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The close of his book makes clear, however, that what should be sought is not a simple escape into chaos. The point is to find articulations of human effort that can oppose and even durably replace the death-dealing powers of the present society. Right now, the prospects look extremely slim for any kind of grassroots intervention into a highly polarized conjuncture. But if things become desperately worse, or if on the contrary the political-economic pendulum makes one of its swings back to a more confident phase of expansion, the likelihood is that there will be important second chances for radical democracy movements, and new roles for improvised global media. The future belongs to those who can make the experimental difference.

Activist Media Tomorrow

What happened at the turn of the millennium, when a myriad of recording devices were hooked up to the internet, and the World Wide Web became an electronic prism refracting all the colors of a single anti-capitalist struggle? What kind of movement takes to the barricades with samba bands and videocams, tracing an embodied map through a maze of virtual hyperlinks and actual city streets? Almost a decade after Seattle, we still don't understand the role of decentralized media intervention as a catalyst for grassroots action at global scales. The popular notion of "tactical media" might have to be abandoned for another one, closer to what has happened between the cities and the screens.


The mobilizing process for global resistance actions immediately became known as "self-organization" because of the absence of hierarchical chains of command. At the same time, the starburst patterns of network graphs became emblems of a cooperative potential that seemed to define the "movement of movements". As Naomi Klein wrote in the year 2000, shortly after the IMF protests in Washington:

"What emerged on the streets of Seattle and Washington was an activist model that mirrors the organic, decentralized, interlinked pathways of the internet – the internet come to life. The Washington-based research center TeleGeography has taken it upon itself to map out the architecture of the internet as... not one giant web but a network of 'hubs and spokes'. The hubs are the centers of activity, the spokes the links to other centers, which are autonomous but interconnected."2

Condensed here are two key ideas. One concerns the morphology of the internet as an all-channel meshwork, where each node is connected to others by several different pathways. Ultimately there are only a few degrees of separation between every element – a flattened hierarchy. The other concerns the property of emergence, associated with large populations of living organisms like ants and bees, where group behavior is coordinated in real time and manifests a purposiveness beyond the capacities of any individual. Emergence describes a moment of possibility – a phase-change in a complex system. These ideas came together in the early 1990s, in the figure of the networked swarm promoted by technovisionary Kevin Kelly in the book "Out of Control". But they were already connected in Deleuze and Guattari's "Thousand Plateaus", with the figures of the rhizome, the pack and the nomadic war machine.

What lends form and regularity to emergent action? How to grasp the consistency of self-organized groups and networks? The word "swarming" describes a pattern of self-organization in real time, which seems to arise from nowhere yet is immediately recognizable, because it rhythmically repeats. It was understood by strategists as a pattern of attack, in the classic definition given by RAND corporation theorists Arquilla and Ronfeldt: "Swarming occurs when the dispersed units of a network of small (and perhaps some large) forces converge on a target from multiple directions. The overall aim is sustainable pulsing – swarm networks must be able to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse."3 Arquilla and Ronfeldt studied these pulsating tactics in the complex patterns of mediated and on-the-ground support for the Zapatistas, which prevented the Mexican state from isolating and destroying them. Interestingly, the "target" here was the repressive activity of the state. But the swarm tactic only became reality for the world at large with the successful blockade of the November 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle, Washington, thanks largely to the Direct Action Network (DAN).

The DAN used swarming as part of a broader strategy to draw union protesters into a radical blockade of the meeting. Arquilla and Ronfeldt suddenly had palpable proof of their theories.4 Since then, American and Israeli military theorists have analyzed swarm behavior and tried to use it as a doctrine. But the military by its very nature (chain of command) cannot engage in full-fledged self-organization. When they try to do so, it ends in disaster, as Eyal Weizman has shown.5 Something here is not subject to command. What we need to understand is the "ecology" of emergent behavior, to use a word that suggests a dynamic, fractal unity: A oneness of the many and a multiplicity of the one.


