Brian Holmes on Wed, 21 May 2003 11:44:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Drifting Through the Grid

The armored wave of a former empire rolled back in 1993, leaving it 
stranded there among the dunes. Zvyozdochka (the "Little Star") is a 
32-meter wide parabolic antenna, built by the Soviets some time in 
the late sixties-early seventies, and used for tapping into satellite 
transmissions during the Cold War. Rusty and half-abandoned but still 
functioning, it has been taken over by a handful of Latvian 
scientists, for extragalactic astronomy, and less frequently by a 
group of artists, for listening to the music of the spheres. One of 
the most impressive sights I've seen in my life: a working military 
installation for civilian use, and a pivotable steel parable of the 
late twentieth-century.
The RIXC center for new media culture in Riga took a bunch of us up 
there in a bus last Sunday. It was a beautiful day and the close of a 
stimulating - and extremely friendly - conference on media 
architecture. Below is my text for the afternoon session on Saturday. 
The subject of the panel was psychogeography. The debate came to turn 
around whether I was proposing a rollback to Soviet communism. No: 
just a question about subverting the empire of the future. - BH


Drifting Through the Grid:
Psychogeography and Imperial Infrastructure

Great social movements leave behind the content of their critical 
politics in the forms of a new dominion. This was the destiny of the 
widespread revolt against bureaucratic rationalism in the 1960s. The 
situationists, with the practice of the derive and the program of 
unitary urbanism, aimed to subvert the functionalist grids of 
modernist city planning. They called for a total fusion of artistic 
and scientific resources, to create "complete decors": a new city for 
a new life. With the worldwide implementation of a digital media 
architecture - and with the early signs of a move toward cinematic 
buildings - we are seeing the transformation of the urban framework 
into total decor. (Lev Manovich: "In the longer term every object may 
become a screen connected to the Net, with the whole of built space 
becoming a set of display surfaces.") What kind of life can be lived 
in the media architecture? And how to explain the continuing 
prominence of situationist aesthetics, in a period which has changed 
so dramatically since the early 1960s?

	Today the sensory qualities of the derive are mimicked by 
hyperlinked voyages through the datascapes of the world wide web. The 
imaginary of intergalactic surfing permeates our computer-assisted 
fantasies drifting through the net. The spectacle society has never 
held a stronger grip over a planet hooked into what increasingly 
looks like hybridized TV. Not long ago, utopian maps portrayed the 
Internet as an organic space of interconnected neurons, like the 
synapses of a planetary mind. Data-sharing and open-source software 
production have effectively pointed a path to a cooperative economy. 
But a contemporary mapping project like "minitasking" depicts the 
gnutella network as a seductive arcade, bubbling over with pirated 
pop tunes and porno clips. The revolutionary aspirations of the 
situationist derive are hard to locate anymore.

	Meanwhile the Internet's inventors - the Defense Advanced 
Research Projects Agency - have conceived a new objective: Total 
Information Awareness. Here's where the innovation lies: in evidence 
extraction and link discovery, human ID at a distance, translingual 
information detection, etc. etc. Darpa is catching up to the 
commercial surveillance packages that took the initiative in the late 
nineties: workstation monitors, radio tracking badges, telephone 
service recording, remote vehicle monitoring. (Advertising blurb: 
"From the privacy of your own computer, you can now watch a vehicle's 
path LIVE using the new ProTrak GPS vehicle tracking device.") 
Darpa's targets are more serious: the Genoa II program builds 
networked analysis teams to "enable humans and machines to think 
together faster, smarter." They also want to make "future maps" using 
"market methods." A timely idea, when networked terrorist group are 
attacking the symbols of the world market. Military strategist Thomas 
Barnett has learned the lesson of the freewheeling 1990s, when 
individual autonomy developed in all directions: "In my mind, we 
fight fire with fire," he says. "If we live in a world increasingly 
populated by Super-Empowered Individuals, then we field an army of 
Super-Empowered Individuals."

	In "The Flexible Personality" I tried to show how networked 
culture emerged as a synthesis of these two contradictory elements: a 
communicative opportunism, bringing labor and leisure together in a 
dream of disalienation that stretches back to the 1960s; and an 
underlying architecture of surveillance and control, made possible by 
the spread of cutting-edge technologies. The contemporary manager 
expresses the creativity and liberation of a nomadic lifestyle, while 
at the same time controlling flexible work teams for just-in-time 
production. Rtmark has made this figure unforgettable: impersonating 
the WTO at a textile industry conference in Finland, they unveiled a 
tailor-made solution for monitoring a remote labor force, what they 
called the Management Leisure Suit. The glittering lycra garment 
might have recalled what NY Times pundit Thomas Friedman once called 
the "golden straitjacket," forcing national governments into the 
adoption of a neoliberal policy mix; but the yard-long, hip-mounted 
phallus with its inset viewing screen is just a little too 
enthusiastic for private-sector discipline! Transmitting pleasurable 
sensations when everything is going well on the production floor, it 
allows the modern manager to survey distant employees while relaxing 
on a tropical beach. The conclusion of the whole charade is that with 
today's technology, democracy is guaranteed by Darwinian principles: 
there's no reason for a reasonable businessman to own a slave in an 
expensive country like Finland, when you can have a free employee for 
much less, in whatever country you chose...

