t byfield on Sun, 6 Apr 1997 21:14:57 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> when's net.discourse not.net.discourse?

Not the usual nettime fare, but...

Several months ago, I posted a series of notes to nettime questioning how
worthwhile the very idea/phrase "net discourse" really is, and asking
*what* it is. For example, like the distinction held on
news.admin.net.abuse.* school between "abuse *on* the net" and "abuse *of*
the net," is "net discourse" something written on the net or something
written about the net? or both? is it critical approaches transplanted to
the net? a culmination of certain theoretical traditions in one of the
above-mentioned things?
	I'm tempted to think that if there *is* a "net discourse," it's
written in machine code and operates (obviously) within the sphere of human
activity but beyond our ability to "read" it directly: it consists of bots,
of recursive structures in intramachine dialectics, of the formal shifts
that are introduced into dialog, and so on. One way to read this
"discourse," though, is to watch what happens when its structure-events
break free of their technical basis-domain and become *specifically
effective* beyond that domain and its logic--in what people lazily call
"RL," Real Life. (This is what nettime is about, in many ways, yes?)
	The subject is fascinating, to me at least; but specific instances
("events," as the historians say with a sneer) are much more interesting
than ideological-theoretical claims about what net discourse "is."
	We're in an awkward position at the moment: we're coming out of period
in which systematic-theoretical historical and historiographical methods
have prevailed for decades--they have trained us. But we're looking at a
very new and unfamiliar terrain, which pushes us back in the direction of
naive positivisms and exciting stories with heroes and villains. Compound
these problems with the fact that the terrain we're looking at *consists*
of *automating* the ideas--making them systematically effective--that,
until now, were only as effective as the human agency that carried them
out. Put simply, there's a big difference between chopping someone's head
off and pushing an irrevocable nuclear button; more and more of our
activities are beginning to resemble the latter, in method if not in
	So here's a specific case that's come up recently, which I think is
particularly dense and interesting, as far as these issues are concerned:

	As a few nettimers will remember firsthand, somewhere between years
and months ago, someone named Jim Bell began very aggressively promoting on
the Cypherpunks mailing list a "hypothetical scenario" he had imagined,
which he called "Assassination Politics" (his original essay, i think, is
available at <http://www.infowar.com/class_1/BELL1.html-ssi>); most of the
debates about it are in the Cypherpunks archive at
<http://infinity.nus.sg/cypherpunks/>,if you have a few weeks of free time
on your hands... By most accounts, his ideas were a tangle of juvenile
sophistry, technical speculation, philosophical idealism, and petty
kookiness. The idea was, basically, this: advances in certain kinds of
cryptography had enabled people to make financial transactions with
absolute guarantees of anonymity--so, he argued, a time would come very
soon in which people would anonymously "bet" when unpopular or abusive
government officials and agents would die, and whoever came closest would
"win," i.e., collect all the money that had been bet in a particular case.
This was his ironically legalistic way of advocating assassination for hire
without admitting to it. For months he argued that such a system would be
legal, and that it would produce a better, more responsible form of
government. In my opinion, he was glib, stupid, irritating, and evil; his
values and goals were bad, and his cowardly, "clever" use of futuristic
"fiction" only made his ideas that much more dangerous.
	A few days ago, agents of the US government raided his house and
carted off all his computer equipment. The first reports of this event can
be found in alt.cypherpunks; Declan McCullagh's story on the event can be
found at <http://cgi.pathfinder.com/netly/editorial/0,1012,800,00.html>.
Here's a short article I wrote in response to these remarks. ("RG" stands
for Rich Graves <rcgraves@disposable.com>; "DM" stands for "Declan
McCullagh" <declan@well.com>.)

> From: tbyfield@panix.com (T. Byfield)
> Newsgroups: alt.cypherpunks,or.politics
> Subject: Re: 20 Armed Feds raid home of guy (Jim Bell) who posted to Internet
> Date: Sun, 06 Apr 1997 12:44:39 -0500
> Organization: misc.
> Lines: 61
> Message-ID: <tbyfield-ya02408000R0604971244390001@news.panix.com>
> References: <5hue46$p0k$1@linda.teleport.com>
><860096762.4013@dejanews.com> <3344C2A5.3876@disposable.com>
> Xref: news.panix.com alt.cypherpunks:420 or.politics:39723
> In article <5i7leo$6b3@senator-bedfellow.MIT.EDU>, sethf@mit.edu wrote:
>  <...>
> >  http://cgi.pathfinder.com/netly/editorial/0,1012,800,00.html
>  <...>
> >RG> Mr. Bell was regularly flamed and killfiled on the list, and was
> >RG> actually barred from physical meetings.
> >
> >          Similar characterizations are in fact made in the article:
> >
> >DM>       "I remember the reaction on the cypherpunks list to Bell's
> >DM>  writings: swift, critical, angry. Even the cypherpunk founders who
> >DM>  popularized anonymous remailers and clandestine markets in digital
> >DM>  information were appalled. One veteran 'punk told me that "Bell
> >DM>  crossed the line. It crossed over into the realm where the courts can
> >DM>  go."
>    If that's all that Declan remembers, he should wiggle his RAM; if it
> isn't all that he remembers, he may want to reassess his journalistic
> priorities.
>    Sure, a lot of people denounced Bell's "ideas" as idiotic, immoral,
> indefensible sophistry, technically and legally naive, etc., etc. But the
> reaction to Bell was hardly more "swift, critical, angry" than the response
> to any other nonstop kookery or flamebait--and it *certainly* wasn't as
> unified as Declan's shorthand makes out. On the contrary, the reaction was
> tortuously drawn out, variously meticulous and slapdash, and irritated in
> twenty different ways (petulant, patient, conceited...). (There were, for
> example, several points when people suggested that Unicorn's maniacal
> flogging of Bell was taking a toll on his own reputation.) And this line
> about crossing the line "into the realm where the courts can go" is
> absolutely priceless: fully half of the list's traffic in that period was
> *aimed* at crossing that line. While there were sporadic suggestions that
> Bell's advocacy might not be very prudent (e.g., given the presence of a
> federal DA on the list), does anyone else remember just how late in the
> game came Tim May's warning that a *specific* remark by Bell had crossed
> the line from hypothetical speculation to actionable threat? If *my* memory
> serves me, it was several months after Bell had worn "AP" down through
> overuse into this unforgettable refrain:
>                   "I have a solution for that! :)"
> In the intervening months, Tim *repeatedly* pointed out that the particular
> scenario that Bell was ranting about was only one of many unsavory
> possibilities that he (Tim) had outlined years earlier.
>    Seth and Lewis are quite right to question Rich's take on this--as
> though being flamed or killfiled on that list had *any* bearing on one's
> Cypherpunks "credentials." But for all that, Rich's conclusion may not be
> far off: Bell was absolutely single-minded about erasing the distinction
> between someone acting in his or her vested capacity as an agent of the
> state, OT1H, and existing as a private individual, OT0H. Many people argued
> very clearly that his "solution" to the problem of abusive state agents
> only compounded the problem he supposedly objected to--statist abuse of the
> rule of law. Bell was and, I'm sure, remains a crackpot of the first water;
> small wonder if some government employees took it personally and intend to
> take it out on him. I certainly wouldn't condone his motley rantings *or*
> their personal reaction to it--but by his own logic, FWIW, he hardly has a
> leg to stand on if they do. Whether he'll advocate that logic as diligently
> under these new circumstances, or whether the officials dealing with his
> case are as evil as he imagined--well, we'll see.
> Ted
> tbyfield@panix.com

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