“The political relevance of Privacy Rights is not exclusive to one country or one continent. These rights are essential for combating violent forms of control practiced by States everywhere, which aim only to benefit a hegemony rather than the people as a whole. Europe and the Americas are connected in ways that transcend the virtual world, but these connections have undeniably been exacerbated in this ever-changing technological landscape.”
From Mirna Wabi-Sabi
The concept of privacy, in relation to personal data, is paramount for the fight against fascism (in the literal sense). In Europe, where fascism was born and bred, authorities misusing personal information is a lurking threat. Just because there has been a historical struggle to eradicate this type of violent rule, it doesn’t mean combating fascist tendencies is a thing of the past. Technology evolves at alarming rates, and reaches far across the globe. Keeping up with the world-wide political implications of these changes is essential to ensure history does not repeat itself.
Some of these changes involve how personal data is processed and stored. We have become increasingly dependent on social media platforms; the internet has expanded into a complex network of institutions and companies; and data is being stored exponentially more on “the cloud” rather than on individual hardware. These innovations have provided us with new types of connections, but they also provided new vulnerability gaps on personal and political realms. These gaps can seriously undermine basic human rights, and there are serious doubts regarding whether the legal framework that is being put in place can be effective in safeguarding these rights.
An analysis of one of the shortcomings of the current legal framework that aims to ensure user’s basic rights (the inconsistency with which we establish accountability) will be presented tomorrow, October 5th, by René Mahieu at the Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2018. In the current networked online landscape, tracking down who has your data is a matryoshka doll of labyrinths, where arriving somewhere only means finding new sets of potential controllers. In his most recent working paper, Mahieu (et. al.) argues that in this context the law is unclear in assigning legal responsibilities to companies and institutions.
“We are currently witnessing what Zuboff calls the rise of “Surveillance Capitalism”. It is characterized by a new form of extreme concentration of power by those who control the platforms and the data. If we do not force this concentrated power under the control of new forms of checks and balances, it will be detrimental to democracy and individual autonomy.” (Rene Mahieu)
According to Mahieu (et. al.), attempts to make this type of law enforcement more effective by the Data Protection Authorities, the courts and even the introduction of a new law in Europe have fallen short in doing so. Nevertheless, the European legal system became the main reference for law-making in Latin America. Brazil has just adopted a virtually copied-and-pasted version of the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) as data usage accountability efforts. As one of the world’s biggest democracies, as well as the “most influential” South American country, we are yet to see if this new General Data Protection Law (LGPD) will be used to repair some glitches in this so-called “flawed democracy“.
The LGPD was approved in August 2018, and immediately confronts us with the following question: will it be used to protect personal and political freedoms of the Brazilian population, or was it approved precisely because it may not? If this new privacy protection law is an attempt to balance out the completely unbalanced way in which law enforcement operates, it is happening so slowly that by the time it can be used to help the people who need it the most, they would have already served their sentence and we would have a whole new set of problems (technologies and mechanisms) to deal with.
The law won’t come into effect before 2020, while 23 political prisoners of Brazil need protection now. They were convicted based on personal data collected online and by phone wires, which paint a distorted picture of criminal plans that were never realized (an investigation lead by the Precinct for Repression of Informatics Crimes).
This concern over using people’s personal data to monitor, intimidate, imprison, or even kill marginalized peoples is widespread in Europe. The conference where Mahieu presented his research hosted a vast majority of Privacy Rights related works, but it was strangely financed by the very companies most likely to evade people’s privacy and misuse personal data. For instance, Google, a large umbrella cellphone company, and even a data collection agency for the military were involved in the realization of this event, which provoked resistance from a hand full of scholars.
Scholars members of the groups DATACTIVE and Data Justice Lab published an open letter one month before the conference stressing that, “in the context of what has been described as the increased neoliberalization of higher education”, transparency with regards to corporate funding and “a clear set of principles for sponsorship” is of the utmost importance. Without it, participants and organizers of this academic field would inevitably play a role in efforts to “neutralize or undermine human rights concerns”.
There were several problematic sponsors, but the one that stood out in their protest was Palantir, a data analysis company from the United States affiliated with the military and inhumane border control initiatives:
“[P]roviding Palantir with a platform, as a sponsor of a prominent academic conference on privacy, significantly undermines efforts to resist the deployment of military-grade surveillance against migrants and marginalized communities already affected by abusive policing.” (Why we won’t be at APC 2018)
The political relevance of Privacy Rights is not exclusive to one country or one continent. These rights are essential for combating violent forms of control practiced by State-Capitalism everywhere, which aim only to benefit a hegemony rather than the people as a whole. Europe and the Americas are connected in ways that transcend the virtual world, but these connections have undeniably been exacerbated in this ever-changing technological landscape.
Just so you don’t finish this article in complete despair, there are a few things we can do to remedy the situation; if not a cure, at least damage control. There is value in demanding your right to access information about where your personal data is, who it is being shared with, and what this data consists of (e.g. address, name, birthday, etc). Denouncing the institutions that refuse or evade the request may shift the power imbalance between individual citizens and organizations in favor of the citizen. Perhaps our biggest asset in capitalist society is our demand as consumers, and consequentially our motivation to not wanna be fined alongside potential business partners. In short: do your best to keep track of where your personal data is, and don’t do business with shady companies.
