Re-use of connectivity. Tactics for experiencing the imperceptible

Introduction

The waves of a neighbour‘s Wi-Fi propagate freely through our living room, while we are unable to make any use of them. Following on the notion of de Certeau’s strategies, the service of connectivity is served to us ‘strategically‘. Connectivity is offered in exchange for money (in case of contracted subscriptions, airport log-ins, …) or private information (like the ‘free‘ wireless internet service at train stations, airports, etc). There is always a regulating body behind it and an authority designing and implementing the infrastructure. The dependance on connectivity makes it possible to use this as a disciplining tool.
While remote communication always requires a centralised service provider at an end (whether it‘s the phone company or post), we are increasingly expected to be communicating remotely. There is nowhere to hide from the system, “there is no longer an elsewhere“
Parallel to the wireless infrastructure technology, tools and techniques that allow citizens, consumers to sense the presence of the signal have sprouted. Whether from simple curiosity (“where is the cell tower I am connected to?“) or health concerns (“what is the strength of the signal I am exposed to?“) these techniques are the focus of numerous noncommercial, artistic and research activities. In an attempt to re-engage with the waves, they are tactically trying to inhabit the “proper“, the infrastructure. But when the “proper“ becomes the “whole“, strategy is defeated by its own success.
Looking at communication as an everyday activity, I will offer a reading of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ through the prism of wireless communication.

Understanding tactics

The Practice of Everyday Life is a study of culture on a large scale, investigating how much things have changed, if at all. It grew out of studies of popular culture or marginal groups. This work followed de Certeau‘s on the spot theorising of the ‘68 protests and his seminal article La prise de parole published already the same year. Although it attained a cult status in non-academic circles and could even be considered a best seller (according to Ian Buchanan, more than 25000 copies were sold in the United States until 2000 ) The Practice of Everyday Life is not a work of popular culture. It is a sociological study of culture in general by someone with a rather eclectic background (philosophy and theology, a freudian, affinity to methods of anthropology).
A certain eclecticism can be observed in de Certeau‘s political views, in the unusual connection between religious and protesting practices. He considers both the church (most probably in his own religious practice) and the left as alternatives to the disciplining authority. He establishes a relationship between the Church that defended an other world and the parties of the left which, since the nineteenth century, have promoted a different future. “The place that was formerly occupied by the Church or Churches vis-a-vis the established powers remains recognisable, over the past two centuries, in the functioning of the opposition known as leftist.“ . People engage with these practices voluntarily, ideology and doctrine have an importance that is not given to them by those in power; it is created from within. He describes a certain mutation of ideological content, from spiritualisation to quantification “We witness the advent of the number. It comes along with democracy, the large city, administrations, cybernetics. It is a flexible and continuous mass, woven tight like a fabric with neither rips nor darned patches, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one“ . At the same time, there is a change in engagement. Jews are those who don‘t go to synagogue any more, while Christians don‘t go to church any more. In the same way, after the protests of ‘68, political beliefs are put on a shelf, to be expressed once a year by voting, but not by going to the streets to protest. “More reverential than identifying, membership is marked only by what is called a voice, (voix: a voice, a vote) this vestige of speech, one vote per year.“ With the protest of ‘68, “practically nothing changed. Culturally, everything had changed“.
The Practice of Everyday Life is a book about world making, and even more about being in the world. About making sense of being in the world, every day. At the beginning we read: “To the ordinary man. […] the absent figure who provides both their beginning and their necessity“
The world is made for this absent figure; it exists for and because of her. Not because of the powerful minority. Much like a theatre performance actually happens for the audience, and not for the prominent actors. De Certeau‘s procedure is to turn “away from the actors who possess proper names and social blazons, turning first toward the chorus of secondary characters, then settling on the mass of the audience.“
He distinguishes three conceptual pillars of his research. Firstly, he observes consumption as production. In this way, he considers what does the consumer do with the products he consumes? What does he make of it? De Certeau argues that the process of consumption is at the same time a type of production. It is hidden, scattered and the official production leaves it no space to exhibit itself: “This cultural activity of the non-producers of culture, an activity that is unsigned, unreadable, and unsymbolized, remains the only one possible for all those who nevertheless buy and pay for the showy products through which a productivist economy articulates itself.“ Even if the production of the consumption is not organisedly exhibited, secondary production is hidden in the process of utilisation.
The second conceptual pillar is an assumption that everyday creativity changes the system. This is the base for the ‘tactics‘.
The third is the assumption that there is a logic behind the reappropriation practices. He is looking for a formal structure of ‘way of making‘ practices throughout this work. What popular procedures manipulate the mechanisms of discipline and conform to them only in order to evade them? What ‘ways of operating‘ constitute the mute processes that organise the establishment of socioeconomic order? Users reappropriate the space organised by techniques of sociocultural production.
In his book Michel de Certeau: Cultural Theorist, Ian Buchanan is strongly concerned that ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ have been often misunderstood by a broad range of theoreticians . Caused partially by the popularity of The Practice of Everyday Life, even with the general audience, such weak misreadings deliver these important concepts as a naive political theory which cannot have a strong impact on the world.
What is the most common interpretation of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘? They can be used to describe two sides of power: the powerful use strategies, the powerless resort to tactics. A rebellious invitation to do nothing while pretending to work, tactics are a way to fight the system from within. They are the only tool left to the weak, which in this way confirms their weakness.
It is true that de Certeau is fascinated with the ways of undermining the system from within. “Although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes […] these ‘traverses‘ remain heterogeneous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires“ Tactics, when they are realised successfully are victories of the “weak“ over the “strong“. However, such interpretation lacks serious consideration of some important qualities of these two ways of being in the world.
Ian Buchanan thinks that the notions of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ haven‘t been adequately developed in the two volumes of L‘Invention du Quotidien. They havent‘ been sufficiently defined, leaving space for a variety of readings, some of which, in his opinion, go far away from de Certeau‘s intended meaning. He sees ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ as the ‘unruly orphans‘, finding de Certeau‘s formulation “suggestive but not nearly as richly argued and exampled as was really needed to make secure their conceptual future.“ This conceptual future would perhaps have been secured, in Buchanan‘s opinion, if de Certeau lived to publish the third volume of L‘Invention du Quotidien (the original French title under which two volumes were published, the first one translated to English as The Practice of Everyday Life).
The misconception is to be found firstly in the reading of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ as binary oppositional pair, the logical and thus complimenting oppositions of each other. Strategies are calculations and manipulations of power relationships. These manipulations delimit a place and manage external relations with targets and treats . Tactics are also calculations but unlocalisable. They lack exteriority and thus their autonomy is impossible. “The space of the tactic is the space of the other“ . Tactics and strategies are not complimentary, one is not defined through the mere opposition to the other, but rather through an external concepts of space and place and their common determination as calculations.
The other major misunderstanding is to consider ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ as part of a totalising power theory, where tactics are the disempowered or powerless position. The Practice of Everyday Life thus becomes a theory of ‘little victories‘ of daily life, somewhat revolutionary but absolutely insufficient to achieve a deep cultural change. Rejecting this reading as an overly simplistic deployment of de Certeau‘s ideas (lead by Fiske‘s interpretation ), Buchanan sees strategies and tactics not so much as modalities of power but as indexes of belief .
The notion of belief brings us to an aspect de Certeau‘s work should always be evaluated against (with is in mind), and that are his deep religious convictions. Tactics are employed because of lack of belief. “Marketing agencies avidly make use of the remains of beliefs that were formerly violently opposed as superstitions. Advertising is becoming evangelical.“ . Marketing, business, politics are increasingly trying to infiltrate the place However, he claims that looking out for one‘s own interests is no substitute for belief.

