The Grinder Dialogues: Any Tool is a Weapon If You Hold it Right

Posted by on July 30th, 2009 in activism, concepts, Futurism, rage against the machine

So a while back comrade-in-arms David Forbes wrote this: This time, let’s get it right

…in response to our very own M13KY’s It’s Going to Get Worse, Before it Gets Better.

M13KY followed up with this, which led to David posting the next part of what was now being called The Grinder Dialogues, a weekly back and forth between the Grinding staff and Mr. Forbes.  This was… err… much longer than a week ago.

But now we’re back, and I’m taking M13KY’s spot in the ring with the next part of what really will be a weekly thing.

Starting with the implications of the arrest of the French anarchist collective known in the press as the “Tarnac 9″:

A communal set-up of their particular variety can be useful, even quite admirable, but it’s hardly futuristic. Indeed, as a solution, it’s generally proven to be rather limited, because larger communities quickly break into factions.

I’m not even sure a media blitz of the kind you, M13KY and I are probably imagining would even be necessarily beneficial to their “cause”.   Sure, they could get people behind their identity as simple-living anarchists and parts of a small, thriving rural community, but that sort of thing jars with the main example of their communicated agenda: The Coming Insurrection.   Certainly it’s not the most dangerous book in the world as pundits like comedian Glenn Beck like to paint it, but it portrays an active form of self-reliant anarchism similar to French and Italian anarchist texts of the 70′s or some of CrimethInc’s work that finds little purchase anywhere in the mass-market media.

I’m not sure how they could sell it, you see.  And sadly, as you later point out, the always-shifting illusory culture/counter-culture divide is based on the language of capitalism.    ”Make it cool and they will beg to join” generally means figuring out how to get the “overculture” or what have you to buy in. The only way to “win” is to play the game you’re trying to not play.

The maxim should be “any port in a storm and any friend in a fight.” This is everyone’s future, not just ours, and it’s long past time to stop falling prey to the old assumptions and strategies.

I couldn’t agree more.  And while there are groups within what we generally refer to as alt-culture that still haven’t grasped that, there are many groups who are certainly are thinking of new way to network and new ways to be heard and influence “the system”.   Look at the ridiculous Tea-Bag events in the US, recently.  A strange collation of conservative Christians, atheist Libertarians, hippie Ron Paul supporters and UN-fearing-militia-types all united in a mostly grassroots effort that encouraged major media support from, not just FOX but many major outlets.    What do all of those groups have in common?  They all see themselves as an oppressed minority in the face of a relentless “socialist” overculture.   In their eyes, they are the alt culture, and they are more than happy to have an oppressive “them” to rail against.

Do I think that the Tea-Baggers claims and demands were ridiculous?  Yeah, but they were effective.  The questions in my mind are: “Can they keep up that sort of organizational effort, or will they fall back apart into their normally divided factions?” and “Can the astroturf, pseudo-grassroots organization which they seem to have inherited with their success be as organized as the actual bottom-up version?”

Their success, however brief, though illuminates the difficulty of grassroots organizing.   How do you get people invested in something NOT framed as “us” vs. “them”?  I think social media helps with awareness (look at all the support for people in Iran from quarters that saw them as ‘the enemy’ a few years ago) but awareness rarely translates into action.

To bring this back to the Tanrac 9, they have a lot of really valuable things to say, but how do you pitch radical self-reliance and removing yourself from a capitalist society, without pitching it as “us” vs. “them”.   Especially in a case like this where the Government was all-too-willing to take on the role of “them”.  (Screaming in the back of my head is the voice that used to work in marketing that says “getting arrested was the best thing for their cause” — and looking at the T9 inspired collectives springing up in their wake, I can’t disagree.)

I fervently don’t believe in “them versus us”, it’s useless outdated thinking.  Everyone’s “them” is someone else’s “us”.  But what I’ve never quite figured out is how to organize without the “other”.  I can’t rage against the machine, because I am the machine.  My personal philosophy has always been one of trying to make any changes you want to affect work out in your own life. I’m not closeted about being a pagan or queer, I write under my own name when talking about controversial issues like cognitive liberties and drugs and I don’t hide my identity on the internet.  All of that was done after very careful consideration, simply because I figure the best way to show people that something works is to show it to them.    And to a certain extent that’s the same tack the T9 were taking… and it didn’t work out too well for them in the short term.

Technology is not going to put that away, just like it didn’t 100 years ago when revolutionaries were prophesying that industrialization would finally level the playing field. Today, tech and its attendant networks still relies on some measure of industrial structure to produce it, experts to fix it and financial structures to provide the cash. Any social group of sufficient size is going to develop a modicum of hierarchy. The question is: what does a better one look like?