I learned of Making Light through one of Neil Gaiman’s posts on fanfiction. Teresa Nielsen Hayden had written a lovely post on Mary Sue fanfiction and pro fiction. I started commenting there many years ago, although I was always more of a lurker. I started my own livejournal blog, and became friends with Bellatrys, londonkds, oyceter, and spiralsheep.
I never forgot the conversation Making Light had after the 2004 election on gay marriage, how conciliatory they were to conservative members of that community. A stark contrast to how they handled Racefail after the 2008 election.
I’m not sure if the pandagon archives are still there. I think Alas A Blog still exists. I remember Barry Deutsch’s comic about a Jewish girl who was a dragon-slayer. I remember Matthew Yglesias, although I had a very scratchy knowledge of economics. I remember A Tiny Revolution and Michael Berube. My god, all these white leftists and liberals hi-fiving themselves over how superior they were to the religious right and wondering why there wasn’t a big tent coalition on the internet.
The net roots were obsessed with popular culture. The Buffy debates alone took up yards of screentime. I didn’t have a TV then, although I passively and incoherently absorbed everything I read on the internet. This is why I get infuriated when people accuse the social justice warriors of trivializing social justice concerns, because the netroots had not modeled good behaviour, to put it mildly.
Before Racefail, the biggest netroots dustup I observed was with Amanda Marcotte’s plagiarization of Brownfemipower’s work around WOC reproductive rights. The signs had been there, all along. Amanda Marcotte had defended Paris Hilton as a powerful woman enjoying her money as she choosed while dismissing Beyonce as a non-feminist.She was an obsessive anti-theist and was an apologist for harmful hipster elitism. She made much mileage out of her heartbreaking tale of rape and a pregnancy scare that took place afterwards. Which is one thing to defend reproductive rights and abuse survivors, and another to defend a rapist like Hugo Schwyzer.
I wonder how much the anger of the white netroots against the social justice warriors had to do with the fear of aging.
Racefail happened in January 2009. My entry into Racefail happened by way of a blogger who referred to Deepa D.’s essay, “I didn’t dream of dragons.” This was a magnificent essay taking down everything that was Eurocentric about the western high fantasy tradition. Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s livejournals were on my friendslist, and I gaped in horror as they doubled down on racist denial. Will Shetterly started on his rampage of stalking women of color feminists and their white feminist allies. The Nielsen Haydens and Shetterly probably thought they were doing liberal damage control, but it still looks like liberal racist libel and slander of my friends Spiralsheep and Willow, and the ones that I don’t know about, from where I stand.
What made their behaviour even more unforgivable was the fact that Making Light had built its reputation as a bastion of moderacy and approachment between (white) leftists and liberals and centre-rightists. Dave Luckett had posted opposition to gay marriage after the 2004 elections, and instead of being booted out the Making Light regulars reached out and used reason on him, and succeeded. Yet when Spiralsheep and Willow had made completely reasonable attacks on white Eurocentrism in science fiction and fantasy, suddenly they were being divisive and spouting “identity politics nonsense.” Maybe if they had a couple of fiction manuscripts that could have been published at Tor.com they would have been treated better.
I loved the community building that happened post-Racefail. There was the famous POC unicorn sci-fi call-in, where POC fans of science fiction and fantasy proclaimed their love for the genre, and brilliant posts by Deepa D, yeloson, delux vivens, skywardprodigal, and many more. People of color who loved pop culture but had issues with representation realized that they were no longer alone. Racefail was the shot that was heard around the world. It may have been just a Livejournal spat, but it quickly snowballed into massive WOC and QTIPOC online organizing on a global scale.
Now one can argue that I should never have placed trust in the white left to begin with, but hey, I’m a Bangladeshi liberal by birth, breeding, and choice, not an angry black woman with justifiable skepticism of white intentions starting in the womb. And the trauma, added to the already toxic brew of body image dysphoria, bipolar disorder, paranoia, social isolation and first world poverty, made me highly suspicious and angry with my white friends in the Vancouver punk scene. What made things substantially worse was that I felt unable to talk to anyone about my severe emotional pain over seeing white leftists whom I had greatly admired doing incredibly shitty things, misrepresenting the people they had sworn to defend the western right from, and lying their asses off. I mean, Racefail was just a Livejournal dust-up, what was there to be angry about?
What made me even angrier about Racefail was that the Nielsen Haydens were Christian leftists. They talk the talk about mercy, but everybody knows that it’s way easier to forgive the people who hurt you than to forgive the people you hurt. They have never forgiven Spiralsheep and Willow for having been the targets of their abuse. And the Nielsen Haydens’ Christian hypocrisy got enabled like hell by their atheist friends and supporters in the sff community.
At this point the discerning reader will ask, “But Sajia, you hate cultural appropriation rhetoric, why aren’t you more sympathetic to the NHs?” While it’s true that cultural appropriation rhetoric has gotten out of hand, there were legitimate concerns at the heart of anti-appropriation ideology. And it did act as a seed for a massive amount of online community building. And it’s hypocritical for the white left to smear POC pop culture activists when they committed just as shitty behavior not just in the netroots blogs, but earlier on Usenet and the western alternative press. And even if Spiralsheep and Willow had been completely 100 percent wrong, that’s no excuse for the asshole behavior of the NHs and the stalking and abusive behavior of Will Shetterly.
