August 15, 2002

Lift your skinny fist like antennas to heaven

Category: Politics — Biella @ 12:13 am

I am once again listening to”Lift your skinny fist like antennas to heaven” by Godspeed you Black Emperor. It goes without saying that I like it and am currently too lazy to change the cd from my player. But I think the real reason that I have such an affinity with this album is that for some weird reason the tone, the melody and the unfolding of the two songs seem to match the quality of my life as I travel through the world of software conferences and cons. In the last 5 weeks I have attended 5 hacker con or trade shows. This has punctuated my life with a series of intense intense days of incredible sensory overload and socializing with short lulls of stillness back in SF when I catch up with laundry. The lull is interrupted with the frenetic pace of errand squashing and next thing you know I am gone out the door. If you listen to “Lift your skinny fist like antennas to heaven” there are these very intense periods punctuated by slower noises and melodies that build up and crescendo. It resonates with the pace and flavor of my life.

Tonight, I just got back from a FSF fundraising event where Lawerence Lessig spoke to a room full of geeks about the need to, Goddammit get political. Though his talk was not as impassioned as the one that gave at OSCON, he was quite adamant about the need for technologists to get more traditionally political and not just through technology as Declan suggested yesterday in his, I hate to put it this way, asinine article, but through good old fashioned politics. I liked it when Lessig said:

“I am here to plead with you to resist the Declanization of the movement.”

I have seen Lessig speak over 6 times in all sorts of different contexts, from talking to khaki-wearing uptight, intellectual-property-loving law students at the University of Chicago (who thought that his perspective in Code and other Laws of Cyberspace was a sick, sick, blasphemy) to computer scientists at Stanford, to events like the one tonight. He spends nearly half the year talking to all sorts of audiences and he has had a strong impact on shifting political orientations, at least in the hacker and free software community. It is quite often that I hear either in informal conversation or during one of my formal interviews, that Lessig has shaped the way that x person thought about politics, a shift which has yielded a more explicit political consciousness. One though that is still in its infancy, which is why Lessig is reacting so strongly to Declan’s piece which is trying to shift the orientation back to 1′s and 0′s. He does not want to see his hard work thrown to pieces.

You see, among other things, what is bothersome about Declan’s piece is that he presents a vision of community politics in which hackers can only specialize in one area, which in this case is politics though technology as with Phil Zimmerman and PGP. What he fails to acknowledge (and I don’t know how such a smart guy could have so ignored these facts), is that some of the most hard core technologists, like Richard Stallman and John Gilmore have hacked up some of the most clever and non-technological institutions of political action: the the copyleft and the EFF (it is ironic and almost embarrassing the Declan cites the cypherpunks as an example for why geeks should just chose a technological path for political action given that John Gilmore was one of the original members). As much as PGP is one of the most valuable political tools, the cultural, ethical, and practical world of hacking would be a much much more barren and bleak place if it were not for the the legal craftiness of the copyleft and the institutional force of the EFF.

And speaking of barrenness, that is what Declan’s vision of politics is (at least in this piece). You see, I have really been quite excited about the more outwardly political wanderings of technologists not because it might replace the technological imperatives that have a strong political impact and import but it could add to and enrich an already existing form of cultural politics (I mean cultural politics in this case to be politics achieved through technology driven by an ethic of information sharing and privacy). Strength of political action not only emerges through numbers, vision, message, etc. but by the embodiment of distinct political tools at hand to fight. So, first it is much harder to undermine a political field of action if the field is composed of distinct domains and practices. One might have a lull or setback but then there are others to keep in going. Second, the diversity political tools also might translate into an expansion of who will be attracted into that space. Finally, there is a form of cross-pollination that can occur between different types of political action if there are placed together within close proximity. I think we see that well with the copyleft which is a legal tool that used the principles of hacking (cleverness and refashioning) to hack the legal system for a new ends. Brining together traditional activism within the domain of technological activism might indeed not compromise the supposed “purity” of one or the other but cause a flourishing of novel forms of political action.

So, going back to the start of my rant, with Godspeed You Black Emperor, it is a good idea to get pissed, get political and “Lift your skinny fist like antennas to heaven.” Though skinny from all that typing, raising them might yield some interesting results.

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