Sunday, August 29, 2004

The War Within and Without

In many cities people have been using forwarded e-mails to coordinate ‘flash mobs’ that appear and dissipate within a matter of minutes. Flash mobs are mainly a form of Dadaist art, where people anonymously participate in the breaking of norms in daily life. One case of flash mobbing took place in Bombay, India last year---Flash it and scram: The mob is here:
A group of about 60-odd people descended on the glitzy CrossRoads Mall at Haji Ali in downtown Mumbai today evening and engaged themselves in a series of pointless but amusing acts as stupefied security guards and shoppers watched. Then, they dispersed as suddenly as they had arrived. It all happened in two minutes.

All the rage in the US and Europe, flash mobs are an inexplicable social phenomenon that involves its organisers bringing together — via mass e-mailing — large crowds that gather in public places. The flash mobbers act out a series of short, swift actions, usually according to a written script, and then disperse as soon as they materialise.

The Mumbai flash mob, organised by Rohit Tikmany, 25, too stuck to the same fundamentals. The flash mobbers, most of them in their mid-20s, crowded around the mall’s entrance, cell phones to their ear, shouting out instructions such as: “Infosys becho ek hazaar”, and “SBI gheun tak don she”.

Even as onlookers, shoppers, and even the mall’s security guards tried to comprehend this pre-online trading stock-market skit, the flash mobbers broke into a wild dance accompanied by loud hooting. Thirty seconds or so into the dance -- an amalgam of bhangra, disco, and garba -- they all froze in various positions for another half a minute.

The end came as soon as the flash mobbers flicked opened their bright umbrellas and melted into the crowd their antics had attracted.
The inexplicability of this emerging art form vexed the powers-that-be in Bombay, detecting something vaguely sinister in an Indian neo-Dada movement. Apparently, doing a “predetermined act that will shock people” is incongruent with policing a city smarting from terrorist bomb blasts, even if they are just a “yuppie, simple, fun act.”---Indian police force flash mobs out of Bombay:
BOMBAY, Oct 9 (AFP) - Flash mobs will not be seen again on the streets of the western Indian city of Bombay following a police crackdown on public gatherings, organisers said Thursday. A flash mob -- a group of people mobilised by email, who materialise in a public place and then fade away -- had appeared for the first time in the city outside a shopping mall on October 4. A group of 70 people, known as "mobsters," suddenly appeared, talked loudly about stock prices and danced for a few minutes outside the mall, disappearing before bystanders or security guards could react. The craze caught on in the United States earlier this year and Bombay organisers were planning more gatherings. But the police have introduced stricter security measures following a series of bomb blasts in the city, including two bombs on August 25 which killed 52 people and left more 150 injured. "Due to prohibitory orders in Bombay, there cannot be such large gatherings of people," said Bombay joint police commissioner Ahmad Javed. "Secondly, in case a group of people are meeting for a common cause, they have to take police permission." "There will be no more flash mobs in Bombay," said flash mob organiser Rohit Tikmany. He said a senior police officer had contacted him and asked him not to organise any further acts. "The police say that any gathering of more than five people needs prior police permission. This goes against the very concept of the flash mob." He said he was now supporting similar mob events in other cities, particularly the capital New Delhi and IT hub Bangalore. "Apart from these two cities, I am getting calls from practically every city in the country to support such flash mobs," he said. Tikmany said the mob gathering was coordinated over the Internet "to do a predetermined act that will shock people." "The key aspect of flash mob is that the participants are total strangers. We remain strangers at all times and then disappear immediately after the act. It's a yuppie, simple, fun act."
One of the perceived strengths of the international jihad movement is that the headless structure of Islam is symbiotic with the Internet’s decentralized configuration. Naomi Klein has identified the swarming phenomenon that is the hallmark of contemporary anti-globalization protests in her essayFarewell to ‘The End of History’: Organization and Vision in Anti-Corporate Movements:
...the protests, from Seattle to Quebec City, look unfocused because they are not demonstrations of one movement at all but rather convergences of many smaller ones, each with its sights trained on a specific multinational corporation (like Nike), a particular industry (like agribusiness) or a new trade initiative (like the Free Trade Area of the Americas), or in defense of indigenous self-determination (like the Zapatistas).

