Article categories: Issue 62
January 26th, 2009

Digital Multitude: In their recommendable book Multitude, authors Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri begin their Preface with a portentous and, one suspects, an intentionally Communist Manifesto-like sentence: “The possibility of democracy on a global scale is emerging today for the very first time”[1].

Exploring the connection between, and intervention of, media arts in our lives.

To read this first off takes the breath away. Of course we hear variations on this theme every day from George W. Bush as he shreds the Constitution by ‘rendering’ ‘terrorist’ suspects into a secret netherworld where the only access they have is to focussed CIA men with deadlines to meet. The glib and cynical foretelling of the arrival of global democracy by our leaders has quickly become wearisome. For most of us these are words that simply fold into sentence after sentence, in an extended collision of clichés that evaporates from the consciousness as soon as the words end. But to hear this seriously proposed at the beginning of an already jaded 21st century by a pair of respected political philosophers is something to be considered – and many have.

For example, in his searching critique of Multitude, for New Left Review, Malcolm Bull sympathises with the sentiment of democracy rising from below as a positive force for change. But he finds himself fundamentally bemused. He asks, in the context of moribund working class organisations, and widespread apathy regarding institutional political forms in this postmodern age: ‘There are innumerable blueprints for utopian futures that are, in varying degrees, egalitarian, cosmopolitan, ecologically sustainable, and locally responsive, but no solution to the most intractable problem of all: who is going to make it happen?’[2].

Indeed, Hardt and Negri’s typology of the multitude is expressed concretely in what has been termed the ‘global civil society movement’ that emerged from the International NGO Forum at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992. Here, thousands of activists, articulating almost every political creed, converged under the banner of ‘anti-neoliberal globalisation’. The movement has grown hugely in complexity and in number (if not overall coherence) since then. The événements of Porto Alegre, Seattle, London, Genoa and other cities brought a new form of political activism to the fore, and alternative views were eventually forced onto the table at the summiteering of the global neoliberal elite. At Davos, for example, space is now given to representatives from global civil society to be heard and to submit a list of grievances. The factor that makes this possible was very much underplayed by Hardt and Negri. The potential of such a political force needs to be given proper context—and this is the digital network.

This multitude is marked by not only its latent power, but by its plasticity. It is local/global and virtual/physical at the same time; and is a form of political agency such that has never existed before. The integrative means that makes this possible on a global scale is information and communication technologies (ICTs). It is the growth of ubiquitous networked computerisation, creating a networked society that makes possible an evolving and complex web of alliances that are committed to creating a just and more sustainable world civil society. In Multitude (and in Bull’s critique), the absolutely central role of ICTs is not developed in either their theoretical or practical dimensions. This is puzzling, even in the context of political theory. Networked society is the primary political context in the world today, and an understanding of its logic and its dynamics are necessary if we are to make any sense of the nature of these new politics, what Bull terms ‘the problem of agency within contemporary politics’.

Negative Space

The network society is a global space (and time) that is overwhelmingly commercial and instrumental. Political ‘agency’ within it is indeed a ‘problem’, but we need to develop the appropriate context and learn how to read the emerging signs. It is a network that is oriented towards speed and driven by profit. In other words, it is the postmodern and hypermediated 21st century version of capitalism. It fetishises the computer, and leaves it free to develop wherever an abstract (and chaotic) marketplace directs it. In the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘productivity’ computerisation has seeped into every nook and cranny of social, cultural and political life. Neoliberalism now directs the shape and form of institutional politics, orienting it toward profit seeking at the expense of the historical responsibility of democracy, which was to reflect and represent the actual needs of people. The failure of institutional politics to properly articulate the will of the people has sunk millions across the world into debilitating apathy. Increasingly people neither know nor care who runs their country. They realise, at some level of consciousness, that it is Wall Street and the corporate boardroom that really matters, not congresses or parliaments.

The needs of people come well behind not only the needs of capital, but also the untrammelled application of ever-more powerful computerisation in the service of science and technology. Neil Postman’s 1992 nightmare of ‘Technopoly’, where culture (and I also argue politics) has ‘surrendered’ to the digital behemoth has come to pass. We ride in the accelerating slipstream of technological development with little idea of what kind of world it is creating. We know only that we need to be part of it if we want to be ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ and therefore employable.

Computer technologies leave people bamboozled. They create a world in which many of its workings—the structures and processes that are part of our networked lives—are mysterious. We email, text, take calls, dwell in chatrooms, study, work and surf in the Internet, but have little idea of the structural processes or deep-level logics that make all this surface activity possible. Moreover, computer technologies develop revolutionary forms of science and technology that are integral to our life in the network society, but these too are utterly opaque. There is no sense of their historical development or their future trajectories, and this renders most of us powerless and atomised within the network’s vitiating structures.

Space of the Multitude

The network is then a negative space in terms of being able to deliver social justice and the political rights of people. From within this logic however, from within the information society itself, an antithesis is developing. This is indeed a ‘multitude’ in that it constitutes an ‘active political subject’ that has real-world effects. But we need to get away from the habit of analysing politics from older categories as Hardt and Negri tend to do. The network society has transformed the political terrain and is changing the way people pursue positive political ends. We need, therefore, to view the network as the pre-eminent political space in a globalised planet where issues can be fought simultaneously in the local/global and virtual/physical realms.

