This is a translation of an interview originally published in eldiario.es on 10th of January. It is about networks and political activity and organising. The interviewee is Margarita Padilla, an IT engineer and author of the book The Kit for Internet Struggle [El kit de lucha en Internet], available for download in Spanish via Traficantes de Sueños here. The interview was conducted by Amador Fernández-Savater and published on the Interferencias blog.(Translator's note: I have dispensed with the definite article and maintained the original references to 'Internet' instead of translating it as 'the Internet'. There was a temptation to translate it as 'teh internetz', but one I managed to fend off, in the interests of comradely seriousness)
In the book you have just published, you are emphatic in claiming that 'any person or group who struggles for social transformation has an obligation to understand the specific nature of Internet [there is no definite article in the original] in so far as it relates to social processes, since this specific nature spills out from the technical realm and contaminates the social realm'. How do you justify such an 'obligation'?
I believe Internet can inspire a new politics that addresses the complexity of the world we live in. It can allow us to move out of this impasse.
Which impasse are you referring to?
On the one hand, we have the politics of the politicians, which follows the code of government-opposition (with citizens as spectators). This code is not made to solve any of the problems we have as a society. On the contrary. Its objective above all is control and power. The problems are mere pretexts for attacking the other person to get into his place. The complexity and magnitude of the questions we are facing (from the econmic crisis to the environmental crisis) requires the active involvement of the 99%. Not everyone being in agreement or united, but they do have to be active and co-operating. That is impossible in a politics divided into parties that select from reality only what interests them and damages their opponents, in the short term of the four years of a legislature. We need another logic, another political culture.
Could it be the politics of social movements?
Not entirely, that's why I say we are at an impasse. In a modest way, I have taken part and continue to take part in social movements, and I see that their forms of organising only work under conditions of simplicity. For example, the assembly. Assemblies work very well when people who share the same values, the same experiences and the same culture organise themselves. It is a very potent form of organisation that emerged from other historical and social conditions and other utopias. Nowadays there is very high complexity. We cannot change things with forms of organisation and horizontality that were created for other conjunctures. We need to take on board a lot of uncertainty to think and prepare for the massive change that we need. And that scares people, me included.
Why do you think that Internet can help us get out of the impasse?
Internet provides us with an experience of a large scale network. I try to characterise it with three components: ambiguity, uncontrollability and openness. Internet is ambiguous because it was not designed with any particular use in mind, and as such, it can allow for all uses. It is uncontrollable, because the intelligence and the capacity for action are in each one of the nodes that compose it. And it is open because, on the onehand, anyone who has the knowledge can read its source code and, on the other, anyone who operates like a network can get connected immediately. Ambiguity, uncontrollability and openness are the three characteristics of the network experience. I find them very inspiring in order to think politics beyond the left/right axis, beyond the idea that there always has to be a directing centre and beyond the closed and excluding ideas about community.
Let's break things down. It's hard to understand the potency of what is ambiguous, of what allows for various uses..
Let me explain with an example: Wikileaks. Wikileaks takes a privatised resource -information- and makes it public and abundant. But that only makes sense if other networks make use of it. The cablegates regarding the death of José Couso [Spanish journalist killed as result of tank attack on hotel housing journalists in Baghdad. The Wikileaks cables related to the pressure -or, rather, lack thereof- of the Spanish authorities in pursuing the case with the US government] or the origins of the Sinde Law [law introduced ostensibly to address internet piracy, revealed by Wikileaks to have been at the instigation of the US government] only acquire meaning if you have people to interpret them and use them. Wikileaks launches a tool that can be useful, but does not show solidarity with the platform for Jose Couso or with the struggle against the Sinde Law. And vice versa: the platform for José Couso or the struggle against the Sinde Law can use Wikileaks cables without having Julian Assange as their hero. That is, in Internet you can co-operate with people you don't know or people with whom you differ. It is the logic of P2P: one doesn't know from whom they are downloading the material, what their motivation was in doing so, if the other person is left wing or right wing. Internet educates us in co-operation with strangers and people who are different from us.
In your book, Wikileaks is a key example the whole time. Why?
