Informatic Guerrilla Warfare


Guerrilla Warfare and Counterinsurgency

Traditional guerrilla activity such as bombings, snipings, and kidnapping complete with printer manifestos seems like so many ecologically risky short change feedback devices compared with the real possibilities of portable video, maverick data banks, acid metaprogramming. Cable TV, satellites, cybernetic craft industries, and alternative lifestyles. Yet the guerrilla tradition is highly relevant in the current information environment.[1]

So goes the opening lines to Paul Ryan’s little discussed 1971 manifesto, “Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare.” The text is of its time and place: nods to Maoist insurgency, filtering through to American television screens from Vietnam, abound the writing; experimentation with LSD is casually referred to as “metaprogramming.” That euphoric rush of technological saturation, today so closely aligned with the digital explosion, comes not from the personal computer but by the cheap availability of portable video recorders. The influences too, are those who had only then crashed into resistance imagination (yet still resonate so sharply today): Marshall McLuhan and Gregory Bateson. “Learn what you can from the Egyptians,” Ryan tells us, for “the exodus will be cybernetic.”[2]

Connect, connect, connect, was the mantra of Western counterculture during the 1960s. Connection, in the most unmediated, open sense, was the dream of exodus against the domination of disciplinary forces – configured here by Ryan as the inflexible, entropic forces – that was so longed for. But unlike so much the rhetoric of his time, Ryan doesn’t see the future as an inherent utopia, forecasting that that the coming information age will present its own entropic forces that will manage the freedoms of the dissenting underbellies. It is something than instead must be fought for. The now-forever slogan from Gregory Bateson, that “information is difference that makes a difference,” rises to the fore, but it is taken a step further: how do we make a difference that makes a difference make a difference?

Ryan’s answer is a new model of nonviolent guerrilla warfare that deploys the cybernetic materials of the new economy. The portable video recorder is the rifle in the fighter’s hands; the tactics are the reclamation of media technology from the so-called Spectacle, and with them the guerrillas will continually strike and fall back at the “information contours” of society, jamming its gears.[3] Ryan’s manifesto is but one earlier rumbling of the Information Guerrilla.


In 1995 Brian Springer released Spin, the result of a year spent grabbing ‘backhaul’ satellite news feeds, off-the-air nuggets that leak through the Spectacle’s dense insulation. His revelation is one of a world of immense editing, where information vital to understanding the nature of contemporary of society is secreted away from the masses. His work was one of the fulfillments (in practice, if not in wider change) of the visions contained in “Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare” – “Inherent in cybernetic guerrilla warfare is the absolute necessity of having the people participate as fully as possible. This can be done in an information environment by insisting on ways of feeding back information for human enhancement rather than feeding off people for the sake of concentration of power.”[4] The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), having crawled from the same widespread sentiment as Spin – and Arthur Kroker and the rest of the tactical media networks, for that matter -, saw in Springer’s actions a model for what they called the “Fuzzy Biological Saboteur” (FBS). For the CAE, the FBS was to be applied in the context of resistance to the biotechnology industries. Like Springer, the “fuzzy saboteur has to stand on that ambiguous line between the legal and the illegal (both criminally and civilly). From that point, the individual or group can set in motion a chain of events that will yield the desired final result.”[5] The CAE saw their FSB as a war machine that deployed pranks – often leading to slow work or outright work stoppage – as a weapon, but the key thing to take away is that the figure rests upon its ambiguity, its becoming-imperceptible. The guerrilla’s moves are largely invisible to the system’s internal logic.

The internal logic and the myth of the (neo-)liberal state is cyborg-machinic, a development that came to fruition in the decades prior to Ryan’s manifesto. Its growth comes creeping down through the ages; the body enfolded into machinery was the Taylorist dream, with its systematic regimentation of the human laborer and the endless cataloging of its movements in reams of tabulation. It congealed in the guise of British Operations Research during World War II, driven by the need to provide quantitative analyses for military decision-making processes; in America, it took the form of MIT’s work in fire-control patterns under the eyes of Norbert Wiener. It leapt from the RAND Corporation to the University of Chicago’s economics department and later into economic orthodoxy; it also zig-zagged from RAND to the Kennedy and then Johnson administrations, where it became the logic of governance. Karl Wolfgang Deutsch celebrated this new juridical paradigm in his 1963 book The Nerves of Government, riding the wave of cybernetic infatuation in the social sciences through the Macy Conferences. It became the ‘egalitarian’ corporate conscience with through Kurt Lewin’s National Training Laboratories. It would become these same corporation’s motors through the technological innovations of post-Fordist capitalism, aided by the market ideologues radiating from the University of Chicago. Its future, at least for those positioned near the center of the global system it engendered, will be hybrid and posthuman.

