Electronic Civil Disobedience and Collective Interruption Online

In the second part of a series on the Future of Academic Freedom and the Arts, Ryan Griffis, Associate Professor in the School of Art and Design, considers the politics of collaboration in networked virtual protest. While hacktivist groups like Anonymous have made networked social justice campaigns and distributed denial of service attacks (DDoS) the stuff of front page news today, such actions share their roots with earlier forms of civil disobedience, sit-in actions, and embodied localized disruptions. Here, Griffis explores protest protocols, acts of digital and physical interruption, and scholarly swarms that test the limits of protected symbolic speech. – ac 

FloodNet represents a collective weapon of presence.

Your IP address will be harvested by the government during any FloodNet action. When you click and enter FloodNet, your name and political position will be made known to the authorities. FloodNet may not impact the targeted websites specifically as much as it disrupts traffic going to the targeted website.


This was a warning statement written for potential participants in an event that was simultaneously a work of theatrical performance art and an instance of direct action in solidarity with the Zapatistas and the uprisings in Chiapas. Titled SWARM, the event was staged in September of 1998, by an interdisciplinary collective known as the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) as part of Ars Electronica, an international new media festival in Linz, Austria. Using a simple browser-based tool called FloodNet, SWARM was a virtual sit-in of the websites of the President of Mexico, the Pentagon and the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. The group considered their FloodNet software to be an extension of the sit-in tactic since its effects were proportional to the number of people participating—each participant used the tool to send repeated requests to the target website’s servers with the intention of impeding that server’s ability to respond.


A couple of years before SWARM, another art collective, Critical Art Ensemble (CAE), theorized how established tactics of civil disobedience would port to networked environments, arguing for an electronic civil disobedience that continued non-violent means of trespass and blocking. Importantly, CAE and EDT differentiated electronic civil disobedience from illegal defacements or disruptions to web servers and also from what are called Denial of Service Attacks (automated disruptions of fax machines and email and web servers that can be carried out by single individual).


While tools like FloodNet do a small amount of automation, it requires very large numbers of people – acting in collaboration — to have any impact, and that impact is primarily understood as symbolic. It also depends on what the EDT calls “radical transparency”—each sit-in is announced and there is no attempt to conceal the identity of its participants. Even the backend code of FloodNet foregrounds the symbolic by making requests for non-existent documents from the server, such as a document called “peace” on the Pentagon’s server, which would return a 404 “bad request” error message stating that “peace” could not be found on the Pentagon website. While the virtual sit-ins of the EDT were largely differentiated from hacking by the authorities, representatives of the Justice Department and the Rand Corporation, were on record by the late 1990s, calling virtual sit-ins “criminal attempts to damage another’s website,” an “aggressive” forms of sabotage, and even terrorism.


The EDT has continued its research and deployment of virtual sit-ins, while expanding its work with a recent project titled the Transborder Immigrant Tool. This project is, in part, a piece of software that runs on inexpensive mobile phones and uses the devices’ native GPS function to map the location of humanitarian-placed water stations near the US-Mexico border while also delivering what the group calls “poetic sustenance” (in how it “reads” experimental poetry about borders). Another part of the project is what the group calls its simulationist function—whether the project is ever functionally used by people to cross the desert, it intervenes in the cultural imagination and discourse of borders (both territorial and cultural).


In 2010, Fox News and some California senators called the work and its researchers “traitorous,” and went so far as to pressure the Office of the President at the University of California to revoke tenure for a lead researcher on the project, UCSD professor Ricardo Dominguez. At the request of the University President’s Office, the FBI initiated a series of investigations into potential “financial damages” caused to the University by the EDT’s work, which also included a virtual sit-in of the President’s website in solidarity with the student protests that were happening. Following a very public response by Dominguez’s supporters, the investigations were dropped and the University settled, with Dominguez retaining his position, receiving tenure, and even receiving an accommodation.