Synthesis

Like dwelling or cooking, wireless communication is an important everyday practice that spawns relationships on different levels. At the opposite ends of ‘calculation‘ we have the infrastructure and the users. The infrastructure is placed strategically. It is composed of devices and signals that enable communication. It produces connectivity. The users access the infrastructure, they visit the space of the other. They do it to simply communicate or to make something else out of it. In this case, they do it tactically.
What can the users make out of connectivity? With wireless communication technology becoming massively accessible, different practices that deal with its non-instrumental use have blossomed. From war-driving to interactive artworks, and diverse subversive practices like occupy.here2 and other peer-to-peer wireless network sharing projects, all these practices understand the use of existing infrastructure and readily available technology for own purposes of pleasure or protest.
In the attempt to describe these practice of re-engaging in wireless communication as a tactical activity, we will revisit de Certeau‘s definitions of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ once more, focusing on the points where his theory applies directly to the practices we are analysing.
Communication is an everyday activity which takes place in the space of the other. The other here is the space of connectivity, a service offered and administered by telephone and internet providers; the city infrastructure; the government; in a few words the subjects of will and power. In our contracts with these subjects, we are consumers of communication services. We are consuming the products of wireless communication technology. The product, the signal, is at the same time part of the system‘s infrastructure. This infrastructure is made of overlapping layers of devices, cables and signals. While this product is invisible, or rather imperceptible, it functions through a large number of devices which have a material presence and requirements. The network coverage is part of a strategic plan, carefully tuned towards optimisation of connectivity and control over the charging process at the same time.
The infrastructure assumes a place, it occupies space, it is distributed in places. Its creates relations between places depending on connectivity. The proper place and coverage of an antenna which is part of a particular infrastructure network generates relations with the exterior of that infrastructure. It establishes the serving radius of connectivity, dividing space onto the connected and the disconnected. The approach to providing signal is a calculus of “political, economic, and scientific rationality“ strategic model. The force-relationships established by service provider company predict a particular behaviour and use of their services.
On the other hand, we have the marginal majority of users. They form a large network of disempowered devices who depend on the provider for connectivity. The place of their connection belongs to the service provider, to the other. They do not determine the place or quality of the signal they connect to. They only seize the opportunity to connect and make something out if it, whenever possible.
Contrary to Foucault, de Certeau‘s method is not to analyse the aparatus that exercises power but to focus on the mechanisms that reorganise the functioning of power. The tactics are indeed associated with the ‘weak‘ state of power, but de Certeau gives them the status of ‘art‘ and not just the grasping at straws. There is something incredibly practiced and sophisticated about them.
Thus, the art of reuse of wireless infrastructure results in temporary connection possibilities (like it is the case for most peer-to-peer network sharing systems). Even more interestingly, it can deliver an insight into the invisible terrain of WiFi networks in urban spaces (as is the case of numerous artworks and installations which interact with the presence of WiFi networks, such as Immaterials: Light Painting WiFi4). “A tactic boldly juxtaposes diverse elements in order suddenly to produce a flash shedding a different light on the language of a place and to strike the hearer.“
The tactical reading of the signal insinuates itself into the place of the other, it uses connectivity offered by the provider fragmentarily, without taking over or even grasping its entirety. It is on the move, it depends only on time. Whatever access it gains to the network, it only has it for a moment. It combines heterogenous elements; the location of infrastructure hardware; the intensity of the signal; the data that is actually transmitted by the network. The intellectual synthesis of the obtained connectivity and data does not render it into a discourse but rather action, the manner in which the opportunity is ‘seized‘.