Two factors can explain the consistency of self-organized actions. The first is the capacity for temporal coordination at a distance: The exchange among dispersed individuals of information, but also of affect, about unique events unfolding in specific locations. This exchange becomes a flow of constantly changing, constantly reinterpreted clues about how to act within a shared environment. But temporal coordination itself depends on a second factor, which is the existence of a common horizon – aesthetic, ethical, philosophical and/or metaphysical – that is deliberately built up over longer periods of time, and that allows the scattered members of a network to recognize each other as existing within a shared referential and imaginary universe. Media used in this way is more than just information: It is a mnemonic image that calls up a world of sensation, and at best, opens up the possibility of a response, a dialogic exchange, a new creation. Think of activist media as the continuous process of "making worlds" within an otherwise fragmented, inchoate market society.6

For an example, take Indymedia, launched at the Seattle WTO protests in 1999 using an Active Software program that allows for the spontaneous uploading of various file formats onto a "newswire". On the one hand, this is a strictly determined technical environment: Indymedia operates on specific codes and server architectures that only allow for a limited range of actions. In addition to those technical protocols, the content of the sites is shaped by clearly stated ethical principles which attempt to regulate and legitimate the kind of editing that may or may not take place. The existence of both protocols and principles is a necessary condition for the interaction of large numbers of anonymous persons at locations far distant from the surroundings of their daily existence.7 But the creation of possible worlds cannot stop there. It also requires a cultural strategy of liberation, where media is "tactile" first of all: Where it touches you as a process of expression, open to creative reception and transformation by each person. This kind of approach can be found in the aesthetics of the Reclaim the Streets carnivals or the Pink Bloc campaigns, to name well-known activist projects that create entire participatory environments, or "constructed situations". At stake in such situations is the development of an existential frame for collective experience, what Prem Chandavarkar calls an "inhabitable metaphor".8 Only such metaphors make dispersed intervention possible.

What needs to be understood – the media strategy of the global campaigns – is this tight imbrication of technological protocols and cultural horizons. Swarming is what happens when the aesthetic or metaphorical dimensions of radical social protest are enriched around the planet via electronic communications. A transnational activist movement is a swarmachine.


One way to approach the new formations is through the work of the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina, whose studies of currency traders led her to the concept of "complex global microstructures". By this she means geographically extended interactions that are not bound by the multilayered organizations and expert systems that modern industrial states have developed to manage uncertainty. Thus currency-trading networks were able to precipitate the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, reorganizing the global economy. The financial markets, Knorr Cetina observes, "are too fast, and change too quickly to be 'contained' by institutional orders". And she continues: "Global systems based on microstructural principles do not exhibit institutional complexity but rather the asymmetries, unpredictabilities and playfulness of complex (and dispersed) interaction patterns; A complexity that results, in John Urry's terms, from a situation where order is not the outcome of purified social processes and is always intertwined with chaos. More concretely, these systems manifest an observational and temporal dynamics that is fundamental to their connectivity, auto-affective principles of self-motivation, forms of 'outsourcing', and principles of content that substitute for the principles and mechanisms of the modern, complex organization."9

Knorr Cetina stresses the importance of real-time coordination and the creation of shared horizons. She shows how networked ICTs allow distant participants to see and recognize each other, and to achieve cohesion by observing and commenting on the same events at the same time.10 Yet the technology employed is used opportunistically, it can be "outsourced". What matters is the system of goals or beliefs that binds the participants together. She reinterprets the usual view of networks as a system of pipes conveying informational contents, to insist on their visual function: From "pipes" to "scopes." It is the image that maintains the shared horizon and insists on the urgency of acting within it, especially through what Barthes called the punctum: The affective register that leaps out from the general dull flatness of the image and touches you. Finally, the idea of "auto-affection" derives from Maturana and Varela's concept of the living organism as a self-sustaining autopoietic machine, defined in classic circular fashion as "a network of processes of production" which "through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them."11

Standard social network theory found its dynamic principle in more-or-less random attractions between atomistic units bound only by the "weak ties" of contemporary liberal societies.12 The notion of autopoietic social groups introduces a very different type of actor. To understand the implications, one has to realize that each autopoetic machine or "microstructure" is unique, depending on the coordinates and horizons that configure it. For example, take the open-source software networks. There is a shared horizon constituted by texts and exemplary projects: Richard Stallman's declarations and the GNU project; Linus Torvald's launch of Linux; Essays like "The Hacker Ethic"; Projects such as Creative Commons; The relation of all that to older ideals of public science; etc. There are formal principles: Above all the General Public License, known as "copyleft", with its legal requirements for both the indication of authorship (allowing recognition of everyone's efforts) and the continued openness of any resulting code (allowing widespread cooperation and innovation). Finally there are concrete modes of temporal coordination via the internet: Sourceforge as a general version-tracker for continuously forking projects, and the specific wiki-forums devoted to each free software application. The whole thing has as little institutional complexity as possible, but instead is full of self-motivation and auto-affection between dispersed members of a highly coherent, swiftly moving and effective social group.

