Saturday, 5 March 2011

Hybrid city


The notes, that I used for the talk at the Hybrid City Events Symposium
(spelling not fixed)

I will try to talk about the gamification of the social and political space and consequently of the immersing field of political struggles.
My point is that, the immersion of the digital social media networks and the virtual worlds in the recent years had strongly influenced and transformed our perception of the urban landscapes, changed the social relations and gave birth to new forms of political struggles. At the same time, the geopolitical, political, economic, cultural and social transformations that constantly take place in the physical environment (the real world) do the same thing to the virtual space, and oblige us to reconsider and doubt some of the usual expectations we had at the past, regarding for example the web 2.0 social media and the virtual worlds.

It is obvious that we can not talk anymore about separated environments like ''the physical and the virtual'' but rather of a fusion that is perceived as a constant change. Consequently, in these new environments, identities, subjectivities and performative actions are born and function in a dimension that can be seen and analyzed as an ''imaginary dimension that is consisted by new forms of desire production'' while at the same time older ways of understanding the social and the political power relations and hierarchies should be considered.

For example , such a fusion that gave form, for a period of time, to such a gamespace happened in Greece and especially in Athens during the riots of December 2008. Just to mention an article at the Economist, already, the Greek riots are prompting talk of a new era of networked protest. The volume of online content they have inspired is remarkable. Photos and videos of the chaos, often shot with cell phones, were posted online almost in real time. Same period another journalist writes that: ''As a consequence of the information revolution, the likelihood of an individual receiving and broadcasting information is increasing significantly while the likelihood of any two people communicating is increasing exponentially; and world population is also growing at a furious pace. Since each of these three variables are increasing, the overall risk of protests increases as well.''

Since last December 2010, the whole world is facing what is called ''The Arab revolutions.'' Or maybe I should better say ''The Arab revolution'' in singular.
And this for two reasons: the first because it seems more and more that despite some particular characteristics from country to country and from city to city, what is going on is a general political unrest and a revolution for the whole of arabic world at least in the Middle East. The other reason, to use the singular and not the plural for these events could fit with the point of view, of those that are calling (these events) ''The Facebook revolution'' or ''The Twitter revolution''. And it seems true that what has been witnessed in Griots two years ago and what we see now in Maghreb regarding the use of digital networks, is a form of internet hyper - Darwinism in which the forces of change which usually take years have been compressed into a time frame measured in weeks.

If one does a search in Google's engine using the keywords ''Facebook revolution'' gets something like 39.700.000 results and if instead of Facebook one uses Twitter the score goes to 46.400.000 results, and at a first sight most of them referring to the current Arab revolution. By the way a search with the keywords Russian revolution gives only 1.090.000 results. So, at least according to Google what we face nowadays are Facebook and Twitter revolutions, so, we should adopt the sarcasm of pr. Ulises Mejias that suggested to call the Mexican revolution of 1910-20 not after the medium itself, but after the manufacturer of the cameras that were carried by people, like the photographer Hugo Brehme, to document the atrocities of war. So, it would be something like: ''Viva Leica, cabrones! ''The Leica revolution is here''. Consequently, today, we should better call the Maghreb revolution as the ''Mark Zuckerberg revolution''. I am sure that the egyptian father of the child that was given the name ''Facebook'' to go through life, would agree with this.

But is that so? How much the political and social future and the forms of struggle depend on the social media or the virtual in general? What is exactly this state of fusion between the two worlds and for whose profit it happens? I think we are in a state of confusion and a lot of discussions will take place in the years to come about what exactly is the fusion between the real and the virtual, what really are the Hybrid and Matrix cities that they are now under formation..
The historian Robert Darnton says that: ''The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.''

One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the seventies, found that 70% of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujaheddin in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.

In Tunisia the revolution didn't come because there was a long term conspiracy before but because people they were keeping pushing the regime in order to gain little freedoms here and there . They were pushing the fence as they say now and suddenly they realized that the fence went down. Small claimings for small freedoms in many fields and social terrains .That's how it happened. In addition we should seriously consider that the Middle East still has its cafes and communal prayers. The West instead is too often stuck behind some lonely computer, weather it be in a crowed internet cafe or at home, socializing.
One could think that the Facebook Revolution wasn’t so much a selling point for those in the Middle East that rose up in defiance of dictatorial regimes, but was sold to the West as how wonderful these tools can be. Something like, come to Facebook you can be part of the revolution.
I saw a photo of a man standing in the midst of a protest in Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the world, holding a cardboard sign where it read ‘facebook’ or the slogans written at the walls in Tunis like thank you Facebook.– Lets talk then about brand name positioning!

