About one year ago, the world attention turned to the nascent powers of expression and action of networked multitudes first in the Wikileaks battle and, subsequently, in the Arab revolutions and the social movements 15M and Occupy. After this revelatory year, dense with threats and promises from a completely new global movement, global governance – painfully aware of the great threat that such autonomous horizontal communication poses to its control – is vigorously attacking digital freedoms.
It is in this context that the (possibly already foiled) attempts to pass the Stop Piracy Online Act (SOPA), the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and the effective shutdown of Megaupload are taking place.
Today we are also summoned to bear witness to another global battle against ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement), a freedom-restricting treaty in defense of copyright and for the criminalization of internet piracy. Secretly prepared by executives from forty countries without any public or parliamentary debate, ACTA (whose rapporteur Kader Arif resigned just in January slamming the door behind him and saying “I won’t participate in this charade!”) has already been signed up to by the EU and even Obama – who had refused to endorse SOPA. For the moment, this trade agreement isn’t binding in Europe, at least until approved by the European Parliament, and this is the reason why social movements are once again being mobilized in Poland and beyond.
Reinforcing copyright highlights a paradox: on one hand, copyright is indispensable for capital to maintain and expand its rentier position based on the capture of attention and ownership of data. On the other, it impedes a highly productive social cooperation that isn’t based on the division of labour but on financialized value, fuelled by the circulation of perceptions, beliefs, and desires. Such circulation, far from being completely captured by capital, is generating new sedimentations of sense and an immense production of commons.
It is in the context of this contradiction that the internal battle between two modes of capitalism should be interpreted: the ‘incumbent’ wing, as defined by Yochai Benkler, tenanted by consolidated entertainment agglomerates for whom copyright is vital, and the one McKenzie Wark has called the ‘vectoralist class’ that feeds off common production. It follows that SOPA and PIPA are on one hand defended by major record companies and by the caryatids of vertical media like Murdoch and company and, on the other, opposed by Google, Facebook, E-bay, Amazon and even by the most recent convert, Microsoft.
However, these are false white knights whose goal isn’t the implied liberty of expression on the net but the construction of enormously profitable ‘walled gardens’ that reintroduce hierarchical server/client types of networking architecture beneath the peer to peer topologies of social communication. We therefore cannot bring ourselves to agree with Manuel Castells when he says that Google is “more of a friend rather than an enemy” because it is simply “a business and not an ideology”. This would seem a contradiction in terms when we are talking about one of the foremost global corporations, whose internal organization is based on ethnic stratification practiced on its famous Googleplex campus, where workers have different colour badges, access rights and suffer a prohibition on socializing outside their proper ‘colour’.
More generally, the debate sparked on the web after the FBI closed Megaupload and reinforced by recent Twitter’s decision to censor itself in order to play the game of dominant power, has mainly been characterized by two trends. First we have network enthusiasts who identify Megaupload as an important medium thanks to its horizontal and free structure of information exchange and, second we see those who criticize a specifically digital capitalism founded on data capture.
The concept of ‘digital capitalism’, however, still suggests a separation between network and material capitalism where the former is characterized by the dialectical clash between the parasite and social cooperation while the latter describes the exchange between the figure of the entrepreneur and the worker.
But capitalism doesn’t distinguish between immaterial and material production and this is true also of so-called digital capitalist enterprises such as Google, Amazon or Apple. Digital capitalism is not a sphere unto itself, like the traditional criticism of cognitive capitalism would have it, separating out the material dimension of production and exploitation, an idea expressed in Wu Ming’s article Fetishism of Digital Commodities and Hidden Exploitation: the cases of Amazon and Apple. The increasing exploitation of workers in digital corporations – lives full of stress, depression and an alarming suicide rate – clearly suggests that what is happening in Amazon’s warehouses and in the smartphone factories of China’s Foxconn is of the same nature as the unforgiving ‘up or out’ diktats that incite a last-man-standing competition in the offices of France Telecom.
Likewise, in the digital technology and communication sector we are seeing enormous investments, ranging from Google’s immense, hidden and anti-ecological server farms (and cloud computing in general) to the creation of new networks (4G) where paid labour is subject to every measure of cost reduction and discrimination. This can be seen in the growing and already massive use of offshore in India or other low-wage countries, or in the recent French law that renders young immigrants precarious and deportable as soon as they finish their studies at extremely expensive Ecoles d’ingénieurs.
Digital capitalism is also undoubtedly implicated in the global governance strategies of financial capitalism. As such, it operates on a continuum of production and circulation that simultaneously intensifies the rhythms of exploitation and proletarianization of wage labour while siphoning off large chunks of free labour, e.g. massive freeware production, designed with devices (PCs, smartphones and tablets) that are often acquired through credit financialization mechanisms. This forces users into compulsive payments (iTunes, Ebay/Paypal, Amazon OneClick, etc.) and integrates them into financial exploitation.