Wikileaks is very much a network tool: an unfinished device. The meaning of what it does has to be completed by other people. In whatever direction, because Wikileaks allows for different conclusions, even antagonistic ones (different readings of cables, etc). That does not happen very often. What usually happens is the opposite: closing down so as to control. But that's how a network is made. And the network rewards you in return. Wikileaks receives sympathy and solidarity from people with very different experiences. For example, from Anonymous. Anonymous is altogether the opposite of Wikileaks: it has no leaders, it is anonymous and distributed, etc. But it supports Wikileaks against repression. We normally stand in solidarity with whoever thinks the same as us, but in Internet it is different: there are differences, but not blocs.
The network experience teaches us, then, to give up control.
If you agree with freedom of expression, there can be someone there to contradict you. If you take part in a horizontal assembly, perhaps they don't do what you want. But you are contributing to a superior logic and culture. Well the same thing happens with the network: it is a superior logic and culture, even if it can give you back something you don't like. The logic of power and control, which defines the politics of politicians, is what threatens the world with destruction.
Let’s look at the second characteristic of the network experience: uncontrollability.
I'm referring to the fact that the intelligence of a network lies in each of the nodes that compose it. That is why people talk about collective intelligence. To believe in the network means trusting in the intelligence of the nodes, to want their autonomy. Recognising the autonomy and intelligence of what is not you. And that trust that you give comes back to you, because you live with the confidence that others who are not like you are working to care for and sustain what is common to all. Among all of us we look after everything, it is very different to a few people looking out for the whole.
Can you elaborate on the difference.
In a network there is no central place from which you see everything. It is not made so as to see everything. The practices of social movements still function too much with that idea of totality: the assembly perceives itself as a centre of self-organisation, the activist feels in charge of everything, etc. They are very potent practices, but you pay the price of simplification because it only works under conditions of homogeneity. And where there is no complexity there is no life, that's what science teaches. Internet is educating us in another experience, where there is neither a centre nor a whole, neither vanguard nor rearguard. Wikileaks does not go ahead of the platform for José Couso nor behind. It is not a matter of going out in front or behind, but of making a network.
And how does one make a network?
Making a network entails clearing the centre and recognising the intelligence and autonomy of the extremes. Making a network is people getting in contact among themselves, collaborating with strangers and people who are different. Making a network means sharing the processes, not the results, and recognising the contributions of others. To make a network, in the final instance, is to be generous, but not just with those of your own stripe, but with the 99%.
In Internet there is no centre, but there are important reference points, right?
There are leaderships, yes, and very influential people. But their power is very different from the power of a trade union bureaucracy, for example. It is a power without power. As the Zapatistas say: "they lead by obeying". Let's recall the 'Manifesto for fundamental Internet rights'. It was written by a series of bloggers, it had an enormous repercussion on social networks and Sinde, the minister, called them to talk and negotiate. The people who went to that meeting are people who have a lot of prestige on Internet, but if they hold such prestige it's precisely because they are capable of going to tell the minister what was being said on Internet. That is fine by me, they had my every confidence even though no-one had voted for them. Their discourse was very inclusive, like the 'Manifesto..'. And if one of them had taken a rush of blood to the head and had negotiated who knows what with the minister, the 99% organised on the net would have struck him down in less than 24 hours. In a network there can be representation without a ceding of sovereignty. Completely different to a trade union leadership.
All nodes are equal, but some are more equal than others.
Correct. Internet is not made for equality and that carries risks and problems. I always use the following example: if there is a fire, we can act in different ways. Either we decide via assembly consensus how to organise the evacuation, or every man for himself [sálvese quien pueda]. Internet is an every man for himself. It is assumed that everyone has the intelligence to decide what the best option is for them, and has the autonomy to carry it out. But if there are people in a wheelchair, old people or children, well maybe they die. An 'every man for himself' does not guarantee everyone getting saved. In Internet we are not all equal: there are different degrees of culture, connectivity, time, etc. There are enormous inequalities. Internet is not made so that inequalities no longer exist, let's not ask of it what it cannot give us. But at the same time, we can struggle against inequalities in Internet, since this produces changes in the distribution of the power that produces inequalities, and we can take advantage of those changes in a liberating direction. That is the paradox.
You talk about how the third characterisitic of the network is openness.
