Technology and the New Barbarians

When you watch the new documentary movie, We Are Legion: The Story of Hacktivists, (which is available to watch in full on YouTube) you are faced with some interesting questions about the possibilities of technology as a tool for revolt and resistance. The movie speaks with members of anonymous, an online collective that engages in 'hacktivism', cyber sit-ins or acts of protest online and they speak to the possibilities of the online environment as a way of enacting change and 'sticking it to the man', in enacting real, material change. You may have heard of them as they have claimed responsibility for a wide array of demonstrations such as bringing down Visa and Paypal websites over their unwillingness to accept donations for WikiLeaks, or their targeting of the Church of Scientology.

Connected to this is the ways in which popular media has also engaged with ideas of technology and social media, most recently in the case of the so-called 'Arab Spring' which saw people in Libya, Egypt and other places rise up en masse, protest and, in the case of Libya and Egypt, replace their government heads. In these movements, social media such as Twitter was championed as a major force for organizing people on the ground, connecting them to the world, allowing people to show what was happening in real time, and in making such large scale resistance possible - circumventing traditional media, oppressive government controls, and traditional power. In this narrative, technology had become an equalizer of sorts. Members of anonymous speak to this in the film as well, speaking of the internet as a power that allows the connection of individuals across the globe, connecting their individual power into something much greater, something that can counter the power of the global elites and governments. A sort of 'cord of many strands is not easily broken' sort of argument.

This model seems to fit what Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri speak about in their epic manifesto, Empire (available to download for free online). They argue that to counter global Empire and its overarching networks, an equally global response is needed. If Empire is dispersed and mobile, the response must be equally dispersed and mobile. Their analogy for this response is the barbarian horde, a dispersed group of individuals who see no obstacle/wall as insurmountable and who will organize sans leaders to invade Empire by mass numbers, dismantling it and occupying it in the process. This 'savage mobility' gestures to a new way of living in the world constituted by Empire. Anonymous, as an organization, seems to embody this counter-response to Empire and they certainly see themselves in this light - as renegades, anarchists, and a barbarian horde that no wall can contain. They are self-organizing, dispersed around the globe, and using technology to subvert Empire and traditional forms of power.

But is there more to this? An excellent BBC documentary by Adam Curtis, titled All Watched OverBy Machines of Loving Grace (you can watch all three parts online) documents how at the very root of Western technology and its development is the belief in technology to self-organize, as a way to let natural balance subvert traditional hierarchies, and as a way for individuals to find ultimate freedom away from hierarchy. The belief was that computers would open up the world, break down borders, and redistribute power so that society would be self-stabilizing. It's this belief that anonymous has sprung from, a belief that individuals are connected and, through this connectivity, are reconstructing power in more equal ways, subverting old forms of power to create more balance. In the movie, their homepage of 4chan was a space where anything went, where ultimate freedom was expressed.

But, as Curtis demonstrates, this belief in technology as neutral, able to redistribute power and allow for freedom from the rules is patently false. In Part 1 he argues that technology merely concentrated power in new ways rather than distribute it. Those in power were able to use technology to exercise power over people in new ways . In Part 2, Curtis shows how political movements that believed in self-organizing and natural order were ultimately done in by their failure to account for real, material power. The belief that technology and the web is a powerless space is idealistic and naive.

Nothing is innocent and technology and Internet are no exception. Technology springs from the same roots of neoliberal capitalism, the belief that the world system is open and free flowing. Technology has been used as a measuring stick in the colonial project, as a barometer of civilization (if you had Western technology, you were civilized - if you didn't, you needed to be civilized). Belief in technology restoring a 'natural balance' is rooted in the belief in natural balance, which meant everyone had their place and everyone should know their place and stick to it - as seen in apartheid South Africa. Even in today's online environment, there is the belief in unemebodied knowledge, that you can be anyone online, that the Internet is naturally emancipatory through its connectivity and distance from politics and power. It's a belief in 'one global good', the human race, and the 'web of life' that masks privilege & power, subverting difference for the use of oppression.

But it is this failure to account for power that unravels the narrative. Information always has a cultural and rooted starting point, with corresponding power - as do people. Real power rips apart idealistic networks founded on a belief of social equality, as Curtis demonstrates when he looks at an example of the many communes in the 1960's. Technology and the Internet are not magic portals that circumvent power. Curtis finishes the second part of documentary by saying that technology was good for organizing people but it provided no ideas for what happens next. Technology is still embedded in real life, there is nothing virtual about it. Power invades and subverts the best intentions.

So anonymous is no neo-barbarian horde, no modern day Robin Hood - just a group still embedded in Western concepts of power, technology and individualism, believing that it is technology that will save them and subvert the very foundation they are still resting on. You can hear it in the movie: from the discourse of 'helping' Egyptians with their technological prowess, to their belief in individual autonomy outside of culture, power & norms. It's a belief in the equilibrium of technology, as a force to balance power.

This is not to say that technology doesn't have its uses or its moments to shine but the real answers recognize that there are always imbalances in power and they must be dealt with, not circumvented. Those seeking transformative resistance interrogate the roots of the tools it picks up, knowing that nothing is innocent, nothing inherently liberatory. Technology is not the magic answer so the question becomes: how do you pick up corrupt tools in ways that are emancipatory and transformative?


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