From Wikipedia to Bitcoin, online expressions of anarchism are constantly recreating networks through unmediated peer-to-peer connections. The anarchistic spirit of voluntary association and mutual aid cannot stem from the efforts of just one individual, but are always manifested within relationship.
Clay Shirky, a consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies spoke of the emerging global interconnectedness and the possibilities it has engendered. Shirky shared the success story of a platform called Ushahidi, a program that mines and collects data and provides information for emergency situations like natural disasters. Ushahidi is shared globally to track election results and was used to gather information about the need for supplies in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti and more recently for the Fukushima disaster.
Intrinsic to this model of innovation is what Shirky termed cognitive surplus; affordable technology and the presence of networks that coordinate time and talent. He described how all technology that supports Ushahidi existed for more than five years before the service itself emerged. At one point, ethnic violence erupted after an election in Kenya and in response to a media blackout of what was happening, one lawyer began blogging about the bloodshed. Soon her blog became virtually the only source of information and when she got to the point where her effort could not keep up, a couple of computer programmers responded to the challenge expressed on her blog and this led to the launch of Ushahidi. Shirky pointed out how this was an example of opportunity design rather being designed around the technology alone.
He named Wikipedia as the largest example of this cognitive surplus and pointed out how the success of this kind of platform lies in the articulation of a particular shared need. Along with the widely distributed technology, Shirky spoke of a unique network, which is the other crucial ingredient in creating a large scale of participation. The network he described is fundamentally different than traditional forms. Technology itself does not activate the kind of network that creates this large-scale effect. It simply enables what is already activated in each person and evolves in service to it. How is this kind of network different? What is activated to create a network that later is recognized as a vital force behind a large global-scale project like Wikipedia?
In contrast to Wikipedia, the old fashion Britannica style encyclopedia was highly controlled. Selected experts would write and shape the historical narrative, while the users had no opportunity to contribute their own unique knowledge and keep the information updated. The technology that supports each endeavor is different. Wikipedia was developed within the social and technical world of the Internet, whereas conventional paper-based encyclopedias evolved with the printing press.
Compared to this current diversified Internet distribution system, the printing press had a high cost and therefore limited accessibility. The relatively expensive nature of the technology became prone to the ownership model, with commercial interests creating a gap between those who have access and those that do not. With consolidation of the press and media by large business, advertisement revenue and other interests became influential in the flow of information and knowledge. This centralized control by private companies led to the current state of mainstream media, where an exclusive circle of appointed reporters parrot the official government line. Journalists are often tied to corporate sponsors and no longer think independently or ask hard questions. White House officials pick and choose who they allow at a press conference and give credentials only to those who will not challenge power.
The ever-changing nature of the vital 4th estate is a direct reflection of the social structures and networks inside the system. Christopher Hayes, editor of Nation magazine, (2012) described how the American social model of a meritocracy — the idea that those that work hard and improve their lot can build their own prosperity, is inherent in the political fable of the US. Hayes talked about how this notion of the meritocracy itself has seeds for destruction, in a tendency toward oligarchy. Acquisition of wealth in the Wall Street culture and one-dimensional methods of measuring intelligence for higher education has defined merits and maintains this system.
He noted how the ideal of individuals being rewarded by their capacity and hard work rather than inherited position and wealth has met a reality where individuals advance in status due to race, family or privilege within a corporate framework, creating cronyism based on self-interests. The language and story of meritocracy was used for self-protection of the elites. It was packaged and sold as the American dream, with a promise that if you work hard you will become middle-class. Now with the exploding debt economy, exploitation of cheap labor and predatory lending, the entire global economy has been turned into massive consumer fraud. Hollowed out US cities like Detroit have become symbols of these broken promises.
People are realizing they have been fleeced by corporate America. This deep sense of betrayal and realization that the game was rigged is shared across political lines.
Just as with the current corporate takeover of every aspect of government, communication systems have become top-down narrow networks made up of an exclusive circle of elites, by way of association with prestigious universities, companies and a professional media class. Communication with the larger population in this model requires one to go through a pre-determined route through a central bureaucracy or preexisting power structure. The idea behind it is a belief in trickle-down opportunity where merits are granted by favor of those above.
