Robots of Repression

With all the intelligent things she might have said, it is unfortunate that Audre Lorde is most widely passed around in the form of that execrable quote about the impossibility of using the master’s tools to destroy the master’s house. This allegation is false both in the imagined realm of the metaphor and on the historical terrain of social struggles it signifies. Many a time, a state’s own policies and institutions have brought about its ruin, whereas literally, if the master’s house is made of stone, the hammer, chisel, and levers we used to make it for him would be rather expedient for tearing it down; if made of wood, the same goes for the axe, saw, and plane, although it would be slow going with the plane. One could allege that tools expropriated to destroy the master’s house can no longer be called the master’s tools but are now the People’s Tools; however, such class-conscious semantics exclude the possibility that the tools still pertain to the master, and he has ordered us to tear down his house, to build a bigger one, or out of insanity perhaps. Stranger things have happened.

It has been said that the difference between a tool and a machine is that a tool is in the hand of its user, whereas a machine conditions its operator. The conditioning that is part and parcel of the machine is reminiscent of that of the apparatus. Curiously, analysis—quite unlike poetry—loathes the synonym, and demands a distinction between like terms. So, let us blindly answer the exigencies of our logical paradigm and refine ourselves into a farther corner of this cave of shadows: what is the difference between machine and apparatus?

In a past essay, I argued the need (admittedly arbitrary, although not random) to define “apparatus” as a concrete manifestation of the dominant networks of power that conditions both its conduits and its captives, and I emphasized a parallel need to “analyze these networks of power within their concrete and daily manifestations, so as to tease out the strategic relationship between the spaces we inhabit and the powers that shape those spaces.”

As all analytical categories are stillborn metaphors, the concreteness of the apparatus does not demand of it a specified physical existence; rather this concreteness, coming to us as it does as representation, might just as easily be the idea of concreteness as a fixed chemical tangibility. Really, what is the physical quality that distinguishes a nuclear family from another collection of people who may or may not inhabit the same dwelling? Though the nuclear family is certainly concrete—we can go and touch its members, be chased out of the house by them, listen to them throwing plates and screaming—there is no physical quality that distinguishes it from a group of actors living together for a reality TV show, a multigenerational assortment of persons whom chance has brought together to live in the same house, or a group of acquaintances who get together on holidays.

Nor are machines strictly physical. Many social configurations have been represented as machines, and with the further development of both affective and nano-technologies, in some seen reality we attempt to purge of representation, the supreme physicality of the machine is becoming increasingly hard to distinguish. The metaphor of production has long been naturalized within the realm of life by the ideologues of rationalism, who insist with religious fervor that just as a factory produces trinkets, certain cells produce sugar or babies produce sounds, to give two examples. But as genetically programmed animal captives come to manufacture medicines within the cells of their own bodies, or babies begin to replicate sounds and gestures as disciplined by a bombardment of educational television and increasingly scientific commoditized caretaking, we are dealing with production in fact and not production as a metaphysical usurpation of the meaning of natural occurrences.

Thus, we cannot distinguish between the machine and the apparatus using a criterion of their physicality.

A notable difference that might aid us in our semiological quest is that the operator is the adjunct of the machine, lamentably necessary to its functioning, whereas the conduits and captives are a specific focus of the apparatus. The machine progressively reduces the number and attention of operators it relies on, whereas the apparatus progressively intensifies the attention directed to its conduits and captives, and all other things being equal increases the number of conduits and captives it manages.

In the assembly line, the machine and the apparatus seemingly coincide. In a frozen instant captured for the popular imagination by, say, the photo of a factory in Detroit in the ’70s, we see that the machine and apparatus are coterminous, occupying the same physical space, although linked with the broader world by a number of dependencies, be those material and technical input or management by overseeing institutions. However, as the system develops, we are approaching factory systems that are entirely roboticized, with no more captives and just a few remaining humans as conduits that represent a severed loop, communicating with no one but themselves and the occasional elementary school field trip that might pass through for a tour.

In other words, in the specific physical space of the post-modernizing factory, the machine has apparently triumphed, whereas the apparatus is in shambles, nearing an apparent obsolescence. Such an obsolescence would certainly negate an evolutionist view of the system, as the machine came into our gaze before the apparatus, and is presumed therefore to represent a more primitive form.

