Critical Art Ensemble: Electronic Civil Disobedience

Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas by the Critical Art Ensemble, 1996

Ch.1 Electronic Civil Disobedience

In this opening essay, the CAE set out their rational for electronic civil disobedience and a laying out of the organizational strategy behind electronic civil disobedience.

The CAE initially notes that since the conception and popularization of civil disobedience, power structures have shifted such that the local occupation of a single building no longer presents a disruption to macro-power structures.  Rather, with the advent of computing and networked communications, corporate and state entities can move freely from the location of a disturbance, and continue operations without interruption.  So, the CAE argues, as structures of power more into the networked space, so too should methods and bodies of resistance.

The CAE draws a clean equivalence between traditional civil disobedience and the new electronic civil disobedience, holding both the strategies and the theoretical underpinnings to be the same, just carried from the real world into cyberspace.  As they were previously talking about the occupations of structures of oppression in the real world (town halls, administrative buildings, corporate headquarters, etc), they now just as easily talk about the occupation of websites.  (They don’t explicitly refer to distributed denial of service attacks, but that is the tactic to which they are referring.)  They take pains to emphasize that such tactics can be easily abused and should only be used against oppressive institutions, avoiding as much as possible collateral damage to civilians.  They also mention data hostages and system crashes as potential tactics.

Though there were hackers operating in the political arena at the time this book was written, the CAE declines to acknowledge them as serious political actors, instead calling them “children” who lack a sophisticated political philosophy.  (I find the ways the CAE talks about the political activities of hackers active at the time to be incredibly condescending and in many ways ill-informed.)  They argue for a joining of forces between hackers and activists like themselves, who have a sufficiently developed “critical sensibility” to guide the political actions.  They further argue that electronic civil disobedience cannot be an activity of the masses, but rather should be carried out by small, semi autonomous, semi permanent cells who strike out at industry and government anonymously.  These cells would be under the loose direction of a larger, public organization charged with public relations, education, and recruitment.

Finally, the CAE point out that computer crimes are prosecuted (in 1996 and now) without regard to intent, which places acts of electronic civil disobedience in the realm of felonies, rather than the realm of other acts of civil disobedience.

Ch. 2 Resisting the Bunker

The CAE defines a bunker as a “foundation of homogeneity,” a structure which “allows only a singular actions within any given situation.”  Examples of these are malls, bureaucracies , factories, and the mass media environment.  In this essay, the CAE lays out two potential artistic reactions to “the bunker,” intending to act as confrontational or destabilizing measures.  These reactions are labeled “sedentary” and “nomadic.”  The sedentary model confronts bunkerizing structures on a one-to-one basis, seeking to overwhelm the bunker with its own symbolic force.  The nomadic model does not confront the bunker directly, but rather seeks to undermine it with “ephemeral, process oriented methods.”  The CAE argues that the nomadic model is more effective at undermining these bunkers.

In order to make their argument, the CAE first attacks the concept of public and community art, claiming that in the first place there is no modern manifestation of either public spaces or community.  They further argue that art which depends on bureaucratic legitimation can never achieve its confrontational ends.

The CAE instead advocates for the nomadic model, which leaves far more interpretation in the hands of the audience and further depends on the oppressive reaction of the bunker being challenged to make much of its point.  To illustrate this, they give an example of a work performed by the CAE, entitled Are We There Yet?

Ch. 3 Slacker Luddites

The slacker Luddites in this essay are not those who go after the office printer with a baseball bat, but rather those who, in a corporate office environment, engage in zero work and other counter-productivity measures.  While the original Luddites smashed mechanical looms out of a fear of being replaced by them, the Slacker Luddite enjoys a much more nuanced relationship with technology and the cyborg-self.  The Slacker Luddite’s conflict lies with “work,” not necessarily with the machines on which that work is done.  The CAE lays out several different Slacker Luddite activities, from bull sessions around the Xerox machine to the height of Slacker Luddite-ness: using company resources to complete freelance assignments, thus exploiting the system which is seeking to exploit you.

Ch. 4 The Technology of the Useless

The CAE lay out two potential ultimate ends for the technologically-mediated society: one the utopian ideal where technology has absolved humanity from the obligation to work, leaving us free to explore better ends; and the other dystopic future where technology either drives us into a super-powered war which destroys all of man kind or wherein AIs rise and annihilate humanity.  The CAR rejects both these potential futures for a third: the useless technology future.  In this future, indeed, as the CAE describes it, in this present, the vast majority of technology is characterized by its sheer uselessness, either because people do not know how to use the technology (as in VCR example) or because the technology was specifically designed to never be used (as in the nuclear warhead example). There are many more examples littered throughout the essay, including several pages of satirical ads for luxury goods and MRI machines.  The CAE concludes by positing that this fascination with uselessness is a manifestation of society’s decline, the continued sacrifice to the materialistic foundation of society.

Ch. 5 Human Sacrifice in the Rational Economy

In this essay, CAE surveys the role of human sacrifice in modern American society and specifically its relation to the economy of excess CAE observes as dominating society.  CAE delineates two types of human sacrifice: those occurring out of a principle of excess, and those occurring out of an adherence to principles of human autonomy.  In those human sacrifices occurring out of excess, CAE classifies victims of war and genocide, those which occur as a result of interaction with commercial commodities (specifically cars and traffic deaths), commercial farming and the use of pesticides (more particularly the deaths of laborers who work in the production of consumer goods), the social concept of the sociopathic killer, injuries and maimings in spectator sports, and gun related violence.  CAE specifically points out that death and sacrifice must be hidden, stylized or fetishized to be acceptable in modern American society.  CAE ultimately argues for the “visibility of the abject” or a confrontation with the realities of death in American society as a method of pushing back against the human sacrifices to the economy of excess.

Ch. 6 Addictionmania

This essay begins as a criticism of an overgrown medical bureaucracy ends as a condemnation of US drug policy and the drug war.  The CAE argues that society’s reaction to the concept of addiction is a form of hysteria induced by the medical establishment, one built on moral panics and fear of mortality, as well as a pseudo-religious urge towards purity.  Furthermore, CAE argues that the perception of addiction has a significant economic portion as well, as lower socio-economic groups are often condemned in much stronger terms (both culturally and legally) for addiction than other socio economic groups.  The CAE also argues that the vaunted “long, healthy life” as valued in American society has no intrinsic value, and certainly has no apparent value in modern society, and that hedonistic pleasure might just as well take precedence over any health concerns about recreational drug use.

Epilogue: Nonrational Strategies

The CAE concludes this essay collection by arguing for nonrational resistance strategies as a method of reclaiming our lost human autonomy.  To illustrate these strategies, they call upon the examples St Catherine of Siena, a Catholic saint who split from the Church and became, more or less, an autonomous mystic, and Daniel Ludwig, an eccentric millionaire who destroyed a significant chunk of the Brazilian rainforest in an effort to build a paper plant and tree farm.

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