I wanted to use this brief, simplified review of electronic civil disobedience to introduce some of the problematics that exist as the space for speech acts expands and becomes subject to regimes of power in different ways. As with previous forms of civil disobedience, electronic civil disobedience is a meeting of bodies demanding recognition from institutions of power. The technical codes governing electronic speech represent another (although not distinct) tentacle of the ideological forces that maintain unevenness between differently abled, gendered, classed, racialized and politicized bodies. If embodied sounds and images reach us through a sensory contact with the world governed by social conventions and laws, the net’s method of packet switching and our social media news feeds deliver a montage of utterances sorted by various algorithmic processes including time, author, conversation threads, and geolocated IP addresses.


In this context: What constitutes an utterance? What are the borders of a speech act that can be endlessly redeployed as evidence, turning one speech act into another? How do we hold accountable, not just individuals who may be speaking, but the organizations that seek to control and regulate speech? Is the regulation of speech, even by means of protocol, not also itself speech? How can we be disobedient to protocols without simply being kicked out, or ignored, by them? These seem like especially pressing questions as the regulation of, and access to, speech is increasingly routed through both literal and metaphorical black boxes.

Additional Links:

Ryan Griffis is an artist teaching in the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Under the name Temporary Travel Office, Ryan has created work and publications that use tourism as an opportunity for critical public encounters. He also currently works with various collective efforts to document and challenge the conditions of neoliberalism in the Midwest. See more at: http://www.yougenics.net/griffis, http://www.temporarytraveloffice.net, http://www.regionalrelationships.net, and http://midwestcompass.org.

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The Future of Academic Freedom

In response to the ongoing events on campus that have sparked academic debates worldwide, the College of Fine and Applied Arts organized a forum earlier this week on the “Future of Academic Freedom and the Arts,” to address how “[c]ontroversial, marginalized, or unpopular creative work has historically thrived in academic settings under the auspices of academic freedom. That includes our own campus, where during the mid-twentieth century many experimental artists found their only chance to exhibit and sell work through Illinois’ annual Festival of Contemporary Arts.”  In this multi-part series on reflections from the event, Gabriel Solis, Associate Professor of Music, African American Studies, and Anthropology considers what – in the context of the changing landscape of higher education – the future of academic freedom as a catalyst, refuge, and force of collaboration for the arts may be. – ac

The University has been valorized, particularly since mid-century as a place where there is room for critical, difficult, highly charged art and critical articulation, and as a site whose protections of academic freedom have been used to develop those expressions that would be shut down elsewhere. I suggest that while this certainly represents our ideals, it has not always been our practice. The academy’s relationship to music that expresses anger in the face of real injustice is illustrative of the ways we exclude voices that have been described by a host of terms describing a lack or failure, all of which intersect with “incivility”: impropriety, impoliteness, and the quality of being uncouth.

Let me make a contention:

African American popular music, from blues and jazz to soul/funk/and hip hop has been one of the central, if not the single most important registers for social and critique in the 20th century—a register that has been influential not only within the U.S., but truly throughout the world. It has provided the sound of liberation, it has provided the style of resistance, it has provided many of the terms of opposition.

And let me make a related one:

Universities, our own included, have been slow at best to incorporate makers of these kinds of music into our faculty and the music they make into our curricula—English departments have been better at harboring hip hop than have music departments.

To get at why a “civility” test not only contributes to this, but makes it very hard to avoid, let me give two examples. The first is a clip from Nina Simone’s 1965 performance of the song “Mississippi Goddam” in Antibes.

The piece is, I submit, a masterful work in any number of ways. It’s a brilliant use of musical irony, a productive mismatch between sound and sentiment, with its cheerful, upbeat, showtune-esque beginning and its unflinching insistence on naming the problem of racism. It is compelling in formal respects, particularly its beautifully managed intensity. But perhaps most interesting, it is a brilliant use of the word “goddam.” This doesn’t seem like such strong language now (I can play it for a class without worrying too much about offending the students’ sensibilities, and I can say it in a talk or online without fear of drawing the attention of my administration or board of trustees). In 1965, particularly for a black woman on stage, however, it was dangerous. Part of the problem is that, unlike so-called “dirty” blues, it wasn’t titillating. It was genuinely hostile.

