Reverse Engineering Freedom

The Revolution Will Be Metatagged

During a noborder camp in a small town in Romania a young guy passes by. He works for a corporation that manufactures hardware for brand-name electronics companies near the Hungarian-Serbian border. He tells the story of an unsuccessful attempt to unionise the workers of this factory. About 3500 Romanians are employed there for a wage of eight dollars for a twelve hour working day. Their dispute was not about salary. The workers’ discontent grew out of despair – how were they to overcome the powerless position they were in as an outsourced post-industrial reserve army, fully exposed to the fluctuations of just-in-time production while forced to be graceful for the privilege of having a job in the first place?

His story ended as it happens every day around the globe. Snared within the boundaries of the local, the struggle of the Romanian workers didn’t have a chance to be recognized by international or translocal labour organizations. Irrespective of whether the free lunch includes desert, a few extra dollars are thrown into the pay cheque, or health insurance is part of the salary package, management will not hesitate to fire all those who start a union within the factory. It’s a vicious circle. Every attempt to self-organize leads to nothing but an affirmation of and increase in the power of a corporation that operates globally and constantly blackmails workers in Romania, Scotland or Singapore with threats to close down the factory site and move production to China or Mexico.

Such powerlessness is no matter of quantity: even the biggest union of the world, the German Metal Workers, failed in their half-hearted attempt to finally achieve equal wages in East and West Germany, almost 14 years after the fall of the Berlin wall. Their strike in summer 2003 turned out to be the greatest disaster in union history after World War II—and the reasons are not all that different from the situation in Romania. The post-Fordist organization of labour fragments workers in a way never seen before. The results come into effect at the level of subjectivity: The classical values of collectivism and solidarity turn out to be incredibly weak and practically useless as soon as a struggle leaves its one-dimensionality and enters the realm of distributed power within networks around the world.

Nonetheless, the power of workers in the global factories is potentially unlimited. Their mind-blowing virtual strength comes as no surprise. The net still holds the capacity to articulate differently situated actors; in doing so, new socio-technical formations accumulate with unforeseen political force. Call this globalization from below, if you like. One could easily imagine how campaigns of culture jamming and image-pollution could support a tiny, anonymous wildcat strike in a maquiladora factory like the one in Romania. Precisely because of the dependency of global markets on just-in-time production, any deliberate and well-aligned refusal is very likely to create a considerable material threat.

Activist campaigns – from McLibel to Deportation Class, from Toywar to The Yesmen – have demonstrated how immaterial protest can short-circuit the incalculable and immeasurable layers of creative refusal in the most effective and cost-efficient way. A wide range of different conceptual technics are now ready to be further implemented, translated and abstracted in a variety of other contexts. What we now need to figure out is how to bypass the Cultural Divide without reducing or underestimating the complex antagonisms and incommensurabilities that define the plurality of cultures. In the age of networks, how can concepts transform and pop up in other social contexts? Is this a process we can even hope to determine or ascertain? Surely such a desire for control and expertise at a distance is impossible? At best, we can aim to identify strategic alliances around specific problems and potential projects. In so doing, action is put into effect, and political life is made anew.


What is to be done in order to realize our potential, to liberate net activism from the art ghetto in which it was suspended during the nineties? What is to be done in order to overcome social boundaries and explore the power of the immaterial workers of the world, to render more precisely the new forms of subjectivity and connectivity that might constitute the next generation of global struggles? Hacktivist and techniques can travel a long way. Why not use and reuse concepts that have been successfully implemented in one context and integrate them into other contexts? Such operations are, after all, ones of translation and transformation rather than reproduction of the same.

We’ve transcended the impasse of postmodernist identity politics and academe’s game of culture wars, and can freely debate our political directions without the fear of a return to party doctrines. The current multiplicity of struggles, models and forms of organizations makes it possible and even necessary to repose a question, that has been taboo for a little while: What is to be done? There is one main difference to the old-style Leninist attitude. It will most likely generate no answer, only more questions.

What is the problem of a global movement that became stuck in the old patterns of protest as usual? What’s the sense of a theory that is confined to the self-gratifying boundaries of academic research? What describes the tragedy of a labour movement that persists with values and strategies peculiar to the bygone era of organized labour? What hinders the creative concepts of digital activism from finally mixing with other modalities of life? And what is ‚life‘ anyway in this late media age?

What is to be done in order to envision a notion of the global that is not a synonym for the unavoidability of continuous pauperisation? Why not invent a conceptual technics of the global as a social potential, as the experience of enormous creativity of the multiplicity and diversity of all creative and productive practices? How can we leave the realm of the hypothetical and purely speculative and mobilize concepts into the ordinary everyday, yet resist a demise into banality? How do concepts leave the safe environment of art and activism and enter the realm of the popular? Is commercialisation of the avant-garde the only route open for a broader distribution of political concepts? Please, let’s leave the nonsense of consumer sovereignty in academe’s dustbin of bad ideas. In short: how do political and cultural concepts travel in a post-1989, post-911 world that is so deeply networkedand so profoundly mediated? How do movements scale up and metamorphose into something much more powerful and imaginative?