I was pissed off at Teresa Nielsen Hayden dismissing our community building as “bullshit identity politics”, especially because Tor’s reinvention as a bastion of pluralism would not have been possible without that community building. As a bellydancer and yogini I’ve been hurt by POC in-fighting and aggression and policing of white femininity, while the Nielsen Haydens seem to have only revitalized their brand through Racefail.
I was trapped in a digital world, knowing it was unhealthy of me to be spending so much time on Livejournal and Dreamwidth, addicted to communal anger. Part of it is that because I am an empath, I over-identified with the pain and anger of the people whose blogs I was reading, and was unable to create, let alone maintain, good boundaries with my internet friends. Physical movement would prove to be my salvation, but it was years before I could forgive myself for being a Muslimah who liked yoga and a Bangladeshi who loved bellydance.
Part of it was social justice discourse’s “ooh shiny” problem. One person would write something full of heartrending emotion and brilliant insight, the blogosphere would go nuts over them, dropping all common sense and boundaries, until the next blog post full of scintillating wit and heartache came along.
But I made some good friends there. Delux vivens always thought highly of me, and at one point said she would have liked to visit South Asia with me as a traveling companion. It was through her that I met hotcoffeems, a mixed race Sufi revert who loved to bellydance, and who was my inspiration for studying Sufism in Vancouver.
I’d written a post on Boobquake that got a lot of mileage on the internet, and through the links delux vivens had posted I had discovered the LJ blog of hotcoffeemississipi. She was a wonderful writer with a wicked sense of humor. She’d studied ballet as a child and gave me a lot of harsh but necessary advice about the problems with trying to study multiple dance forms at the same time. She’d had terrible problems with her abusive ex-husband but finally managed to get some kind of stability in her life.
She had been stalked and harassed by an internet mob accusing her of ethnicity fraud. She was accused of being a white girl playing dress up with hijab and pretending to have black ancestry in her lineage. She had to change her journal name, but that wasn’t enough and she stopped blogging altogether. I was traumatized, realizing that some of the ideas I had in my head were the same ideas used by the bullies to justify their mistreatment of hotcoffeems. I just didn’t like the scapegoating of white feminine expression by social justice discourse, the obsessive cataloging of privilege, the minute dissection of cultural expression in the pursuit of some obscure purity.
There’s something fucked up about people opposing racial categories as a way of policing human behavior and then using those same racial categories to control access to culture.
I hated the Nielsen Haydens for smearing the online POC community I fell in love with and desperately wanted to be a part of. And then I ended up hating that online POC community for smearing the white bellydancers whose art I loved.
I don’t like being asked to give up things that make me happy. I don’t like people whose main occupation in life is policing other people’s pleasure; whether that pleasure be of religion, art, sexuality, movement practices or community.
I blame the Nielsen Haydens for corrupting our POC media fandom community with the lure of book contracts in a bad economy. I am angry with the POC media fandom community for attacking and even slut-shaming white bellydancers and female yoga practitioners WHO NEVER HURT THEM PERSONALLY while accepting a few pennies from white scumbags in the science fiction fandom hierarchy who had a history of hurting POC fans. No, it’s not restitution if the white people in question continue to lie about Racefail.
And the irony is, in the time of the netroots I really wanted to write for Tor.com. But even if I had a bunch of short stories or a novel ready I’ll be double damned if I lend legitimacy to people who won’t apologize for their shitty behaviour and continue to justify their shitty behaviour towards impoverished POC fans who don’t have a manuscript with which to bargain on their end.
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction.
This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
A manifesto from Rhyd Wildermuth
“Welcome to the modern world. It’s just like the old world, except it doesn’t work.”
My friend and I were both hungry; me perhaps a bit more so since I’d been traveling all day, hadn’t eaten that morning and it was now mid-evening.
“I’ll take you to dinner,” I told him. “Somewhere close–maybe pizza.”
“Okay,” he answered, and then started looking at his phone. “This place has really good reviews. Just need to take two trains.”
I was really hungry. “How long will that take?” I asked.
“45 minutes, maybe an hour.”
I shook my head. “Seems far and will cost a lot to get there. Isn’t there a place nearby?”
It was his turn to shake his head. “None with good reviews.”
“I don’t care,” I answered, probably a bit too curtly. The hunger was irritating me greatly. “Let’s just walk to one of them.”
So we did, set out into the cold city night, finally coming to an Italian restaurant. I looked at the menu, the prices were decent. “Perfect,” I said, turning to him.
“I can’t find any reviews on Trip Advisor though,” he answered. “But there’s one about a mile from here with a lot of reviews…”
Exhausted and frustrated, I snapped back: “Food’s food. I’m buying anyway…let’s go in.”
“But it might not be good,” he replied, until suddenly seeing something on his phone that made him excited. “Nevermind, I found it. Good reviews, we can go in.”