	What happens when the freedmen revolt? Today all eyes are on 
the soldier. Thomas Barnett has drawn up a new world map for the 
Pentagon: it shows the "functioning core" of globalization where the 
good people live, and a "non-integrating gap" all around the 
equatorial region. The gap is where the majority of American military 
interventions have taken place since the end of the Cold War. It's 
also where a great deal of the world's oil reserves are located. And 
it's inhabited by indigenous peoples (in Latin America) or by Muslims 
(in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, Indonesia). 
Barnett's solution: "Shrink the gap." Integrate those people, by 
force if necessary. "Show me where globalization is thick with 
network connectivity, financial transactions, liberal media flows, 
and collective security, and I will show you regions featuring stable 
governments, rising standards of living... But show me where 
globalization is thinning or just plain absent, and I will show you 
regions plagued by politically repressive regimes, widespread poverty 
and disease..." Barnett wants to bring food to the hungry. He wants 
to give them networks at the point of a gun: "In sum, it is always 
possible to fall off this bandwagon called globalization. And when 
you do, bloodshed will follow. If you are lucky, so will American 

	Jordan Crandall seems to grapple with this question of 
integration in one of his installations, "Heat Seeking." The piece is 
full of menacing violence, but one scene shows a passive, unconscious 
woman being fed, apparently under the influence of a radio 
transmission. This disturbing image gets under the skin of the new 
media architecture, exploring its relations to psychic intimacy. What 
kind of subjectivity emerges from exposure to the contemporary 

	I think we should conceive the worldwide communications 
technologies as imperial infrastructure, in the sense of Negri and 
Hardt. These are systems with strictly military origins, but which 
have been rapidly liberalized, so that broad sectors of civil society 
are integrated into the basic architecture. Everything depends on the 
liberalization. The strong argument of _Empire_ is to show that 
democratic legitimacy is necessary for the spread of a reticular 
governance, whose inseparably military and economic power cannot 
simply be equated with its point of origin in the United States. 
Imperial dimension is gained when infrastructures become accessible 
to a new kind of world citizen. The effect of legitimacy goes along 
with integration to the "thick connectivity" of which Barnett speaks.

	What happens, for example, when a private individual buys a 
GPS device, made by any of dozens of manufacturers? You're connecting 
to the results of a rocket-launch campaign which has put a 
constellation of 24 satellites into orbit, at least four of which are 
constantly in your line-of-sight, broadcasting the radio signals that 
will allow your device to calculate its position. The satellites 
themselves are fine-tuned by US Air Force monitor stations installed 
on islands across the earth, on either side of the equator. Since 
Clinton lifted the encryption of GPS signals in the year 2000, the 
infrastructure has functioned as a global public service: its 
extraordinary precision (down to the centimeter with various 
correction systems) is now open to any user, except in those cases 
where unencrypted access is selectively denied (as in Iraq during the 
last war). With fixed data from the World Geodetic System - initiated 
by the US Department of Defense in 1984 - you can locate your own 
nomadic trajectory on a three-dimensional Cartesian grid, anytime, 
anywhere. (Defense department dogma: "Modern maps, navigation systems 
and geodetic applications require a single accessible, global, 
3-dimensional reference frame. It is important for global operations 
and interoperability that DoD systems implement and operate as much 
as possible on WGS 84.")

	Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this satellite 
infrastructure is that in order for one's location to be pinpointed, 
the clock in each personal receiver has to be exactly synchronized 
with the atomic clocks in orbit. So you have an integration into 
imperial time. The computer-coded radio waves interpellate you in the 
sense of Althusser, they hail you with an electromagnetic "hey you!" 
When you use the locating device you respond to the call: you are 
interpellated into imperial ideology. The message is that integration 
equals security, as exemplified in the advertising for the Digital 
Angel, a personal locative device pitched to medical surveillance and 
senior care. It's a logical development for anyone who takes 
seriously the concept of the "surgical strike": targeting yourself 
for safety.

	In light of all this, one can wonder about the limits of the 
concept of conversion, developed extensively by Marko Peljhan in 
quite brilliant projects for the civilian reappropriation of military 
technology. Is there still any clear distinction between a planetary 
civil society articulated by global infrastructure, and the military 
perspective that Crandall calls "armed vision"? The increasing 
urgency is social subversion, psychic deconditioning. Most of the 
alternative projects or artworks using the GPS system seem premised 
on the idea that it permits an inscription of the individual, a 
geodetic tracery of infinite difference. It is a fragile gesture: the 
individual's wavering life-line appears at once as testimony of human 
singularity, and proof of infallible performance by the satellite 
mapping system.

	All too often in contemporary society, aesthetics is politics 
as decor. Which is why the situationists finally abandoned unitary 
urbanism. "Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of 
individuals to their real conditions of existence," said Althusser. 
It's what makes you walk the line, to use his image. Has the ideology 
of our time not become an erratic, wavering pattern of crisscrossing 
footsteps, traced in secure metric points on an abstract field? The 
aesthetic form of the derive is everywhere. But so is the 
hyper-rationalist grid of imperial infrastructure. And the questions 
of social subversion and psychic deconditioning are wide open, 
unanswered, in an era when world civil society has been integrated to 
the military architecture of digital media.

Brian Holmes

Thanks to Ewen Chardronnet for the last point on unitary urbanism.

--Acoustic Space Lab:
--RIXC Media Architecture program:
--Lev Manovich:
--"Utopian maps...":
--Total Information Awareness:
--"Management Leisure Suit": (click first link at the 
--Thomas Barnett:
--"The Flexible Personality":
--"Heat Seeking": 
(Stills: colonia.01)
--World Geodetic System:
--Marko Peljhan: (among many 

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