Nov 08 2011

Occupy Facebook


Even though the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread to dozens of cities and has become a global movement, there is a nagging sense that camping in the streets isn’t making much of an impact on the people who actually control the money and power. Once upon a time money and power was consolidated into stone buildings called castles; when the poor were mad at power they stormed the castles. With the spread of democracy and modern capitalism these castles transferred money and power to banks and City Halls in the form of federal and municipal governments. When the poor got mad at power they picketed businesses and stormed City Hall. But at the turn of the 21st century, capitalist banks have consolidated their money in digital transaction markets, and their power is held in the number of politicians they can influence. But when the poor get mad they are still picketing businesses and storming City Hall, thinking they are taking the fight to the power. But they are missing something. The power is no longer on the street. Clogging the streets does not impede the flow of money and power like it used to — it hardly even registers as a protest. The Occupy Wall Street movement lacks power because it’s a 20th century response to a 21st century problem.

In the old days when the poor got fed up with the rich, a mob would storm the castles and riot in the streets. This was called a revolution. That model does not work anymore, because the poor now storm Costco, loot until everyone has a flatscreen TV, and then the National Guard swoops in to lock everything down. The rich don’t take the hit. No one is deposed and the riot fallout becomes a municipal cost for taxpayers, law enforcement, and insurance agencies to clean up. With the new scheme the rich stay in power while the working poor loot each other and pay for the damage out of their own pockets. That is how street revolutions work now. We get mad at the rich in their castles and then rob each other in the streets.

This same dynamic is happening with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Who is this Occupy movement impeding? Is OWS putting a dent in the power of corporations or corrupt politicians by camping in the streets? Does business at City Hall crawl to a stop because people outside are chanting and holding signs? Perhaps picketing techniques worked better when physical space was more important to commerce. But now, when all money and power has been consolidated into digital networks, camping in the streets doesn’t stop the rich and powerful from doing anything, but it costs taxpayers and working class people time and money in the form of municipal crisis management. And if you vandalize physical property, like a Chase or Starbucks store front, the rich don’t pay for it, we all pay for it in taxes and higher insurance premiums, so quit fighting back by hitting yourself in the face. The rich think it is funny. The Occupy protests are falling on deaf ears because the movement is doing damage in the wrong commerce space.

They wealthy and powerful no longer care about what happens in the streets, so protests in the streets go largely unnoticed by anyone in power. The working poor live and work in the streets, so the protests effect the working poor most of all. However, if the Occupy protests moved from the streets and decided instead to camp out on a party line hacked into the Blackberry of every banker and politician, people in power would take notice. If you could Occupy every phone conversation, voice mail, and instant messages every time someone tried to make a closed-door deal, you bet they would listen to you and listen fast. You can camp outside a Senator’s office for months and no one will care, but if you camp on a Senator’s email inbox you will be wanted by the FBI and NSA because you would be an actual threat in virtual space. See the difference? In physical space they could care less about you, in virtual space you are an instant threat. If you dared to trespass, camp, blockade, and speak your mind in digital commerce space, they would not meet you with bemused First Amendment tolerance, they would call you a terrorist, hunt you down, and throw your ass in jail forever. That is how you can tell your movement is being effective — when you’ve gotten their attention and they react with fear. That’s how you know you’ve hit them where it hurts.