I’ve thought about this interaction very often since it happened a few months ago. My friend isn’t stupid; in fact, he’s very intelligent, and his magical insights into the world are often quite profound. Nor is he hardly alone in succumbing to the peculiar sort of paralysis of inaction I’ve recounted here. In fact, I suffer from it often too, as no doubt you likely do.
The desire to know if something is good before you try it, to want certainty about the uncertain–that’s hardly a new thing. But what is new, deeply radically new, is our reliance on social media (and the corporations which run them) and technological devices to give us that certainty, to tell us it’s going to be okay, to remove the risk that an action might not result in the absolute best conditions.
As with a night out at a restaurant or a date with a person met online, so too with any of the actions we might take towards revolution. We look to Tumblr and Twitter to gauge the sentiment of others, to divine if our groups and theories and plans are popular enough, have all the required sign-off’s from every possible identity focus-group, and nod sagely when told ‘that won’t work’ by whichever correctly-branded social justice personality happened to come through our feed that particular minute.
We do not revolt because we might fail. People might get shot or imprisoned, vulnerable people might suffer more than they already do, police oppression might increase, and all that effort could be wasted forever. And though these fears have always been good fears, our reliance on technology for re-assurances of certainty has amplified our inaction. This is not a controversial statement: if many of us can barely try a new restaurant without relying on smartphones to take away the very minimal risk of an awful meal, why would we expect ourselves to face actual, real risk?
Those Satanic Mills
If you feel this way of critiquing technology seems bizarre, anti-modern, ‘primitive,’ or appears to ignore all the ‘good’ that technology has done, you might be tempted to describe all this as ‘luddite.’ And you’d be correct, and not in the ways most moderns have come to understand what the Luddites fought for.
The Luddites have always fascinated me. Men and women, sometimes cross-dressing, stealing into oppressive factories in the middle of the night to smash looms to stop production: that’s quite hardcore, regardless of why they did it. Besides the awesome acts of industrial sabotage, however, two other aspects of what the followers of King (or Ned, or Captain) Ludd did two hundred years ago are extremely relevant to us now.
The first aspect is their anarcho-paganism. They all claimed to follow a ghostly captain or leader who urged them on their night-time strikes against the industrialists. The stories they told about exactly who He was varied just as often as their actions: Ludd lived under a hill, or in a well, or under a church, all three places not ironically located “somewhere” in Sherwood forest, where Robin of Locksley and his fellow rogues were said to hide. Ludd was a spirit, a king, or a general (“No General But Ludd/Means The Poor Any Good” went one of their chants), or just a captain amongst them, or even the ghost of a man named Ned Ludd (killed after sabotaging a factory, goes the stories). Like other similar groups such as the Whiteboys and Molly Maguires and Rebeccas, the Luddites invoked the mythic against capitalists and the State to great effect, at least while their resistance lasted.
And that brings me to the third aspect of the Luddite resistance, the part which I find most haunting as another year on this earth passes for me (I’m 41 today, it seems). To explain this aspect, though, we need to step back a bit and look not just at the Luddites themselves but at the era in which they fought and the strange (and eerily familiar) historical circumstances which created the world around them.
If industrial capitalism has a specific birthdate and birthplace, it was 1769 in Derbyshire, England. It was in that year and in that place the very first modern factory was built by Richard Arkwright. The sound of the factory was compared to “the devil’s bagpipes,” a fact memorialized in this poem by Lorna Smithers:
When Richard Arkwright played the devil’s bagpipes on Stoneygate a giant hush came over the town. The blistering whirring sound against the pink horizon of a sun that would not set over clear sights for two centuries of soot and smog was damnable. Yes damnable! Gathering in storm clouds over Snape Fell.
You who have seen a premonition might have heard the village seers tell of smoke for flesh charry knees and the squalor of shanty towns. Red brick mills turning satanic faces to the coin of their heliotropic sun: Empire.
Piecers running between generations bent legged beggers, tongue in cheek defiant. Weavers watching shuttles slipping through fingers like untamed flies. Luddites sweeping across greens with armaments and gritted teeth…
It took forty years for Arkwright’s new terror, “those Satanic mills” as William Blake called them in 1804, to finally spark the resistance movement known as the Luddites. In that space of time, Arkwright’s first mill multiplied into 2400 similar factories spread throughout England (mostly in the major cities), an average of 60 a year.
So, in two generations, Britain had gone from a place where there was no such thing as a factory to a place where there were several thousands. In four decades, an entire society which had started out knowing nothing about industrialization appeared to become irrevocably industrialised, and it was at that point the Luddites struck.
But why then? Why not before? And why fight what appeared to be inevitable?
Against the Modern World
We must first ignore the modern interpretation of what a Luddite is. They weren’t ‘anti-technology’ or slow-to-adapt old people hopelessly left behind in a new world. Nor where they only concerned with fighting for better wages for weavers (who, before the factories, were able to support themselves and large families on the income from their specialized trade).
They were people close to my age and somewhat younger, the oldest people alive in Britain who could still remember the old world before factories, but still also young enough to actually work in them. They were a generation that stood on a threshold between the pre-industrial world and the new industrial capitalist order.