Tendencies favoring the emergence of global microstructures have been developing for decades, along the unraveling edges of national institutional environments weakened by neoliberalism. But a turning-point was reached in September of 2001. Knorr Cetina's article is subtitled "The New Terrorist Societies", and it extends the analysis of global financial microstructures to Al Qaeda. Where in the nineties, everyone saw networks, now everyone would see the threat of radical militants. The counter-globalization movement, long plagued by the difficulty of distinguishing its own mobile formation from the vanguards of financial globalization, began rapidly to fall apart after September 11 when accusations conflating the protesters with the terrorists started rising on all sides. Almost four years later, on the last day of the 2005 G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, the explosion of terrorist bombs in London totally eclipsed any message that could have been brought by the protesters. Al Qaeda appeared as the exemplar of global activist movements – and the perfect excuse for eradicating all of them.


Sociological parallels can be drawn between the counter-globalization movements and both financiers and terrorists. But the only thing that really brings these distant galaxies together is the force of historical change, which each of them expresses differently, for vastly different ends. Knorr Cetina claims that change in the contemporary world is driven by microprocesses, put into effect by light, agile formations that can risk innovation at geographical scales and degrees of complexity where traditional organizations are paralyzed. As she has written: "The texture of a global world becomes articulated through microstructural patterns that develop in the shadow of (but liberated from) national and local institutional patterns". The reactions of the national institutions to terrorism have now become a major problem for all the movements seeking progressive and egalitarian social change.

Even as swarm theory became a strong paradigm for the militarized social sciences, attempts were launched around the planet to stabilize the dangerously mobile relational patterns unleashed by the neoliberal market society and its weak ties. But the major trends are contradictory. On the one hand, there is a continuing effort to enforce the rules of free trade to the benefit of major corporations, and thus to complete a project of liberal empire. On the other, the most common responses to this market enforcement are regressions to exacerbated forms of nationalism, often with a deep-seated fundamentalist component, as in the United States itself. Neconservatism in all its forms is the "blowback" of neoliberal economics. In this regard there's something prophetic about Felix Guattari's discussion in the late 1980s of the interplay between deterritorialization and reterritorialization. Guattari describes the situation in this way:

"As the deterritorializing revolutions, tied to the development of science, technology and the arts, sweep everything aside before them, a compulsion toward subjective reterritorialization also emerges. And this antagonism is heightened even more with the phenomenal growth of the communications and computer fields, to the extent that the latter concentrate their deterritorializing effects on such human faculties as memory, perception, understanding, imagination, etc. In this way, a certain formula of anthropological functioning, a certain ancestral model of humanity, is expropriated at its very heart. And I think that it is as a result of an incapacity to adequately confront this phenomenal mutation that collective subjectivity has abandoned itself to the absurd wave of conservatism that we are presently witnessing".13

How to invent alternatives to the violence of capitalist deterritorialization, but also to the fundamentalist reterritorialization that follows it? The dilemma of the contemporary world is not just Christianity versus Islam. It's at the very heart of the modern project that human potential is expropriated. Since September 11, the American corporate class and its allies have at once exacerbated the abstract, hyperindividualizing dynamics of capitalist globalization, and at the same time, reinvented the most archaic figures of power (Guantanamo, Fortress Europe, the dichotomy of sovereign majesty and bare life). Guattari speaks of a capitalist "drive" of deterritorialization, a "compulsion" for reterritorialization. What this means is that essential dimensions of human life are twisted into violent and oppressive forms. The effect is to render the promise of a borderless world repulsive and even murderous, while at the same time precipitating the crisis, decay and regression of social institutions, increasingly incapable of contributing to equality or the respect for difference.

