Beyond the Voting Machine

Beyond the Voting Machine

2003-08-02

Marc Bousquet introduces a forthcoming Altx critical e-book, hosted online by ebr, appearing in five sections through the Fall of 2003. A new ebr thread, Technocapitalism, is built around its concerns.

Section I: Beyond the Voting Machine

This is 1933. This is Hitler’s Germany.
-Missing Foundation, “1933” (1988)

In January 2002, within months of the passage of the USA Patriot Act, the teen-aged operator of alternative/anarchist media site Raisethefist.com was rousted from his parents’ L.A. home by two dozen agents of the FBI, Secret Service and LAPD, most wearing body armor and carrying shotguns. 18-year-old Sherman Austin’s computer and collection of political literature were carried away: he had used the computer to simultaneously publish anarchist political views and some recipes for explosives manufacture. His bomb recipes were of the sort readily available in the Anarchists’ Cookbook, or in books held in the average university or metropolitan library or on sale at Amazon.com. As Carnegie Mellon computer scientist David Touretzky reports, the same information is even available on the Websites of mass-media news outlets such as CNN.com (which has published a diagram that can be used to construct a pipe bomb). Charges were eventually filed against Austin under a 1997 law (18 USC 842p) making it illegal to distribute “by any means” information regarding the manufacture or use of an explosive device, and subsequently dropped.

One of the compelling aspects of the case is the special paranoia that the government reserves for electronic communication. With the passage of the putatively anti-terrorist “Patriot” act, the federal government acquired vast new powers to gather information about U.S. citizens and residents. The direct expansion of executive power by the Patriot act and related “anti-terrorist” measures include the establishment of a secret court with special powers of subpoena, the relaxation of laws governing attorney-client privilege (as a result of handling some domestic criminal procedures under the rules previously governing foreign intelligence gathering, big brother may in some cases be listening even when you talk to your lawyer), vast expansion of wiretap and surveillance capacities, especially in relation to electronic communication, and the massive increase of penalties relating to “communication crime,” especially computer-mediated communication. U.S. judges are now required to grant the federal government permission to gather information on the Web surfing of any citizen if the government believes that this data might be “relevant” to an existing criminal investigation: the investigating agency is not accountable for this snooping to anyone, even the person investigated or the judge issuing the order. Service providers are protected from liability when they “voluntarily” share most kinds of information with investigators.

This troubling expansion of surveillance is only a fraction of the executive will to power expressed in such would-be sequels as the Pentagon’s Total Information Awareness initiative or the Attorney General’s 2003 Domestic Security Enhancement Act. By total information awareness, the Pentagon envisioned a massive data mining initiative that would capture, evaluate, and store the “information signatures” of suspected criminals through the creation of a single central data bank combining the information now held in such diverse (and privacy protected) databases as hospital, physician and insurer files, credit card and bank records, phone bills and email accounts, book borrowing, Web surfing, and so on. With the explicit goal of breaking down legal barriers between such information streams as one’s employment records and one’s medical records, TIA is intended to provide the U.S. government with the capacity to instantly create a total data profile on anyone, anywhere. Tens of millions have been awarded to military contractors in connection with the project: as of this writing, the Defense Department is barred from engaging in data-mining the records of U.S. citizens, but continues to develop the program for offshore uses, as well as related projects such as a nationwide identification system and the biometric “Human ID at a Distance” program which brings together “gait recognition” (for target acquisition), face recognition, and iris recognition. The latter program as a mode of “perimeter defense” will have particular application for the militarization of the borders surrounding Fortress America, as well as any lines the government cares to draw elsewhere, in the “homeland” or abroad. In some ways even more ambitiously dystopian, John Ashcroft’s Domestic Security Enhancement Act (the “son of Patriot”) aims to enlarge many of the government’s still-new powers to conduct surveillance, acquire data, and expel undesirables; provides for greater secrecy regarding government actions, such as subpoena and the detainment of persons; enhances penalties for attempting to evade surveillance by using encryption during criminal activity; and proposes to add DNA to the total information database of some individuals.

These “anti-terrorism” initiatives have consequences beyond the specific activities they limit or enable. They create an atmosphere of executive license that serves as an invitation to executive power everywhere (what we might call the “Patriot structure of feeling”). The evidence of this new executive dreamscape is piling up quickly, ranging from the Stasi-like ambition to create a nation of citizen informants (through Operation TIPS), the hope for total executive control of the workplace (the creation of an office of “homeland security” was held up for months by the determined effort of Republicans to use the security imperative to break up the unions of the hundreds of thousands of federal employees reassigned to the office) to the virtual suspension of habeas corpus in connection with hundreds of 9/11 “terror suspects” – at this writing (April 2003) most still held without being charged for 18 months under draconian military law.

Ultimately we have to look beyond the specific prohibitions and prosecutions conducted under the Patriot laws, and look at the whole social formation surrounding their passage: the pattern of behaviors, values, and material consequences associated with the circumstances that brought Patriot into being. In the broadest sense, the “war on terror” has produced an extraordinary narrowing of civil liberties in scenes of direct repression: in early 2003, for instance, there were two widely-publicized incidents of security-related censorship involving messages on t-shirts.(Yes, messages on t-shirts.) In one case, a Michigan teenager wearing a t-shirt labeling George Bush an international terrorist was ordered by a high school administrator to turn the shirt inside out or go home; in the other, a Connecticut lawyer was thrown out of a mall for refusing to remove a t-shirt with the slogan “Give Peace a Chance.”

The Patriot atmosphere of license under the sign of “security” invites entrepreneurial freelancing so that executive power everywhere – even the nebbishy vice principal and mall security guard in a nylon shirt - is invited to flex its muscles. But direct repressions like these are only a fraction of the story: every act of direct censoring is accompanied by countless acts of self-censoring, a regime or discipline in which average persons get the message of the security state: that inconvenience, hostility, possibly arrest and ostracism, can result from uttering pro-peace sentiments or satire of the executive. Silence becomes common sense, and the most pervasive form of surveillance generated by the Patriot structure of feeling is “Watch Yourself.”

The contributions in this section address the government’s current hysteria regarding electronic communication. Some of the contributions suggest that the government’s hysteria might be justified - because of the degree to which electronically-mediated interactions might provide opportunities for organizing dissent, monitoring the abuse of executive power, and creating a culture of solidarity, activism, and creative illegality. This is especially the case with the “Illegal Knowledge” colloquy among Geert Lovink, Ricardo Dominguez and Bruce Simon, and Chris Carter, asking such questions as whether activism should try to hack into the mainstream or develop channels of its own. Noting that “some disagreements are too extreme to be articulated politely,” language poet and host of Buffalo’s Electronic Poetry Center Charles Bernstein explores the future of thought in an increasingly criminalized Web. Ben Voyles ’ “The Selling of E-thePeople” suggests both the passion for public speech and the degree to which that speech ultimately resists both commercialization and easy characterization. Fran Illich ‘s “Delete the Border!” traces the militarized informatics of regular border-crossing between Tijuana and San Diego, ultimately narrating a creative disturbance of that regime in the Borderhack festivals. Finally, Technocapitalism co-editor Katherine Wills and Alt-X publisher Mark Amerika perform an alternative to the Patriot discipline of the self in an exuberant re-circuiting of command and control.