Imagine if you will what it must have been like to see your parents and the older people in your villages, towns, and cities starving because they could not or would not adapt to this brave new world. Many of them were too old, feeble, or weak-sighted to work in the factories, and anyway the factory owners preferred children as young as five to do much of the nimble work (and they couldn’t fight back). So while you see the older generation starving and destitute, you also see your own children or younger siblings coming home from the mills with broken fingers, strange bruises, and unmentionable wounds from their 14-hour day crawling under machinery to tie broken threads or retrieve loose bobbins.
And then there’s you, you and others your age, still young enough to work in many of the mills yet old enough to remember when the world wasn’t like this at all.
Now, it is almost impossible for us to imagine a world before factories, even as in many modern liberal democratic countries very few of us have actually stepped foot in one. That’s not because they aren’t around anymore: they’ve moved mostly to Asia and Africa, where exhausted workers are crammed up like cattle in a slaughterhouse to make the phone and laptops you’re probably reading this on (as well as the clothes you’re wearing, possibly the chair you’re sitting on, and most of the stuff inside the home where you lay your head at night) for little or no wages.
And it is almost impossible to imagine what society was like before the factory. What was it like to only wear clothes made by yourself or people who lived nearby? What was life like before the cities swelled with displaced peasants blinking in the light of dawn before the gates of textile and steel mills, hungry and exhausted but jostling each other in line for a job that day to feed their family? What did the streets and town squares look like at night before everyone had to wake up at dawn to go to work? How did we relate to each other before wages became the only way to survive? And what did society look like before mass-production, when no one ever wore the same thing, when ‘pre-packaged experiences,’ monoculture, and conformity were literally impossible?
It is almost impossible to imagine the world before factories.
Almost, but not completely.
Because we are living in a similar world to what the Luddites experienced.
“All that is sacred is profaned…”*
(* from The Communist Manifesto)
If you can pinpoint any places in western history where technology severely altered the way human society functioned, I suspect there are three. The most obvious one is the industrial revolution, which was also the birth of capitalism. The one before that changed the world as well (but much more slowly) was the invention of the printing press, which gave to early merchants and the bourgeoisie the power to disseminate literature outside the strictures of religious and royal decree. And while we tend to see that invention as a net gain for humanity, we must remember that mass-printing and distribution has always been primarily in the hands of the rich, with the rest of us merely passive consumers.
The third–well, that’s the era we’re in now, the computer/internet ‘revolution.’
The first ‘node-to-node’ digital communication happened in 1969, 200 years after from the birth of Richard Arkwright’s steam-powered looming frame. But being military technology, it took more than a decade for that technology to filter out to non-military capitalists and become the ‘World Wide Web.’ In the following decades, we’ve gone from a world where random (“risky”) human interactions occurred only in public spaces to one where most such interactions now occur ‘online.’ Here’s some other stuff that has changed:
30 years ago, there were no smartphones or texting; in 2015, 98% of all Americans 18-29 years old had a cellphone.
17 years ago there was no Wikipedia, 14 years ago there was no such thing as Facebook, 12 years ago no Twitter, 11 years ago no Tumblr, and 7 years ago no Instagram.
In 1984 only 8% of US homes had a computer of any sort; in 2010, 77% did.
These are all merely statistics about technological saturation; they tell us only as much as the figures about factories in England between 1769 and 1810 told us. But we don’t need to dig very far to understand that this technological change has radically altered what it means to be a human in a capitalist society.
For instance: before cellphones, you could only be reached at home. That meant if you needed to wait for a call you had to stay by the phone, but it also meant that your life was less likely to revolve around the ability of someone to get a hold of you immediately. There was no expectation that your attention could be gotten at any hour of the day because such a thing was impossible.
Before texting and email there were letters. You had to take the time to decide what you were going to say to someone, write it out on paper, post it in the mail, and then wait some amount of time for a reply. Thus human interactions were slower and more ponderous and most of all more intentional. Even the angriest of letters wouldn’t arrive until the next day at the earliest, and this slowness meant there was always at least a little time to rethink your immediate fury, unlike now with our instantaneous ‘send’ buttons.
Social media, however, probably represents the largest shift in how we relate to each other and also how we see ourselves. To have large groups of friends you had to do stuff for them, and with them, call them on weekends or send them letters, catch up with them for coffee or go to their parties or invite them for dinner, take vacations to see them or host them in your home. Now you need only post an update and read theirs to feel you’ve performed acts of friendship.
Accompanying that shift has been an increasing feeling of isolation and alienation. So many people now self-diagnose with introversion (as with trauma, or social anxiety, or many other ailments) that one wonders how humans ever managed to talk to each other before the internet.
The general response to this apparent increase in alienation is to state it has always been there, that being connected to each other more via the internet has helped us talk about it more, and that anyway we are #Blessed the internet came around to let us all be social despite our fear and misanthropy.
But in this case particularly, those of us who stand on the same threshold of change that the Luddites also stood upon cannot help but remember–we all did fine without social media. Better, even. We got over our shyness and anxiety because we had to, and the internet appears to have merely enabled us to not get over such things, to not address our social anxiety and fear of rejection and instead hide safely behind a screen.