We do not believe this is just an issue of branding and marketing, backed up by sufficient financial resources. That would be the answer of tired transnational NGO bureaucrats. There is something else going on that taps into the desire and discontents of millions. This makes the question what is to be done? even more open. There is no urgency to make ‘decisions.’ We do not need to make up a crisis—there is already plenty of it around.

The end of history vanished long before September 11th, 2001. The creeping recession of the old powers and the new markets revealed new forms of political subjectivity that culminated in one slogan: “Another world is possible.” Many fear this slogan remains an empty phrase. For us that’s not a given deal. Beyond the old fashioned dialectics of revolution and reform, radicalism and opportunism, there is not only one alternative, but numerous (network) architectures to be invented — and probed, as McLuhan was so keen to test, for new openings into media-cultures. So many people are making „connections“ these days. Who wants to try and keep track of all these activities? For the analyst-activist, the challenge is to locate the emergent combination of values and needs that underscore the proliferation of leftist cultural productions, economic systems and political forces.

Who dares to have the courage to write “we,” provoking everyone by stating that there is something like a global strategy, a common debate of initiatives, movements and multitudes? The general intellect, the connected intelligence, the roaming intelligentsia that travels from one tribe to the next can only be fragrant lie. Deconstruction of general claims is an easy job. Yet we are so flagrant to believe that people can have certain strategies in common and debate them. We have to look at the next generation of networking, which will be based on a culture of mutual exchange and syndication, not just pointing and linking—no matter how material or immaterial, real or virtual.


The hyperlink was once an adequate metaphor for a primitive version of global networking based purely on its potential. With its spamming, the dissemination of digital porn and open publishing, its hacker-culture and corporate firewalls, free software and the new economy, open access and wireless mobility, the Internet built and configured a fin de siècle that was stamped by all sorts of artificial euphoria and enthusiasm.

Nineties networking was a culture of no commitment, spontaneous adventures and loose appointments; it was liberating from crusty bureaucracies and we liked it a lot. Net culture offered unexpected advantages in the fight against the ancient brood of corporate power and we succeeded many times; it gave a first taste of a new freedom but we are no longer satisfied with it.

Critical Internet culture is ready for its next stage. The Net is no longer a parallel universe; it’s the global condition—the world we live in. After the lose ties of Usenet, lists and blogs it is now important to investigate how we can design tighter bonds of collaboration. As casual drug users we know: one would have to increase the application rate in order to repeat the ‘rush’ of the new. But that’s too banal and cheap for us.

Stop complaining about the decline of new media. That perhaps already happened in 1998. Let’s dream up something else. It is important to ‘materialize’ net culture without making the same mistakes as the NGOs of the 80s and 90s. We don’t need consolidation but dissemination and transformation. Let’s jump to another level and take all these experimental ideas about interactive communication, interface culture and hypertext with us.   Rather than a renaissance of what we have already experienced, we will start searching for radically new models of connectivity that indicate a forthcoming revolution. A revolution in the truest sense of the word.

Commonly, a revolution means the beginning of something very new, something that has never been there before. And that’s what fuels the desire. But in its literal and even original notion the term revolution refers to a political activity that has nothing else in mind than the restoration of some allegedly old-fashioned rights and freedoms that were guaranteed once upon the time. It is precisely such contrariness that characterizes the current situation.

The revolution of our age should come as no surprise. It has been announced for a long time. It is anticipated in the advantage of the open source idea over archaic terms of property. It is based on the steady decline of the traditional client-server architecture and the phenomenal rise of peer-to-peer-technologies. It is practised already on a daily basis: the overwhelming success of open standards, free software and file-sharing tools shows a glimpse of the triumph of a code that will transform knowledge-production into a world-writable mode.

Today revolution means the wikification of the world: it means creating many different versions of worlds, which everyone can read, write, edit and execute. This revolution is very different from Foucault’s depressing indictment that, historically, revolutions simply reinstated that which they sought to overthrow. Today’s revolution is not one of explusion followed by reincorporation; it is one of invention, transformation and connection. No one has any hope of capturing the emergent info-political formations; there’s too many of them.

On a theoretical level this revolution has been discussed in many books and lectured on at many universities. Abstract knowledge and the general intellect are replacing parcelized and repetitive labour, the industrial division of labour and notions of ownership. The key content of production and wealth accumulation is no longer the exploitation of human labour: it must be allocated to the development of the social networker.