The follies of evolutionism aside, the increased mechanization of the factories cannot be detached from an explosion of apparatuses into everyday life. Here we find an external will that coincides with the tendency of the machine for greater mechanization. Just as the logic of production favors an increase in labor efficiency and the replacement of workers with machines (a false dichotomy, perhaps), the strategic needs of capitalists and governors favored the closing of the factory as a space for struggle and formation of oppositional identity. Simultaneously, the apparatuses moved from the dessicating niche of the factory into the newly vivacious spaces elsewhere in social life (the highway, the shopping mall, the package vacation, the chat room, to name a few). This migration and proliferation of apparatuses was performed partly with the bumbling advice of administrators and the occasional brilliant prophesies of progressives, but to a much greater extent the movement was a silent one, performed with the instinctual intelligence of a hyperaggressive parasite. Unlike the move towards mechanization, which was made explicit every step of the way with balance sheets, investment recommendations, urban planning reports, and police threat assessments, all of which pointed in their different ways towards the closing of factories, the adoption of robotics, and the orphaning of proletarian communities, the apparatus migration was announced in no strategic papers except those that came after the fact. Although in some cases the growth of a new apparatus was specifically impelled by the institutions that managed it, just as often new institutions had to be founded to keep pace with that growth, which had taken on qualitative as well as quantitative proportions and therefore had opened up entirely new terrains initially free from direct institutional oversight.

All apparatuses are marked by a strategic dynamic that is, within a broader network that crosses them both vertically and horizontally, self-regulating. The machine, on the other hand, is simply replicating (and in an increasingly proximate future, also self-replicating). When the machine and the apparatus coincide in physical space, the machine is the analysis of that space at the level of its functioning, and the apparatus is the analysis of that space at the level of its functionality. Therefore, with the machine, the question of purpose is obviated with the removal of that purpose to an external inventor, mechanic, or technician. With the apparatus, on the contrary, the question of purpose becomes a cental paradox. Strategy is central to the foundation of the apparatus, but the articulation of that strategy is also constantly conditioned by the functioning of the apparatus in conjunction with the network of other apparatuses. So, how can we speak of strategy and thus of an external will and objectives if those who articulate the strategy are conditioned by their apparatuses and are at times even unaware of them?

A teleological understanding that divides reality into cause and effect, or for that matter mass and energy, would force us to seek the original apparatus and its Creator (perhaps language? according to Agamben). A chaotic understanding of reality sees creation as an ever present property of a communicative network that both responds to and articulates forces. In this view, subject_object is often a misunderstanding of thing-looking-at-itself.

Both the machine and the apparatus date historically to biopower, and biopower can be understood as a sea change or an emergent behavior that arose from the increasing pressure achieved by an anti-entropic array of forces within the chaotic whole (with a modest degree of accuracy, we can call this array the State). This emergent behavior functions as a decentralized or common measuring stick that different foci of power can use, consciously or unconsciously, to regulate themselves. When the democracy activist seeks to impose trusted and comforting forms of organization on a chaotic rupture, he is not in the employ of a specific institution, but as conduit and captive in other spaces of his life, he has been conditioned by other apparatuses and is now predisposed to create new ones. Thus, the advance of apparatuses can easily outpace the ability of the institutions of power to become cognizant of the opening of new social spaces in which apparatuses could take root. The institutional response is more likely to tend towards the suppression of new spaces, out of the conservative self-interest that characterizes the institutional form (a form that predates biopower, and is more parasitic than productive, or to refer to the earlier metaphor, is a sedentary parasite rather than a hyperaggressive one). However, the opening of new social spaces usually does not realize its potential as a threat to the State, because non-State actors following the tide and responding to newness with a greater adaptability than the State could ever achieve are usually the ones to introduce new apparatuses into the new spaces. These actors sometimes call themselves activists, or anarchists, or artists, or are called by others hipsters. In every case, what they fear is chaos, and what they seek is a “true” realization of the same values that the system has supposedly neglected (rights, justice, democracy, equality, and other tripe). This common language between governor and activist is the virus of colonization.

The internet constitutes a multitude of new spaces—a new plane—of social life. It is also an array of apparatuses. Technically, it is the unforeseen side effect of a well meaning attempt by the US military to still be able to control the world in the event of a nuclear holocaust, subsequently expanded by scientific institutions and informal networks of geeks before being even more massively expanded (and saturated with new apparatuses) as a new possible terrain for commerce. The specific machines that contributed to the development of the internet either run independently or they condition their operator little more than does a typewriter (referring now to the personal computer). But the new spaces constituted by the internet and the apparatuses that quickly migrated into them have had a profound affect on human behavior. At the user end, those who stray into the apparatuses of the internet exist simultaneously as conduits and captives. This heightened involvement as both producer and consumer is often portrayed as one of the liberatory aspects of the internet: so much of it is created by those who use it.

One possibility opened up by the participatory nature of the internet is the crowdsourcing of repression. “Crowdsourcing” itself is an internet-era neologism reflecting the previously unimaginable phenomenon that has followed riots from London to Toronto: the police publishing thousands of megabytes worth of photo and video and calling on the public to help them trace and identify lawbreakers, qualitatively surpassing the predecessor of this phenomenon, the good ole fashioned “Wanted” poster. Of course, to every action a reaction: this crowdsourcing of repression has already been sabotaged by anarchists spamming police identification efforts, sometimes with the help of computer programs that automatically flood the database with thousands of fake and funny names (the equivalent of ripping down the “Wanted” poster, drawing a moustache on it, or, à la Robin Hood, shooting a freaking arrow through it).