Before the internet, binge-watching television (“Netflix and chill”) or staring at a screen for hours a day was a sign you’d given up on yourself and the world around you, were depressed and really just needed a friendly face or to go for a walk. They were symptoms of serious depression, indications that some large issue in your life has been unaddressed for too long and the things to ‘get you through’ had become addictions which prevented you from seeking help.
Now those things are all proud marks of ‘self-care’ enabled by technology without which we’d all surely be miserable, lonely humans. Nevermind that we are still miserable, lonely humans, and probably more so now.
Less controversial but even more unaddressed is what this new ‘technological revolution’ has done to our ability to survive, to earn enough money to eat and pay rent. The much-vaunted and ridiculous ‘internet of things’ has made it so we rarely get to ‘own’ the things we pay capitalists for, and must re-sell parts of ourselves constantly in order to compensate for dwindling wages and no savings. This is the curse of the ‘millenial’ (a marketing term that, like so much else, somehow became a ‘fact’ in capitalist society)–to have no steady income but to have thousands of Instagram followers in the hopes of one day having enough to be an ‘influencer’. To face insurmountable college debt and no way to secure housing but to get thousands of retweets on Twitter.
It is not just the fate of millenials. I’ve had two posts shared over 100,000 times and one seen by 1.5 million people. And yet I haven’t been able to afford eating more than twice a day in years, and have been nomadic for the last five years because 1.5 million views doesn’t pay rent.
The answer to the poverty experienced by more and more people (again–not just millenials) is to ‘monetize’ your life. Or as put in a rather brilliant essay about nomads like myself at It’s Going Down (“Living In A Van Down By The Instagram”):
The point here is not to whine about how we all can’t be special snowflakes or social media super-stars; the point is to state that capital is colonizing all aspects of our lives, including online worlds, and attempting to make us in turn generate profit, content, and value during all waking moments, either online or off. And, there’s no better backdrop to do this than when we are constantly traveling, as we in turn are utilizing and activating our social networks for the sake of monetizing them. Thus, we are pushed to take photos and tag corporations in the hopes that maybe one day we could get $50 for a sponsored post. To fundamentally turn ourselves, and our lives, into brands.
As was pointed out in the new book, Now, by the Invisible Committee, this has become both the economic baseline as well as central anxiety of our time. We aren’t just driving somewhere and enjoying a podcast or randomly picking up a hitch hiker, we are instead missing out on an opportunity to sell our labor power for Uber or Lyft. We aren’t taking photos to share with loved ones, we are building up our brand and trying to gain followers, which we will then sell to multinational corporations. This is the logic of the gig economy applied to all aspects of our lives, at all times, and in all scenarios.
To monetize yourself, though, requires you make yourself more sell-able, becoming a brand, a product, constantly adapting to market demands. Or as Badean wrote in “Identity In Crisis:”, in the Journal of Queer Nihilism:
“The collapse of traditional subject positions is managed through the proliferation of a new positions: app designers, graphic designers, cyber sex workers, queer theorists, feminist publishers, social network engineers, trend hunters, eBay sellers, social justice activists, performance artists, porn directors, spammers, party promoters, award winning baristas.
We are forced to continually define ourselves, to enact countless operations upon ourselves so as to produce ourselves anew each day as someone worth taking to market — our basic survival depends on the ceaseless deployment of increasingly discreet technologies of the self.
Everything is for sale: our sex appeal, our fetishes, our tattoos, our radicalism, our fashion sense, our queerness, our androgyny, our fitness, our fluidity, our abnormality, our sociability. Facebook and Twitter function as the new resume.
We are caught in the unending necessity to be continually educating, training, exploring, perfecting, and fine-tuning ourselves. Our continual self-invention is both economic imperative and economic engine.”
No doubt this seems dire enough, but one more dark truth emerges from this constant race. Because if we are constructing our identities in order to become more sale-able to people (be that for money or Facebook likes or even just to be noticed in this new hyper-gendered micro-radical hierarchy of new identities), how do we even know who we are anymore?
To be honest, I don’t always know. I am a radical queer anarchist pagan nomad punk fag brother boyfriend theorist bard druid, but none of that actually tells me what I am, only the hashtags people might use to define me on a social media post. Labels that once gave meaning now become indelible brandings. Try to shift any of those identities and the world (or the social media world, anyway) pushes back…hard. And just as often, those labels themselves are fiercely contested: I cannot count how many times I’ve been told I’m too ‘masculine-presenting’ to be allowed to use the term queer.
So who am I? Who gets to decide? And why are we using capitalist tools to mediate those discussions in the first place? Or is it possible it’s those very tools which have triggered these crises in the first place?
Not All Revolutions Are Good
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.
(The Communist Manifesto)
The shift wrought by internet technology wherein identity is now the very battlefield of our ability to survive in the world may seem utterly different from any other struggle which has come before. In context of the struggle the Luddites and the early communists and anarchists fought, however, not much has really changed.