The cyberpunk phrase, “the future is now,” has come true. Planet earth has reached a stage of science fiction. We will not get distracted by Hollywood blockbusters wheretechnology is a spectacle that refracts from ‘real life.’ It is time to transcend media (theory) and face the fact that technology (in)forms the lives of billions.

On a conceptual level the tangible assets of an oddly bashful digital commune appear as the logical, quasi-natural consequence of technological progress. Even though this commune consists of much more than just propagandistic values, its full impact remains unfeasible under the despotic rule of an info-empire that seems to act without even the simulation of being capable of solving any of the problems of its own creation other than on the symbolic level of occasional interventionism.


‘New media’ are only one amongst many struggles. Having said that, today’s network technology may as well be described as a rich metaphor machine, whose concepts penetrate a wide diversity of political, economic and cultural aspects of life. For decades the democratisation of media has been announced. But nothing seemed to happen. Instead, the babyboom generation has been whinging for decades about evil media conglomerates, portraying ordinary people as victims of media manipulation. It is about time to crack down on this passive, politically correct view and radically focus on networked empowerment. We are the media.

Technological innovation came along with new regimes that restricted the use of media and rebound their liberating potential to ever more advanced systems of command and control. Technological change has always been accompanied with great enthusiasm and new aesthetic paradigms that in the last instance reinvented the wheels to carry forward the same old industries. Nonetheless, we were amongst these enthusiasts.

We are not so naive to believe that the ‘media question’ might be a matter of technology or aesthetics. It’s a matter of power. Still, the passion is there, time and again, to stretch the possibilities of software, experiment with new forms of narrative and dream up even better feedback loops for the users-producers.

As post-situationists we well know that reality has been transformed into images. It was this reduction and abstraction, carried out by artistic avant-gardes, that finally destroyed the relation of an image with its authenticity, the relation of a cliché with its archetype, the relation of the signifier with its referent. Nonetheless our fascination with screen culture remains as strong as it ever was. If we want the media universe to proliferate, we have to push the question of intellectual property as far as it can go. To whom do all these images belong? To the one who is mapped or to the one who produced them? To those who draw copies from it or to everyone?

New films, radio stations and code produce new degrees of freedom. They do so by reassessing the mediatic heritage of previous generations; broadcasting the general intellect; empowering collective story telling; fast sharing of content, skills and resources; and enabling multiple connections between creative nodes and networks.

Discipline is not the answer—neither to the corruption of the entertainment industry nor to the endless ennui of bourgeois individualism. Discontent in pop culture is on the rise. There is only so much you can consume; boredom in shopping malls, on the streets, in classrooms and factories is becoming endemic.

We don’t believe in the postmodern ‘death of the author’ or the techno-libertarian ‘giving-it-all-away for free.’ Still, there is a significant deprivation in the reappropriation of image production and distribution by the digital multitudes. The phrase ‘people have to somehow make a living’ is a truism going nowhere. The drive towards digitisation and free replication is simply too powerful. IPolitically it is of strategic importance that the movements back this idea and openly defend and practice piracy. The idea of a ‘fair’ intellectual property regime is an illusion.

The luring idea of protectionism has to be exposed as a perfidious fraud. Narrow-minded authors and hysteric owners who claim to protect their property against free flows and mutual exchange are nothing but hypocrites. It reminds one of unionists who once pretended to protect employment but in fact long ago lost face with their position against ‘illegal immigrants’ by defaming them as ‘wage dumpers.’


All too often we have encountered a ‘fear of freedom’ amongst radical activists. There is a deep desire to call for regulation and control that, in the past, the nation-state and its repressive apparatus had to enforce upon the out-of-control capitalism. As true techno-libertarians we have to state: the struggle is about nothing else other than freedom (Everyone is a Californian). There is a freedom of sharing, exchanging, multiplying and distributing resources, no matter how material or immaterial.

So far, freedom has always been connected with equality, and therefore tied up with the possession of or alienation from property. Today this link is broken. It is exactly the complete farce of all sorts of management scenarios (from border management to digital rights management) which make evident that property is an absolutely inadequate juridico-political relation to handle the potential and the complexity of social relationships within the immaterial sphere of production and distribution.

It is an essential and unalterable fact that ideas circulate online and people are free to move around offline. Content should not be restricted to the Internet or any one medium for that matter. For its own sake the multitudes will refuse to be handcuffed and fettered by the myths of a nation-state or some global government.

Freedom of movement means liberation par excellence: the emancipation from the forces that hinder one to decide for oneself where to go and where to stay. It’s the power of negation and self-valorisation: everywhere is better than just here. Freedom of movement gives the guarantee that one can leave one’s place behind. We are no longer slaves of territory.