Communities that work as a network are not closed and exclusive. You can connect and disconnect. And not only that: you can connect and disconnect from several at a time. I remember the demonstrations of the anti-globalisation movement: you had to choose between going with those who were non-violent and the urban guerrillas. You don't get that on Internet. You can take part in the movement for free culture and also in an action by Anonymous. In Internet there is an abundance, not a scarcity. There is a component of anonymyity that makes it possible: it's easier to have seven identities on Twitter than to go to a demonstration dressed as a clown. It has fewer costs, fewer risks, but it is no less real or useful. That experience can help us imagine forms of political participation that are more open and flexible?
But with these flexible forms of commitment is it possible to construct some type of organisation?
Of course it is. Today you hear people say everywhere: 'you need to organise'. And I agree, but we also have to re-imagine the organisation: a disperse organisation, with many channels and many layers. Internet can provide an inspiration. It helps us to think of organisation in terms of circulation. And linkage in terms of communication. The ublquity and dissidence we were talking about before also build organisation: the arcs between the nodes are the people who circulate. That flexible commitment you mention also makes a contribution, in its own way. For example, you may not have too much commitment on a mailing list, but still send information, uncover it, move it around. The acampadas as an idea of organisation did not emerge from a very smart or very activist group, but from communication.
What do you mean?
How is it possible that in a matter of two or three days dozens of identical acampadas should spread all over the place? That looked like the pods from the invasion of antibodies. Seriously, what happened is incredible and we have still not thought it through nor understood it. How did the idea get copied? We had the image of Tahrir Square, but why did this image catch on and not another. There is something very strongly personal, affective, emotional, unconscious, at work there. A sensitive current of empathy. An unknown and uncontrollable flow of communicaation that creates political dialogue without moving through codified spaces like politicians. From Tahrir to Sol, from Sol to Syntagma, from Syntagma to Zuccotti..an international movement without internationals has been created, it is incredible. But it is not a spontaneous movement. In our day-to-day ideas circulate, we feel part of something common, we recognise each other amid shared horizons, we do not all go on our own way. We are already organised. The thing is, we don't know how. And perhaps it is better that we don't, so that no-one can control it.
Throughout this interview you've used the word 'inspire'. You say that Internet can serve as an 'inspiration'. Why do you use that word?
This is very important. Internet can inspire us, but it cannot be traced because the material world and the immaterial world are physically different. Each with its own laws. A demonstration in the street, for example, is one thing, and a swarming to cyberblock a webpage is something else. In the demonstration there are bodies, the bodies occupy a space, they get tired, they can be harmed. In a demonstration you can lose an eye. Not in a cyberblockade. These are not minor differences. But after having experienced a swarming you may desire another kind of demonstration, where not everything is foreseeable beforehand, where people need to get active without being forced, where the meaning is built among everyone on the ground. That's the kind of inspiration I'm talking about. I remember V de Vivienda [literally, V for Housing, a play on V fof Vendetta] demonstrations that were like that. There is a lot still to be experimented in these hybrid models between the world of bits and the world of atoms.
So social change cannot come solely from Internet?
No, it has to be done with bodies. You have to go onto the street and demonstrate, you have to obtain food for whoever doesn't have any, to stop evictions, to protect undocumented immigrants…and you also have to experience the potency of the physical encounter, as we all discovered in 15-M. That joy…what Internet gives us is another experience of the world. An enjoyable experience of abundance, co-operation, creativity, authorship…I think that experience had an influence in that many people went to the squares and did not see the other person simply as someone who steps on you and bothers you, but as a personal accomplice. The network experience is a bit like LSD in the 1960s: a different experience, unreal but real, which remains in your memory because what you experienced you really did experience it: the capacity to talk to strangers, to cross borders, to self-transform, to create with ease, and so on.
Does Internet have the function that utopia had in the 60s?
The network experience can help us overcome schemas of political thought that no longer work for us today: the government-opposition code of the politics of the politicians, the left/right dichotomy, forms of organisation that only work under high levels of homogeneity. But it is not a utopia, nor is it the automatic solution to every problem. In particular, everything that relates to inequalities is an unresolved challenge. Internet allows us to modify the situation we have now, but it holds other problems that need to be thought through too. It isn't the ideal.