Now consider a photo that has become one of the iconic images of the Ferguson protests, one which was featured on CNN’s coverage. I ask you to look away from the center of the image if you can, to the post box at the right. The phrase there, “Fuck the Police,” is not just any slogan, it is a lyric, from the NWA song of that title, followed by “comin’ straight from the underground / got it bad ‘cause I’m brown / and not the other color so the police think / they’ve got the authority to kill a minority.”

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

There has been a recent surge in calls for “civility” in discourse not only here, but at many universities, including UC Berkeley, The Ohio State University, and Pennsylvania State University. The PSU statement is particularly grotesque, inasmuch as it urges civility in discussions of the university’s complicity with Jerry Sandusky’s child sex abuse. Moreover, there have been similar calls outside the walls of academia, as in Ferguson, where authorities repeatedly blasted protestors (literally as well as figuratively) for failing to remain “civil.” This raises significant questions to me.

I censored my presentation of Ice Cube’s lyrics here, for the record, in large measure because of the particulars of this venue, and because of my specific ideas about what is offensive or not. I do teach work of this sort that is upsetting, but I note that universities have, by-and-large, not hired makers of this work. Would we have a place for Nina Simone? For Ice Cube, or Dr. Dre, or Chuck D? The desire to care for our students and our community, to nurture feelings of safety and wellbeing is clearly important, and not to be dispensed with lightly. But I would also emphasize that routinely, the politics of propriety silence the voices that would speak against oppression: black and latino voices, Jewish and Muslim voices, women’s voices, queer voices, voices of the abused, voices of the economically marginalized, voices of minority opinion, voices of the colonized, Indigenous voices;,voices the university needs if it is to aspire to universality.

Gabriel Solis is a scholar of African American music and of Indigenous musics of the Southwestern Pacific. He has done ethnographic and historical research with jazz musicians in the United States and with musicians in Australia and Papua New Guinea. Drawing on work in African American studies, anthropology, and history, he addresses the ways people engage the past, performing history and memory through music.


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It is my pleasure to introduce Collaboration as the theme of the IPRH blog for the academic year 2014/15.

Starling flocks. Gretna, Scotland.

Collaboration is central to our practice in the academic community. Whether in the humanities and social sciences or natural sciences and engineering, it is indispensable to the work of sharing and distributing knowledge, and essential to fostering scholarly networks. It is a fundamental principle on which established research and collegial relations are sustained; and a core value upon which new scholarly cooperations and interdisciplinary dialogues are prompted.

images © Copyright 2010 CorbisCorporation

Scholarly collaboration has entailed partnerships big and small: of individuals cooperating or working through multi-disciplinary teams. But digital age networks and infrastructures have generated new interest around the potentials of radically scaling up collaborations, and exploring knowledge making and distribution extended well beyond the traditional boundaries of institutions. Across the knowledge economy, digital tools for crowdsourcing, peer production, smart mobs, open source production, and co-creation with horizontal masses of participants have found broad applications — pushing new conventions and debates around what counts as knowledge work, research, authorship, intellectual property, and participation in the digital age.

Cases from the growth of Wikipedia and Linux to the popularity of Google’s Android operating system (now the world’s most widely used OS), Facebook’s API infrastructure (that allows developers to gain access to vast amounts of its own user data for building Facebook compatible applications), and Innocentive’s science platform (that enables users like the NIH and Proctor and Gamble to seek crowdsourced responses to research and development problems) have fanned enthusiasm for how institutions can be optimized for the 21st century by applying new networked technologies (what Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams problematically called “weapons of mass collaboration” in the 2006 best-seller, Wikinomics).

Wikipedia English Activity Map 2012.

