Radical media, politics and culture.

Insomnia and Media Critical

Annoyed and Media Theoretical

Who's afraid to die?

A basic question facing producers of radical media today is the purpose of their own existence.

In the shadow of the Indymedia wave, many amongst us have criticised the model of communications that it has cultivated. The counts of indictment are multiple: that the network behaves as a franchise; that a basic precondition appears an ignorance of pre-existing digital media efforts and willingness to steamroll over their efforts; that the system of open publishing has enshrined a fact-oblivious form of writing easily and regularly manipulated; that it pedestalises the 'rights of speakers' whilst minimising the 'rights of listeners'.

But indy has undoubtedly been, on some level a success. Rather than having difficulties in self-reproduction, it has flourished and proliferated. In the wake of its public profile has arrived cash, from Chumbawamba for example, and willingness on the part of players formerly uninvolved to provide the material resources to make the network function.

The space occupied by Indy is somewhat vague, falling between a slashdot style community and a freewheeling libertarian (in the US sense) speaker's corner. But practice demonstrates that it has a function, a role, and given its capacity to support reproduction it will be a fixture for the foreseeable future, oblivious to any misgivings we may feel about its operation.

Infoshop.org has flourished as well and is established as the place for a specifically anarchist/left-libertarian discourse on the network. Driven by Chuck's determined and for a long time individual efforts, the pay-off is now clear. A clear community has formed, discussion is rich and contradictory and the site is breeding offspring such as the recent launch of a german language edition. Infoshop has further cultivated a space for research, through the emphasis given to highlighting specific themes or political campaigns, be it on the subject of intellectual property or prisons. Like Indy, infoshop has arrived at the point where it can support its own reproduction. Exhortations to readers to cough up cash seem to be paying a dividend. At the end of august, Chuck launched another 'feed the webmaster' drive to raise a $1000 before September 6th, but the objective was attained before the end of august.

Rusty at www.kuro5hin.org dabbled with various means to finance the maintenance of his discussion site, which is arguably the most intelligent mass-participatory leftish weblog around. After withdrawing from the VA linux controlled network he flirted with the idea of using text-based ads to bring in income in exchange for a non-obnoxious conduit into his users' cerebral cortex. Eventually, he decided instead to establish it as a not-for profit foundation and launched a financial appeal. Within a couple of days more than $35,000 had been raised and kuroshin.org was on its way to becoming an institutionalised part of a non-commercial public sphere on the web for infinity.

Having led the Pacifica boycott that brought commercial elements to their knees, Democracy Now set about raising cash again for the network. Their web presence is powerful with an archive of mp3's and streamed versions of the programmes accompanied by content listings. Over a weekend it is not abnormal for them to take in $3000 in donations via paypal alone. Of course Amy and her crew also raised $750,000 during the last fundraising drive, so maybe they're just in another league. But the point is that the users recognise DN's importance and support it in kind, while they produce quality factual radical journalism for the kind of mass audience which the web just does not reach. Yet.

A-Infos is the preferred channel of communication between street based anarchist organisations. Those who know go directly there to find out exactly what's happening with the people who persevere in making the impossible happen. Simplicity of format minimises the technical aspect whilst reducing bandwidth load, voluntary labour from dedicated anarchist militants, and assumably the generosity of tao on hosting the site makes it happen. If there is a Spain '36 in the 21st century, it will be the primary source for its planning and unfolding in public documentation.

Think theory on line? Answer nettime. Even those who don't read it any more can recognise a text that has passed through it.

The point in all this eulogising is that each of these sites has an obvious and appreciated reason for being. Where money is required, no problems are experienced in obtaining it - although Indy seem to have problems disbursing it, but that's another story. Each has a theatre of operations, a modus operandi broadly approved of by its own users, and were any of them to be shut down by their hosts or the state tomorrow, who doubts that they would be back on line within 24 hours.


Unfortunately the same cannot be said for a galaxy of other radical sites. Updated rarely or inconsistently, visited seldom. Albatross on the neck of innumerable part-time webmasters. Purveyors of loony strategies or undiscovered marvels. Their polymorphous political perversity is the gold of our latter-day International, the seed of creative refractory reproduction, the beach under the paving stones of the homogenised ether. But it absorbs resources and fragments our attention and labour, often unnecessarily.