While it is true that an internet controlled by a handful of media conglomerates can still be used to promote democracy (as people are doing in Tunisia, Egypt, and all over the world), we need to reconsider the role that social media corporations like Facebook and Twitter will play in these struggles.
We should examine if the hype about a Twitter/Facebook/YouTube revolution performs two functions: first, if it depoliticizes our understanding of the conflicts, mostly by commercializing the social and the revolution, and second, if it whitewashes the role of capitalism in suppressing democracy.
In addition to this ,in Egypt and elsewhere not only weapons of war and riot control used to keep in power corrupt leaders are coming from western democratic states, but tools of internet surveillance like Narusinsight, produced by a subsidiary of Boeing and used by the Egyptian government to track down and “disappear” dissidents.
How can we use the tools of communication when they are being increasingly privatized? How can we communicate and create social movements without Twitter/Facebook and other commercial /private platforms being a barrier? And in a further extension, which terminology we should use in order to analyze ,comprehend and resist to the global ongoing unpredictable game of domination and control?

The events that are taking place nowadays,can be seen much more clear if one goes further of the standard political analysis that is usually used to explain the causes and the results of such revolts, revolutions and political movements by introducing terms and concepts originated from the game worlds and the vocabulary of the social media that mainly promote the gamification of the social , of the new forms of labour and the political struggles. Terms as ''single user game’’, ‘’multiuser game’’ or ‘’gameplay’’ can be very useful in order to understand the forms of participation, the ways of acting and the political demands of these ''urban wars''.
I will use an analogy. Everyone who is suffering from compulsive disorder lose the earth under his/her feet, if someone moves something from its pre-fixed position inside his or hers ‘’secure universe’’. This obsessed mapping, this identification of oneself through images and forms that represent or simulate the world, aim to effectiveness, aim to guarantee a kind of functionality. As in 3D videogames the player records the objects that compose the space and reserves them faithfully in her memory, and on this base evolves the suspense of changes and the whole action, in other words the gameplay, same process run in the real world where the memory that dictates the ‘’why’’ and the ‘’where’’ that in their turn define the position of every object and the roles that we are supposed to play, is the memory that ensures the daily compulsion of maintaining the reality of public space.
Today's social and political movements in opposition to the power structures that try to control them, outburst collectively as a multiplayer game and not as the usual parody of a single user game, that requires from the people to ‘’be liberated’’ one by one, as if liberation was after all, a cumulative, statistic issue.
But still, it is this addiction at the single user games that makes difficult for the most of us, to understand what is going on. It is the addiction to the neat delinquency of the individual. The legalized and consequently controlled transcendence of the penal code, this kind of delinquencies that usually are realized by clans. At the end of the story, it is about the same compulsive mechanisms that are imposed by the state on the many, in order to become one.

One people, one party, a single voice and so on, in other words, a social relic in direct analogy to the outdated cultural remains of the videogame industry, the single users cultural relics. Because, it is this multiple, collective form of play and the immediacy of desire that is expressed through this, that provokes the misunderstanding and the collective hallucinations, regarding sometimes the identities of the players and sometimes their demands or even the absence of demands especially in the western states.

And this, because we can not see clearly the gamespace in which the game is taking place. A gamespace that is at the same time virtual and real , in a constant flux of deterritorialization and again reterritorialized, People -and I mean mostly people in the western countries, people that are isolated behind screens of every kind- look at the sudden loss of the locations (of objects) which were meant to constitute the space of social and individual memory. And they are incapable of entering the game since they do not understand - not even temporarily - the reversal of roles. People understands (or pretend to understand) a game, only when the roles that they have to perform can be found in the isolation of the ‘’normality’’ of the single user. In the contrary, the game of what is called multitude is a multiuser play,in which the singularities that perform the roles, the players, do not often seem willing to assign their rights to the power in order to get a legal status.

The Hybrid city / the Matrix city is expanding everywhere. But the same thing happens with struggles, either against third world dictators either against financial oligarchies. There are differences and very essential ones, but there are also similarities and lessons to be learned from both sides.
One Egyptian blogger commented that the freedom on the internet and the freedom on Tahrir square felt very differently, as did the sense of solidarity and community. Indeed, there is an accountability coupled to physical presence, which is not necessarily there with online presence. The much-heard argument goes that we can all push a button and join a FB page (though still that action is far from risk-free in some countries), but to physically put our bodies on the line, is a different question.

The same article that I mentioned before by the Financial Times says that, pulling the plug on a society where possibly 90 % of the population is computerless, is less of a problem than it would be for the West. Twitter, social media or the Internet as a whole, can’t be isolated as the cause, or not, of anything, because they are part of the fabric of social life and the terrain of struggle. Part of the Hybrid new gamespace.
And lets hope, as Toni Negri and Michael Hard claim, that the prevalence in the revolts of social network tools, are symptoms, not causes, of this organisational structure. These are the modes of expression of an intelligent population capable of using the instruments at hand to organise autonomously and hopefully against the gamespace itself..

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