Other Worlds Are (already) Possible: Cyber-Internationalism and Post-Capitalist Cultures


Note: These notes have been prepared following the general instructions for the LAC panels, that is, to focus on vision (“What do we want”) and strategy (“How do we get it?”).

 

I. A. “What do we want?”

 

What we want is the full development of cyberspatial practices (“cybercultures”) that fulfill the novel promises of digital technologies while contributing to, and providing a new model for, the pluralization and democratization of social, economic, and ecological life.  In is utopian conception –and to some extent in actual practice– cyberspace builds on a decentralized, non-hierarchical logic of self-organization.  This logic can also be seen at play in many instances of complexity in biological and social life; at their best, this complexity fosters the emergence of unexpected cultures and forms of life.   We want social movements and social actors to build on this logic in order to create unheard of forms of  collective intelligence – subaltern “intelligent communities” capable of re-imagining the world and of inventing alternative processes of world-making.  Meshworks of social movements are the best hope to achieve this goal at present, although net artists and others are also making valuable contributions.  The result could be a type of world-scale networking based on internationalist principles (a Fifth International? The Cyber-spatial international). 

 

B. Argument

 

1. For centuries, if not millennia, economic and social life have been largely organized on a logic of order, centralization, and hierarchy building.  In the past few hundred years, this model has been pushed by capitalism and its drive to accumulation, and by ruling structures in which the few privilege at the expense of the many.  A different logic or model of social organization (which was always possible and always at play, albeit marginalized and largely invisible) has become increasingly visible in the most recent decades.  This model is most clearly visible in two domains: digital technologies (cyberspace, as the universe of digital networks, interactions and interfaces); and the sciences of complexity, particularly in biology and other aspects of natural life. 

 

2. Cyberspace (and in general the domain of new information and communication technologies, ICTs) is based on a model that is very different from that of modern media: information as “data,” a world of active emitters and passive receivers, unidirectionality of flows, tight ideological control, and the production of news media that reflect the world as seen by those who rule it.  It is a top-down, one-way model of information, an action-reaction model.  The model fostered by ICTs contrasts sharply with this dominant model: first of all, it is based on interactivity as an altogether new framework of interaction (referring not to an act, but to a different framework for action, of subject-subject interaction, a profoundly relational model in which negotiated views of reality are built, where all receivers are also potentially emitters, a space of truly dialogical interaction, as in the best examples of net.art,).  Second, cyberspace in particular can be seen as a decentralized archipelago of relatively autonomous zones, in which communities produce their own media (rather than mass media), and where they grab, process and produce their own information.  Third, ICTs and cyberspace promote the creation of networked cultures without the fixed and homogenized identities assumed by the mass media, new routes for the circulation of ideas (not subject to centralized controls), the irruption of sub-cultures aware of the need to re-invent social and political orders, a space for inter-cultural exchange and the construction of shared artistic and political strategies.  As such, it affords an unprecedented opportunity to build new visions with peoples from all over the world (in this sense, Porto Alegre can be seen partly as a result of this dynamic)Here we are talking about a micropolitics for the production of local knowledge made possible by the “fluid architecture” of cyberspace, emphasizing the “molecular” (as opposed to molar, or characterized by large, homogeneous aggregates) nature of cyberspace.   This micropolitics consists of practices of mixing, reusing, and recombination of knowledge and information.

 

2. In other words, ICTs enact a new model of life and world-making, with the potential of seeing cyberspace as a knowledge space, a space of collective intelligence, a “noosphere,” a signifying space of subject-subject interaction (individually and collectively) for the creation and negotiation of visions and meanings.  These systems of networked intelligence could be of great cultural, social, and political potential.  The result would be an inter-networked society of intelligent communities, centered on the democratic production of culture and subjectivity; in the long run, this may amount to a significant anthropological mutation or human transformation, perhaps a new stage in humanity’s development or hominization (Pierre Lévy’s thesis / Teilhard de Chardin’s notions).  Rather than at the service of capital, this new economy of knowledge would be at the service of an emerging humanity of cooperation, pluralism (singularity), and collective learning.  It would be receptive to a multiplicity of life forms and cultures rather than to the flattening of identities effected by capital’s steam rolling media; it would enable a re-signification of social and biological life and of freedom; it could get to constitute a new platform for the self-production of human groups and their cultural and natural worlds.