The rise of industrial capitalism triggered vast shifts in social relations which are to this day still being constantly disrupted. It should thus be no surprise to us that ‘disruptive technology’ is a statement of pride for many of the new architects of this current upheaval, an upheaval in which we also take part when we celebrate the destruction of older forms of relating (binary gender, hetero-normative society, class-based politics). What ‘good’ comes from these disruptions unfortunately seems fleeting and probably is. Because while it is a beautiful thing that acceptance of gender variance and queer sexuality have become so prominent, it’s a sick joke to say a poor queer or trans person desperately trying to pay rent by sleeping on a friend’s couch while letting out their bedroom on AirBnb, turning tricks on TaskRabbit or bareback hookup apps, and desperately looking for the perfect filter to get their Instagram account another 100 followers has somehow had their life ‘improved’ by these disruptions.
Yet, to this current horror in which we all find ourselves, perhaps the Luddites might shrug and say, “at least you didn’t have time forced upon you.” Because along with ‘disruption’ of the factory from hand-craft and laborer to factory and wage-slave came the beginning of an oppressive order of time.
Clocks became no longer curiosities but requirements. Suddenly, knowing if it was half-past eight or just ‘morning’ became the crucial difference between feeding your family for a day or starving on the street. Time literally had to be disciplined into us during the birth of industrialization, often times by christian moralists like John Wesley working on behalf of the factory owners. Time became something that you “spent” rather than something that passed, work became measured not by what needed doing according to the season but what the factory boss demanded you do within a set number of hours.
Before industrialization, work was task-oriented. You planted at some times of the year, harvested at others, ground wheat and fixed carts, wove cloth and made clothes not when an arbitrary number declared it was ‘time’ to do so but when the thing itself needed doing. And work itself was determined by how long you wanted to take doing the task, not how many hours the boss said you needed to stand at a counter or else be fired.
When attempting to imagine what that world was like (not very long ago), we tend to imagine it for ourselves, what our own life might have been like. Harder to imagine, however, is what all of society itself was like without clocks as over-seers. Imagine then what life would be like if not just you but all your friends and all the people in your town lived life without clocks, and you get a little closer to understanding precisely what the Luddites were fighting for.
A New Luddite Rebellion
It was against such radical, world-altering shifts that the Luddites broke into factories at night, smashing looms. One imagines they wanted their time back, they wanted their children and parents back, wanted the ability to survive without working in factories back. They wanted back the rich texture of a society where you knew the people who made your clothes, talked to the people who grew your food, or were those people themselves.
We are living in another such time. People older than me lived most of their childhoods without the internet and do not (or cannot) adapt to a world where everything about them is on display, sold piecemeal through Facebook updates and Instagram photos.
Those much younger than me do not know a world without cellphones, do not remember that it was possible to make new friends and meet amazing lovers without connecting first to an always-on device in your pocket. How many of them know you can arrive by train to a foreign city with just a paper map and a notebook and have the best trip of your life? How many will ever get a chance to experience what it was like to not just survive but actually have a pretty decent life in a city on less than full-time, barely-above minimum wage as I did in Seattle 15 years ago? And most of all, how many of them will ever know that risk and uncertainty is not something to be avoided at all costs but very often the thing which makes life worth living in the first place?
I barely remember what that was like.
I also barely remember what it was like to be anonymous, to have hours and hours of free time without devices I felt like I needed always to be looking at, constantly notifying me that emails and texts and retweets and messages are coming in. To have long conversations with strangers while waiting for a bus, to make new friends on the walk to work or find an awesome lover by chance while whiling away the day at a cafe. And most of all, I barely remember what it was like to know who I am without labels–to not need to call myself anything but my name, and have that be enough.
I want that all back. If you are close in age to me, you probably do to. If you are younger than me and don’t know what that was like, perhaps my telling of it is enough to entice you to want it also, and if you are older than me you might be shaking your head, having already mourned what’s been lost.
More than anything, we need this all back. Not just our time (consumed constantly by always-on devices and relentless updates). Not just our Selves (boxed in, categorized, labeled and shelved by any number of ‘identities.’). Not just our ability to pay rent and eat and still have enough money left over to enjoy the ever-dwindling number of months and days we have on this earth. Not just all that, but we need our will back, our reckless desire to act in the face of risk and uncertainty, the chaotic and unscripted interactions between ourselves and the world which make our lives not just exciting, but mythic.
And therein’s the key to the ritual invocation we must perform to take back what we’ve watched slowly sold off of our lives with each new screech of the devil’s bagpipes. There are spirits, gods, and ancestors who keep the memory of the old worlds even as we forget. Ludd was one, and though his followers failed to stop the horror born of the factories in England, some of us still remember their attempt. Be it Ludd or the Raven King, Brighid or Dionysos, or perhaps all the old gods and heroes summoned together, we can make another go at stopping this new horror waking upon the world. From the shattered remains of the past we can reconstruct a new resistance against this increasingly senseless drive towards self-as-product.
And if we fail, we will no doubt be smeared by many for being ‘anti-modern’ just as the Luddites were, dismissed and forgotten by many others, but definitely remembered by some, just as the Luddites are still remembered now.
We may indeed fail. The risks are very, very great, and there’s no Trip Advisor listing to assure us that there will be good food and pleasant ambiance after our uprising. Perhaps our failures will be re-tweeted across the world, Facebook Live videos streaming our defeat to countless millions using greasy thumbs to scroll through the comments. We’ll lose Instagram followers and potential Influencer sponsorships while the rich and powerful of the world destroy more forests, gun down more poor people, and start more wars.