Another user offering thrown up on the altar of the internet—not just new content but a whole new feature—is the online comment. Rumor has it that the online comment, now so ubiquitous in the world of blogs and online newspapers, is actually the invention of Indymedia. It might be easy, and not entirely without merit, to return to the heady days of innovation, and in light of the subsequent triumph of that innovation, such that present day life is hard to imagine without the contribution of those shoestring activists, exalt in the creative grandeur of anarchy. Given the present condition of the internet comment, it is even easier to reflect on the erroneous or lacking critique of democracy and free speech held by those innovative activists, those pioneers unwittingly carrying their parasite into virgin lands.

Within a few short years, the internet comment forum transformed into a repressive apparatus, albeit democratic par excellence. With nearly everyone taking part, internet comment forums created and used within anarchist struggles have become acceptable spaces for the intensification of sectarian divisions based on barely a shadow of critical difference, the proliferation of superficial or aesthetic affinities, snitch-jacketing, rape-jacketing, the publishing of legally endangering information, the compromising of anonymities, the erosion of solidarity and its replacement with flippancy and instant gratification, and a deepening of the culture of TLDR.

In the world at large, comment forums have been seized on by internet news sites to increase reader interest but also to further mold reader opinion. Given that the public has always been an imaginary force used to discipline collective and individual behavior, the opening of a new potential manifestation of a collectivity, on the internet, had to be replaced by a new public. And that public, as all publics, had to be disciplined. In the beginning, this was done by astroturfing: mercenary trolls in the employ of public relations firms or government agencies posting comments that would generate favorable opinions of specific brands and policies, and on a larger scale create a majority disposed to social peace and consumption. Increasingly, astroturfing is being automated as the PR firms and governments that carry it out increase their labor efficiency by turning their opinion workers into the overseers of multiple computer-generated opinion-spreading machines that create the impression of a sycophantic mass hostile to the extremists, favorable to the products, and unquestioning of the tropes and lenses with which the media represent the world.

As machines condition the workforce with increasingly mechanical behaviors and apparatuses condition their captives to act within the suggested channels, we can surmise that the roboticization of the workforce carrying out the informational and affective labor of the internet forums is of secondary importance to the inculcation of robotic attitudes among the remaining organics. In other words, the horror of the mass production of an imaginary public through internet comments is not to be found in the image of real people being overwhelmed by corporate-employed robots who endanger a prior democratic balance; it is to be found, rather, in the image of real people becoming steadily more like the robots who replaced them, in their own turn making the robots redundant (but no less useful).

One can assume a low probability to the proposition that specifically anarchist comment forums are, or at least were in their earlier days, dominated by hired or robotic trolls. But the population and voracity of their trolls are not less but if anything more than in the mainstream internet forums presumably managed by the robots. After Infoshop News got rid of anonymous commenting, I can only imagine in an attempt to create a less pernicious commenting culture, a great deal of activity moved to Anarchist News, which is known far and wide for comment wars that are at best assinine. A recent poll on that site asking which types of comments could be acceptably purged suggests that they too are looking for a way to change the nature of their comment forum. The big question, no doubt, is how to get rid of the trolls and improve the quality of the debates without killing activity on the site. In this problematic we see reflected a characteristic behavior that is typical of the consumer: the demand for more opportunities to consume, and the reproduction of desires that in the first instance were objectivated from without.

A specific space inhabited by an apparatus—a website, for example—functions as a shell. Even in the absence of management, its very shape suggests a specific use and flow which serve to regenerate it. For this reason, fighting an apparatus within its own space usually requires counterintuitive, obscure, or shockingly violent measures. (If I were to say that it requires thinking outside the box, it is only because this particular field of text seems like an appropriate terrain for the burial ground of such a dead metaphor.) There are many anarchists who have run for the mountains, as it were, ignoring anarchist websites entirely and foregoing all the civilizational wonders of internetland, consigning themselves to discursive forms that are illegible from the lowlands. Through avoidance, they protect themselves from the recuperating trap of trying to resolve the problem, but they also run the risk, historically repeated, of losing a battle fought on a field from which they are absent, ensuring that they will subsequently be overrun and disappeared.

Faced with the superficiality of internet communication and its pernicious effect on our own behaviors and networks, what are we to do?

I don’t offer a solution to this question. I intend the question itself as a subversion, an invitation to counter the flow of the apparatus that is already leading you along to click on the hypertext that leads to the next article before even reading the middle of this one (because you skimmed, didn’t you?) by pondering—at length and unproductively—an invitation to look away, causing your eye muscles to remember distance and focus, to breathe in deeply and remember that you hadn’t been, and to remember your back and your shoulders, that should be straight, ready for a fight or a long walk, but are instead hunched, as though under some great load that you must carry with you wherever you go.

What are we to do?