From this perspective we can see that the neoliberal network society creates its antithesis by the very fact of putting powerful communication tools in the hands of everyone. The ideology of the system dictates that this should be oriented towards instrumental ends. We are encouraged to use computers to become ‘smarter’, to work faster and more productively. But empowering people in such a way can also motivate them to use these tools subversively, to turn their instrumental orientation towards a more critical perspective. Such an attitude makes possible the global civil society movement – it turns ‘techno-savvy’ users into politically savvy operators who use the tools at hand to develop new languages of resistance and demystification. To use a term employed by political activists Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider, this is the operation of ‘tactical media’. To use media tactically and politically is to understand and control them instead of being determined by them.

Media tacticians range across the spectrum of networked life. We see them in the blog and the listservs, and in websites such as or ICTs are used as a way of organising resistance to the depredations of neoliberal globalisation from within its own territory (the network) and using its own tools. These constitute virtual political networks that increasingly have concrete political effects. This is evidenced by the fact that the US government, as well as more overtly repressive regimes such as those in Iran or China, see the network as the principle political battlefield of the 21st century, and take active steps to counter sedition in their own digital realm. It is important that we view tactical media practitioners in the context of the network as a totality, not ‘simply’ as activists who practice ‘old’ political forms in new ways.

We see new forms of political protest in new fields, such as in hacking, or in the writing and distributing of ‘copylefted’ software such as Linux. We also need to include media art and media artists more particularly in the realm of tactical media practitioners. These are artists with overtly political intent; artists who through ICTs articulate new forms of language which critique new forms of oppression or obfuscation that the neoliberalised network constructs. We see this in the work of US artist Steve Kurtz[3]. A founder member of the Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), Kurtz’s oeuvre brings the ‘critical’ back into ‘art’ by making it impressively political. From the point of view of the US government however, Kurtz is considered wholly dangerous. His chief crime, and it is a serious one in this post 9/11 age, can be summed up in the Chomsky-like cliché: ‘speaking truth to power’.

Contemporary biotechnology is made possible as a scientific and commercial pursuit through massive advances in computing power. Without the stupendous number-crunching capability needed to analyse DNA gene sequences, scientists would not have been able to achieve a tiny proportion of what they have. It is however, a highly specialised realm, developed through routines of expert systems that most of us cannot penetrate. This may not be much of an issue were it not for the fact that biotech reaches into our daily lives and into our very bodies through food industries. Millions of people now consume GM produce as a part of their diet. The problem is that biotech industries did not bother to properly inform and educate the public about them. And nor could they. Intellectual property makes scientific information on GM extremely valuable and so must remain secret. Moreover, the long-term consequences of GM foods are simply not known. As Ulrich Beck has written, this postmodern science has lost its ‘sensory organs’ of perception, meaning the uses and consequences of science and technology are considered little beyond their immediate instrumental application (to make money for shareholders).

Kurtz brings these issues into the very core of his work as a tactical media practitioner. He uses the science and the instruments of science to explore and explode the myths and dangers of a supine attitude towards expert systems that are shrouded in secrecy. This is tactical media work in the most powerful sense—evidenced in the well-publicised government reaction to his attempts to democratise the rarefied mysteries of tech-scientific neoliberal network society through his artwork. And this is what makes Kurtz in particular and a generation of techno-savvy and politicised ICT users more generally, so hazardous to the institutional political system.

A recent work of Kurtz and the CAE called ‘Free Range Grains,’ included a mobile DNA extraction laboratory for testing food products for the presence of GM organisms. The effect of the work is breathtaking in its simplicity and power. As breathtaking, indeed, as Hardt and Negri’s opening lines, because the two are parts of the same deeply intertwined democratic and political logic. The work illuminates the shadows of expert systems that distorted our knowledge of the biofoods industries. Through the mobile laboratory and computerised devices that would have been the stuff of science fiction only a few years ago, the CAE establish a link of clear communication between science and public. The work acts as a connection of rational order, where there existed only, as the CAE puts it, the arrogant ‘the communicative disorder’ of the neoliberalised scientific process.

Tactical media interventions such as Kurtz’s create spaces and times of control and understanding in a digital environment where it is routinely denied. It is art that is part of a growing digital multitude; and so as we attempt to analyse the political potential within our postmodern and post-industrial disorder we need to move beyond the classical categories and classical mechanics of political agency. The network is the new category and the new ‘biopolitical’ sphere, and because users themselves create its political spaces and times, a form of rhizomic sovereignty over it is already established – agency stems from this original point. Importantly an understanding of the resistant potential of the network feeds back into the networked whole. If enough of us connect with this dynamic intellectually and practically, then it can become coherent and organised to the point where Hardt and Negri’s prophecy on democracy can come to something approaching fruition. Tactical media practice will by then have become a ‘strategical media’ politics, which is both democratic and global.

Robert Hassan
Robert Hassan is an ARC Discovery Fellow in Media and Communications at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University. His latest book, Empire of Speed will be published by Berg in 2006.


[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude. New York: Penguin, 2004 p.xi


[3] Steve Kurtz is Keynote speaker for Bio State, part of the Media States Forum, Media State

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