This highly filtered network is manifested in every facet of our social institutions. In the corporate work environment, employees must go to a supervisor to get approval for proposals or changes to the accepted way of doing things, instead of connecting directly to their colleagues to enact their ideas. In fact, the current form of representative democracy in Western societies itself is increasing becoming antithetical to the meaning of the word ‘democracy’, as it has become a vehicle for concentration of power. In its hierarchical form, citizens are expected to believe politicians will act in their best interests and depend on them for solutions.
So what is the cost of living within such a social structure? Although this type of network brings efficiency and order, it inherently concentrates power in a few hands and suppresses the imagination of the individual. It conforms mindsets to the mold of intentions and agendas of a select few, who weave the threads of public perception. One example of this blocked creativity is seen in the US two-party dominated political system, where citizen’s votes are locked into two corporate parties. Third party candidates are obstructed from ballot access by a system that sustains this two party monopoly. The consumerist culture is also an example where the individual is reduced to a corporate target of mass marketing. Through standardized testings, schools turn minds into receptacles of dumbed down vocational training and creates consumers rather then independent thinkers.
Now, with the advent of the Internet, a huge shift has occurred, which is at least as pivotal as the invention of the printing press. The move from centralized mass media to interactive digital sharing of information has opened up a whole new world of possibility. In this digital age, with unlimited and almost zero-cost of copying, everyone can create content and share it. Distribution is carried through crowd-sourcing based on grassroots peer-to-peer resonance and affinity, in the form of the viral meme, re-tweets and file sharing.
In the old forms of printing, the flow of information is controlled from top down. Production and distribution is at the mercy of vested corporate interests and a few ‘experts’ in the editorial room. Yet, with the egalitarian nature of the Internet, distribution naturally began to flow more freely. Mikhail Bakunin, Russian revolutionary and philosopher described anarchism as the “absolute right to self-determination, to associate or not to associate, to ally themselves with whomever they wish”.
People freely choose who to connect with and who not to and here the power of free association ensured by the First Amendment is truly exercised. What is emerging now are networks of anarchic meritocracy in which the everyday person creates equal opportunity to express themselves and determine what is worthy of their own newly discovered power of distribution.
In this spawning network, merits are determined by peers, by each person’s resonance and passion, instead of through appointed experts and credentialed elites. If something has merit, it is shared and may even go viral. This is a network emerging out of unfiltered and unmediated connection that actively engages individuals with each other in common interest or need.
This is what Shirky described as a kind of network that creates coordinated voluntary participation, connecting individuals to larger efforts and malleable tools for successful organizing. An example of this is found in an online free ride-share service called PickupPal. It is a website where sharing of travel needs organically created a coordinated carpooling system. At one point, they were sued by a bus company which argued in court that it was unfair competition. Because the communication channels were open, people launched a campaign to fight it and their efforts resulted in changing the existing law.
When freed from old ties, in an anarchistic meritocracy the imagination begins to weave its own tapestries. Instead of being prescribed and handed down from outside, the route emerges from each individual and manifests only through connection with others. This ubiquitous connectivity is intrinsic within the Internet. If a link is broken, the human need will find another pathway. Now each person connects with the other through mutual need and what fosters networks is genuine enthusiasm and excitement experienced at a personal level. These networks evolve as new pathways and passions emerge.
This network of anarchic meritocracy is decentralized and it appears as if there is no leader. The level playing field is not imposed from outside, but instead is a result of each person connecting with their power to guide their own life. It is not as if there is no governance or leadership. In an anarchistic meritocracy, everyone that is willing becomes a leader. This is a network of unleashed imagination that stands in opposition to entrenched establishment forces.
The Death of Ideology and Birth of a Culture of Ideals
From Cairo to Moscow, from Madrid to New York, the year 2011 unleashed the power of networking that had sprung up through the Internet. Many acknowledged the vital role social media played in this global cultural awakening. In his book Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Paul Mason noted how communication technology is changing basic social interaction and even one’s sense of self. Mason described how a new type of freedom has unfolded recently within what he refers to as the ‘networked individual.’ This is expressed in the inclination to live within multiple networks with flexible commitments. This was observed by sociologist Barry Wellman early in the development of information technology, even before the Internet became an integral part of life.