 

This is also to say that the net and ICTs have created an unprecedented shift in what we understand by “culture.”  Some speak of cybercultures, meaning the cultural practices that arise out of, and around, the new media (Harcourt/Escobar).  The Net takes us out of out usual “homes” (places, spaces of habitation, modes of thinking), redefining in so doing our very homes and places (Burbano)

 

3. A similar model for the production of life and the world is emerging from the sciences of complexity and self-organization.   Ants, swarming molds, cities, certain markets are example of what these scientists call “complex adaptive behavior.”  (Thousands of invisible single-celled mold units occasionally coalesce into a swarm and create a visible large mold.  Ant colonies developed over a long time span with no central pacemaker, since the queen does not give orders and is no authority at all.  Local markets used to link efficiently myriad producers and consumers with prices setting themselves in a way that was understood locally, without any central control at all )  In this type of situation, simple beginnings lead to complex entities, without there being any master plan or central intelligence planning it.  These are usually bottom-up processes; agents working at one (local) scale produce behavior and forms at higher scale (e.g., the great ant-globalization demonstrations of the last few years).  Simple rules at one level give rise to sophistication and complexity at another level.  This is what is called emergence: the fact that the actions of multiple agents interacting dynamically and following local rules rather than top-down commands result in some kind of visible macro-behavior or structure.  There is more: these systems are (some times, not always!) “adaptive”: they learn over time, responding more effectively to the changing needs of their environment.

 

4. As with cities, emergent behavior usually shows a mix of order and anarchy, meshworks and hierarchies (e.g., myriad encounters in side walks vs. rigid rules).  The important issue is the logic of self-organization at play (and which planning tries to control, those curtailing the self-organizing potential of diverse agents or multiplicities.).  It is important to respect and build on this logic (some new software and interfaces attempt to do just this, by learning to recognize complexity).  This entails building on the logic of distributed (not centralized), bottom-up intelligence as opposed to unified, top-down forms.  

 

5. As collective intelligence and adaptive emergence, cyberspace can be thought about in terms of the network form.  There are, however, all kinds of networks.  Many reproduce the sins of the past (command-and-control systems, narrow goals, centralization, etc.).  We are talking here about a particular kind of network form.  It is possible to distinguish between two general types: more or less rigid hierarchies, and flexible, non-hierarchical, decentralized and self-organizing meshworks (de Landa’s distinction).   This is a key distinction that underlies two alternative philosophies of life.  Hierarchies entail a degree of centralized control, ranks, overt planning, homogenization, and particular goals and rules of behavior conducive to those goals.  The military, capitalist enterprises and most bureaucratic organizations, for instance, have largely operated on this basis, although they are also shifting partially to the logic of meshworking.  Meshworks, on the contrary, are based on decentralized decision making (such as the “swarming effect” just described), self-organization, and heterogeneity and diversity.  Since they are non-hierarchical, they have no overt goals. It can be said they follow the dynamics of life, developing through their encounter with their environments (by “drift”), although conserving their basic structure.   Other metaphors used to describe these phenomena are tree-like structures or “strata” (for hierarchies) and “rhizomes” or “self-consistent aggregates” for meshworks.  The metaphor or rhizomes suggests network of heterogenous elements that grow in unplanned directions, following the real-life situations they encounter.  The former shun heterogeneity and diversity, the latter welcome itTwo very different life philosophies.  It should be made clear, however, that these two principles are found mixed in operation in most real life examples. They could also give rise to one another (as when social movement meshworks develop hierarchies and centralization).  The internet is a case in point: having grown mostly on the model of self-organization (by drift), it became increasingly colonized by hierarchical forms (from the military to e-bussiness and media, which have attempted to turn it into another space of mass consumption of commodities and information).  Today, the internet can be said to be a hybrid of meshwork and hierarchy components, with a tendency to increase the elements of command and control (de Landa); hence the importance of defending cyberspace from this appropriation (see below, Strategies). 

 

To sum up, what we are saying is that in cyberspace and complexity we find a viable model of social life.  This model is based on self-organization, non-hierarchy, and complex adaptive behavior on the part of agents.  This model contrasts sharply with the dominant model of capitalism and modernity, particularly in their incarnation as neo-liberal globalization (NLG).  This model is closer in spirit to philosophical anarchism and anarcho-socialism and may provide general guidelines for internationalist networking.  The model of self-organization (SO), finally, constitutes an entirely different form for the creation of biological, social, and economic life.   What we want is the world’s Left to take this model seriously in their organizing, resistance, and creative practices.  The lessons for the Left are clear!  In the long run, this amounts to reinventing the nature and dynamics of social emancipation itself.  The left is thus confronted with a novel sociology and politics of emergence from this perspective (Boaventura de Sousa Santos).. 

 

 

II. Strategy

 

1. The transformation in question is already happening, but it is possible to make it more conscious.  Let us focus on the anti-globalization social movements (AGMs).  These movements may be seen as fostering an “artificial emergence” in their attempt to counter the deadening hierarchy-laden systems of NLG.  None of the movements making up the AGM can by itself tackle the entire “system” or the global situation (not even understand it as a whole), yet they have shown that they work together in some coordinated fashion.  They do not take their cues from any central committee, but act largely in response to local/national concerns, albeit having in mind some global issues (Osterweil’s argument about Italian movements).  With AGMs, in short, we have a case where local collective action results in global behavior…. at least some times (or is

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