Wikipedia English-language activity map, 2012


But the fervor over digital technologies applied for mass collaboration can gloss over the challenges and complexities in rapidly expanding collaborations without diluting the academic mission. Despite the enthused investments into massive open online course (MOOC) platforms like Coursera, Udacity, and edX, recent decisions to change content access models by commercial MOOCs underscore how such ventures still continue to face challenges in student engagement and course completion rates. Much as faculty protests over the application of MOOCS and calls for greater campus oversight highlight persistent concerns over their compromising of academic integrity. Meanwhile, revelations of manipulation of Facebook user data in the name of research underscore growing debates over how data privacy, “user consent” and research conventions get filtered through digital age industry-academy partnerships.

The technology fervor can also elide the need to attend more closely to the multiple histories, disciplinary conventions, cultural and relational contexts, and scholarly traditions in open debate and dissent, from which collaborations – including those featuring new technologies – necessarily draw. The layered histories and cultures surrounding sustained educational technology initiatives like the PLATO educational computing project (1960-2006) or Project Gutenberg’s digital archive (1971-present), both launched from our own campus, are local reminders that using new media to extend education potentials beyond campus boundaries is far from a new ambition.

The PLATO system was developed at the University of Illinois in 1960. Over 15,000 hours of instruction were developed for it, representing one of the largest investments in educational technology content development until the advent of MOOCs.

Over 15,000 hours of instruction were developed for PLATO, representing one of the largest investments in educational technology content until the advent of MOOCs.

PLATO in Schools, 1969

PLATO in public schools, 1969.

PLATO communities developed to code and play games - from Empire to multiplayer games based on Star Trek - for the platform.

Game design, online chat, and bulletin board notes were among PLATO’s early developments.

This year’s theme of Collaboration will be understood inclusively to comprise present activities within scholarly practice, novel methods that press towards futures of knowledge exchange, as well as histories of collaboration innovations within scholarly contexts. Collaboration is especially timely this year as the IPRH launches its new Humanities Without Walls initiative linking humanities centers at 15 research universities in the Midwest and beyond.

With your help, we’ll explore collaboration in its multiple guises and shifting iterations: in contemporary crowdsourcing and peer production platforms, in current and past interdisciplinary architectures, and in relation to themes including collaborative ecologies, collaboration and authorship, gift practices and reputation economies, open access publications, inter-institutional partnerships, data aggregation practices and visualizations, “prosumers” and privacy rights; citation and remix practices, and global copyright and copyleft debates.

We invite your ideas, media contributions, and provocations – so do share!

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Writing for Restoration

This is the second of a two-part series by Terrence Sampson. Terrence was incarcerated in 1989 at the age of 12, and is now serving the 25th year of a 30-year sentence. He has recently begun to pursue restoration through writing and Publication, and discusses his practice below. Terrence holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Houston-Clear Lake.  —bM

At the age of 17, I was sent to one of the most violent prison units in the state of Texas.

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On Not Publishing Dissertations

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaelhenderson/866523877/Last July, the American Historical Association issued a statement suggesting that doctoral students be given the option to withhold dissertations from online public access for up to six years. The broad circulation of such work in databases like Proquest’s, it claimed, limits the ability of young scholars to secure publishing contracts for their dissertations in revised form. The AHA’s approach was criticized as running counter to the scholarly mission of sharing research. But what do university presses think of the embargoes? Laurie Matheson, Editor-in-Chief of the University of Illinois Press, shares her perspective.   —bM

Does the rise of ProQuest and similar online databases make it more difficult for scholars to publish books based on their dissertations? Most definitely.

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Digitization for Research and Scholarly Communication

Mara Wade’s contribution to the IPRH blog was prompted by a series of serendipitous conversations on the local bus. In this post, Prof. Wade uses her work with Emblematica Online, an online resource for emblem studies, to explain how digitization can inspire, aid, and shape research.  —bM

It really pays to ride the bus. That’s how several conversations about the IPRH blog and its theme of Publication evolved, and among them, some of the intellectually most productive discussions of this semester.

This posting treats digitization as a research activity and addresses issues central to digital scholarship and publication. While scholars love finding just the book they need in Internet Archive, Hathi Trust, Project Gutenberg, or Google Books, digitization alone does not answer research questions. The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), for example, does not fund digitization for its own sake, but only within larger programs of research. While funding agencies understand, of course, that in some cases one must build a digital corpus in order to conduct research, digital scholarship seeks to reap the benefits of digitization.

