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February 20, 2009

Filed under: politics»the_new_protest

Bay Leaves

Pirate Bay Testimony knock-knock jokes probably aren't going to catch on:

Knock knock!

Who's there?

The Pirate Bay.

The Pirate Bay who?

We don't know!

If you don't get it, well, that's kind of the point. Ars reports that the Pirate Bay's legal strategy has taken a turn for the bizarre: when questioned about who owns the site, whose name is on the contracts, and who wrote their public material--in short, who bears the responsibility for the all those torrents--they basically insisted that the answer is "nobody."
The prosecutor kept trying to pin [Pirate Bay staffer Gottfrid Warg] down on who ran the site, how it was organized, and who paid for (and received the revenue from) site operations. Warg kept insisting that the project wasn't a "top-down" business, but that interested users volunteered time and effort to make different pieces of it work. The prosecution appeared not to believe this and continued asking questions to tease out the relationships between everyone involved. Warg continued to insist it was a "loose project"--even the moderators who took down material that didn't match its stated description were volunteers.
Now, like the prosecution, you may believe that the defendents are lying. After all, it's not like they've shown any other signs of taking the trial seriously, treating it instead as a combination of publicity stunt and performance art. But the fascinating possibility--one that has intriguing implications for social movements--is that they're not lying at all. It's entirely possible that their site really isn't "run" by any particular people in the sense that we normally think of the word. And far from being a weakness, this is a tremendous advantage for them.

It's not a coincidence that The Pirate Bay's raison d'etre, BitTorrent, gets its power from massive, distributed parallelism. From Google's Map/Reduce (which splits enormous tasks across equally enormous datacenters), to the multi-core processors that have become commonplace, to BitTorrent's use of "seeds" to spread files across networks, parallelism is one of the biggest advances in computer technology for the last five years. I'd argue that it also carries similar implications for social movements.

Start with the basic idea of organizational decentralization and open-source organizing. Could an operation like The Pirate Bay be run without central leadership, as the defendents insist is the case? Absolutely. For a digital community, moderation and management can certainly be split into a set of distributed actions, carried out by autonomous actors that coordinate via software and modern communication tools. That's one of the secrets behind the Obama political effort: instead of directing all efforts from the top down, it granted a high degree of autonomy and initiative to middle levels of the organization, and reserved the upper layers for support and communication--tasks that were, whenever possible, automated. It wouldn't be hard to design or cobble together a simple system for distributed, consensus-based decision-making. At that point, who's responsible for the movement? In a sense, everybody is. In another, as Pirate Bay staff claim, nobody is.

The decentralization of (nonviolent) social movements is not a new idea, but in the distribution of agency we begin to see how it creates an asymmetrical approach that gives the authorities fits. The prosecution in the Pirate Bay case has found themselves frustrated when their targets stand up and engage the legal system on terms prosecutors can understand. It's unlikely that this is a sound legal strategy for the defendants, but then civil disobedience rarely relies on legal reasoning. Nonviolent tactics are inherently based around the idea that it's foolish to engage the opponent where he is strongest (i.e., through violence and forceful coercion). Distributed parallelism extends this idea further into the political sphere, by removing the known pressure points that authorities might normally use to control organizations.

Consider: if a social movement has leaders, they can be discredited, bribed, jailed, or otherwise influenced. But if (from the perspective of the authorities) it doesn't have any, there's no weak place to apply power against the movement. If it has a structure, that structure can be disrupted at its links--but if each member is a peer in the network (and, to borrow BitTorrent jargon again, they're capable of seeding new political action), then each one has to be disrupted individually. In addition to its value as international legal comedy, this is clearly a powerful development in social movements, one that's made possible by new networking innovations.

Even in organizations that retain a central leadership structure, the advantages of distributed action are hard to deny. Consider a movement that has its own version of Amazon's Mechanical Turk service, which provides a marketplace for piecework. If the movement can break even just a few menial tasks (call lists, processing organizational data, collecting data) into bite-sized parts and pass those out to volunteers, it not only frees up staff for more creative tasks, but it gives a large number of people a chance to work for--and identify with--the organization. Since movements derive their force from the sympathetic bodies that they're capable of motivating, that identification, however slight, is a powerful thing.

Undoubtedly, there are also potential drawbacks to the distributed approach. The most obvious of these is the difficulty of forming and maintaining consensus--how does the movement bargain? How does it develop a plan of action? When does it decide to stop? If anything, I suspect that these are problems that arise from "too much of a good thing": what activist wouldn't want to be faced with the challenge of directing a massive, widely-spread, perpetually-restless populace? Besides, the problems of coalition-building have always been at the heart of political action (it makes up a significant portion of Randy Shaw's Activist's Handbook, for example). Ironically, one scenario for distributed activism comes from fourth-generation warfare theorist John Robb, who has written about what he calls "open-source warfare," or a network of insurgent groups that work separately but coordinate effectively when their goals align (I must note that I see 4GW theory, with its emphasis on asymmetric conflict and bottom-up organization, as armed conflict finally catching up to nonviolent political theory). In this model, it's true that coalitions are transient--but they form with dizzying rapidity when a common goal is found.

In short, there's tremendous power in applying distributed parallelism and decentralization to social movements, and not just as a fanciful legal strategy. We're just starting to see the potential applications of this kind of organizing model. Although the Pirate Bay defendants seem to have hit on their courtroom gambit as a media ploy, there's no reason we have to treat it as a joke.

Future - Present - Past