Ironically, the current managerial class is its own worst enemy, but for political and class reasons. By eliminating much of the meritocracy and turning management into a dumping ground for scions of the rich, many corporations have become grossly incompetent.

The danger now is this: by ignoring the pitfalls to which all social creations are vulnerable, by assuming they’ll disappear because of technological change, those old demons will only be worse when they emerge, and they will face movements ill-prepared to deal with them.

It would be the worst kind of horror to see the just-born future shackled to the lash.

All technologies have just as much or more inherent utility as a tool of oppression, as they do  as tools of liberty.   The wonderful social media that lets people share information and thoughts and generally increase intrapersonal transparency are also the backbone of a marketing and data collection effort of staggering complexity, depth and penetration.  The tools of liberty and knowledge help make their participants into better consumers.   I can’t deny that, I don’t think anybody can.

Hell, one of the great liberating qualities of the technologies that are blossoming today is its ever-expanding capabilities to generate cognitive surplus.   But on the other hand, that cognitive surplus can just as easily be consumed by the same technologies that generate it.   Television made information distribution much more efficient in many ways compared to print media, but it also (according to Clay Shirky) consumes over two hundred billion hours of thought per year in the U.S. alone.   That’s dropping, but iPods, video games and are taking up the slack.

And speaking of cognitive surplus, let’s not forget that the first technology that created a massive amount of free-brain hours and allowed massive societal and technological innovation was slavery.

All futures are born facing the lash.

In my mind, the only way to cope with that is to take new technologies (or in my particular pet-project, old technologies that were discarded in Western Society) and open them up.  Make art with them, break them, inject them, repurpose them, break them again and fuck them.  Because I know of no other way to take these things – every one of them a loaded gun – and to show people that there is another way.  Because every new future already has one hand in shackles.

And sometime it works.  Look at the internet.  Sure it’s the greatest marketing tool of all time, but it was a comparative Wild West for a while.   The 60′s acid culture became techies, the techies made the net, the net was newborn and despite being made of defense industry money was in the hands of the freaks for a long time before it got domesticated.  If it wasn’t for the early experimenters who created the infrastructure and the ethos that the net should “route around censorship like it was damage” who knows what it would look like today? Probably something akin to the endless expanse of walled gardens that Gibson foresaw and that corporate interests are still trying to generate.

And even then, the future’s a strange beast.  I don’t think anyone predicted the current generation of kids that were raised with the net and are comfortable with an unparalleled degree of transparency in their lives. They continue to see the internet as a more integrated and libratory tool than previous generations while that same transparency makes them a more streamlined and illuminated form of consumer.

This isn’t even taking into account the permutations that take place as new technologies pass through various cultural, social or class membranes. SMS is seen as a money-making addon and a tool of “kids” here in the US to a large extent, while it’s a major draw and an effective tool for social organization and information dispersal in parts of Asia, South America and Africa.

In other words, I don’t know if the other Grinders agree with me, but I think that every new piece of tech has destabilizing and calcifying potential.  Me?  I want to see these things actually used to help create new social structures that allow humans to get on with the business of being better humans.  I don’t know of any other way to do that other than to push it, play with it and do awesome things with it, before it becomes too set in stone what the “proper” and “cost effective” ways of using it are.

But I’m more than open to ideas, because despite my utopianist leanings, the future might really suck if “we” don’t get “our” collective acts together.

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2 Responses to “The Grinder Dialogues: Any Tool is a Weapon If You Hold it Right”

  1. All I can say, right now, is that I am very glad this was the first thing I read, this morning.

  2. I guess I’m too much of a pessimist, but I pay attention to the new weapon systems the US military is developing, and I see serious tools of oppression.

    On the other hand, it may be that this gererations use of social media and transparency will ‘force’ chaange. It’s hard for you to become a covert CIA operative if your entire life is on the net. And, with all the camera phones and the like, it’s very hard to prevent your photo from popping up on a web site somewhere, even if it’s unintentional. So, if you were pretending to one person, and then I see a photo posted somewhere where you can’t be what you were pretending in the first instance, your cover is blown.

    And, as Iran found out, the democratizational effect of the new technologies make trying to control the flow of information highly cost prohibitive – it does your economy no good if you have to shut down ALL communication systems to prevent info from getting out. China, too, will find at some point in the future when a certain level of tech penetration hits, that they will lose the ability to control info or that it is at least too costly to attempt.

    On the opposite side is the ability of technology to allow regimes like the US empire to influence the content of info e.g., planting false stories in overseas media in hopes that it will be repeated domestically (and it usually is).