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The Look of Winning

P.K. Subban

Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images.

P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens (left) stares down racist tweets after scoring the winning goal in a double-overtime playoff game against the Boston Bruins on May 1st, 2014.

According to the CBC, a media monitoring company reported that “the N-word and Subban’s name were used in conjunction on 17,000 tweets yesterday.”

Public tweets are archived by the Library of Congress, collected as part of our cultural heritage.


Photo by Miguel Ruiz – FCB.

Dani Alves of Barcelona FC (above) helped lift his team to victory over Villarreal on April 27th, 2014, perhaps refreshed after having eaten a banana that had been thrown onto the pitch purportedly in a racist taunt.

Days later, fans of Atlético Madrid were seen making monkey gestures during their team’s unexpected loss to Levante (below). Papakouli Diop, a player of Senegalese extraction, in turn drew attention to the racist insults by performing a “monkey dance.”

Recordings of the events now circulate widely on the Internet, and may thus be considered published and preserved in our collective memory.


Photo by AS English.

Updated to reflect the events that took place on May 4th, 2014, at the Estadi Ciutat de València.

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Savants, Peer Review, and Self-Publishing in 18th-century France

In her invited contribution to the theme of Publication, Marie-Claude Felton offers thoughts about the history of peer review and self-publishing. She recently completed a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, where she studied the publishing activities of marginal scientists. Her book, Maîtres de leurs ouvrages. Édition à compte d’auteur à Paris au XVIIIe siècle, was released in March 2014 by Voltaire Foundation-Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  —bM

It is with much interest that I have followed the IPRH posts on Publication and on peer review. As a junior scholar, I am no stranger to the anxieties that the academic publishing system can provoke. Not only must we

publish lest we perish,

but the mode of publication that we use must convey its own intrinsic credibility, namely through peer review. As has been discussed in previous posts, there are ways scholars can reshape the traditional publication system, for example with the help of ‘open access’. With the advent of digital publishing in the last decade, questions of access to publication, of credibility, of peer review, and of authority (both individual and institutional) are relevant more than ever. When we take a look at the world of scientific publishing in 18th-century France, we actually realize how the anxieties linked to peer review and publication are rooted in a long past.

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Origins of Courteous Review

Stephen Jaeger shares a letter from 2010 in which he asked the Medieval Academy of America (MAA) to reconsider the reviewing practices of its scholarly publication, Speculum. Addressed to the Executive Committee of the MAA, the letter describes some of Prof. Jaeger’s experiences with anonymous peer review in Speculum, and encourages the adoption of a more open process of evaluation, such as the ones modeled by the editors of Shakespeare Quarterly and postmedieval—bM

August 24th, 2010

Dear Colleagues,
I’m sending a copy of an article on the front page of today’s New York Times on new alternatives to peer review. I would urge the leadership of the academy and the editor and board of Speculum to take its message seriously and consider a change in its current policy of anonymous peer review.

My long and largely unhappy experience with peer review in Speculum has set my own policy: never to review anonymously, but always to sign. It makes reviews more objective and more courteous. Of course, that’s what it means to attach your name to your work: I stand behind it and am willing to state my opinion publicly.

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Walking a Fine Line

This invited contribution to the theme of Publication comes from Mary S. Laskowski, who is Head of Collection Management Services at the University Library. In response to an earlier post on the IPRH blog about e-reserves and fair use, Mary shares a librarian’s perspective.  —bM

The University Library at the University of Illinois, as with all academic research libraries, walks a fine line between meeting the needs of patrons and satisfying all pertinent legal and contractual obligations. As noted in the Code of Ethics of the American Library Association,

“We respect intellectual property rights and advocate balance between the interests of information users and rightsholders.”

The e-reserve service, designed to provide electronic access to relevant course readings at the request of the faculty, faces that challenge on a daily basis.

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