Fog Machines

Digital connectivity has turned the “social factory” into a global battlefield

The increasing interconnection of the world is being weaponized. Much of our civilian digital infrastructure, from the internet to GPS, was initially developed for the purposes of fighting and winning wars. This makes the history our digital technology inseparable from the development of weaponry.

We are now seeing a new stage in this development, with the militarization and weaponization of communication technology that had for a brief period become ostensibly civilian. Originally, apparently online phenomena like social media may have seemed innocuous enough, but they are now being reintegrated into a global battlespace as part of a growing “cyberwar.”

Perhaps like all things “cyber-,” the term cyberwar may already feel a bit dated, or as though it fails to capture the complex geopolitics at stake. For example, political scientist Thomas Rid, in Cyberwar Will Not Take Place, argues that “cyberwar” is not a useful concept: what the term names as new is better understood as a continuation of older forms of military intervention — such as information warfare, propaganda, and sabotage — or as an extension of politics. But as outmoded as the term may sound now, it is important to have some way of describing the novelty of interconnected and targeted attacks on and through digital communication systems. Moreover, militaries are using this terminology and directly investing in capacity for the type of attacks it denotes. As this Stratfor article explains, the U.S. is rapidly shifting from defensive to offensive “cyber” capabilities, collecting unknown vulnerabilities (commonly known as zero-day vulnerabilities) and using them to carry out attacks.

Cyberwar takes the form of precisely targeted psychological warfare, creating an increasingly paranoid enclosure

Before 2016, discussions around “cyberwar” largely focused on how digital attacks could inflict physical damage to infrastructure: They could, for example, disrupt the electricity power grid and aviation, or interfere with military command and control. When attackers targeted cultural and information systems, they were typically presumed to be focused on taking them offline rather than turning them directly into weapons themselves. Stuxnet, a virus likely built by the U.S. and Israel (as detailed in this article in the New York Times), typified this type of attack: The virus, spread by flash drives, infected the industrial control system that ran Iran’s centrifuges for uranium enrichment. Then, while playing fake data to make everything look okay, the virus spun the centrifuges out of control, permanently damaging a substantial number of them.

This view of cyberwar changed with the 2016 U.S. election. It is evident that Russia, building on its earlier efforts in Estonia, Georgia, and Ukraine, carried out an influence campaign to foment social divisions and aid Donald Trump’s presidential bid. This presents a different conception of cyberwar, using information and communication systems not to attack physical systems but other information systems, such as elections and the media.

But cyberwar cannot be understood as an exclusively technical or even military problem. Digital attacks can also be targeted and delivered more easily by a wider variety of actors, causing more destabilization as they are increasingly used. According to Nick Dyer-Witheford and Svitlana Matviyenko, the authors of the recent Cyberwar and Revolution: Digital Subterfuge in Global Capitalism, “access to the ‘datified subject’ ” — that is to say, individuals or groups understood as a data archives, available for searching and sorting — “both expands the scope of such operations across planet-spanning networks and intensifies the precision with which they can be targeted.” For the authors, cyberwar is an extension of how world markets, in their ceaseless pursuit of value, have seized upon the individual, targeting them in increasingly disorienting ways. The internet, they declare, is not broken, as nostalgic commentators sometimes suggest; rather “the internet is finally what it was always meant to be. Maybe it is perfect, but not for us, the excommunicated user-subjects. For cyberwar.”

At first glance, Dyer-Witheford and Matviyenko may appear an odd pair for theorizing cyberwar. While both write and study media, Dyer-Witheford’s previous work applied Autonomist Marxist theory to explain digital economies, and Matviyenko is known as an expert on theorizing media through the lens of Lacanian psychoanalysis. Most analyses of cyberwar approach the subject from conventional perspectives — international relations, political science, or military theory. But as cyberwar slips outside the bounds of declared war, theoretical approaches far beyond the realm of politics and war become directly relevant as different subjects and markets are militarized and attacked. Cyberwar and Revolution cuts across many domains and conflicts, explicating how war, technology, politics, and even scholarship are implicated in one another. The authors’ central argument is that cyberwar is a symptom of the “capitalist unconscious” and “the profound aggression and destructiveness intrinsic to an order predicated on privatized and increasingly machinic competition” on a global scale.

