KICKING OVER THE SHOW: Resisting Digital Empire in the Cyberpunk Dystopia
The name of this column refers to the quote below, taken from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground. In that famous work, he proposes that even if “they” manage to perfect a society in which everything is good and resembles “glass palaces,” reminiscent of a Brave New World-type set up, some charming asshole will stand up and yell:
"I say, gentleman, hadn't we better kick over the whole show and scatter rationalism to the winds, simply to send these logarithms to the devil, and to enable us to live once more at our own sweet foolish will!" - Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From the Underground
Which is a nice thing to yell if that perfect world is, in fact, a cyberpunk dystopian hell that they are trying to foist as a crystal palace. Maybe it’s just a nice reminder of human nature–something we should keep in mind while seeking a technological utopia.
In this series, we’ll dissect the book Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for Revolution to explore how its ever-growing suite of strategic & nonviolent revolutionary tools & tactics can be adapted for use in the emerging digital empire.
Compromising the System by Targeting its Vulnerability Point: The Partially Open Human Mind
Information is not knowledge.
LIVE off the board, unlike you and your chess men, we install doubt in you and your yes men.
We live in the age of information. Whether this is so because it is the most advanced material at our command, as in the naming rights to the Iron Age, or whether this is our primary scientific area of pursuit and exploration, as in the Space Age or Atomic Age, information is the currency.
The very least reason is that information is everywhere, and there is always more information ready to invade our space. So how do we get the attention of the brooding masses to arouse them in pursuit of a worthy cause?
How do we simply inform someone of perspective and truth, someone who is so drunk on information that their cells cannot absorb what is currently soaking their brain?
Of Course, the Answer Is “Make A Robot Do It”
Leafleting is the bread-and-butter of many campaigns. It’s also annoying and ineffective, for the most part. How many times have you taken a leaflet just because you forgot to pull your hand back in time, only to throw it in the next available trash can? Or you’re actually interested and stick it in your pocket, but then you never get around to reading it because it’s a block of tiny, indecipherable text? Well, if that’s what a committed, world-caring person like you does, just imagine what happens to all the leaflets you give out to harried career-jockeys as they rush to or from work.
The real trick is to take your leafleting to the next level:
In a word, if you’re doing standard leafleting you’re wasting everybody’s time. What you need is advanced leafleting. In advanced leafleting, we acknowledge that if you’re going to hand out leaflets like a robot, you might as well have a robot hand them out. Yes, an actual leafleting robot. In 1998, the Institute for Applied Autonomy built “Little Brother,” a small, intentionally cute, 1950s-style metal robot to be a pamphleteer. In their tests, strangers avoided a human pamphleteer, but would go out of their way to take literature from the robot.
If most people out walking the streets on their way to and from a menial job, just trying to survive the daily grind, are as good as tuned-out background processes running in reserved power modes, what you need to shake up the system is something that grabs a lot of processing power. But also, you need something that people want to give attention to. Something graphic and exciting. Something you can play along with. For God’s sake, don’t bore people, but also don’t aim to piss people off.
Key Principle at work : Kill them with kindness…’Nuff said. Pissing people off won’t do your cause any favors, so don’t piss people off. Disarm with charm, and maybe your audience will let their guard down long enough to hear what you have to say.
Beautiful Trouble suggests having one pamphleteer sitting on the shoulders of another while you dispense your paper, or fitting your message into a fortune cookie somehow. You should even dress up to entice the accosted target to have some extra inclination to tune into your signal.
Sadly, Trolling Gets Results
And what of confrontation tactics carried out by non-IRL? If edgelords can take credit for winning the 2016 presidential election through meme-magic and “Kek,” is memetic warfare the new winning the battle of hearts and minds? There is a great argument to be had over whether or not the culture of internet rebels, meme-makers, and trolls is the heart of why social problems retain their intractability as in previous ages. It may be a distraction that feels like a relief, a Catch-22.
In that infamous punk novel by Joseph Heller, main character Yossarian will be able to complete his military duty if he just flies enough missions. Yet no matter how many he completes, the military keeps upping the number of missions he must complete to end his duty–an “if/then” conditional set-up that shifts to make sure the program loops on itself. The only way to break the loop is to recognize the program is set against the user and then, stepping back and walking away. In Catch-22, Yossarian jumps ship from a system that he recognizes as insane by making a break from the military base in a barely seaworthy raft. In the film, the chaplain warns him if he goes for it, “You’ll be on the run with no friends, you’ll be in constant danger of betrayal!”
“I live that way now!” is his response.
“Hey Bertha, I Totally Owned a Lib Today!”
I feel most online interactions of political argument are done in guerrilla tactic style. This comes from people who do so in an attempt to wrench back what they see as a lack of control over their lives, lived half online and half in the real world. A separation of the anxieties of the news cycle and culture largely out of their control, but delegated to a partially unreal realm that is too much and too fast to whole-heartedly invest energy in. They attempt to control that stream of information by interjecting their beliefs and worries in satirical captioned photos of popular figures or dada-esque artistically random takedowns of a culture one feels sorely at odds with. It is a method of blowing off steam, possibly therapeutic, or done by those who revel in causing others to expend psychic energy fighting.
It is far better to make art and statements that merit slow attention–something more than the bitter momentary worth of tête-à-tête (face-to-face) contentions between two people showing only an avatar’s worth of involvement.
This is why so often people snap back at those they are in agreement with, assuming anyone making any kind of broach to their original post is an enemy sent to destroy their time and worth. This is also why the internet has such a subtly charming culture of troll-destructing protocols that float freely through its interfacings like a ghost in the machine.
You know what I mean. The Facebook tag group that reposts some asshat’s cruelty and then roasts them and eats them. The Reddit threads that take pleasure in the obscure, wonderful, and absurd. That thing when some random person reminds themselves they are a living body and posts “stay hydrated” because they know you may be in a state of forgetting too. Any action that attempts to defuse the drain of human emotion or the spirit of rebellion from the discourse conducted at a physical distance, through the mediation of two binary (yes/no) machines.
That’s what is at the heart of the signal-to-noise ratio anyway: not so much what is put on the page you wish to distribute, but the soul of the connection. That something put out is picked up, carried over, and understood. So drop as many bombs as you need to along the jungle trails in order to destroy your enemy’s point of view and life force, Henry Kissinger. But you win hearts and minds by building roads, and reaching across bridges.
The seventeenth century French philosopher Montesquieu, credited with being the principal source for the idea of separation of powers in governance, wrote in a comedic cultural critique:
There are certain truths of which one must not only be persuaded but must feel; such are the truths of morality.
And that work was so charming and disarming that he came out against the corruptions of the popular religious institutions of his time stronger than anyone previously dared. Montesquieu suffered barely a scratch.
The internet and the world to come is built on technology that has a tendency to make us docile and sedentary. We must resist this with a culture that fosters a spirit of human energy and values rebellious attitudes. Call it cyberpunk if it fits.
Another good Montesquieu quote gives the game away:
Solemnity is the shield of idiots.