Interview for Rhizome

Hacking Activism An Email Dialogue Between Alex Galloway and Geert Lovink

Alex Galloway: Let’s talk first about the Zapatista FloodNet actions ( in the context of tactical There was a lot of talk at this year’s Ars Electronica festival about how the FloodNet was technically flawed. Do you think it works? Can electronic civil disobedience ever move past simple “consciousness raising,” to actually realizing material change?

Geert Lovink: I don’t think this is the best way to approach this issue. “Flaws” are something for the hackers and sysops to address, like Rop Grongrijp or others. FloodNet has bad karma because of particular mistakes they made; I cannot defend them, nor do I particularly want to attack them. We have been working for several years on a thorough foundation for net activism. For example, this was a major topic at the Galactic Hackers Party in 1989, one of the first big “new” media events we organized in Amsterdam. Today, the net is no longer merely a tool, it is our everyday (artificial) life. For us it is a strategic theatre of confrontation. Yet the hackers still have that fresh, almost utopian attitude about the internet. For them the net is something precious, something that shouldn’t be destroyed by things like denial of service attacks. Activists these days are not properly informed of the delicate balance within technology. For them, a corporate server is just another artifice to be destroyed, or rather, disturbed.

AG: Let’s talk about software more generally. I think that, perhaps, the Web Stalker ( was the first real piece of tactical software (at least for our recent net.history). And now I’m searching for sequels. The browser seems like a perfect place for tactical interventions. Where else do you see this happening? The open source movement is one place… But what about network infrastructures? Operating systems? Where should we, as tactical programmers, *go* today?

GL: The open source movement is clearly an interesting area but what interests me most is how to build a public interface for movements like this. To be successful the movement must both effectively disseminate its software and surround the software with a lively, appealing political discourse. It could be our task, as mediators, journalists, artists and critics, to transform the issue of, for example, operating systems into a political question. Paul Garrin’s has failed so far in this (and so has nettime). The question is this: How do we turn all these abstract issues, which are debated in a very closed circle and only understood by a hand full of technicians, into a large topic, understood by the millions, so to speak. Minor decisions in the realm of technical standards taken today will have enormous effects on society later on. We are all aware of that. So, much will depend on our political skills, imagination and willingness to make coalitions, if we want to succeed.

AG: You are right to note that and others have failed so far to address a larger audience, yet I don’t think we should discount It preceded the Web Stalker (right?) and in some ways is more massive, more effective, and more tangentially artistic (making it all the more appealing). As for operating systems, there’s Jodi’s new OSS project ( which, although purely aesthetic, somehow also seems to be a real tactical intervention into how computers are used–especially since it exists as a stand alone application (as well as a CD-ROM) that mimics an operating system. I’m delighted at the fact that, with, one can’t really distinguish the tactical from the purely aesthetic. I think this is what will prove its ultimate importance. I may have a slightly different take on the question of publicity and coalition-building. Why can’t the ultimate success of tactical media projects be simply to produce temporary autonomous zones (TAZs) rather than liberate a larger public? (I realize this sentiment is probably not very popular with the Dutch/German tactical media community.) New technologies seem, finally, to be able to give us this TAZ option as a widespread reality for the first time. Look at our own projects–nettime and rhizome–I think that communities of this nature are virtually unprecedented. And, hey, that may be enough for me. About the open source movement. I am in favor of software development that seems to be in the public interest. However I’m skeptical of the politics associated with some of these groups. Hackers and programmers have historically never shared the same politics as the avant-garde, especially one with such a lively surrounding discourse as ours does. I’ve read the various hacker’s manifestos floating around and I think they’re garbage. They specifically avoid political analyses at the expense of the “freedom of knowledge.” This is at the heart of why EDT’s FloodNet was criticized heavily by HEART (Hackers for Electronic Art) at Ars Electronica this year. What we have is two groups, both doing interesting work, but with two different political styles. I’m on the EDT side. Let’s move to the issue of translating traditional leftist strategies into the tactical media framework. A new method is critical. We’ve experienced bottom-up political movements for some time now. But, what about *distributed* bottom-up strategies? This is the machinic model, where there is no coalition, there is no core, yet there is a “movement.” Is electronic activism like the FloodNet too rooted in old school leftist politics? The real question here is: How do we make the network into a medium for action and resistance? I always think of the early project called “Refresh” (, what (I’m assuming) Alexei Shulgin described as “the friendly web-design frenzy that we have started on Sunday 6 October 1996.” In that project no one really needed to know who exactly was part of the chain, yet if your computer followed the refreshes you would glimpse a sequence of interrelations. This seems to me to be a model, albeit primitive, for some type of distributed bottom-up strategy.