Its first chapter offers a Marxist analysis of cyberwar, arguing that it must be understood in the larger context of conflicts between the capitalist classes of various nations and ultimately as a form of class warfare, with automation as cyberwar carried out against labor. It builds on Dyer-Witheford’s prior work in such books as Cyber-Marx and Cyber-Proletariat. Those drew on the autonomist Marxist tenet that workers in a capitalist society retain the initiative to reshape society, while capital works ever more strenuously to constrain that capability. Labor can survive without capital, but capital cannot survive without labor. Hence labor is “autonomous” from capital and could theoretically move beyond its structures. The “laws” of competition and the means through which value is produced under capitalism force capitalists to pursue predetermined goals, while workers can resist those laws and generate new collective formations.

Because of how capital has woven digital networks into everyday life, this fog can engulf any aspect of society or the economy

This reframes the nature of capitalist innovation not as a response to human wants but as a response to worker resistance, pursuing it into every cranny of everyday life. As capitalist relations expand to capture more and more of society, they generate what Autonomists call the “social factory,” which not only harnesses unwaged labor to reproduce capitalist society but also allows for new forms of class consciousness to emerge. Focusing on the autonomy of labor leads to new tactics and approaches: actions that stress solidarity among blue- and white-collar workers and waged and unwaged laborers, including students and domestic workers; democratic organization at very local levels as opposed to centering power in political vanguard parties; direct action including strikes, occupations, and riots.

The internet, with its new forms of labor extraction (i.e. the “free labor” of content production) and collectivity, could readily be assimilated to the idea of the social factory. (Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory includes a number of important essays on this subject.) The same idea of worker autonomy from capital applies equally to digital capital, providing a means to theorize possible resistance to digital capitalism’s power. If digital technologies were being used to make more of life subject to capital, increasing the breadth, depth and variety of capitalist exploitation, Dyer-Witheford and other autonomist theorists pointed out how this also made for new spaces, weapons, and solidarities for resistance. In this critique of the work of autonomist philosopher Antonio Negri, for instance, Dyer-Witheford notes the variability of resistance to capitalism, both temporally (e.g. as technology changes) and spatially (i.e. the possibilities for resistance at Facebook’s offices in Silicon Valley look very different than at Foxconn’s factories in China) and insisted on the necessity of connecting these struggles.

In Cyberwar and Revolution, Dyer-Witheford and Matviyenko extend that position, arguing that when technologically mediated war targets individuals, it can both look like and participate in social struggle. “Cyberwar” can describe not only the constant destruction wrought by technological competition among capitalists, but also the worker’s tactics of resistance and capital’s counter-strategies, including how they can be confused for one another. They trace how the capitalist drive to exploit labor drove the mass adoption of many of the technologies we use today; how the use of these technologies fueled mass movements; and then, drawing in part on Zeynep Tufekci’s Twitter and Tear Gas, how these networked technologies have been reappropriated by authoritarian governments.

In the second chapter, the authors combine Marxist and Lacanian insights to articulate the new “subject” of cyberwarfare — the individual user. This turn away from the procedures of hacking into networks and toward the interior mental processes of individuals demonstrates how cyberwar increasingly takes the form of precisely targeted psychological warfare. The aim is not merely to deliver specific messages to manipulate specific individuals but also to create an increasingly paranoid enclosure in which no one knows what is going on around them. Dyer-Witheford and Matviyenko call this the “veritable fog machine” of digital war. Because of how capital has woven digital networks into everyday life, this fog can engulf any aspect of society or the economy and transform it into a battlefield.