...Rather than a single movement, what is emerging is thousands of movements intricately linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the Internet. Although many have observed that the recent mass protests would have been impossible without the Internet, what has been overlooked is how the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. Thanks to the Net, mobilizations are able to unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and laboured manifestos are fading into the background, replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information-swapping.

What is emerging is an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the Internet -- the Internet come to life as a network of ‘hubs and spokes’. The hubs are the centres of activity, the spokes the links to other centres which are autonomous but interconnected.

On the ground, the results of these miniature protests converging is either frighteningly chaotic or inspiringly poetic -- or both. Rather than presenting a unified front, small units of activists surround their target from all directions. And rather than build elaborate national or international bureaucracies, temporary structures are thrown up instead: empty buildings are hastily turned into ‘convergence centres’, and independent media producers assemble impromptu activist news centres. The ad hoc coalitions behind these demonstrations are frequently named after the date of the planned event -- J18, N30, A16, S11, S26 -- and when the date is passed, they leave virtually no trace behind, save for an archived website.

The traditional institutions that once organized citizens into neat, structured groups are all in decline: unions, religions, political parties.

...the Zapatistas waged ‘a war of the flea’ that, thanks to the Internet, the encuentros, and the global NGO network, turned into a ‘war of the swarm’. The military challenge of a war of the swarm is that it has no ‘central leadership or command structure; it is multiheaded, impossible to decapitate’.
At all levels, established structure is facing disruption. In the business of high technology, it can referred to as ‘leveling the playing field’. Small but stealthy Internet companies began to destroy the hegemony of large established corporations through opportunities afforded by the Internet. Technology often subverts established norms and monopolies, through a creative process of reinvention. In many ways, this is good. Hegemonic institutions tend to exist at the expense of creativity and competition; modern technology provides the wedges that need only driven with the right hammer. Organizing people into regular, conformed groups around a common consensus is dated and deemed ineffective in the face of an emerging trend of hubs and spokes. Indeed, stealthy businesses of our era are capitalizing on the hub-and-spoke organizational approach to get ahead. The more esoteric businesses seem almost like caravans meeting at an oasis. Short term space rentals are made; most of the workers are contractors, as temporary hires; company structuring is horizontal, and meeting is largely virtual; when done, everyone dissipates.

There are many storage rental spaces that serve as warehouses for vendors on eBay, the online auction flea market. Business people ‘set up shop’ virtually on eBay’s website, perhaps selling stuffed teddy bears made in China. A shipment of teddies is secured, and warehoused at the rental storage unit. The virtual storefront is dressed up, and the teddies posted for sale online. The storage rental serves as an inexpensive, low-commitment warehousing and shipping center to move product from. When the teddies are sold out, the storage unit is paid up and the business dissipates into thin air. Bricks-and-mortar businesses competing the old fashioned way---paying rent on long-term leases, paying utilities, insurance and employees---are at a disadvantage to the swarm technique of moving product.

The global jihad movement operates on similar precepts of decentralization. Islam is a religion with no head---there is no equivalent to the Dali Lama or the Pope. Islam has a cellular structure where men learned in the Koran---imams---run local mosques. They can issue fatwas, which are pronouncements legal within the context of the Koran. Every imam has his own interpretation of the Koran. Because there is no central Islamic priesthood, there is also no unanimously accepted method to determine who can issue a fatwa and who cannot. Mosques are similar to Catholic parishes, with regional influences, but the Internet has changed the scope of an imam’s theocratic influence.

In a previous post on this blog, the hubs-and-spokes culture of constant, loosely structured information-swapping has created a new virtual ummah---or Muslim community---The Terror Web:
The Internet provides confused young Muslims in Europe with a virtual community. Those who cannot adapt to their new homes discover on the Internet a responsive and compassionate forum. “The Internet stands in for the idea of the ummah, the mythologized Muslim community,” Marc Sageman, the psychiatrist and former C.I.A. officer, said. “The Internet makes this ideal community concrete, because one can interact with it.” He compares this virtual ummah to romantic conceptions of nationhood, which inspire people not only to love their country but to die for it.