I think that those who cannot answer the case put and rebutted by the examples listed above ought to die or to federate. Or rather, they should commit seppuku so as to be reborn, at a higher level as it were(!). That includes the project I participate in myself incidentally, at slash.autonomedia.org. Dying could be blissful; it could be the opportunity to abandon our vanity, consolidate our resources, pitch in with others so as to eke out a new space within a greater collective endeavor. It would be a true realisation of a utopian aspect of the web, the dissolution of one community to become part of another met along the road. Vanity, and the desire to 'control one's manor' in this area has traditionally been a trait characterising the university and its critical communities, careerists are not altogether unknown in the left-libertarian/anarchist milieu either, but if we're serious about strategising for impact, their concerns have no place on our agenda. Consolidation of resources is needed, later I'll try to provide some examples of why.

Federation is an alternative. The means are obvious. The RDF/RSS standard is really all there is to it. Links are just a sad fake gesture of love in comparison with ten delicious headlines form your federated friends frontpage. Those who don't provide RDF/RSS data, or refuse to integrate others RDF/RSS boxes into their pages are traitors. Unless they're individualists, in which case my remarks will be treated with the disdain they merit anyway, or perhaps taken as an opportunity to inveigh against the ineluctable endpoint of this rationality in a gulag. I recognise their 'right' to secede.


I think we need this type of portal cut and paste to take the next necessary steps. Collectives, in my experience, always arrive at a certain point where the fight against entropy and atrophy absorbs more time than desiring strategy and 'innovative' action. Internal dynamics exhaust themselves in frustration or fraction. What helps revitalise things is a change in context, be it a new set of social forces or involvement in a new alliance. But the rejuventaory propulsion always comes from outside.


Who's afraid of subjectivity?

Once upon a time there was counter-information. That was in the days where a couple of hundred Algerians, for example, could be massacred on the streets of Paris and have their bodies thrown into the Seine. And the newspapers and radio/television didn't even report it. Media outlets served state interests slavishly and everyone with a critical lobe knew there was a problem, a lacuna to be filled.

Counter-information occupied that gap. As it became evident that there was a market for such information commercial operators realised that there was money to be made from that audience so they started carrying it. The advent of Usenet and then the web put an end to the dominant information issue forever, but replaced it with a distribution shortfall. The other thorny matter arising was excess info and the prospect that too much data impeded critical thinking, climaxing in a sort of paroxysm of endless 'uncertainty' stymieing action or response in terms that would make an economic theorist blush, if you know what I mean.

Anyway, back to my fable. Lots of bright sparks decided counter-information no longer being really the crux of the matter, the key was different voices: immigrants' voices; gay and lesbian voices; gypsy voices; workers voices (but that was kinda hesitant); womens' voices. That was an improvement.

Over on an isolated peninsula though there was another interesting declination of media verbs going on. Having the strongest communist tradition in the Mediterranean, a sort of permanent mass street mobilisation and an important anarchist presence (they even liberated parts of the country from Nazi-fascism during WW2) helped to make it an interesting experience. The decade-long 1968 in that country witnessed an amazing upswell of independent radio stations connected with the social movement, like Pacifica, just bigger. Some become commercial eventually. Many of them followed the militant and very ideological in content. Faithful activists tuned in and they were an important, if not central means of self-organisation, in a manner not unlike the net today. There was a wild dog amongst all these though. unmistakable. Different. She was called Alice. Radio Alice in fact. And although Alice only just about survived to see a first birthday, her impact was unprecedented. The radical information and critique was there. So were some of those other voices. And funky music. But there was more. There were 15-year-old boys ringing in to talk about breaking up with their girlfriends. There were thirteen year old girls telephoning to speak confusedly about their first menstruation. Political correspondents pretended they were in Algiers and spoke of what they imagined they saw in the local Bolognese dialect. People talked about life, their lives, in their terms, and their desires and disappointments. To do so, the parameters of militant, or as its called today, 'activist', discourse had to be discarded.

In a word Alice embodied subjectivity, the curiousity, wondering, self-doubt, joy and anger of a new generation coming to a conscious relationship with the dawning new world and its novel social conditions. Where is that space today on the web, on our sites? Does it occur to those who complain about the lack of diversity, the gender imbalance, the racial lop-sidedness, the marginalisation of both youth and age, that it may be exactly because the whole style in which we format our communications structures the exclusion of those 'subjects' (what a cold word, how it makes me shudder to write it). Is anybody else really bored with all this poorly reclothed ideologico-speak? Feel short on ludic stimulation? Forgotten what a moment of empathy with an adolescent feels like. Actually identified with a rape victim rather than experiencing a programmed response.