So after all the definitions of tactical media, what we still need to know is whether one can consciously participate in the improvisational, assymetrical force of microprocesses operating at a global scale, and use their relative autonomy from institutional norms as a way to influence a more positive reterritorialization, a dynamic equilibrium, a viable coexistence with technoscientific development and the trend toward a unification of world society. To do this means taking on the risk of global micropolitics. It also means drawing mnemonic images from latent historical experience and the intricate textures of everyday life, and mixing them into media interventions in order to help reweave the imaginary threads that give radical-democratic movements a strong and paradoxical consistency: The resistance to arbitrary authority of course, but also solidarity across differences and the desire to create consensus not on the basis of tradition, but rather of invention, experimentation in reality and collective self-critique. The ability to create the event is what has given the recent movements their surprising agility in the world space. As Maurizio Lazzarato writes: "The activist is not someone who becomes the brains of the movement, who sums up its force, anticipates its choices, draws his or her legitimacy from a capacity to read and interpret the evolution of power, but instead, the activist is simply someone who introduces a discontinuity in what exists. She creates a bifurcation in the flow of words, of desires, of images, to put them at the service of the multiplicity's power of articulation; She links the singular situations together, without placing herself at a superior and totalizing point of view. She is an experimenter".14

The close of his book makes clear, however, that what should be sought is not a simple escape into chaos. The point is to find articulations of human effort that can oppose and even durably replace the death-dealing powers of the present society. Right now, the prospects look extremely slim for any kind of grassroots intervention into a highly polarized conjuncture. But if things become desperately worse, or if on the contrary the political-economic pendulum makes one of its swings back to a more confident phase of expansion, the likelihood is that there will be important second chances for radical democracy movements, and new roles for improvised global media. The future belongs to those who can make the experimental difference.


1. * This text emerged from a debate on the internet mailing list Nettime, April 10 to 25, 2006 – and to that extent, it was written by the many-headed hydra of the list. Thanks everyone. The whole debate is accessible at www.nettime.org/Lists-Archives/nettime-l-0604/maillist.html#00058.

2. Naomi Klein, "The Vision Thing", in The Nation (July 10, 2000); www.thenation.com/doc/20000710/klein.

3. D. Ronfeldt, J. Arquilla, et alii, The Zapatista “Social Netwar” in Mexico (Rand Corporation, 1998), chapter 2; www.rand.org/publications/MR/MR994.

4. See Paul de Armond, "Netwar in the Emerald City", in D. Ronfeldt, J. Arquilla, eds., Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy (RAND, 2001); http://www.rand.org/pubs/monograph_reports/MR138/MR1382.ch7.pdf.

5. Eyal Weizman, "Walking Through Walls", published on the webzine Transform: transform.eipcp.net/transversal/0507/weizman/en.

6. The phrase "making worlds" comes from Maurizio Lazzarato, Les révolutions du capitalisme (Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond, 2004).

7. This discussion was informed by Felix Stalder's definition of a network, both on Nettime and in his book, Manuel Castells: The Theory of the Network Society (Cambridge: Polity, 2006), chapter 6.

8. See Prem Chandavarkar's insightful reply to these ideas, posted by on Nettime on 20.04.2006.

9. Karin Knorr Cetina, "Complex Global Microstructures", in Theory Culture Society 22 (2005), pp. 213-234.

10. Cf. Karin Knorr Cetina and Urs Bruegger, "Global Microstructures: The Virtual Societies of the Financial Markets", in American Journal of Sociology 7/4 (2002).

11. Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela (1973), "Autopoiesis: The Organization of the Living", in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Dordrecht: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980), pp. 78-79.

12. Mark Granovetter, "The Strength of Weak Ties", American Journal of Sociology 78/6 (May 1973), pp. 1360-80.

13. Felix Guattari, "Du post-modernisme à l'ère post-media", in Cartographies schizoanalytiques (Paris: Galilée, 1989), p. 54.

14. Maurizio Lazzarato, Les révolutions du capitalisme, op. cit., p. 230.


Swarmachine (de)
Brian Holmes (2008)
Content type
Projects Non Stop Future
World-Information Institute
Date 2008


9/11 Fortress Europe protest Active Software GNU project General Public License (GPL) financial markets nomadic war machine pack rhizome swarming tactical media Creative Commons Linux Open Source copyleft Sourceforge Guantanamo Israel Mexico Seattle United States Washington, D.C. Gleneagles Scotland RAND Indymedia DAN Direct Action Network Reclaim the Streets Humberto Maturana Richard Stallman Roland Barthes WTO TeleGeography IMF Prem Chandavarkar Zapatistas John Arquilla Ronfeldt Pink Bloc Maurizio Lazzarato Naomi Klein Félix Guattari Al-Qaeda Eyal Weizman Karin Knorr Cetina Linus Torvald Francisco Varela Gilles Deleuze Kevin Kelly Brian Holmes
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