The first cybernetic war was the conflict waged in Vietnam, with its confrontation between rationally-designed combat troops and machines and the insurgent guerrilla fighters. Andrew Pickering has done an extensive survey of the divergent cybernetic dreaming of the counterculture in the years during and preceding this conflict, and has noted a universal theme of establishing an ontology of the “nonmodern self,” which denies the “dualist split between people and things… a vision of the world as a place of continuing interlinked performances.”[6] From the perspective of the state ensnared in Vietnam, who perhaps appeared more nonmodern than the Viet Cong guerrillas themselves? The jungle was his camouflage and he existed as part of it and it a part of him. They were synonymous with the it, the fighters becoming-tree, becoming-root, becoming-insect. It was the jungle itself that was fighting the occupiers and invaders. One needs to look no further than rhetoric of the programs and the American state: in 1961 Walt Rostow stood before a class graduating from the Army’s Special Warfare Center’s counterguerrilla strategy project, and in a language influenced in no small part by the systems thinkers in the RAND Corporation, spoke of defeating the rising tide of Communism through engaging with the whole creative process of modernization.”[7]

As the conflict dragged on this would escalate from rebuilding village infrastructure to peasantry resettlement, and finally forced urbanization projects, but the guerrilla always eluded these apparatuses of capture, fading deeper into the background, finding new ways to circumvent the war machine. The guerrilla was noise in the system, delinking its command passageways and destabilizing and interrupting the transmission of American values and propaganda. In 1966 the military launched Operation Igloo White, an electronic sensor grid established along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that would serve as a “remote surveillance system” – used to detect even body heat and the scents of urine – to better guide bombing campaigns against insurgent targets (“We wired the Ho Chi Minh Trail like a drugstore pinball machine and we plugged it in every night,” reported one Air Force officer.)[8] Despite the massive sums of money poured into Igloo White, the project would ultimately be a failure. The guerilla-jungle assemblage had proven to be noise in the precise, cybernetic definition of the word: what the sensors picked up was nothing but the fog of war, an information saturation that proved to be an impossible maze.



The “centralized, computerized, automated method of ‘interdiction’”[9] resulted in an overload rising from the deployment of a technology that couldn’t handle the tasks that it had been given. These earlier cybernetic technologies operated in a closed spectrum, where absolute informatization of the environment would lead to a god’s eye view of the terrain and the movements across it. But a closed world is by nature an exclusionary world, with an excess it cannot handle. It is from that excess that the guerrilla strikes.

Full Spectrum Dominance

The Frankfurt School, the Situationists, and various critics of technology and communication have focused on the fact that power in capitalist societies is becoming totalitarian through the production of docile subjects. To a certain extent the nightmares of such authors correspond to the dreams of the strategists of full spectrum dominance.[10]

Counterinsurgency strategy, Hardt and Negri note, proceeds through the drive to “create and control the environment.”[11] Following the failures of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, a long march through technology was undertaken towards Full Spectrum Dominance, which constitutes the absolute control of this environment by opening it up from its previous enclosures. The guerrilla army is a network enemy, and Full Spectrum Dominance is an affair of “engaging the network not only militarily but also economically, politically, socially, psychologically, and ideologically.”[12] If previous counterinsurgency strategy sifted through the environment, then Full Spectrum Dominance aims to make itself the environment. A postmodern phenomenon, it moves beyond the ‘nation-upgrading’ pursued by older forms in lieu of ‘nation-building.’ Following the cybernetic paradigm, it pinpoints the flexible and elastic nature underpinning all subjective formations. Full Spectrum Dominance is the military equivalency to the logistics of post-Fordist capitalism.

Cybernetics itself is a subject that underwent a transition from a system of closure to one of openness. No longer did noise have to be the force that destroys the message’s voyage; noise itself could increase information. “All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise, the only possible source of new patterns.[13] In Heinz von Foerster’s reasoning (and illustrated by Gordon Pask), the forces of noise can take a jumble of lazily-stacked jumble of boxes and create a maze from them worthy of an M.C. Escher painting. There will be no-more failures like Operation Igloo White, the planners say. Mazes can beneficial and serving the scientific functioning of the machine.