Mason claimed that this newly emerged concept of the individual defining themselves by way of a network is more pervasive than ever and is influencing both behavior and consciousness. By borrowing sociologist Richard Senett’s idea, Mason characterized the networked individual, as a person with “weak ties, multiple loyalties and greater autonomy.” (p. 131)
How does the networked individual effect the way we organize society and develop individuality as a basis of relationship? Andrew Flood, a member of the Workers Solidarity Movement explored how in the Internet age, Mason’s idea of this new kind of individual is bringing changes to traditional social forms and to the revolutionary process.
Flood observed how current progressive organizations are modeled on the labor union within the old factory system, where people are focused on collective bargaining rights and geographically tied to that system and community. He then compared this to a new form of organizing enabled by mass communication technology.
Social network analyst, Barry Wellman gave a useful summary on this new type of individual emerging online, with “the move from densely-knit and tightly-bounded groups to sparsely-knit and loosely-bounded networks”:
Each person is a switchboard, between ties and networks. People remain connected, but as individuals, rather than being rooted in the home bases of work unit and household. Each person operates a separate personal community network, and switches rapidly among multiple sub-networks …the organic and multidimensional relationships of communities are being transformed into narrow digitally-enabled, highly individualized, networked relationships; perhaps most widely recognizable as Facebook “friend”-ings accompanied by Facebook “like”-ings as a possible substitute for shared community values and norms. (as cited in Flood, 2012)
Some might criticize this kind of networking for the apparent lack of loyalty or stability that traditional ties depend on. They claim that the social structure will be fractured. Yet, is this really true? How are networks of weak ties and multiple loyalties different than traditional ones? This new network is averse to the old organizing principles that emerged out of the Industrial Revolution. Within traditional national, religious or political social structures, the individual is defined through belonging to that particular group. Here, opposing or alternative ideas are not easily tolerated. By fighting against different ideas, they strengthen group identity.
Loyalty to the group easily places one into a simplified duality of complex power structures, encouraging such sentiments as ‘us’ and ‘them’.
This is a structure where an idea that guides the group is easily turned into ideology. By converting masses into belief systems, ideology becomes a powerful driving force by deriving energy from those who support it. Every ideology maintains power through eliminating differing point of views and claiming superiority over others. On the other hand, networked individuals with fluid multiple loyalties follow an anarchistic muse that opposes the domination of single belief systems and dissolves traditional structures of ideology in sometimes unexpected ways.
In the US, the political system itself has become an ideology where the idea that one must go along with the controlled party system only derives its power through the engagement and participation of people. The rise of Occupy on the other hand is an expression of a movement where people come together in the recognition of the failure of institutions that are driven by ideologies.
A good example of the digitally enabled net-worked individual is found in the online collective Anonymous. This is a loosely tied global network without traditional or fixed leadership. No one can define what Anonymous is and one idea cannot fully represent the collective. “Beneath this mask there is more than flesh. Beneath this mask there is an idea!” (McTeique, Wachowski, & Wachowaski, 2006).
Guy Fawkes masks from the film V for Vendetta have become their iconic symbol. What binds Anonymous are primarily shared ideas. More and more the group has been taking a moral high ground by standing up for free speech, transparency and economic justice. Anonymous is a network of people with diverse backgrounds coming together for shared ideas. From this point of view some might see Anonymous as no different from any other group. Yet, their notion of ‘idea’ itself is different than the way it is held traditionally. For Anonymous, the ‘idea’ is not attached to a particular individual, group or belief system. In their words, “Anonymous is simply ideas without origin …. With anonymous there is no authorship. They are simply a spark but not fire. There is no control, no leadership, only influence”.
The way of Anonymous is that of the networked individual. Unlike old styles of group membership where individual loyalty is demanded in the long term, along with an almost exclusive commitment to the group’s predetermined beliefs, the legion of Anonymous honors each person’s authentic choices of free association with a special cause or operation. This is seen in how their various ‘ops’ unfold.