The Internet is the key issue -- it erases the frontiers between the dar al-Islam and the dar al-Kufr. It allows the propagation of a universal norm, with an Internet Sharia and fatwa system, administered by the clergy. Now one doesn’t have to be in Saudi Arabia or Egypt to live under the rule of Islamic law. Anyone can seek a ruling from his favorite sheikh in Mecca. In the old days, one sought a fatwa from the sheikh who had the best knowledge. Now it is sought from the one with the best Web site.
Islam now is less centralized around the ancient mosque, and instead conveys Koranic advice from the ‘on-demand imam’. Osama bin Laden’s fatwas were the prime beneficiaries of the new virtual umma. Flying planes into buildings might have been done 40 years ago; but strategizing, organizing and executing such a complex suicide mission was made possible by the Internet. Islamic terrorists are flash mobbers too, only with box cutters and instructions to commit destructive suicide.

It is hard to know what this war is about, and who or what we are fighting. On the surface, we are fighting terrorism, and in particular Islamic fascists who have organized a hub-and-spoke culture of attacking the underpinnings of the secular establishment. But this is apparently the era of breaking down the establishment, even within the establishment itself. It can be seen in flash mob art that disrupts environmental normalcy; it is apparent in a business climate that has become globalized and rewards virtual businesses with the flattest costs. It is also a meme that is transforming Islam. Antiestablishmentism is transforming art, culture, business and religion alike. Even a benign downloading of an MP3 from a P2P network, or copying a friend’s disc of Microsoft Office contributes to antiestablishmentism.

We are all antiestablishists now.

Are we fighting antiestablishmentism? In so doing, are we attacking the source of our own ingenuity, and competitive edge? Will our defense mirror the same tactics? To thwart catastrophic rogue attacks, will we deploy a system that only rewards hegemony, preserving the establishment? Hegemony largely plays defense, with offensive maneuvering. In the defense of our established order, how much of our cultural verve will be committed to keep what we have merely intact?

All eyes will be on New York this coming week, where the Republican convention is to be held. And 21st century battle plans are being laid. On the one side is the establishment, attempting a political rally, vetted through a time-honored process. On the other side are the disrupters in the streets of New York, who are promising mayhem as outlined in Shawn Macomber’s The Left's Battle for New York:
The “RNC Not Welcome” website’s 30-year-old founder and self-described anarchist, Jamie Moran has made it clear it is violence he intends to bring to the Big Apple. Moran was even more forthcoming in the Guardian. “We want to make their stay here is miserable as possible,” he told the British paper. “I'd like to see all the Republican events -- teas, backslapping lunches -- disrupted. I'd like to see corporations involved in the Iraq reconstruction get targeted -- anything from occupation to property destruction.” Moran's group promises to “liberate” New York City from Republicans.
In the New York Times, the world's most influential newspaper, he branded all police precautions about the protests as “fear mongering.” But in the same article, Moran praised the success of the violent 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, boasting that “direct action gets the goods.” Perhaps that gives a hint as to what he has planned.

Sixties radical activist and Occidental College professor Tom Hayden has also chimed in with his own op-ed suggesting that the more chaotic the protests, the better. Hayden should know: he is an expert in manufacturing violent protests -- like the infamous riot he maliciously engineered at the 1968 Democratic Convention.

With the Republican Convention approaching, it's not really surprising that Hayden chafes at the idea that "protesters are supposed to behave themselves lest they throw the election to Bush." Instead, loyal to his traditions, he would prefer to have police "defending the GOP convention as if it is the Green Zone in Baghdad." He also notes that while many protestors "may think of New York as the apocalypse itself," the fight must go beyond the convention, following George. W. Bush wherever he goes -- intimidating and disrupting his campaign in Brown Shirt and Red Guard style. This will show voters that if Bush wins in 2004, "he will plunge the country into strife not seen since the '60s."
As a society and a culture, we celebrate and profit from simultaneously maintaining and deconstructing our own establishments. As a result, our cultural dichotomy puts all of us on both sides of this war. We like the cheap goods, the free music, and the good life the Internet affords us. But we don’t like the bombs, and the threats to our way of life. And yet, we continually resort to means that come from a place that is anywhere but our way of life. Only ten years old, the World Wide Web is transforming and deconstructing our entire past. Let no stone go unturned. If any part of anyone represents the establishment, they are at war with the future.