, can hardly tell us all there is to know. If the image of the swarm remains somehow appealing it is because it points to a process of cooperation where subjects merge into an intentional unity, before separating to reevaluate the dynamics of their action. What we need to understand, then, is the "ecology" of emergent behavior, to use a word that suggests a dynamic, fractal unity: a oneness of the many and a multiplicity of the one. We need to understand what really works in the relation between the streets and the screens.

Twice-Woven Worlds

Two factors can explain the consistency of self-organized actions. The first is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance: the exchange among dispersed individuals of information, but also of affect, about unique events unfolding in specific locations. This exchange becomes a flow of constantly changing, constantly reinterpreted clues about how to act within a shared environment. But temporal coordination itself depends on a second factor, which is the existence of a common horizon - aesthetic, ethical, philosophical and/or metaphysical - that is deliberately built up over longer periods of time, and that allows the scattered members of a network to recognize each other as existing within a shared referential and imaginary universe. Media used in this way is more than just information: it is a mnemonic image that calls up a world of sensation. At best it opens up the possibility of a response, a dialogic exchange, a new creation. Think of activist media as the continuous process of "making worlds" within an otherwise fragmented, inchoate market society.

For an example, take Indymedia, launched at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 using an Active Software program that allows for the spontaneous uploading of various file formats onto a "newswire." On the one hand, this is a strictly determined technical environment: Indymedia operates on precisely defined codes and server architectures that only allow for a limited range of inputs. In addition to those technical protocols, the content of the sites is shaped by clearly stated ethical principles which attempt to regulate and legitimate the kind of editing that may or may not take place. The existence of both protocols and principles is a necessary condition for the interaction of large numbers of anonymous persons at locations far distant from the surroundings of their daily existence. [4] The self-organization of the December 2008 protests in Greece is a fantastic example of the continuing importance of Indymedia, alongside many other forms of real-time networked communication. But the creation of possible worlds cannot stop with protest and riots. It also requires a cultural strategy of liberation, where media is "tactile" first of all: where it touches you as a process of expression, open to creative reception and transformation by each person.

This tactile approach can be understood through the aesthetics of the Reclaim the Streets carnivals or the Pink Bloc campaigns, to name well-known activist projects that create entire participatory environments, or "constructed situations." At stake in such situations is the development of an existential frame for collective experience, what Prem Chandavarkar calls an "inhabitable metaphor." [5] Only such metaphors make dispersed intervention possible. What needs to be understood - the media strategy of the global campaigns - is this tight imbrication of technological protocols and cultural horizons. Swarming is what happens when the aesthetic or metaphorical dimensions of radical social protest are enriched around the planet via electronic communications. A transnational activist movement is a swarmachine.

Thresholds of Invention

The point is that the contemporary movements are original, and should not be reduced to models from earlier periods. To illustrate this distance from the ideas of the 1960s and 70s, we can look more closely at the strategy/tactics distinction, as developed by Michel de Certeau. He describes strategic actors as having a "proper" place from which they can analyze and manage exterior objects conceived as targets or threats. By contrast, he says, the dominated have no place to call their own and must operate by ruse and subterfuge within the grid of the opponent's strategy. This is the condition of the working classes, the colonized and the excluded, but for De Certeau it also becomes the archetypal plight of the marginalized individual: "Increasingly constrained, yet less and less concerned with these vast frameworks, the individual detaches himself from them without being able to escape them and can henceforth only try to outwit them, to pull tricks on them, to rediscover, within an electronicized and computerized megalopolis, the 'art' of the hunters and rural folk of earlier days. The fragmentation of the social fabric today lends a political dimension to the problem of the subject." [6] Here, it seems, lies the connection with tactical media.