Through an egalitarian and consensual form of decision-making in IRC chat rooms, one may freely put forward an idea for an operation. The proposed action is voted on and if enough people step forward, the action takes place. Some might think Anonymous is like an organization with certain identifiable members, yet this is not the case. Anonymous is not a defined group and is said not to have any identified leaders. It is an open source handle. William Jackson, a senior writer of Government Computer News (GCN) described how “Anonymous is not unanimous” and that not everything done under that name is agreed to by the members.
For instance, in anticipation of the Bank of America DDoS (distributed denial-of-service) attack that was planned by a section of Anonymous, some pundits were assuming that this was the same organization as Operation Payback, the Pay Pal/Amazon DDoS group. Yet, even though there may be some overlap for those who were involved in this Bank of America action, it was actually a distinct and separate endeavor.
This way, the Anonymous notion of ‘idea’ is different from the one held in the traditional structure that has tendency toward exclusivity by recruiting people into a single organization. One can find multiple ways of manifesting their intention and connections and people can move from one group to the other. One tradition of thought moves toward and corresponds with another without being locked in.
What guides the networked individual is the idea directly connected with the will. Quinn Norton in the article, How Anonymous Picks Targets, Launches Attacks, and Takes Powerful Organizations Downarticulated the inner-working of this leaderless collective:
Anonymous is a classic “do-ocracy,” to use a phrase that’s popular in the open source movement. As the term implies, that means rule by sheer doing: Individuals propose actions, others join in (or not), and then the Anonymous flag is flown over the result. There’s no one to grant permission, no promise of praise or credit, so every action must be its own reward.
This Anon’s ‘do-ocracy’ is a type of direct action that is fundamental to anarchism. Instead of an idea being imposed from outside and abstracted from their own experience, one connects with genuine passion and enthusiasm through an agreed on joint effort. It is each person’s direct link to the idea that transforms the idea into an ideal. In the past, outer dogma, traditions or inspiration from charismatic leaders were what lead people into action, but now the networked individual creates a different kind of organizing force. In this new network, the vital force comes from inside each person, from their free will to align themselves with particular ideals, without pressure or expectation from outside.
Anons also don’t have other obligations that come with the formal group membership, so each operation can fully utilize and direct their passion and energy freely. As with the unique Anonymous expression ‘Do it for the lulz‘, people also engage in the action out of pure love for the engagement and experience. They do things for the sake of it, because they love doing it rather than acting for some tangible goal and promised outcome. This forms a different kind of movement where promise and goals are not the guiding force, but people engage because participating in the cause itself gives them meaning. Loose ties are indeed a strength that engender multiple loyalties. With this emerging networked individual, there is a potential for a larger sense of union. People are not coming together by association to a particular group out of duty, but instead through ideas turning into ideals by their free choice and inspired will. This legion sees no borders or limitation as it rises through peer-to-peer communion, weaving a new destiny for humanity in a free associative culture of ideals.
Anonymous, the Mask of Anarchy
This networked individual seen in Anonymous shakes up the taken-for-granted identity. Existence in this modern world means one is destined to be defined through a Eurocentric perspective, under the dominance of a white male worldview. Most are inwardly enslaved by the single eye of empire that classifies according to particularities such as race, class, color of skin and gender into unspoken hierarchies.
Franz Fanon studied the black psyche in the white world through his experiences in the Algerian resistance to French colonialism: He said, “As painful as it is for us to have to say this: there is but one destiny for the black man. And it is white” (2008/1952, p. xiv).
This experience is not something only from a past colonial era. A friend from Jamaica once shared her first-hand encounter with embedded racism. She described how in Jamaica, social class distinctions include skin color and other physical features, and that biological markers having evidence of white blood was given superior status with greater access to wealth, education, jobs and opportunity. She described how she was a privileged brown there, but tables were turned when she moved to the US and she was made to be black in a deeply racist society.