There is no inherently correct stance in these struggles. The left must not assume that a strategy working or failing once will guarantee the same result elsewhere

The nature of these attacks calls for a thorough accounting of how subjects can and do respond. The authors draw from Lacan the idea of the “non-dupes errant”: people who err precisely because they understand a particular situation well. They offer the example of those who believe that understanding code can protect them from becoming a victim of cyberwar. Often those who are most competent and well connected become the richest target for phishing attacks, hacks, and blackmail threats. Another example is those who respond to misinformation in media with attempts to correct the record: This often inadvertently increases the scope of the attack, amplifying the misinformation. In this way, everyone becomes both unwilling combatants and civilian targets in these struggles. The fog of cyberwar assures that the effects of our actions and even our understanding of them become increasingly unclear.

Cyberwar cannot be seen as someone else’s problem, to be addressed at an exclusively technical or even military level. This means that to confront cyberwar requires discourses that go beyond technical or military considerations to take up the larger social, cultural and political contexts in which it occurs. For example, as the authors point out, trolling as a means of influence often serves to amplify sexist, homophobic, and racist discourse, weaponizing and exacerbating the fault lines that already run through a given society. The vulnerabilities that are exploited are not then simply mistakes or bad code but rather the fissures that define the interlocking forces of capitalism (whose laws constantly drive more connection and automation) and racial and gendered violence. For Dyer-Witheford and Matviyenko it is no accident that the rise of cyberwar follows in the wake of the financial meltdown of 2008. Cyberwars arise directly as a result of the contradictions of capitalism, its incessant drive toward overproduction and the exploitation of labor.

The book concludes by arguing that cyberwar must become a site of social struggle, with the aim of demilitarizing our digital systems. But this cannot be conceived as an individualistic project or even one in which the battle lines are ever clearly drawn: “These vectors interact to create a series of zigzagging, diagonal, or swerving alignment patterns whose near-chaotic tendencies are enhanced by the decentralization, opacity, and velocity of networked interaction,” the authors write. We are caught in this system of networked capitalist conflict and, as they argue, “‘hacking back’ can itself be hacked back as a relay and receptor of state or parastate cyberwar.” Not only that but “the idea that those of ‘the left’ are preimmunized against such influence or misrecognition must be abandoned in favor of vigilant and collective autocritique.” In other words, leftists must abandon the idea that the state of class struggle can directly and simply be revealed or that specific forms of organization are efficacious in all cases — for example to simply say that social media is good or bad is to miss the complexities of these swerving alignments and to ignore the opacity of cyberwar’s fog. To proceed, the left must constantly interrogate local and specific conditions and not assume that a strategy working or failing once will guarantee the same result elsewhere.

There is no inherently correct stance in these struggles. The lesson of Cyberwar and Revolution is that collectively, we — the subjects of the global capitalist system and the targets and combatants in cyberwar — are beyond the realm of safety and cannot simply demand security. While demands for security and respite from the state, corporations, cyber-criminals, and non-state actors can in certain situations have political efficacy, they cannot be viewed as ends in themselves, especially if such demands do not touch the structures of neoliberalism, capitalism, imperialism, racism, and so on. As we become both targets and combatants in these conflicts, our social divisions and attitudes become security vulnerabilities that should not be reduced to the level of the state but understood much more expansively as concrete liabilities that threaten each of us individually and differently but also collectively.

Thus if we are to resist the dangers of cyberwar and the social destabilization it portends, it cannot be only at the level of technological, military, or even political thinking but rather must be at the level of society and economics as a whole. In the fog of this war, we cannot afford to assume that we see clearly or that our actions always and everywhere translate into the exact same outcomes. We must rather pay careful attention to the shifting alliances and networks through which our political and everyday actions travel.

Justin Joque is the visualization librarian at the University of Michigan. He completed his PhD in Communications and Media Studies at the European Graduate School and holds a Masters in Science of Information from the University of Michigan. He is the author of Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar and a forthcoming book on statistics, machine learning and capitalism.