08 08 2000
World InfoCon Brussels (2000): An Annotated Report:
by Steve Kurtz (US)
In a series of cogent lectures by a roster of distinguished speakers including
Phillipe Quèau, Saskia Sassen, Philip Hammond, Duncan Campbell, Steve Wright, Shahidul Alam, Simon Davies, Cees Hamelink, and a variety of other contributors, many significant themes emerged-in fact, too many to be reported in this brief document. However, in the interest of promoting further discussion among a wider audience interested in imagining alternatives to global capital and developing forms of tactical resistance, World-Information.Org offers the following abbreviated list of threads.
Many of the topics presented and discussed during the conference were extracted from very fuzzy to dark areas in the socio-political landscape. By way of example, Duncan Campbell presented information on Echelon (a highly classified world-wide surveillance network primarily initiated by the US and the UK), and Philip Hammond presented material on NATO's propaganda campaign during the war in Kosovo. As to be expected, these topics are fraught with danger when approached from the standpoint of intellectual rigour. This is not to say that these analyses were not carefully constructed, it is only to say that when examining topics like Black-Ops (military and/or security operations of which there is no public record) or misinformation campaigns that the data is incomplete, unreliable, and often requires speculative conjectures to fill in the information gaps (speakers were all very forthcoming about when they were in speculation mode). All the same, this type of analysis conjured many questions about what constitutes plausible evidence, and reliable witnesses. Further, this discussion raised issues on how scholars and investigators can protect themselves from charges of being cranks, conspiracy fanatics, or other such labels used to delegitimize explorations into fuzzy regimes, and reduce the production of multiple perspectives and ideological diversity.
In addition, when considering such fractured information there was a good deal of debate over what type of information has greater validity. For example, in Philip Hammond's analysis of NATO's construction of the war in Kosovo, a schism emerged that proceeded along the lines of those who thought that direct experience had greater validity than research grounded in secondary documentation and those who thought the reverse. Those in the former camp stated that when using secondary data one cannot separate corrupted documents from useful ones while the latter argued that individual experience is too idiosyncratic and often nonrepresentative of a general situation. This area was of profound concern when considering that most activism is virtual. Campaigns and movements develop support from individuals who have no experience of localized problems (such as the war in Kosovo), and who have no choice but to follow and react to the course of events through mediated resources.
Terms and classifications were also dramatically problematized. Terms such as public/public access/private/privatised were subject to considerable drift from context to context, and there was tremendous diversity concerning the way such concepts should be modelled. Of considerable difficulty were even vaguer concepts such as the "the common good." In this case, the fear was that the future hopes and visions of participants were so vague that only an anachronistic political term could be used as a descriptive device. Other common terms that needed more definition were "digital," "citizen," "privacy," "Internet" and "democracy."
Institutional Intervention using State Mechanisms and Grassroots Organization Direct Action
While participants expressed preferences and tendencies for one model of resistance or the other, on a practical level, most expressed sympathy for hybrid models. On the one hand, it was suggested that it is preferable to launch cellular and small group units, which could in turn form the foundation for temporary single issue coalitions geared for both street and electronic actions. Others insisted that alliance building in conjunction with legal initiatives had to be used regardless of the danger of the potential of forming future bureaucracies or other types of long-term authority structures. The need for legal action at both national and international levels was really driven home by Saskia Sassen with her point that the deregulation of mobile capital was a major contributor to the collapse of the financial infrastructure in South Korea, as well as Simon Davies' point that Regulation of Investigatory Powers bill (a bill launched by the British government to link all electronic communications to MI5 total access to all electronic communications without the need of a warrant) was stopped only by an alliance of academics, trade unions, and human rights organizations that intervened in parliamentary process. The use of anti-trust laws were also cited as the only successful means used thus far to break up monopolies. Both Sassen and Quéau noted that such techniques were at times necessary to avert catastrophe.
The Digital Divide
A healthy portion of time was given to the subject of the Digital Divide (the massive gap between developed and developing nations regarding technological infrastructure). After giving a brief introduction to fundamental principles of postcolonial theory, Shahidul Alam argued that the grand majority of people in developing nations had been intentionally denied access to information and communications technology (ICT), and that this majority had been all but removed from policy making process regarding ICT (even in their own countries). Alam continued by stating that technological progress dependent on unilateral donor-driven initiatives can only be viewed as a continuation of colonial domination configured to maintain the "global" information political economy. This description was echoed by Cees Hamelink after which he further explained how this divide could be narrowed, if not eliminated, with rather minimal investment (the equivalent of the money spent on pet food annually) by developed nations, thus concluding that the divide is purely a political one.
Linked to this subject, was the theme of expanding the definition of low intensity warfare. Certainly withholding ICT in order to maintain western capital's hegemony is an example. As is Sasken's point of view that national invasions by mobile capital and the dismantling of the welfare state (in the US and UK) constitute a form of violence so savage that it can only be considered warfare.