These second-order cybernetics fulfill Pickering’s proposed ontology of nonmodernity; it categorically rejects the subject/object binary by opening the world up to a web of infinite flexibility. If the postmodern sublime dissolves the traditional into the ether, it is because of this shift: the very logic is an epistemology of transformation and flux. The previous mode had prioritized probabilistic outcomes of scenarios and made decisions accordingly, but Full Spectrum Dominance – and here we are not singling out the military application of the term, but expanding it to the full functioning of Empire itself – charts out and occupies any possible space, preempts any outcome, and if it these leak through, manage them, corral them if at all possible and if necessary, eliminate them. It is no longer action or reaction; it is anticipation, or perhaps it is more than that – not the feeling of anticipation or the action of planning, but a bid for anticipatory seeing. When this epistemological shift no longer functioned as the opponent of power but as the higher evolution of power, the relationship between noise and communication is short-circuited to where, on a very material level, it “is an essential structural component of markets… In a sense, we are the noise, and so much of the IT investment you see is devoted to mining signals of various kinds from us. The more signal our institutions and machines mine from us, the more they become the primary site of noise production.”[14]


Alongside the modes of capitalist function, with its critical disjunction between developed and underdeveloped, we have this cybernetic passageway cutting through the modes of production, class formation, and subjective processes. Yet “Dominance, no matter how multidimensional, can never be complete and is always contradicted by resistance.”[15] What is it than escapes the total information awareness of the informatics, networked age? Market function does depend on the noise factor – the becoming-perceptible of the previously imperceptible is that critical opening of new zones for surplus extraction. Likewise, certain things are made imperceptible, invisible, to ensure the continuation this system of exploitation. Always hunt for the contradiction. The dialectic between America and Empire is one such contradiction, between unilateralism, sovereign imperative, and the need to extend market forces – and thus hyperconnection – across the globe and beyond. Historically, Full Spectrum Dominance is a neoconservative program; it advances its program for American superiority while also setting in motion a neoliberal program. “Our security and economic interests, as well as our political values, will provide the impetus for engagement with international partners.”[16] Full Spectrum Dominance searches for an uneasy equilibrium, where the branch grows as the same rhythm as the boy sawing at it as he sits atop it.

If so much time is spent on these military evolutions, it is because the question of the ‘military-industrial-complex’ is one that takes center stage in contemporary economic mobilization, while also displaying the displacements of agency in the postmodern epoch. There are dualing paradigms that emerge from this juncture: one in which agency is from scrubbed from the self, where the subjectivity produced is that of a docile body (this is the robotic dream of those who preach the military’s Full Spectrum Dominance), and one of flexible and creative subjectivities, noise-producers, who aid in the cycles of production and consumption (the very process that Full Spectrum Dominance is supposed to protect and promote). Such is the crisis of the informatic paradigm, with its singular commandment: connect, connect, connect.

Network Silence

Social movements may emerge and operate following a catalyzing event, but their coalescence is a lengthy process that entails the coming-together of divergent strands and lines of flight around a commonly-held set of symbolic coordinates and an entry into a mutual process of becoming those coordinates. Tactical media in the weird 1990s was on just such a process; it followed a slow-build through the Autonomia of Italy in the 1970s and the squatters and social center movements that followed in its wake across Europe. Before that was mail art and the Situationists – it should occur to us that the coming-together, a becoming itself, breaks the boundary lines between success and failures: the revolt of the derive in the ferment of May ’68 may have been short lived, but it provided its own symbolic coordinates, a vision of a New Earth. It’s not enough to isolate the tactical media artists, however, just as one shouldn’t isolate the Situationists from the wider context of the 1960s; they must be viewed in conjunction with the wider alter-globalization movement, which leads us to the catalyzing factor: the Zapatistas of Chiapas.


It is beyond this short text to review the successes and the failures in the Zapatistas’ long struggle, but is worth stopping our drift for a moment to consider several aspects. The first is the Zapatista’s own becoming-imperceptible through tactical anonymity: wearing black masks, the Zapatista is faceless, but through this dissolution of identity a newer common identity is created. This does not sit at odds with their sense of openness; an over-riding goal was to create an event through the media and with the media, to encourage participation and solidarity on transnational level. It is a telling subversion of the contradiction eating at the heart of neoliberalism. The second aspect to consider is their command to disconnect from the world market, the electrotronics of neoliberalism: originally a movement against NAFTA, the black masks become a negative force in the swirling affirmations of world order. We will not participate, they say, even if all can join us.

The third and final point for us to consider is the elements who joined the Zapatistas in their struggle. On one hand it was a global coterie of media cartels and NGOs, both of which are both seen a willing ideologues of neoliberal orthodoxy. On the other are many in the orbit of the tactical media and alter-globalization circles – we could cite, for example, the Tute Bianche, offspring of the squatters movement, who had mined Zapatista tactics of common identity through the uniform of white overalls. Another would be the Electronic Disturbance Theater, founded by Ricardo Dominguez of the Critical Art Ensemble. Having spread information on the struggle in Chiapas through The Thing, an early media art and online-activism support platform, he had linked up with dissidents in Italy on an intervention based simply on hitting the refresh button on the Mexican government website. This grew into the Zapatista FloodNet, which jammed government’s CPU by repeated questions on the names of dead fighters and on the questions of democracy and justice.[17]