Anonymity offers freedom from being formed by other’s outer perception which often oppresses one’s existence. Whether it is a defiant protester with a Guy Fawkes mask on the street or an alias activist online, anonymity frees one from restrictions that are associated with social identity and pressures to conform. It is an act of dissension, an insurrection in the best sense of the word. One can engage in actions that are usually suppressed or discouraged in the belief that they do not fit social norms and may disrupt the existing social structure. This allows each person to transform the centralized perception of privilege and increasingly exploitative corporate valuation. Just as the P2P anonymity of each Bitcoin transaction is made independently from a centralized bank, so too in this case, self-recognition is freed from outer influence of dominant structure. One wakes up from the position of being shaped by outer perception to actively engage in defining and creating their own identity.
Anarchism sees identity formation as free-flowing movement that cannot be defined or fixed from outside. The gist of anarchy opposes centralized control that blocks true individual autonomy. Just as what was done with the financial blockade of WikiLeaks, so to the character assassination of Julian Assange has been an attempt to block the autonomous process of self creation. Using smearing false portrayals with overused terms such as charged and rapist, the old school media imprints manufactured images on public minds and imprison those who become victims of character assassination in their controlled perception.
Now the freezing force of imposed identity is inverted through the act of empathic union. “We are all Scott Olsen”, We are Bradley Manning”, “We are all Julian Assange. It is this stagnation of individual freedom that Anonymous stepped forward to fight.
Wherever oppression, abuse of power and bullies exist, Anonymous is found by masking one’s personal identity to align with others in the shared heart of affinity in action. In this way, Anonymous as networked individuals embody the essence of anarchy. Their loyalty is not to a certain group or individual, but to the idea of decentralization and open space where each person can create their unique being and recognize the other in freedom. Intruders to this open space are caught on their radar screen. Whoever and whatever violates these principles will be met with Anonymous fury. Through passionate alignment with ideals that come through certain persecuted individuals, they dismantle a fixated perception and free those who have become victims of centralized oppression.
This mobilized identity was also seen in the Zapatista solidarity movement. Subcomandante Marcos was the spokesman for the rebel movement fighting for the rights of indigenous peoples of Mexico. The government tried to undermine him by unmasking him and revealing his identity. When there was a move to discredit him by insinuating that he was gay, Marcos replied:
Yes, Marcos is gay. Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains. Marcos is all the exploited, marginalized, oppressed minorities resisting and saying “Enough”. He is every minority who is now beginning to speak and every majority that must shut up and listen. He is every untolerated group searching for a way to speak. Everything that makes power and the good consciences of those in power uncomfortable — this is Marcos.
Anonymous is a mask of anarchy, a symbol and a shield for transformation that liberates our essential being from oppressive forces. Beneath the mask there is flesh, veins that feel and remember deep ties of humanity.
When someone is in misery and suffering, we feel their pain. Our freedom is deeply intertwined. A uniformed mask changes its face with active imagining. The Guy Fawkes visage has come to represent the multiple faces. It is a movement constantly changing shape through empathic imagination to unite with others in free association. By wearing the face of Guy Fawkes, an individual touches something larger and becomes a part of the creative current of essential humanity; one that is constantly being formed, dissolved and renewed again.
A new network of anarchism is emerging at a global level. When the formal route of nation-state diplomacy fails, citizens of one country begin to directly connect with citizens of other countries to circumvent the hate and fear-mongering of their governments. For instance, with peer-to-peer communication, Iranian people have begun to support Israeli commoners and vice-versa, showing the world a new form of diplomacy that emerges from unmediated human connections.
People are now bypassing centralized state authority. A volunteer-run network called Global Voicesprovides translation for the international blogosphere, helping messages get through language barriers. Ivan Sigal, executive director of the organization pointed out how bloggers and citizen journalists are now working as cultural mediators.
Ad hoc movements have become instant mobile global aids that show what grassroots humanitarian intervention can look like as opposed to being guided or co-opted by state or corporate interests.Telecomix is a decentralized cluster of Internet activists committed to freedom of speech. It has no mailing address, no country, no bank account or physical headquarters. With no official membership, people spontaneously show up in chat rooms and start to participate. It is an anarchistically inspired network focused on direct action.
It provided tech support for the Arab Spring, both in Tunisia and Egypt with modems faxes facilitating the flow of information. When Youtube is blocked in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan, Telecomix is mirroring the videos to keep information flowing.