Privacy and Surveillance
After the presentations of Davies, Wright, and Campbell, one could not help but believe that the technology necessary for total surveillance in cyberspace and pervasive real space surveillance is not only possible, but is regularly employed in the US and the UK, and is rapidly expanding in other western nations. This tendency was presented as being out of control, and can only be slowed rather than reversed. The question soon became what should the reaction to this situation be? While the speakers all agreed that cryptography was the best means for an individual to resist electronic surveillance, some audience participants argued for a policy of total transparency at all levels in order to stop the proliferation of intranets and the division of the Internet into a series of fortifications all resisting infiltration from the other. While this option of complete transparency appears to be impractical at the moment, it may become more prominent as infoculture continues to change.
It was also noted that a paradigm shift is underway in the apparatus of repression due to new vision technologies. The older strategies of temporal immediacy and presence are giving way to temporal delay and absence. Any one who has received a traffic ticket through the mail is familiar with this shift. The police field of perception is being extended with vision technology so that entire landscapes of "criminal" data can be recorded and thereby witnessed in a manner that flesh police never could in real time. Although delays in arrest are a weakness with this model (a gap that is getting increasingly smaller), it makes up for this shortcoming by functioning as an excellent means for intelligence gathering for future, often pre-emptive, police strikes. It also functions well in mass actions considered a danger to social order (from traffic infractions to riots) in that police are able to eventually identify and arrest every participant. Cameras have the additional feature of acting as a material, environmental reminder that self-discipline must be maintained at all times. The surveillance system used in London's "iron circle" (a surveillance network that can identify and track any vehicle entering the district) was presented as the state of the art for this particular paradigm of repression.
Criminality was a theme that continually entered presentations at the conference-not so much in its material sense, but in the meanings it generates as a semiotic network inscribed on groups and individuals with resistant tendencies or other minoritarian ( in the Deleuzian sense of the term) activities and behaviours. The western cultural landscape has been falsely constructed as seething with terrorists, drug dealers, and paedophiles from whom the public must be protected. Those who challenge the capitalist order tend to be publicly labelled as criminals generally falling into the terrorist category. For example, in spite of the tendency that most activists using models of electronic resistance are applying neither sabotage nor terrorism (data and networks cannot be terrorized), they are still represented as perpetrating high crimes against public safety. Recent laws passed in the UK linking hacking to terrorism are an indication that this labelling trend will increasingly manifest as law. As Simon Davies demonstrated, crime itself has fallen in the UK and US, and yet there are still regular calls and attempts to increase the surveillance capabilities of security agencies through legitimate channels by use of the rhetoric of criminality.
At the material level the culture of control is best indicated by the dramatic expansion of the repression industry (security agencies, prisons, courts, social workers, and hardware/software). This development was further illustrated by Steve Wright who presented a catalogue of recent developments in near or less-than-lethal weaponry. This included weapons like water canons, foam guns, car taser security systems, and stun batons that ranged in deployment contexts from home use, to prison use, to general crowd control. These weapons (of which there are a far greater variety than which is listed here) are designed to debilitate, disable, disorient, disperse, and/or detain those who are on the wrong end of them.
Cees Hamelink, in a manner reminiscent of the Situationists, began his lecture by expressing his concern that the cultural landscape was transforming itself into a big billboard. No person, or place could escape being a medium of spectacle. Sassen was also thinking along these lines in regard to electronic space in particular. Using software development and sales as key indicators, she argued that the topography of electronic space will be increasingly configured as a space of commerce. The Internet (a term she found suspect) as a pure research space or as a liberated zone is rapidly moving into obscurity as commerce overwhelms the space. The only big research that will soon be on the Internet will be that of corporate surveillance to gather data useful for identifying consumer groups, tracking consumer behaviour, and constructing pinpoint consumer profiles.
Although this topic was at the margins of conversation, it was noted that biotechnology would play a role parallel to ICT in various pancapitalist initiatives. Flesh informatics are but another form of digital modelling which rests on the cosmological principle of information society in general--that order comes from order (which stands in contrast to the analogic model that order arises from chaos). Whether we are speaking of digital TV or a clone, capital's obsession with these technologies is with the fidelity of replication. The usefulness of biotechnology to support capitalist hegemonies is undeniable. Already we are seeing colonial expansion by way of raiding third world cultures' biological resources by eco-pirates and bio-privateers; eugenic consciousness is being reconfigured for a consumer market eager for the totalisation of reproductive process via extreme medical intervention; and the development of surveillance techniques designed to invade biological privacy at a molecular level.
While this conference had a deeply pessimistic aura surrounding it in regard to subject matter and critical analysis, there was still a general feeling that effective action could be taken, and that apocalypse was not a predetermined outcome. Autonomous zones still exist in a variety of forms. These can be maintained and potentially expanded even in the most repressive of situations. The strength of the society of speed is also its weakness. No amount of management can eliminate all the fuzzy, confused, and dark areas that accompany high velocity reconfigurations and emergent complexities. Even totalising institutions like jails have under-economies, illicit activities, secret organizations, and conspiracies. While the intensity of control may fluctuate, it will never reach perfection.