Freedom of communication is the freedom par excellence: The autonomy of the social networkers to produce and to distribute the products of their living labour from peer to peer. Free communication is not only one of the most precious human rights, it is also the only one absolutely inalienable freedom. All obedience and command that undermines the possibility of knowledge is null and void.

Theoretically as well as practically we insist on blending the autonomy of migration and communication. Universal citizenship and universal access are subjects of a new circle of struggles for freedom that may sound old-fashioned in the first instance, but certainly will shape the future of the digital multitudes.



Reverse engineering consists of taking apart an object to see how it works in order to duplicate or enhance the object. It is a practice taken from older industries that is now frequently used on computer hardware and software. In the automobile industry, for example, a manufacturer may purchase a competitor’s vehicle, disassemble it, and examine the welds, seals, and other components of the vehicle for the purpose of enhancing their vehicles with similar components.

Now is the time to begin with the reverse engineering of the proprietary libraries of freedom. Such a project has to be approached in a collaborative and organised fashion. We need a critical and empirical hybrid research project in the form of manifolded militant inquiries that are simultaneously globally distributed , exploring everyday forms of refusal and resistance beyond the monoculture of breaking protest news and the all-to-easy spectacle of semi-professional media activism.

We need to get to know in detail how the daily exercise of freedom of movement undermines the hierarchies of a global labour market and how it perforates the system of borders that operate as filters for over-exploitation. By enabling a worldwide circulation of social struggles and their experiences, the networks of migration act as a catalyst for a globalisation on the ground.

It would be an enormous waste to withhold the crucial experiences, skills and resources of the 90‘s new media experiments from the next generation of social struggles. And it would be a fatal mistake not to bring the accumulated street-knowledge of political activism from previous decades into the evolving struggles around piracy and intellectual property. There is an abundance of know-how around, most especially in how to deal with repression.

We need to strengthen and expand the everyday practice of freedom of communication as it attacks intellectual property, licenses and patents; as it undermines the global hierarchies of knowledge. This is the key factor for contemporary production: To question the logic of valuation and wage-slavery as a whole. Free associations of knowledge production have the potential to break up despotic borders and identities and to cause a true globalisation of struggles on an immaterial level.

Since the cold war, the desire for freedom has been abused as the machine code of capitalism. It has been reduced to what is still labelled as freedom of trade, but appears only as an off limits license to kill, destroy and exploit.

In turn, nothing and no-one will restrain the multitudes from re-appropriating the idea of freedom for the sole purpose of copying, duplicating and multiplying the beauty of free communications and a new commons based on unfettered and equal access to open sources and resources.

That is the only way we will retrieve the source code of a revolution that will be immune against being televised, digitized, betrayed, corrupted or even directed.

Avant-garde is being replaced by new ways of surging ahead. There must be at least a certain number of unknown files or strangers in your backpack or your shared folder. Going ahead means either tracking, trafficking or offering any other form of illegitimate linkage service, otherwise it will appear as totally ridiculous.

With a sense of irony we could say: Learning from the New Economy means learning to claim victory. Free your speculative energies from within! This means writing off our losses. It means learning how to file bankruptcy. Demand creative accounting for all. Dotcom entrepreneurs did not end up in jail—and neither should you and me.

While the nineties were the great times of the speculative thinking and peaceful revolutions, identity politics and political correctness, what was an emerging culture of global networking and electronic resistance has now become submerged into endless virtual guerrilla wars: From the absurd spectacle of suing individual users of Linux or peer-to-peer services for copyright infringements to the constant battles around software patenting; from preventing the cheap manufacture of generic medicines to raids on flea markets, arresting and even executing trade-mark pirates.

Rather than fooling around in white cubes or sandboxes, a constant political recalculation involving a precise evaluation of consequential charges as well as changing and moving and adding up and multiplying identity elements may increasingly become a matter of bare survival.

This time their strategy of tension will not work. We will not go underground and insist on the absolute taboo of armed struggle. There is a lot to be learned from the failed transformations of the babyboomers’ movements. There are other ways to radicalise and integrate movements—just witness the power of the global demonstrations against the Iraq war on February 15, 2003. .

Postmodernists have deconstructed the world; it is now up to us to change it. No one will do it for us. We do not believe that utopia will automatically arise out of the ashes of the Apocalypse. It is vital to constantly unveil power relationships, but this is no absolution from standing up to act. There is an irresistible drive towards freedom. It is essential for a movement of movements to claim and celebrate the freedom concept and to not give this strategic term away to neo-conservatives. Freedom as a life force is irreducible to the demand to consume and the rhetoric of economism, whatever its brand. Freedom consists of precisely that which escapes such strictures in the simulatenous movements of refusal, invention and transformation.

(Written for the N5M4-WSIS-Make World 3 paper, September 2003. Edited by Erik Empson and Ned Rossiter)