Making a game of disruption politics

Paul Raven @ 22-06-2010

More from John Robb: rewiring agitprop and non-violent protest movements as open-source games.

… in modern western societies, this elite group and their specialists are able to dissociate themselves from jobs when it comes to their private lives.  They live unencumbered within our impersonal society.  This window of vulnerability creates a yawning opportunity for innovative forms of disruptive non-violent protest.  One that pierces the organizational and societal veil of anonymity for these individuals by turning them into systempunkts (vulnerable nodes within the targeted organization’s network that would cause the most damage if disrupted).

Essentially, if you can successfully deter/coerce individual decision makers in this decision making group, you will win (and quickly).Early work on this type of protest can be seen in the work of 4Chan’s Anonymous and China’s human flesh search engine. Both of these open source movements have shown to be surprisingly powerful at targeting single individuals (and poor at disrupting organizations).

An aside: I find Anonymous fascinating, because (whether deliberately or not) they’ve created a fluid non-identity that can be picked up by anyone anywhere for any purpose. It’ll be one of those names that haunts the sidebars of news sites for decades, if not longer… and there’s always the possibility of a schism or interfactional split, which should be fascinating (and doubtless horrific and hilarious) to watch from the sidelines.

But back to Robb:

… any online group of sufficient size could launch an effort like this.  However, to really zoom the effort and turn it into a coercive tool, one modification should be made.  It should operate as an online game.

Well, pretty much everything else operates as an online game, even democracy itself. [/snark] More seriously, though, using the reward structures of games to entice people toward certain real-world behaviours has been proposed (and put in to action) by others, and has a certain resonance not only with the times we find ourselves in, but also our nature as homo ludens. Indeed, Robb himself proposed a kind of real-life Farmville to spread permaculture farming, but I suspect the amount of real physical work needed to achieve those sorts of goals will deter all but the most tenacious.

That said, science fiction writers got there first: Stross’ Halting State, and Walter John Williams’ This Is Not A Game, for instance. Maybe human society was always a game, and we’re only now waking up to a fact that politicians and uber-entrepreneurs have always understood instinctively?

John “Global Guerrillas” Robb interviewed

Paul Raven @ 16-06-2010

Regular readers will know I follow John Robb’s Global Guerrillas blog quite closely; Robb cropped up yesterday as an interviewee on Boing Boing, restating his case for turning our backs on our governments (who have, in many ways, turned their backs on us) and building grass-roots “resilient communities”:

BB: Do you see a diminishing role for the state in large-scale governance? Does this compel communities to do it for themselves?

JR: Yes, large scale governance is on the way out. Not only are nearly all governments financially insolvent, they can’t protect citizens from a global system that is running amok. As services and security begin to fade, local sources of order will emerge to fill the void. Hopefully, most people will opt to take control of this process by joining together with others to build resilient communities that can offer the independence, security, and prosperity that isn’t offered by the nation-state anymore. However, this is something you will have to build for yourself. Nobody is going to help you build it.

Robb’s is a potentially grim vision (and he appears to rather revel in that grimness from time to time, like any good gadfly); some commenters have pointed out to me that a pinch of salt added to Robb’s posts is a sensible precaution, and I’d agree, but I still think there’s a lot of useful stuff in what he has to say. That said, it’s good to question received wisdom, especially when it confirms what you already believe to be true… so via Technoccult, here’s a critique of Robb’s last book at Reason:

… Robb claims global guerrillas can successfully wage strategic war on nation-states. But a successful strategic war is one in which a guerrilla group attains its strategic goals. If global guerrillas really just want failed states, the world has no shortage, and Robb is correct. If they want the things guerrilla groups have always wanted—regional autonomy, a greater share of the economic pie, dominion over ethnic or sectarian rivals, an end to foreign occupation, social revolution, national control—it’s much harder to say that any global guerrilla group has yet been “successful.”


What most of the global guerrilla groups have managed so far is to not lose. It’s a truism of counterinsurgency that “guerrillas win by not losing,” but successful guerrilla movements eventually win by winning. It’s much harder for global guerrillas to “win” than Robb thinks, because most of these groups have larger goals than he acknowledges.

These peer-to-peer networks of resistance would be pretty easy to hijack, I suppose; we’re rather attached to hierarchies as a species, though whether that’s a predisposition or a psychological artefact is beyond my knowledge. So, what starts as a scattering of people who think of themselves as freedom fighters can be corralled together and steered by another group with a wider agenda and more resources… or maybe just a bigger axe to grind. But perhaps I’m naively assuming that most small insurgencies start as a valiant resistance to some sort of oppression. More research needed (my hourly mantra).

Still, Robb’s points about having to look out for ourselves as nation-states decline and stability decreases ring pretty true, even if they have a Mad Max-esque vibe of dramatic overstatement to them. Security can be offered to you (in exchange for taxes, or whatever else, and not necessarily delivered on when it comes to the crunch), but resilience you must make for yourself. Resilience can fail as well, of course, but then you can blame no one but yourself… perhaps that’s why we’re all so resistant to the idea?