GL: You are touching here on the question of organization. It presupposes common interests (or even “objectives,” Marxists would say) and a basic set of common ethics. Today this sense of commonality has been blurred by the “culture wars”–in a good way, I would say. But the celebration of differences, chaos and complexity has prompted us to pose again the question of organization. Permanent deconstructions and cynical criticisms have turned many of the intellectuals, artists and activists into enlightened but powerless outsiders. These days, one could say that new forms of organization are formed along technical lines. For example, majordomo mailing-list software is creating specific social structures (while excluding others). The internet has the tendency to strengthen both global and local connections, but seems to neglect the nation or state level. This will backfire sooner or later. Today’s organizations tend to be rhizomatic. I mean this in a negative sense. “Mille plateaux” rules. Not by choice but because there are few other attractive options. If we face the loose connections, the constant danger of decay, general anxiety over ideological commitment, panic over internal conspiracies, and the continued disintegration (after short moments of euphoria) of groups into sub-groups and tribes, we actually end up in a political climate of various, simultaneous micro cycles. The fear that others will cash in with your ideas–the fear of being appropriated–is very destructive. It has damaged common feelings, even friendships. With ongoing technological changes we should wait until new, more reliable forms of organization appear. Now we are caught up in a closed circuit of tiny techno-social experiments. “Refresh” is a good example. A good idea, but now it is somewhere on the web, with most of the links out of use. No one seems to be responsible, nor has any one come up with a follow-up. That is the poverty of at the end of the nineties.

AG: Are you in fact calling for a *consolidation* within tactical media? To be honest, I’m surprised that you say this. Is there anything other than simple pragmatics (i.e. the fact that we have to get things done) fueling your resistance to these distributed models? Some would say that old, consolidated forms of resistance have a track record of failure, and now we must follow the lead of Deleuze and others to find a new politics based on the “molecular” model of revolution without central organization. Personally I can testify in support of computers–they let me do the work of 10! Don’t you think that the network as such gives us new possibilities for action and resistance? Do you see a trajectory from progressive political theory in the ’70s and ’80s, to the real material manifestations of these theories today? I’m thinking especially of the idea of the rhizome or swarm, its correlate in nomadic politics, the privileging of the TAZ over revolutionary action, etc., which now, in the case of the internet, have all found their own conditions of possibility. Now that we actually have access to real, non-hierarchical systems do you see the future of resistive politics changing? It seems that what you lament about “Refresh” is exactly what I celebrate.

GL: Rhizomatic, molecular models of resistance are not new. I don’t say this to sound discouraging. I would just like to point out a rich and diverse tradition. There are many histories–labeled these days as “anarchism” or popular revolts–including invisible, lesser known stories. And please don’t claim that these rhizomatic models are immune to failure. Rhizomes, at times, can lead us nowhere. Nomadic praxis specifically mystifies the question of organization and survival–internal accountability is not its strong point. It cannot deal with the type of sustainable infrastructures and power politics that extend beyond the limits of one’s own tribe. Today’s networks cannot answer essential questions of economic survival. Hit and run actions, semiotic guerilla strikes, document theft, creating counter discourses and cultures–these are just one aspect of a complete movement. It is dangerous to extend those models to all other spheres of life. In other words, please do not make a management guru out of Deleuze. The “rhizome ideology,” in my opinion, is to be understood within the French (and Italian) politics of the ’70s. It was a response to the democratic centralism of the European communists at the time. Its spontaneity is its strong point, but it cannot answer what comes next when the TAZ dissolves itself.