Our political discourse is narrow. The behaviour of the milieu often stereotypical. Humour is basically non-existent. Taking a subjective turn doesn't mean becoming amateur cultural studies pundits or evacuating substance and contact with reality from thought and action.1

Who's afraid of ambition? Text has a privileged place in the radical tradition. The consequences on network communications are plain to see. Everyone is busy getting their newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, books and miscellaneous screeds up online, and that defined the first wave of social agitation. Our own time has witnessed the indelible footprint of the blog and the discursive form it has catalysed, more focussed and accountable than a mailing list discussion.

Some feisty folks have done good stuff with radio that if there's any justice to reality should transform the capacity of low-power and pirate broadcasters to operate and the quality of the material imparted.

But I think it's safe to state that the dominant form of literacy of our time is audio-visual, and that the lack of success in the video realm is what makes radical communications in 2002 resemble more 1992 rather than that which was once, perhaps too hopefully, envisaged. What bothers me is the failure to exploit the possibilities which are available on this level. A survey almost a year ago estimated that 500,000 TV programs and films were being exchanged each day over the network using IRC, hotlines and file sharing progs. E-Donkey has cultivated a method and a community so as to make thousands of data-heavy videos available. Using cryptographic hashes and review portals to ensure that downloaders don't waste their time transferring dud files, trojans or anti-counterfeiting presentations described as 'Fight Club.divx", MFTP for maximal bandwidth efficiency etc., e-donkeyites are forging the way forward. The fact the software is proprietary is shit, but there's no alternative as Freenet's front end is still traumatising and the anonymity oriented design undermines performance.

Sharereactor and filenexus allow users to launch their searches directly from their page provided the prog is running, you don't even need to negotiate the interface. And where are the radicals? Where is the portal for radical, critical, subjective funky audio-visual victory?


Periodically, I conduct the following experiment. Key in Indymedia to the search interface on a) Kazaa, Grokster b) Gnucleus, Sharereaza, Limewire c) Filedonkey, sharereactor.

The response? Occasionally you'll find Richard Stallman singing the free software song and a few videos in Italian about Genoa and the G8. Usually, you'll get nothing at all. Try Manufacturing Consent: nothing. But the director is actually rather favorable to it being available. insanity. We have exactly the type of real world networks which mean that there are machines and bandwidth enough available to us to launch a serious resource sharing initiative, squaring up to the moment when we can actually be running bandit audio-visual dissident networks and it is not being exploited.

In the meantime where courage fails, commerce acts, and we get transmission films, who are using an e-donkey derivative, Overnet, to distribute independent movies online out of Canada. They are using the file-sharing network, users' machines, as their commercial infrastructure. They are also placing Digital rights Management on the files and allowing users to have access them for 24 hours after initialisation of an access-key. On the other hand, they charge $2 a movie and state that half of that goes to the filmmaker, which for the sake of all my immiserated independent filmmaking friends and allies gives me a warm glow. But the DRM pisses me off, and the fact that payment is involuntary is limiting. But really I feel sore because they are occupying a space that could be, should be, ours. And some of us have been discussing this for months. In Italy meanwhile, they've launched a project called GNU-Global Vision precisely so as to remedy this, and helping to make a copyleft style treatment the default approach to critical documentary video on the web.

And that is just one example of the way in which Peer2Peer modes ought to benefit us. Besides that it's going to be a central area of political conflictuality on the network for years to come, implicating the whole array of media conglomerates, and their henchmen in various legislatures, in a sustained campaign against users, where ultimately there is no doubt people will be incarcerated. There is a hunger for initiatives more confrontational than the EFF, and the modern centrality of intellectual property as a means of disciplining individuals and maintaining the dominant social relationships is a mutation for which our time will be remembered.

The argument made above for a consolidation and reapportionment of resources relates derives directly from my belief that we need to get the resources to make file-sharing, particularly video, work. If we can agree to store content and provide bandwidth for access to it, with a searchable database and scheduling system, and co-ordinated system of resource alternation, there are essentially all the elements for a permanent g transnational independent TV station. Without investing false hopes in a misplaced technological messianism, I think this would be a decent start to improving our communication strategy. Install a collective T1 or T3, a wireless hub and gigantic hard disk and community wireless could really move to the next level. Hook that box up to a low power transmitter - along the lines of telestreet.it - and there's a low power terrestrial television station. The right and commerce are ambitious. We need to be more ambitious.

