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Organized Networks: A Guide for the Distracted Multitudes

By Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter

‘One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful’. Sigmund Freud

These days, strategic considerations for political organization no longer bother with mediation, representation and identity politics. Instead, the key question revolves around the design of new (sustainable) organizational forms. What is the social today, if not social media? It is not enough to indulge in the aesthetics of revolt. Flaws in the 19th and 20th century models of the party, the union and the movement are easy to detect, but what will replace them? It is tempting to say that the network is the dominant form of the social: a programmed life under permanent surveillance? What can replace the corporate walled gardens such as Facebook and Twitter? Our answer: a federation of organized networks, based on secret societies.

Welcome to the Happy Dark Ages. Many have already identified social networks as a conspiratorial neoliberal invention that, in the end, only benefits the global elite. Think of the vampire data-mining economies made possible with all your searches, status updates, likes, etc. The algorithmic modulation of networks generates patterns of data that hold economic value for social media corporations and finance capital. These extraction machines produce a subject Maurizio Lazzarato calls ‘indebted man’. Exodus for the multitudes, it would seem, is a futile proposition.

Global elites are not threatened by temporary uprisings and will only be questioned by an offensive counter-power that is capable of learning and incorporating its own trial-and-error experiments of daily struggles into the social body. All well and good, but how about the technological condition? Digital networks have been discredited for their short-lived character that merely reproduce the hegemonic fragmentation of desperate subjects. No matter how legitimate such structural proposals are, they often end up in a retromania of social imagination.

In defence of the network. Fatigue has well truly and set in. Time has been stolen. Sleep has been injured (Jonathan Crary). Online efforts have been exploited to the max by the cynical social media and their economies of data mining. The network form has either eroded or been totally expropriated and relocated to the cloud. The shift from networks to cloud-based media has been a setback, a regressive move. People are tired of updating and maintaining the labour of online administration. The work of securing social capital is now a chore preferably outsourced to PAs on the global peripheries. If you don’t have the resources to hire your personal Tweeter, then you have to dig out the time in the day to shoot your own selfies. Migrating across platforms has now become part of many people’s digital biographies. The tedium of doing this repeatedly has well and truly set in. Will young people be the first among those to terminate the contract with social media?

So what to do, and where to go in order to live and work in ways autonomous from these technologies of capture? One place to start is at the level of organization, which requires addressing the problematic of infrastructure. Our proposition is that the (legitimized) desire to build lasting collective forms should grow out of 21st century materialities and not be based on nostalgic notions of mass organization. Instead of dismissing the network as such, we propose to rewire, recode, redefine its core values and develop new protocols for the social, which, in today’s society, is technical in nature.

Today’s problem is no longer the Art of Mobilization. Organized networks have access to an array of tools, though a relatively limited range of social media platforms are more often the preferred choice for mass mobilization. Memes spread like wildfire in real-time. We know how to put together campaigns. Majorities are enraged and rally against climate change, repression, violence, rape, authoritarian rule, education cuts, poverty and job losses. We sign petitions and maybe even shut down websites. But we need to shift these technical practices to another level.

Designing encryption as a standard is one core technical practice relevant to organized networks that we see developing post-Snowdon and the NSA revelations. Encryption accessible on a mass scale is an example of an alternative at work, of the time-old paradox of constraints creating possibility. Pre-Snowdon, encryption was for a handful hackers, high government communications and corporate transactions with something at stake. But we are now are in the midst of a tipping point where individual users – and less so organizations – are deciding to encrypt communications. So the next level would be to see more coordinated efforts at encrypting collective communication.

Is encryption an example of standards scaling up? A form of civil defence in a time of serious technological onslaught? What can people do to protect the privacy of communication and the dignity of their online life? Of course forms of secure communication goes on within social and political movements among the chief organizers or facilitators. But less so across the social base of the movements who are not so much involved in decision making. This leads to potential dead-end streets in the forms of content and organisation. What is the broader potential of crypto?

The mass introduction of cryptography is a reassessment of the secret society as a cultural technique. Invisible and secret organizations have been accused of the ‘terror of the informal’, which is reprimanded for not being accountable. This politically correct rhetoric needs to countered with the argument that organized networks are not public organizations or state bodies. The trick is to achieve a form of collective invisibility without having to reconstitute authority. Organized networks are not vanguard parties. The party in its original sense claims to articulate the general interest and will of the people. As an organizational form, the party is a sustainable structure that is here to stay regardless of its own fluctuations in the polls. But the party today is without passion and holds little relevance to people’s daily social lives and communication practices.

The secret society has always been connected to conspiracy, but what if it becomes not only a necessity but a civil duty? Many of the other possible alternatives lead to the romantic world of offline. Think ‘maker culture’ – which can’t function anyway without the marketing power of social media. The slow food movement is another example which is now thoroughly commercialised as well. Forget the nostalgia option. Offline romanticism is also part of the NSA repertoire when they break into your house: this is the exception in their weapons armoury, and why they invest so much in online surveillance and hardware manipulation.

The social-technological default of encryption makes secret societies mainstream. The question of what issues or agendas remains open and undecided. Encrypted communication requires a motivating cause. Once this is identified, networks could begin to organize in more secure and sustainable ways.

Published in in Steirischer Herbst and Florian Malzacher (eds) Truth is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics, Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2014.

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