We probably won’t win. But I’m gonna try anyway, because I want my life back.
And maybe you do, too.
Rhyd Wildermuth is a co-founder and the managing editor of Gods&Radicals. He’s a poet, writer, theorist, and nomad currently living in occupied Bretagne. Find his primary blog here, his Facebook here, or support him on Patreon here.
We received the following communiqué and are pleased to repost it:
This is a call. Not to be heard, but felt. A call to be moved. A call to action.
Many of you now know of the struggle of the Standing Rock Sioux and innumerable other indigenous nations against the Black Snake called Dakota Access Pipeline. The prayer and action camp at Standing Rock has been sustaining a vibrant community in resistance to the pipeline since the spring, slowing down construction and withstanding militarized police harassment on a near daily basis. The 20 mile injunction placed on construction by the federal government has been lifted, and construction is now within just 6 miles of the Mni Sose River and the encampment. The battle has entered its most decisive moment.
Our indigenous relatives from across Turtle Island have come here to continue a struggle that has been kept alive for over half a millennium. They have come here as the original and sovereign land tenders, earth defenders, and water protectors of this place. As the original walkers of the path of right relationship. They have come here to take back power and to show leadership in the fight against exploitation and commodification, against the culture of colonization and inquisition, and for a healthy and bountiful world.
We are humbled and inspired by their initiatives, and unconditionally support them. Now is the time for us as allies in this anti-colonial struggle, to call upon our fellow comrades to join us on the battlefield.
To all who pray to our Earth and the water that cleanses her and brings forth life. To all who cast a circle and call in the elements, spirits, gods and goddesses, and deities; who ask for guidance from the spirit world. To those who listen to the ancestors as our descendants lay and wait. To those who align themselves with the cycles of the moon, the seasons, and the tides. For whom the cycle of life and death does not instill fear and aggression, but strength and comfort. To all who know how to listen.
It is time now witches, to deepen our work not only of casting spells and hexes, but of breaking them. We call forth the de-spelling of individualism, empire, spectacle, domestication, and whiteness.
It is time now witches to join us. Join us in spirit and join us in humility on this land. Bring your magick. Bring your prayers. Bring your bodies to the frontlines to protect all of creation. Come ready to take decisive action to kill this Black Snake. Come ready to follow in the path of indigenous warriors. We call you to join a frontline battle in a spiritual war that has been raging for centuries. A war against a dead civilization for all life on earth.
If you cannot come in body, take action from afar; the form of life of our enemies pervades all around us. If you cannot come, pray, cast, gather the coven, go to the wild, hold ritual, plan attacks. Ground yourself and continue to do the work. Continue to be moved.
We toss you a bundle of thread sweet witches, from the beautiful homelands of the Oceti Sakowin in each direction. It is the thread of centuries of resistance. Weave with it.
The Persistence of Ink
Though we’re not anti-technology ’round here (see: this site you’re reading), over-reliance on centralized networks powered by coal and accessed by machines built by children and others in near-slave labor makes the internet not quite the future any of us hope. In light of the massive Denial-of-Service attacks that shut down many sitesthis weekend, we’d like to point out that Gods&Radicals is also a print-publisher.
There’s a connection between the use of private security and those laws, by the way. The Pinkerton Detective Agency was formed in the United States as a for-hire private security firm (read: mercenaries) to arrest IWW members as well striking miners and railroad workers. Later, the Federal Bureau of Investigations was formed as a way of giving the government the same capability that Pinkerton had. The FBI is heavily involved in breaking the power of leftist groups, be they unionists, anarchists, the Black Panthers, environmentalists, or indigenous resistance movements.
History is full of repeating forms, and in this case it’s clear that private security (hired by corporations) and the government are working in tandem just like the early 1900’s. Laws once used against anarchists and communists never went away, and the same apparatuses used to put down earlier revolts continue to be used.
Soldiers and police officers are people–mostly men–hired by the State to maintain the ‘state monopoly on violence.’ Soldiers are hired to fight and kill people their government has declared enemies; police are hired for the similar purposes within the State.
As governments need to implement more and more violence in the world to maintain capitalism, they’ll need to continue paying and arming footsoldiers to do their will. The key, though, is pay.
Under capitalism, we are all mercenaries. We all sell our time and labor for a price. Police and soldiers are mercenaries like us, except their job is to keep the rest of us in line. Eventually, any resistance movement to capitalism and the state will need workers to refuse to sell their labor, to desert their jobs, and we’ll need soldiers and cops to do the same.
How do we get there, though? By widening the cracks in the system. When police start to sicken over their work and protest against the government’s use of their bodies to destroy the bodies of others, the state weakens. When the illusions that soldiers are doing ‘honorable’ work and ‘defending freedom’ starts to fall away, the state weakens.
Any anti-capitalist movement must use these moments to get police and soldiers to desert, to refuse to work, refuse to beat protestors and other workers, refuse to kill Black people, refuse to be mercenaries for the rich.
But we must also start to desert, too, and make the same refusals.