Are those who network through peer-to-peer technology opening the door to a new civilization and ultimately transforming who we are becoming? This is a question explored by Don Tapscott, author and chairman of Moxie. Tapscott made the claim that the Internet can reboot civilization. He described how it is building a platform that fosters a new culture of sharing and collaboration.
There is something unique about the Internet technology. Through analog communication modes, such as the typewriter or the TV, the individual only interacts with others one way through a machine. They are isolated as they express their own views. On the other hand, the Internet allows us to interact in real time, while evolving technology on the ground level. It is highly social and this level of mutual connectivity was not possible with the machines of the past.
Tapscott described how the current digital age brought a radical leap in civilization, just as the printing press centuries before had ushered in a mass communication revolution that empowered those with access to the press. The latest digital phase empowered everyone with an Internet connection to become a news network node. This is met with resistance by the existing culture that operates within the old media and the paradigm of the Industrial Age, which was centralized and filtered. Tapscottexplained:
The new media is the antithesis of all that. It’s one-to-one and many-to-many. It’s highly distributed, and not really controllable in a conventional sense. And as such it has this awesome neutrality. … The new culture of the web operates with a different principle creating a kind of networked consciousness: It’s about achieving power through people rather than over people. It’s about letting go to build more successful organizations and a more open society …
This revolution in technological infrastructure is becoming a path for a new insurgent anarchism. The creativity that flows through the actions of networked individuals on the Internet diverges from the insidious undertow of the dominant economic system. This centralized system of capitalism which depends on mass production, magnified profit motive, cheap labor and the notion of scarcity for market value is now being challenged by activities that operate from totally different principles of sharing, mutual development and affinity-oriented organization.
In his blog piece Watching Open Source Destroy Capitalism, J. D. Moyer made the claim that open source principles and corporate capitalism are actually antithetical to one another and cannot really co-exist. He gave an example of the rapidly changing music industry to show the clash of new and old models. He pointed out how the drives of artistic creation and sharing of work is more fundamental to artists than money making. When this is coupled with less expensive means of production, they become naturally more engaged in open source sharing. This challenges the recording and film industries that still operate under proprietary principles. Moyer described:
Capitalism is based on scarcity. In order for the principles of supply and demand and “self-regulating” markets to function as expected, production and distribution channels need to be privately owned and tightly controlled …. Open-source destroys scarcity. When the means of production are free or very cheap, when distribution is free, and when producers prioritize values other than profit (things like social value, or status/bragging rights), then prices move quickly towards zero.
The Occupy movement celebrated its one year birthday on Sept 17. It was a testimony, a public realization of the truly inhuman nature of Wall Street cowboy capitalism. Jerome Roos at ROARmag.orgarticulated how Occupy is a debt resistance movement and people are uniting through the bond of solidarity. People are waking up to a harsh reality, with exploding housing foreclosures, student debts and unemployment and all the while, bankers are given a blank check. Obama’s presidential campaign promise of ‘hope and change’ was deeply tied into intentional fraudulent misrepresentation. Instead, the world got a continuing rigged casino stock market mutual bondage of debt that ripped off the financial future of humanity. But, rage and indignation were not the only things that Occupy brought to the surface. People are now beginning to find the true source of wealth, mutual bonds based on trust.
Open source sharing is now practiced by millions of people online, shaping a gift and sharing economy. Through creating alternative models and avenues of economic life, this is beginning to subvert the dominant debt-based economy.
What is emerging now is innovative citizen diplomacy, alternative currencies and peer-to-peer journalism. These horizontal structures and ideas are breaking down traditional vertical structures and shaking up dependent identities embedded within them. A torrent of civic imagination is swirling through the disintegrating corporate political structures. Beneath the turbulent system error of outer calamity, a current of shared creativity is silently rebooting civilization.
Fanon, F. (2008). Black skin, white masks. (R. Philcox,Trans.). New York: Grove Press. (Original work published 1952)
Hayes, C. (2012). Twilight of the elites: America after meritocracy. New York: Crown Publishers.
Mason, P. (2012). Why it’s kicking off everywhere: The new global revolutions. New York: Verso.
* Facebook: National-Anarchist Movement (N-AM)