Essay is based on the workshop that was organised by the Avenir Institute at the 32nd Chaos Communication Summit in Hamburg on December 28 2015
Hito Steyerl in the essay ‘Too Much World: Is Internet Dead?’ highlights the spaces of important problematics of remaining potentiality of Internet to serve a function of trigger for fundamental, structural shift of socio-political system.
In the contemporary liberal democratic political discourse, which is dictated by the interests of the oligarchy, the democracy in classic sense had become unnecessary. To say more, it is rather assessed as being dangerous for efficiency-driven and KPI-constructed society, where performance (and pressure of increasing it) has become the ultimate sacred goal. This leads to natural elimination of the space of political - as something unpredictable that poses a risk to disrupt the planning of efficient advancement towards the goal.
As is quite evident in contemporary politics, the bureaucratic essence in its core gradually overtook the idea of politics as a multilogue with possible unpredictable result. ‘The big data’ is expected to predict the patterns of behaviour in all totality, realising the dream of complete panopticon once suggested by Bentham's utilitarian desires. Funnily enough, ‘democracy’ remains the banner of the ultra-capitalism in advancement of new interventionism and re- definition of colonialism. Perverse, mechanical, understanding and following practical institutionalisation of democracy (which might be better called as-if-ocracy) leads to magnificently poor-played theatre of simulacra. ‘Teach the fool how to pray and he’ll break his head’, Russian proverb says.
The automatically negative perception of a figure of a politician on the background of an ecstatic expectation of the new iPhone is quite exemplary. Space for political action has shrunk to non- existence through the bureaucratic regulation of anything that might have even theoretically played the role of the place of assembly.
That brings us to what Steyerl called in another text the ‘proxy’ politics - spaces of alternative political activity, which exist in a heterotopian dimension. These supposedly include many corners of the Internet as well as holograms on the streets. But do these spaces actually exist?
Establishment of the national borders within the Internet, massive surveillance, accumulation of gargantuan chunks of mega-data in the hands of specific corporate actors shrinks the space of proxy politics. It is not as effective as in the space of material, where politics is already almost a novelty (remember the Greek voting on the bailout conditions by Troika and the almost sincere fascination of media and EU officials about the Greek government desire to actually proceed with a democratic procedure of referendum?). But when you repeat a certain mantra long enough, it becomes ‘true’ in your eyes. The frames of mutational superstructures of liberal democracy and ultra-capitalism excluded ‘political’ for so long so the remainder about its original essence seems so strange in the new age of ultimate efficiency and met-bureaucracy.
The question is - does the Internet still possess potentiality for returning the space of political, through virtual to material, or is it already too late? Has the Internet lost in this sense and had been already reduced to another network colonised by ultra-capitalism logic?
The Internet still provides the unique experiences that are hardly replaceable beyond its realm. Randomness and authentic curiosity, which are empowered by the technical possibility to literally jump from the fluffiness of hamsters to charts on economic performance of Brazil during the dictatorship, is truly outstanding.
Is the Internet virtual?
Had the ‘world’ of the nation-state political frame incorporated the Internet within it’s 17-century Westphalian borders or does the Internet still possess the energy to reform the ‘world’ from within or even from the outside, somehow spilling over its chaotic, rhizomatic functions beyond the cyberspace to a sort of new space of political? The challenge of converting ‘virtual’ to ‘real’ in terms of the impact is possible, especially in relation to a political action - the Arab spring sparks just proved again that although the simulacra is virtual, it’s impact is more than material.
It still seems the Internet might indeed provide potential disruption. In several states of the US internet-generated, openly fictional independent presidential candidate accumulated up to 10% of the votes. Presence of the protest electorate, mobilised in this way, shows the scale of unfitness between political reality of worsening theatre and demand for authentic space of political. Similarly, when the investment banking originating CEO boosted the price of AIDS pill, the Internet reaction also demonstrated potential of mobilisation.
These cases of the ‘mythical’ Internet mobilising itself behind a specific issue are seeming erratic, though, and tend to be short-lived and driven by extremes. This is far from political discussion – the mantra is “either you are with us or you are not cool”. Discussion is often seen as counter-productive as the incentive is to manifest the power of the Internet as a self-justifying actor. It is the last refuge of democracy, in which the individual in their limited capacity for attention and impact can feel they are part of something bigger, if only to remind themselves they are still in control – at least when they so desire.
On the other hand, there is a softer power to the Internet that is being more or less effectively utilised. This is the power of shifting opinions by curating the content the people see. In cases such as with a Syrian boy being washed ashore in Turkey, the seemingly enforced digital emotions seem to become the source of magnificent simulacrum of political manipulations. It is not to say the event itself is not significant, but the way it is lifted on a pedestal could have been done artificially.
In the same fashion, after the Paris attacks on November 13th 2015, society is not asking the question of what the inherent motivation behind radicalisation is, which might have been set around a Pokemon fan club as much as the spirit of Islam. The immediate reaction is to see the problem in the dangerous ‘Other’ who is threatening our way of life. The Russian doll structure of stories and fictions on the surface dimmed the path towards historicity and fictionality of modern culture and mythology.
Instead of providing a public space for discussion, this manipulative side of the Internet is effectively dismissing the discussion altogether. The discussion is presented to us in the form of news articles and media coverage.
The temple of Internet wormholes
Regardless of the motivation, all these cases demonstrate real impact created by the cyberspace driven temporary spaces of political action. Do they constitute still omnipresent space of political potentiality or rather manifest convulsions of what beforehand could have been seen as the ground for the next paradigmatic shift in society? How long still we will be building parliaments based on the architectural model of the ancient Syracuse theatre? Space of political avant-garde occupies science fiction and fantasy, while being absent from cultural discourse.
There are digital wormholes that guarantee anonymity to the actors within the cyberspace. Can this anonymity enable a self-controlled and self-organised space of post-material political? Can it be more than a proxy, a simulacrum, a dummy or any other indication of constructing the visual replacement of a functional structure? To convert into a space of potential, the amount of participants of this space has to be sufficient, as well as the agenda self-controlled by some kind of peer-reviewed, on the fundamentally critical basis. To avoid the shutdown on the grounding of pseudo-political (and in reality oligarchic) reasoning, it probably has to be based in the political area of peculiar, post-Westphalian geography - maybe on the former oil platform of Sealand?
There is another issue that has to be taken into account - the anonymity of the Internet communications provides not only space of opportunity, but as well the space of abuse and manipulation. The post-political world is actively discarding ethics as the category that is not enough utilitarian. The Internet, if it still possesses the energy to offer to the space of political shelter, should step in by outlining the ethical rules and mechanisms of its modernisation before the political world will seal the issue by simply extrapolating its increasingly extreme and polarised nature into the cyberspace. What about the self-organised communion of the Internet inhabitants, that will be staging Sintagmas of the cyberspace not only ad hoc, but institutionally? The role of the Internet as global meta-political actor in itself, the democratic chaos of ‘possible’ and ‘potentiality’ requires challenging the system within the language it actually can understand and the means it cannot ignore.