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Digital Resistance: A Field Guide


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The following is an excerpt from Digital Resistance: A Field Guide by Abhishek Narula, a pamphlet published this spring by Green Lantern Press. It’s part of Green Lantern’s pamphlet series On Civil Disobedience, where writers from a range of professional backgrounds contribute essays addressing this title. The series recalls historical precedents set by Thoreau, Gandhi, King, Arendt, and others while also considering the pamphlet’s important role in US revolutionary history.

On October 29, 1969, Leonard Kleinrock gathered with his fellow graduate students in Room 3420 in Boelter Hall on UCLA’s campus. Kleinrock had been working on a mathematical framework for packet switching, which would eventually form the basis of how information is transmitted across networks. Roughly 350 miles north, at exactly the same time, Doug Engelbart and his team waited at the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) for the very first message transmitted across the “Internet.” Kleinrock powered up his Interface Message Processor (IMP), an early version of a simple router and attempted to send the first message, “LOGIN,” to SRI. Unfortunately, halfway through the transmission, the system crashed and SRI only received the letters “LO.” These two letters would set off a chain reaction that would change humanity forever and would be the spark of the information age. Arguably up there with the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel, the ability to transmit messages instantly has given a new dimension to social organization. By the mid-1980s there were over five hundred nodes on the network, primarily housed on college campuses and research labs. Computers were added to this network based on a circle of trust rooted in a commitment to research collaboration. Participants on this early network were driven by the ideal of enriching society through science and technology. An unwritten code of conduct was established that held the network in high regard and encouraged respect and consideration. Guided by openness and transparency, scientists and engineers were able to share their ideas with fewer barriers. They envisioned the Internet’s power to be about connection. They wanted to bridge gaps to promote discovery and innovation. In order to make the network even more accessible, it expanded beyond academia to include amateur scientists and nontraditional researchers. True to its commitment to inclusivity, the network welcomed average users to join and contribute. The early Internet was seen as a tool where information flowed freely and users self-regulated its operation and functioning. This unfettered access to research enabled the development of newer technologies. This was the golden age of Silicon Valley where anyone with the interest and desire was able to access and participate in these systems. The Internet of today remotely resembles its past—not just in technology but also in its social dimension. While we experience it today as a progressive force, our contemporary digital ecosystem has developed out of traditional capitalistic ideals.

In one of his last essays titled “Postscript on Societies of Control,” Gilles Deleuze expanded on a paradigm shift of power structure in society, evolving from what Michel Foucault had first identified as a disciplinary society, where power was confined to centralized institutions like schools, prisons, and hospitals. Humans had arrived at societies of control, where power was distributed in networks. Earlier on, individuals were subjected to regulation only when they were in discrete locations. Deleuze argued that the advancement in information technology had rendered a culture where power and control were acting on individuals even when they were in transition from one space to another. Most websites today have trackers embedded within the html code that gather, analyze, distribute, and store our browsing habits. Beyond the webpages we visit, these trackers can also collect information about devices we use (e.g., Apple versus PC, iPhone versus Android). Independent investigation has even shown that Apple users on average pay more for products online. GPS location services know exactly where we are at all times. The data trails we leave behind in our digital excursions can be assimilated together from different sources to build a profile of us. This profile is then sold to advertisers for targeted marketing purposes.

Google is free and Facebook is free, but are they really free? What is the cost of this free-ness? What are we giving up in return? Can we really experience freedom from surveillance structures? While Deleuze himself never explicitly uses the word “surveillance” in his essay, the digital ecosystem we find ourselves in today mimics the dystopian technocentric future he envisioned. Today, technology penetrates the very core of what it means to be a human, and it is quickly colonizing our collective consciousness. We primarily communicate through screens with new forms of codified language (e.g., emojis and gifs). Complex human emotions are discretized through “likes” and “dislikes,” “up votes” and “down votes.” We have internalized these systems and, in doing so, have also altered our behavior. Consider how one speaks in a machine-like language when commanding Alexa or Siri. Social media influences cultural trends at a pace that we have never before experienced, and, as the ubiquity of mobile devices grow, we find it harder and harder to disconnect. These technologies are sold on the premise that they will liberate us from menial tasks, thus allowing us to focus on the important things that make our lives richer. We must not forget that these systems are developed and maintained by private companies whose primary objective is to make money. The profit motive is what drives these advancements. Even though they bring many conveniences to the modern world, they are not devoid of politics.

This is the new frontier of digital resistance.

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Image: Internet pioneer Leonard Kleinrock and the Interface Message Processor (IMP), an early version of a simple router. Via Gizmodo.