Without denying the existence of the exploitation of material production in factories we should point out the existence of the network as an attractor that catalyzes and reorganizes productive configurations beyond any fictional division between material and immaterial, real and virtual, new and old media. The net, in fact, is not constituted merely by data flows, programming and software development but also by infrastructure, servers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, etc., and by the implicit consequences of the pervasiveness of these devices.
To the extent to which we are not witnessing a clash between two capitalisms but a process of reconfiguration realized through the hegemony of finance, information and circulation, connecting material and immaterial production, it seems clear that the only way to change the current situation is through the autonomous organization of the multitude’s living labour in the streets and on the net.
Among the examples of multitudinary auto-organization on the net that have emerged over the past few years, the experience of Anonymous seems absolutely central. This group is at the centre of the stunning reaction to the shutdown of Megaupload and mobilizations against ACTA. Without going over their entire history, Anonymous appeared during the campaign against the sect of Scientology and in support of Wikileaks, with attacks directed at neuralgic payment platforms like Visa, Mastercard and Paypal that were guilty of having blocked donations on their own initiative and without any legal justification.
OpTunisia then followed, in support of the Tunisian nationwide revolt. Then, in response to the arrest of George Hotz, an important operation was conducted against Sony that allowed public access to the multinational corporation’s catalogue.
It is interesting to note how Anonymous and hacker interventions on the web are ever more complimentary and integrated into the Occupy and 15M movements and, at the same time, provide alternatives to corporate social communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Beyond the osmosis and the obvious contextual differences of these instances of the global movement, striking similarities in their principles and organizational styles have clearly emerged.
The workings of the technical infrastructure that hosts Anonymous’ political debate revolve around Internet Relay Chat (IRC), the internet’s first form of instantaneous communication (chat) which allows simultaneous dialogue among entire groups of people in chatrooms called “channels”. The topology ofIRC networks, preserves the principle of peer to peer communication unlike the current client/server configuration of social networking platforms based on the web.
Anonymous has created and used multiple autonomous channels to host political debate and other, more humorous activities (lulz) that reflect social discussions. The debate channels have a function similar to that of the Occupy and 15M movements’ assemblies and, in both cases, coordination for discussion is loose and non-hierarchical.
As stated in a recent article , Anonymous has an ethical code according to which leadership and fame are not in any case an end in themselves. Anonymous provides what Mike Wesch had described as “a scathing critique of the postmodern cult of celebrity, individualism, and identity while serving itself as the inverted alternative” that is expressed in the first place in the refusal of forced identification with one’s own name, a characteristic that defines the economic-political model of platforms like Facebook. Anonymity in this case allows for the electronic exercise of the control adopted in 15M assemblies to avoid attention-seeking behaviours but also include the obstinate and scrupulous search for consensus.
The IRC channels that constitute the different factions of Anonymous are open to the public but require a minimum of technical competence and knowledge to enter or to become administrators (ops). ‘Ops’ are charged with maintaining order and therefore have the possibility to exclude people that transgress cultural norms and operating rules: on the Anonops channel, for example, it is prohibited to promote violence or complain about the media. ‘Ops’ can participate in the debate but don’t determine Anonymous’ plans of action or operations.
Like the indignados movement, people in Anonymous that are more invested in the project have a natural authority but are not any more influential as a result. The rules are most stringent for external relations: Anons that aren’t involved in direct actions, such as DDos  attacks, who talk with journalists risk expulsion. In the indignados, everyone can express themselves with vertical mass media about the movement on an individual level but no one can promote himself or herself as a representative or spokesperson.
Starting with these real convergences, it could be assumed that in the future the technical barriers that separate these instances of the movement will fall; today we carry alongside with us the evermore powerful connected devices that will allow our bodies and our mind to interact through our senses with networks. Our lives (the greek bios) are more deeply socially connected through mobile internet, multiple networks and applications: a new paradigm that we define as bio-hypermedia .
We estimate that bio-hypermedia will be a key medium in the increasingly significant integration of movements in the streets and on the net.
. As cited in “Anonymous, Anonymity, and the End(s) of Identity and Groups Online: Lessons from “the First Internet-Based Superconsciousness” in Human No More, eds. Neil Whitehead and Michael Wesch. University of Colorado Press; see also, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/pieces/anonymous-lulz-collective-action#footnote6_yb52sqt
. “A distributed denial-of-service attack (DDoS attack) is an attempt to make a computer or network resource unavailable to its intended users. Although the means to carry out, motives for, and targets of a DoS attack may vary, it generally consists of the concerted efforts of a person, or multiple people to prevent an Internet site or service from functioning efficiently or at all, temporarily or indefinitely”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denial-of-service_attack