Now wait a minute. Protesting by trespassing on someone else’s digital networks is a crime, they will find you and arrest you. But digital commerce is still traveling across public space by virtue of eminent domain. It is all public space. We allow commerce to pass through this space via the largess of our public government, and we have the right to protest in public space, even if it is virtual public space. Members of the OWS movement already face arrest for congregating in public space, trespassing, and blocking commerce, but that is a handful of individuals arrested among thousands. So what if thousands of people began picketing and camping on private bank networks, blocking transactions and interrupting commerce with acts of civil protest. How would law enforcement respond to overpowering numbers of a digital Occupy movement? They couldn’t arrest everyone, at least that’s the theory of mass protest. But think about your gut reaction to a sustained OWS protest that takes place in cyberspace as opposed to meat space. Blocking a bank’s digital access is way more serious than attacking its physical property. You put a physical sea of thousands of human protestors around the New York Stock Exchange and it’s basically a big smelly nuisance. But you have one hacker clog the fiber optic bundle that handles instantaneous transactions for the New York Stock Exchange and suddenly you’re a terrorist and a threat to the global economy and public enemy number one. It is easy to see where the priorities of real power lie, and it is not in the streets. They don’t give a shit about the streets, camp in the streets forever if you like. But you touch even one of their precious virtual digital packets and you’re a motherfucking terrorist. Can you see what is going on here?

Digital protests are a relatively nascent form of dissent, but a few recent examples have demonstrated their power. WikiLeaks is surely the best known group voicing dissent in the digital power domain, but hacker groups like Anonymous are silently killing it every week. When Anonymous thought Sony was being overzealous for prosecuting people who had hacked the proprietary Playstation architecture, they declared war and brought the tech giant’s network to the ground for weeks, and their protest was effective. Distributed hacktivist groups like Anonymous and LulzSec have targeted large corporations, government agencies, law enforcement, and even the Church of Scientology. But hacktivists don’t use picket lines and cardboard signs to block commerce, they use denial-of-service attacks, digital trespassing, and digital vandalism to make their voices heard. Hacktivists claim they are not criminals; they don’t set out to steal, destroy, or profit from their exploits. Instead, hacktivists claim they are expressing their democratic right to nonviolent protest, just like any other protestor. But hacktivists don’t camp in the streets where they get gassed, sprayed, and rained on. They do it where business actually goes down, where it hurts.

I’m not saying that street protests are ineffective, but it seems like they are far less effective than they used to be. Picketing a business or a City Hall is supposed to block commerce, but commerce no longer pays attention to physical blockades. Picketing WalMart because you oppose their stance on unions may be a minor inconvenience for their customers, but WalMart is global and everywhere. They will continue to do business around your little blockade. But what if you were able to picket their servers and blockade all the packet traffic coming from their logistics routers? WalMart’s automated trucking and shipping infrastructure would come to an instant stop. What if you locked up WalMart’s payroll servers and no one got paid? What if you shut down their automated payment systems and customers couldn’t make purchases? What if you began releasing their internal emails on public blogs? Would WalMart pay attention to your little protest then? You bet they would. They would have the military pound you with an aerial drone if they could get away with it. But WalMart doesn’t care if you block their actual driveway. You can shout injustice in the street all day long. This is because WalMart knows that blocking driveways doesn’t make a difference, but blocking packets kills business.

Engaging in protest is an inherently dangerous activity. In countries where wealth and power is closer to the street, street protestors are considered a threat, so they get shot or arrested or bashed with clubs. In countries where power has consolidated into untouchable private networks, street protests are met with mild annoyance and amusement. Even though Occupy protestors face the threat of tear gas or misdemeanor arrest, they are not really putting their lives or freedom on the line by camping in the street. But if they were Occupying Facebook, or Gmail, or Blackberry, or AT&T, and they actually brought U.S. commerce to a standstill with their organized protests, then they would be a nonviolent threat to be reckoned with. They would be risking real backlash from angry people in uniforms with guns trying to drag them away with Patriot Act ghost clauses. That is what effective nonviolent protest looks like. It is messy, it makes people in power shit their pants in fear, it creates instant backlash. In protests that matter, people put their life and freedom on the line for what they believe and the people in power listen because they are scared. And if you are not putting your life and freedom on the line to be heard, you are not protesting effectively, and no one can hear you. You are just camping in the street while the rich watch on YouTube and laugh at you, occasionally pausing to sip champagne and manage their investment portfolios on their iPads. They don’t go down to the street anymore. Is it any wonder they can’t understand your message?