Who's afraid of self-analysis?

There is a shocking dearth of statistical data about radical network activity. A year or so ago Indymedia NYC took part in a large public forum on Independent media where their spokesperson told the assembled crowd of the extraordinary success they had achieved, receiving more than 35,000 hits a day. The audience interpreted this as meaning that there were 35,000 people visiting nyc.indymedia.org every day, which of course was not the case. Ironically this type of misleading presentation echoes perfectly the type of snake-oil hyperbole deployed systematically during the dot com bubble in order to boost their apparent usage level.

Individual users, numbers of individual page views etc. , no more than money accumulated through paypal, are not the only measure of site's contribution, but overall it is important knowledge not least because it throws into relief the scale of the task facing us, and provides a basic feedback mechanism to monitor the interest generated by new methods of promoting the site, identifying topics of broader interest etc.

Similarly, a content analysis on the articles published would reveal the biases that wittingly or subconsciously guide our publication choices. The absence of decent economic analysis and data on our sites, for example, is something that I find increasingly shocking. In New York from August until February about 130,000 people lost their jobs, and we simply haven't provided tools for people whose world has been shaken by that experience to understand better what is unfolding. Realising this inadequacy underlined for me the importance of a site and newsletter such as left business observer, where Doug Henwood actually crunches that data and follows the discussion of the business press from a critical standpoint. Elsewhere, we're all familiar with the way in which the Israeli-Palestinian cyber-conflict periodically overwhelms Indymedia newswires. This type of quantitative onslaught functions to really sabotage any other function of those sites during that time, and serves as a concrete example for the means by which 'open publishing' can be exploited.

Who's afraid of the limitations of the media strategy?

Working with media it is to be expected that one might indulge in a certain amount of cock-suredness about the importance of communications in an overall political context. Ultimately we must ask one another if the emphasis given to communications is excessive especially where political campaigning strategies effectively morph into pure-play media activity. There's a fine line between employing a cunning strategy that makes good media, and becoming reliant on constant media attention as oxygen. Furthermore it is a truism that many people are fundamentally distrustful of what they experience through the media, including the radical media. An obsession with tactical media action strikes me as sometimes partaking in the abandonment of the social terrain of everyday life, work or claimant centered agitation, practical tasks of community construction etc.

Some time ago I translated an interview with an Italian hacker involved in the Hacklab movement there. He has also been deeply involved in the development of alternative information structures. The Hacklabs struck me as something worth importing, as they reflect a highly socialised treatment of knowledge and informational skills. Eric does something somewhat similar in ABC.

Blogger Universalism

Slashcode, scoop and php-nuke define the new collectivist approach, but blogger revolutionised online publication for the individual, simplifying the process and consequently opening it up to mass participation. There are other areas where this could be implemented. How many collectives still struggle with poster design and magazine layout because of lack of skills, hardware or software? How difficult could it be to assemble basic templates which could be used off the shelf, filled in following the same style which animated page-builders on the likes of Geocities at the beginning? Or do the tools already exist and is the problem more that of diffusing knowledge of their whereabouts and potential?

What's good about un-security: the ballad of Wolfgang Grams and the cautionary tale of Klaus Steinmentz

Reading about the session on encryption felt very 1990s. I've been using PGP and more recently lokmail since 1996, and still can scarcely find anyone willing to exchange encrypted mail, that's not to say cryptography is pointless but just to query how effective the push has been. Reading David Kahn's epic tome 'The Codebreakers', one realises that for the truly determined no technical protocol or cryptographic method is both failsafe and feasible; security is simply a function of the weight of resources thrown at the lock, and where the state is concerned - at least in the US - those resources are basically infinite. Moreover, psychologically the consequences of dwelling upon security as a problem are pretty deleterious due to the paranoia it cultivates and the closure towards unfamiliar faces that it encourages. Now more than ever we should be actively 'miscegenating' with the public, seeking to spread radical ideas like a contagion through this rotten society.