Conclusion

We should not regard ‘tactics‘ as quick recipes for subversion and rebellion. It is clear from de Certeau‘s comment on the ‘68 protests that he is not focusing on a practical change. The value of his study of tactics is exactly in the recognition and logging of everyday activity, in evaluating the importance it has for the marginal majority and for culture in general. ‘Tactics‘ are not a prescription for revolution. One can thus not judge ‘tactics‘ for not attaining revolution, because they are not attuned towards drastic changes. They are rather a replacement for ‘belief‘. People are not resorting to tactics because they are trying to harm the system, but because they don‘t believe in their jobs or the system any more. “Wasting of products, diversion of time, ‘la perruque‘, turn-over or inactivity of employees, etc. undermine from within a system“ and are a consequence of evaporation of convictions. Political convictions have evaporated as well, “one is a socialist because one used to be one, no longer going to demonstrations, attending meetings, sending in one‘s dues, in short, without paying.“ . These observations of disbelief are contemporary and we can notice a similar phenomenon today in so-called Twitter and Facebook revolutions. People are feeling politically active while clicking comfortably behind their screens. But they actually engage and mobilise only when the network is no longer available .
We observe a certain ‘black-and-white‘ perspective of the society in de Certeau‘s analysis, dividing the world into powerful and powerless. Even though ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ are not to be read as two states of power, these two extremes are prominent in de Certeau‘s observations. The distinction between “clever tricks of the ‘weak‘ within the order established by the ‘strong‘“ and the concern for the “battles or games between the strong and the weak, and (with) the ‘actions‘ which remain possible for the latter.“ does not indeed offer any place for the states in between.
One of the most powerful concepts in his theory is the observation of consumption as another mode of production. This opens up numerous possibilities for reading and moves away from simple judgement of consumption. Instead, it allows for a recognition of its political dimension: “The tactics of consumption […] thus lend a political dimension to everyday practices.“
An invaluable contribution to the discussion on everyday practices, the notions of ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ have exceeded the scope of de Certeau‘s original work. They can be used to better describe phenomenons other than the ones de Certeau focuses on (dwelling, speaking, reading, shopping, cooking). When employed as a tool for evaluation of everyday practices which didn‘t exist at the time the book was written, they merge perfectly in the discourse. This is precisely so because their definition is rather open. The phenomenon of connectivity, for example, falls into one of the everyday activities that are composed both of ‘strategic‘ and ‘tactical‘ material. This allowed for a certain kind of exercise in re-reading de Certeau‘s definitions in the context of wireless communication. The questions of accessibility, ownership and participation demarcate the meandering path of understanding the impact wireless communication has on our everyday practice.
Although Ian Buchanan claims we didn‘t properly comprehend what ‘tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ were for de Certeau, we should consider the impact the ‘weak‘ misunderstanding has back on our culture. The influence this book has made in its misunderstood way is real, and it has attained a certain relevance in our culture. The impact of his writing is precisely that what is widely understood to be written in his books, however oversimplified or unjust to the concepts it is. ‘Tactics‘ and ‘strategy‘ thus become part of the discourse on power structures amongst general audience.

References



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