The Practice of Everyday Life delves into premodern registers, in search of styles of sociability that are irreducible, invisible, untotalizable. The idea is to discover a wandering, unfocused consumer usage as the multiple, unquantifiable other of an instrumental, goal-oriented rationality. Subjective errancy becomes a politics of difference, which can be expressed even amid the standardized environments of consumption. But a kind of nightmare inhabits this dream: the fear that even tactics will become random, indifferent and indistinct, as they extend throughout a strategic system whose corrosive force has at once liberated them from their traditional limits, and colonized everything with its rational calculations:

"Because of this, the "strategic" model is also transformed, as if defeated by its own success: it was based on the definition of a "proper" distinct from everything else; but now that "proper" has become the whole. It could be that, little by little, it will exhaust its capacity to transform itself and constitute only the space (just as totalitarian as the cosmos of ancient times) in which a cybernetic society will arise, the scene of the Brownian movements of invisible and innumerable tactics. One would thus have a proliferation of aleatory and indeterminable manipulations within an immense framework of socioeconomic constraints and securities: myriads of almost invisible movements, playing on the more and more refined texture of a place that is even, continuous, and constitutes a proper place for all people." [7]

Everyday tactics, in De Certeau's sense, are a refuge of multiplicity amid a dominant technological rationality. Yet by his own account they are destined increasingly to lose their archaic depth and secret purpose, and to dance in agitated, aleatory spasms over the surfaces of a cybernetically programmed society. We are not far from the nihilistic abandon of the postmodern revolutionaries, influenced by disenchanted situationists like Baudrillard. But their apocalyptic aesthetics may not be the best way to describe the media production of the alterglobalization movements.

Ironically, the Brownian motion which De Certeau takes as the very signifier of aimlessness and unpredictability was in fact mathematicized as a probability function by Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics. Wiener was fascinated by the turbulence of water, the volatility of steam, the erratic, bifurcating course of a flying bee, or "the path of a drunken man walking across a large deserted playing field." [8] He invented a formula that could describe the probable trajectories, not of individual particles, but of aggregate groups. In 1973, just a year before The Practice of Everyday Life was first published, Wiener's equations were employed by the economist Robert C. Merton to predict the volatility and drift of equity values on the stock market, giving rise to the infamous Black-Scholes option pricing formula, which led in its turn to the hedge funds of the 1980s and 1990s and the subprime derivatives of our own era. The Brownian motion of the stock markets became predictable, even profitable. In the age of predatory mathematics the forms of expression are never just random, but always liable to be harnessed in their very randomness, for ends that transcend their seeming aimlessness. But all that just means that the thresholds of social invention are elsewhere.

Global Microstructures

One way to approach the new formations of social activism is through the work of the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, whose studies of currency traders led her to the concept of "complex global microstructures." By this she means geographically extended interactions that are not bound by the multi-layered organizations and expert systems that modern industrial states have developed to manage uncertainty. Thus she remarks that currency-trading networks were able to precipitate the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, reorganizing the global economy; and obviously, the unregulated actions of derivatives traders have done so yet again in the late 2000s, with a vengeance. The financial markets, Knorr Cetina observes, "are too fast, and change too quickly to be 'contained' by institutional orders." At stake are the dynamics of chaos and complexity. Surprisingly, she explains financial innovations as an outcome of "play," recalling the free-floating tactics of Michel de Certeau. Yet in the end her terms are quite different, because they describe a complex tension between order and chaos: "Global systems based on microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction patterns; a complexity that results from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified social processes and is always intertwined with chaos." [9]

Knorr Cetina stresses the importance of real-time coordination and the creation of shared horizons. She shows how networked ICTs allow distant participants to see and recognize each other, and to achieve cohesion by observing and commenting on the same events at the same time. [10] Yet the technology employed is used opportunistically, it can be "outsourced." What matters is the system of goals or beliefs that binds the participants together. She reinterprets the usual view of networks as a system of pipes conveying informational contents, insisting instead on their visual function: there is a shift from "pipes" to "scopes." It is the experience of the mediated image that maintains the shared horizon and insists on the urgency of acting within it, especially through what Barthes called the punctum : the affective register that leaps out from the general dull flatness of the image and touches you. Finally, the idea of "auto-affection" derives from Maturana and Varela's concept of the living organism as a self-sustaining autopoietic machine, defined in classic circular fashion as "a network of processes of production" which "through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them." [11]

Standard social network theory found its dynamic principle in more-or-less random attractions between atomistic units bound only by the "weak ties" of contemporary liberal societies. [12] The notion of autopoietic social groups introduces a very different type of actor. To understand the implications, one has to realize that each autopoietic machine or "microstructure" is unique, depending on the coordinates and horizons that configure it. For example, take the open-source software networks. There is a shared horizon constituted by texts and exemplary projects: Richard Stallman's declarations and the GNU project; Linus Torvald's launch of Linux; essays like " The Hacker Ethic" ; projects such as Creative Commons; the relation of all that to older ideals of public science; etc. There are formal principles: above all the General Public License, known as "copyleft," with its legal requirements for both the indication of authorship (allowing recognition of everyone's efforts) and the continued openness of any resulting code (allowing widespread cooperation and innovation). Finally there are concrete modes of temporal coordination via the Internet: Sourceforge as a general version-tracker for continuously forking projects, and the specific wiki-forums devoted to each free software application. The whole thing has as little institutional complexity as possible, but instead is full of self-motivation and auto-affection between dispersed members of a highly coherent, swiftly moving and effective social group.