What these tactical media artists and alter-globalizationists were conducting was not the compulsion to connect, but to disconnect. New Earths always means abandoning the old. An early Critical Art Ensemble text spoke of “anti-tech malcontents” in the form of the Slacker Luddite, who “delights most in misappropriating the technology, and in turning the authoritarian codes of the workplace inside out. H/is mission is not to destroy the material aspects of work—this would be as misguided as the actions of the originary Luddites—but rather to destroy the symbolic order that confines and alienates the individual.”[18] Today’s workplace in the developed world is focused on technology, computers, surveillance, and code. A Slacker Luddite is simply one who disregards this idea, and in doing so disregards the whole of the neoliberal ideology, which is indistinguishable from the neoliberal reality.

images (74)

Perhaps the theme of disconnection runs through tactical media discourse as much as connection does. There is a gulf between their visions and that of technotopia’s prophets: where the traders of Wall Street panic at the site of error codes, crashes, and glitches, tactical media makes art from them. Spam isn’t simply noise to filter out, it is a poetry. Whenever properly activated it becomes a weapon. Disconnection implies a new kind of connection. Just as to fight a network one moves through the cracks, conjoins with others, and becomes a counter-network. Proliferating vacuoles of noncommunication doesn’t mean the abandoning of communication: Debord, Vaneigem, and their Situationist comrades saw a world of ludic affirmation, but it was only possible when one confronted the illusionary power of the Spectacle with the spear of negativity to pierced its side.

Creativity isn’t intrinsically resistant. It is something that must be made or deployed in a political, or post-political, or anti-political context, for it is power that sets the ground that the struggle takes place on. But there is creativity, joy, the ludic, to be found when one disruptions, jams, or creates gaps where there wasn’t one before. Radical agency is not a given, just as there is no utopia that can be ascertained by following a deterministic path. It is something that must be called into being, conjured forth. It takes finding the contradiction and amplifying the cracks therein. This is a zone of ambiguities, but it is such zones that the Information Guerrilla can be found. The Information Guerrilla’s noise is different from the hum of the machines, data processors, of bureaucracy churning – h/is noise is noise at its limit and ultimate expression, which is silence. Disconnect, disconnect, disconnect, is h/is proposal, a bid to find other ways to connect. Or, to put it like this: which is the revolutionary path? Is there one? – to accelerate the world market, as the symptoms of our times advises us to do, in an amplification of the neoliberal “economic solution?” Or might it be to go sideways? To interrupt and disrupt, that is, to increase the rate of error messages? For perhaps we have had enough of endless communication and circulation, and the only by breaking these things down, becoming-unknown can we change the process… as Nietzsche put it: in this matter, the truth is that we haven’t seen anything yet.

[1] Paul Ryan “Cybernetic Guerrilla Warfare” Radical Software Volume 1, no. 3, Spring, 1971

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Critical Art Ensemble “Fuzzy Biological Sabotage” Molecular Invasion Autonomedia and the Critical Art Ensemble, 2002, pg. 101

[6] Andrew Pickering The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future University of Chicago Press, 2010, pg. 19, 20-21

[7] Michael E. Latham Modernization as Ideology: American Social Science and “Nation Building” in the Kennedy Era pgs. 1-2

[8] William Rosenau Special Operations Forces and Elusive Enemy Ground Targets: Lessons from Vietnam and the Persian Gulf War RAND Corporation, 2001, pg. 11

[9] Paul N. Edwards The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1996, pg. 4

[10] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire pg. 53

[11] Ibid, pg. 58

[12] Ibid.

[13] Gregory Bateson “Cybernetic Explanation” Steps to an Ecology of the Mind University of Chicago Press, 2000, pg.416

[14] R.S. Bakker, comment on “The Posthuman and the Information Guerrilla” Synthetic_Zero

[15] Hardt and Negri Multitude pg. 54

[16] U.S. Department of Defense “Joint Vision 2020” May 30th, 2000, pg. 4

[17] Ricardo Dominguez “Electronic Disturbance”

[18] Critical Art Ensemble “Slacker Luddites” Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas Autonomedia and Critical Art Ensemble, 1997, pg. 68

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6 Responses to Informatic Guerrilla Warfare

  1. dmfant says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic_zero and commented:
    new twist on monkey-wrenching

  2. Pingback: Informatic Guerrilla Warfare | Guerrilla Concepts

  3. Pingback: An Information Guerrilla Reader | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  4. Pingback: Sketches on Mutant Design (or, Situationism at the after party) | Deterritorial Investigations Unit

  5. Pingback: Sketches on Mutant Design (or, Situationism at the after party) | synthetic_zero

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