AG: One final comment on this “rhizome” thread, then I’d like to talk more about tactical You correctly situate the “rhizome ideology” in the ’70s (and ’80s and ’90s), and I agree that the theoretical impetus was born then. However (as said above) don’t you see a trajectory from progressive political theory in the ’70s and ’80s, to the real *material* manifestations of these theories today? My only point about Deleuze (I’m just using his name for convenience, there are clearly other important figures) is that he never had access to real, material TAZs (or rhizomes, or nomadic communities, etc.) that instantiated his theoretical interventions. To take media venues as an example, I claim that we never had access to real, wide-spread non-hierarchical systems until now, with the dawn of radically democratic networked communities. Free radio is different; your “‘anarchism’ or popular revolts” were/are different; moments like May ’68 were *very* different. Yes, this new mode clearly “fails” in the eyes of the dominant order. Yet *our* failure (our dissolving and reappearing) in their eyes means something good to us… It means that a new practice is emerging. “What comes next when the TAZ dissolves itself”? A new TAZ, of course. Are you suggesting that we shouldn’t translate traditional leftist strategies into the tactical media framework, but rather, translate tactical media backward into a more traditional leftist strategy?

GL: No, forget these leftist frameworks. I have never been part of that. In most cases, people do not have the energy anymore to form a new TAZ, or even to be part of it. The rigid time economy is eating up people’s lives. Perhaps what you are not taking into account is people’s real disillusionment and the pragmatic realities of life. When a TAZ has been smashed by the authorities, or has dissolved itself because of exhaustion or internal conflict, only a small percentage of the participants will continue. They will become the survivors; they will crystallize into a new group or TAZ. We have described this process in our Adilkno book “Cracking the Movement” ( The phrase “disappearing and reappearing” is way too simple, especially in this harsh, neo-liberal climate. I am an professional optimist (by nature) and it is my passion to create strategies for getting new initiatives off the ground. But your analysis of Deleuze (and his generation) not having experienced an actual TAZ is an historical misjudgment. This is mainly because you have ignored the numerous movements, world wide, which started in the late ’60s, and have actually existed since then. This includes the ecology, anti-nuclear, and women’s movements; squats, farms, alternative bookshops and restaurants, music festivals; sabotage, actions, strikes; and dogmatic splinter groups and armed guerillas. Current media/art initiatives are tiny compared to what was going on twenty or so years ago, when the Deleuze & Guattari duo was active. That is our sad reality at the end of the ’90s. It is true, though, that in today’s technological climate a TAZ has the ability to incorporate activities elsewhere on the planet much faster and cheaper than in the past. Yet simply having this ability to organize new forms of resistance does not automatically generate new social movements. Perhaps in the (very near!) future. I remain optimistic!

AG: I’m an optimist too and I think we are living through a very exciting time. I think our disagreement stems from the fact that I consider the “rhizomatic mode” to be historically specific, while you’re extending it to include resistive actions in general (or at least for the past 30 years). We can agree to disagree. Let’s forget about the offline for a moment and get back to our first topic above: electronic civil disobedience. Do you disagree with the strategy of the so-called “denial of service” attacks seen in the EDT’s FloodNet actions? If yes, what are other possible network actions that may emerge in the near future… the new forms of hacktivism?

GL: The US/American establishment is preparing for the Infowar. You can read this everywhere. Secret services and military research centers have the wildest fantasies about Muslim hackers, and the damage they can cause. For me, these are all phantoms, orchestrated illusions put in place to legitimize the rise (again) of the US military budget during the late Clinton administration. Let us not fall into their trap. What is important now is to spread awareness of the fact that we are all under constant surveillance. Electronic media and networks are endangering citizen’s basic civil rights (above all their right to privacy). Hacktivism should move into this area, not just temporarily shoot down enemy servers. We need to be much more careful, flexible, remain under cover. FloodNet originates from an actual public space lost and gone. Perhaps it is trying to re-construct the loss in much too easy a way. In our experience, here in Amsterdam, the digital public sphere is a long term project, with thousands of people involved. In part, our work is invisible, and contains many random elements. Activists, by nature, are hasty. They want to get things done. Yet protection and restructuring of the public sphere is not a simple problem to solve. So let us come up with many models and examine which ones work, and which don’t. That’s hacktivism for me.