Tendencies favoring the emergence of global microstructures have been developing for decades, along the unraveling edges of national institutional environments weakened by neoliberalism. But a turning-point was reached in September of 2001. Knorr Cetina's article is subtitled "The New Terrorist Societies," and it extends the analysis of global financial microstructures to Al Qaeda. Where in the nineties, everyone saw networks, now everyone would see the threat of radical militants. The alterglobalization movement, long plagued by the difficulty of distinguishing its own mobile formation from the vanguards of financial globalization­, began rapidly to fall apart when accusations conflating the protesters with the terrorists started rising on all sides. Almost four years after S-11, on the last day of the 2005 G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the explosion of terrorist bombs in London totally eclipsed any message that could have been brought by the protesters. Al Qaeda appeared on the nightly news as the exemplar of global activist movements - and the perfect excuse for eradicating all of them.

Second Chances

Sociological parallels can be drawn between the alterglobalization movements and both financiers and terrorists. But the only thing that really brings these distant galaxies together is the force of historical change, which each of them expresses differently, for vastly different ends. Knorr Cetina claims that change in the contemporary world is driven by microprocesses, put into effect by light, agile formations that can risk innovation at geographical scales and degrees of complexity where traditional organizations are paralyzed. As she has written: "The texture of a global world becomes articulated through microstructural patterns that develop in the shadow of (but liberated from) national and local institutional patterns." But in the last decade, the debate around microstructural processes was totally dominated by the police. The reactions of the national institutions to terrorism posed a major problem for all the movements seeking progressive and egalitarian social change.

Even as swarm theory became a strong paradigm for the militarized social sciences, attempts were launched around the planet to stabilize the dangerously mobile relational patterns unleashed by the neoliberal market society and its weak ties. But the overarching trends remain completely contradictory. On the one hand, there is a continuing effort to enforce the rules of free trade to the benefit of major banks and corporations, thus sustaining the project of liberal empire. On the other hand, the most common popular responses to this market enforcement are regressions to exacerbated forms of nationalism, often with a deep-seated fundamentalist component, as in the United States itself under Bush. Neconservatism in all its forms is the "blowback" of neoliberal economics, which could become even worse under the influence of the financial crisis. In this regard there's something prophetic about Félix Guattari's discussion in the late 1980s of the interplay between deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Guattari describes the situation in these terms:

As the deterritorializing revolutions, tied to the development of science, technology and the arts, sweep everything aside before them, a compulsion toward subjective reterritorialization also emerges. And this antagonism is heightened even more with the phenomenal growth of the communications and computer fields, to the extent that the latter concentrate their deterritorializing effects on such human faculties as memory, perception, understanding, imagination, etc. In this way, a certain formula of anthropological functioning, a certain ancestral model of humanity, is expropriated at its very heart. And I think that it is as a result of an incapacity to adequately confront this phenomenal mutation that collective subjectivity has abandoned itself to the absurd wave of conservatism that we are presently witnessing. [13]

How to invent alternatives to the violence of capitalist deterritorialization, but also to the fundamentalist reterritorialization that follows it? The dilemma of the contemporary world is not just Christianity versus Islam. It's at the very heart of the modern project that human potential is expropriated. Since September 11, the American corporate class and its allies have at once exacerbated the abstract, hyperindividualizing dynamics of capitalist globalization, and at the same time, reinvented the most archaic figures of power (Guantanamo, Fortress Europe, the Israeli wall around Palestine, the dichotomy of sovereign majesty and bare life). Nothing can guarantee that this basic pattern will not be maintained in subtler forms, long after the departure of the neoconservatives from the political scene. Guattari speaks of a capitalist "drive" to deterritorialization, and a "compulsion" to reterritorialize. What this means is that essential dimensions of human life are twisted into violent and oppressive caricatures. The effect is to render the promise of a borderless world repulsive and even murderous, while at the same time precipitating the crisis, decay and regression of national institutions, increasingly incapable of contributing to liberty, equality or the respect for each other's difference.

