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Culture, Reality

The Electronic Disturbance

by Sean O’Toole / 09.12.2010

A lot of things happened in 1994, not the least being the publication of The Electronic Disturbance. “The rules of cultural and political resistance have dramatically changed,” reads the opening sentence to this book-length essay on the ideological structures underpinning the hard-soft medium enabling you to read these words. An activist’s retort to the “new geography of power relations” created by the computer, the story of one of the book’s co-authors, Steve Kurtz, offers a sobering sense of just how loaded the dice is against WikiLeaks.

Kurtz, an artist, social activist and a professor of visual studies at the State University of New York-Buffalo, is an engaging public speaker. I saw him inspire and rile an audience at a two-day symposium at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1994. Like many of the anarcho-theorists published by Autonomedia, a radical American book publisher founded in the early 1980s, Kurtz spoke fast and clever prose. It was hard to keep up, not the least because email was still an exotic idea, a bit like William Gibson’s construct of “cyberspace”. Widely touted at the time, Gibson’s canny neologism had the texture of toffee: it was sweet, gluey, and heavy on the jaw.

One statement from Kurtz’s ‘Terminal Futures’ presentation still sticks. The street, as a site of conflict, he said, more or less, will become increasingly redundant. Activists and terrorists – and there is a distinction – will increasingly require a high degree of cyber-literacy. The statement, memorably and justly challenged by Zwelinzima Vavi types in the audiences afterwards, didn’t pre-empt Assange so much as summarise his gestation. (In 1994 Assange was living and working as a computer programmer in Melbourne; two years earlier the homeschooled hacker was convicted of illegally browsing the systems of a Canadian telecommunications company.)

Wikileaks Julian Assange

Fast forward to 2004. Assange was still in Melbourne, reportedly studying physics and mathematics. In May of that year Kurtz’s wife, Hope, died from a sudden heart attack. Police investigating the Kurtz family home were curious about the artist’s studio, which contained genetically modified biological material for a pending exhibition.

“It was about releasing transgenic organisms into the wild,” recalled Kurtz in a recently published interview. His art project was however more than a quixotic musing on our contemporary ecological condition; one of the works was meant to “biologically intervene… in the public interest” with proprietary seeds developed by the agro-chemical company Monsanto. But it wasn’t only Kurtz’s art project that interested the law officers.

At the time Kurtz was also reading a lot of stuff around germ warfare – he believes that chemical weapons are ineffective as a terrorist tool. Unsurprisingly, the FBI was summoned. Kurtz was questioned. When bioterrorism charges looked unlikely to stick he was criminally charged for using the postal service to illegally send and receive non-pathogenic bacteria.

In a Guardian interview published in 2005, Kurtz, responding to the suggestion that America was in the grips of a “new McCarthyism”, stated: “The only thing that is different is that they won’t admit it’s McCarthyism. They say, ‘This has nothing to do with ideology. We never thought about what political persuasion Kurtz had – he’s just a common criminal.’ McCarthy said we should have political prisoners. Now they’re saying: we don’t have political prisoners, we’re just protecting the public.”

In 2008 the mail fraud case against Kurtz was dismissed.

“The rules of the game have changed. Civil disobedience is not what it used to be,” reads the closing paragraph of The Electronic Disturbance. These blunt assertions are modulated by a follow-on question: “Who is willing to explore the new paradigm?” Sixteen years later, we have a partial answer: WikiLeaks. “This organization practices civil obedience,” Assange unambiguously told Time magazine, “that is, we are an organization that tries to make the world more civil and act against abusive organizations that are pushing it in the opposite direction.”

Not everyone buys this version. One Washington mandarin has written, “we should treat Assange the same way as other high-value terrorist targets”. As in snuff him, but not before casting him as “bloody agent”. No doubt, this interpretation will include a lot of fire and brimstone about his “white-haired tendency”. But ultimately, this is all much bigger than Assange. As the hard-soft matrix of power that enables you to read these words bends, folds and backtracks to accommodate the red-faced bureaucrats and career assholes shown-up by WikiLeaks, civil disobedience is spreading. At least 208 WikiLeaks “mirror sites” have popped up in the last few days, reports The New York Times.

Not that we are fully in the new paradigm. When I switched on TV this morning, people were hurling petrol bombs and refusing unwanted lavatories. The streets, it seems, aren’t entirely vacated, not just yet.

*Opening image by Bish (purloined via the interweb and © The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review)

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