As in hacking, most vulnerability to repression arises more often from social engineering than technical indelicacy. The vanload of putative direct actionists driven straight to the waiting cuffs of the Philadelphia police in 2000 were not victims of surveillance but infiltration. And for the really paranoid, here's a story to keep you awake. In 1992 a Red Army faction member, Wolfgang Grams, was shot dead in a train station in Bad Kleinen, Germany. The information leading to his state-execution and the arrest of his companion was provided by the third member of their cell, Klaus Steinmetz. Through a mishap he too was arrested, when the plan had been to allow him to escape and continue his covert activity. Thus the press discovered that he had been sleeping in the organisation for more than ten years, waiting for the moment of optimal utility. If we mimic the securitarian logic of the state, we have no chance, it's not where our strength and potential lies.

Slash Critique

Elsewhere I've been compiling a list of tweaks that need to be made to our slash page. Some of them are not so minor or involve fundamental divergences from the current state of slashcode, such as the suggestion that all logged in users be allocated moderation powers. Slash codes bestows these powers as occasional 'jury service' on only a small element of the user base. The problem on Aut is that very few users (15 as a maximum so far) actually log in and thus very few people will ever be able to moderate but the site's administrators always have moderation powers and thus their personal preferences are algorithmically determined to establish the scores awarded. If the administrators were systematic moderators this would be a problem of subjectivity, but in fact they exercise their powers rarely, so the nature of the problem is in fact that of a void.

If any credence is to be given to the claims that people engage in online communications/discourse to exchange knowledge/win others attention then this void is a black hole through which potential collaborators are falling. If someone takes a half-hour out to compose a thought and set it out literately before posting it as a comment, then they expect or hope for some response. The most gratifying response one could have is from the author, or from another contributor to whom you are responding. Failing that, a response from anybody at least indicates that the contribution was appreciated and not merely a waste of time. Lastly, where there is no written response, that someone, administrator or peer at least took the time to evaluate your participation is a basic expectation people bring to moderated forums of this type.

Community or Broadcast Considering the small number of comments made, slash publishes too many stories. Furthermore the majority of those stories originate with us although usually we are not actually the authors or person responsible for the html mark-up. The direction of the information flow is clear however and reflects the practices of a publishing house. Except that the concept of the web-publisher is a misnomer, as the web actually actually collapses that boundary, and all that remains is the residual product of media-socialisation in the time of physical output and scarcity.

The journal system allows us to continue to post these stories without dominating the page. It also allows the users to bring stuff to our attention with an equality absent from the submission system. By installing an RDF box as a default to the front page that lists the last twenty journal updates we also signal to the users that their participation is important and will be given prominence. New versions of slashcode contain a zoo facility that allows users to use the journal feature in more refined ways that have generated a huge amount of horizontal communication outside of the standard publication route, that is to say community based discussion.

A meta section is needed, where the actual design and engineering of the site can be subjected to scrutiny as opposed to technology being black-boxed. This would also supply a conduit for feedback and potentially assistance.

Channel or NetworkTelevision channels diversify their coverage so as to maximise audience on a lowest common denominator basis across a wide range of subject-matter. The network attacked this form of generalism by enabling the emergence of niche communities. Blogs have administered the coup de grace, facilitating access to commentary by individuals expert in each area. The newspaper with its correspondents covering broad beats cannot match the level of expertise to be found there. For aut i think that means we should not endeavour to cover everything or be involved in constant recycling. Rather we should integrate A-Infos, Nettime, Openflows, Infoanarchy, Infoshop, Doug Henwood's list etc wholeheartedly and leave them to cover the areas that they are best at, freeing us to do other stuff.

Likewise, a box listing sites administered by our users or those who link to us should be present on the front page, which should be a portal to a network, a community rather than a front page for slash.autonomedia, and our design and lay-out should reflect that.

Conclusion As administrators of the site we have the responsibility to weave a community rather than to broadcast information we deem appropriate or important, although this is not precluded - it's a matter of priorities. Every comment should be rated, and wherever possible answered, particularly in the short-term as it is discussion that generates discussion - community discourse is highly iterative, this is the lesson of successful forums.

We should publish less and facilitate more network communications, whilst also arguing with other webmasters to reciprocate. The journal system should be fixed and then pushed to the user-base. Of the sites listed above only openflows and infoanarchy run a journal system, no surprise that these are the two tech-community orientated sites mentioned. Autonomedia should be a community of writers, critics and social actors who treat one another as equals, enrich one another's perspective's and knowledge and use the space offered by slash.autonomedia.org to do that.