So after all the definitions of tactical media, what we still need to know is whether one can consciously participate in the improvisational, asymmetrical play of microprocesses operating at a global scale, and whether one can use their relative autonomy from institutional norms as a way to influence a more positive reterritorialization, a dynamic equilibrium, a viable coexistence with technoscientific development and the trend toward the unification of world society. It should be clear by now that to do all this means ceasing to be "one": it means taking on the trans-subjective risk of micropolitics, and extending it, whenever possible, from the intimate to the territorial, national, continental and global scales. This can only be achieved by drawing out mnemonic images from latent historical experience and from the intricate textures of everyday life, and mixing them into electronic media interventions in order to help reweave the imaginary threads that give radical-democratic movements their strong and paradoxical consistency. At stake is the refusal of arbitrary authority, of course, but also solidarity across differences and the desire to create consensus not on the basis of tradition, but rather on the basis of invention, experimentation and collective self-critique. If grassroots social movements can have an effect in the future, particularly in the face of integrated drives to surveillance, oppression and war, it will be by inventing both the principles and the transmissibility of a new ethical-political position: an intensely public resistance to the forces that claim power over intimate existence.

The ability to create the event is what gave the alterglobalization movements their surprising agility in the world space. But the character of the event is precisely what you can never be sure of. As Maurizio Lazzarato writes: "The activist is not someone who becomes the brains of the movement, who sums up its force, anticipates its choices, draws his or her legitimacy from a capacity to read and interpret the evolution of power, but instead, the activist is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of desires, of images, to put them at the service of the multiplicity's power of articulation; she links the singular situations together, without placing herself at a superior and totalizing point of view. She is an experimenter." [14]

The shape of the present makes it clear, however, that what is to be sought is not a simple exit into chaos. Exodus or what I have called "escape" has a very different meaning. The point is to find articulations of human effort that can oppose and even durably replace the death-dealing powers of the present society. The inexorability of historical forces seems to offer few chances for grassroots intervention into macropolitical realities. Still the outcomes of the processes at work before our eyes are totally uncertain; and we can prefer to believe that there will be important second chances for radical democracy movements, and new roles for improvised global media. The future belongs to those who can make the experimental difference.


*This text emerged from a debate on the Internet mailing list Nettime, April 10-25, 2006 - and to that extent, it was really written by the many-headed hydra of the list. Thanks everyone. The whole debate is accessible at:

1 - Naomi Klein, "The Vision Thing," in The Nation (July 10, 2000);

2 - D. Ronfeldt, J. Arquilla, et alii, The Zapatista "Social Netwar" in Mexico (Rand Corporation, 1998), chapter 2;

3 - See Paul de Armond, "Netwar in the Emerald City," in D. Ronfeldt, J. Arquilla, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (RAND, 2001);

4 - This discussion of protocols and principles has been informed by Felix Stalder's definition of a network, both on Nettime and in his book, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), chapter 6.

5 - See Prem Chandavarkar's insightful reply to these ideas, posted by on Nettime on 20.04.2006.

6 - Michel de Certeau (1974), The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: UC Press, 1984), pp. xxiii-xxiv.

7 - Ibid, pp. 40-41.

8 - Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (Cambridge, MA: Basic Books, 2005), p. 51.

9 - Karin Knorr Cetina, "Complex Global Microstructures," in Theory Culture Society 22 (2005), pp. 213-234.

10 - Cf. Karin Knorr Cetina and Urs Bruegger, "Global Microstructures: The Virtual Societies of the Financial Markets," in American Journal of Sociology 7/4 (2002).

11 - Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1973), "Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living," in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 78-79.

12 - Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties," American Journal of Sociology 78/6 (May 1973), pp. 1360-80.

13 - Felix Guattari, "Du post-modernisme à l'ère post-media," in Cartographies schizoanalytiques (Paris: Galilée, 1989), p. 54.

14 - Maurizio Lazzarato, Les révolutions du capitalisme, op. cit., p. 230.


Posted on July 21, 2007 at 4:28 am