Future Cinema

Course Site for Future Cinema 1 (and sometimes Future Cinema 2: Applied Theory) at York University, Canada

Tactical Media

“Tactical Media” is a chapter in the book Protocol: How Control Exists After Decentralization (2004) by Alexander Galloway. Galloway’s central argument is that the internet is a space of control.

Earlier in the text, Galloway defines protocol as “a set of rules that defines a technical standard. But from a formal perspective, protocol is a type of object. It is a very special kind of object. Protocol is a universal description language for objects. Protocol is a language that regulates flow, directs netspace, codes relationships, and connects life-forms” (p. 74).

Galloway argues that protocol can be interpreted or analyzed just as any other language, because code is the language of computers.

The chapter we are focusing on for this class is called “Tactical Media.” In this chapter, Galloway examines instances of online subversion and resistance, which pose challenges to protocol. He characterizes these conflicts as network-based conflicts, or conflicts between different diagrams.

Galloway says tactical media is “the term given to political uses of both new and old technologies, such as the organization of virtual sit-ins, campaigns for more democractic access to the Internet, or even the creation of new software products not aimed at the commercial market” (p. 175).

Computer Viruses

He begins the chapter by examining computer viruses, and uses them as an example to illustrate network-based conflict.

Drawing from computer virus scholar Frederick Cohen, Galloway says “viruses” are computer programs that modify other programs by inserting a version of itself into the new program. All viruses, whether worms, Trojan horses, etc. are characterized as negative.

Galloway argues that the cultural moment that computer viruses arrived in are responsible for this negative characterization. This cultural moment included the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, which explains the biological associations. Galloway charts the shift from biological metaphors (AIDS, infection, virus) to criminal metaphors (terrorism, weaponization, criminals), and argues that these different threat paradigms, AIDS and terrorism, represent different diagrams.

Galloway notes that many virus authors say the virus is not the problem, but the flaws in the affected program are; viruses simply exploit these flaws. Viruses point out other flaws that are not technologically based, like corporate monopolies.

Viruses originated as games for engineers, people who Galloway says prized creativity, technical innovation, and exploration.


Galloway’s chapter moves into a discussion of cyberfeminism, a 1990s movement that addressed the relationship between women and machines, and the masculinization of technology. Cyberfeminism became an international movement, but Galloway initially highlights the Australian group VNS Matrix who wrote the first Cyberfeminist Manifesto in the early 90s. Galloway quotes Faith Wilding and the Critical Art Ensemble: “The territory of cyberfeminism is large. It includes [...] those arenas in which technological process is gendered in a manner that excludes women from access to the empowering points of technoculture” (p. 187).

Galloway positions cyberfeminism as another type of tactical media, one that shares functions with computer viruses, or bugs in the protocological network, which can propel technology in interesting ways. He says, “With cyberfeminism, protocol becomes disturbed. Its course is altered and affected by the forces of randomness and corruption” (p. 185).

Another major cyberfeminist theorist that Galloway highlights is Sadie Plant, who argues that technology is fundamentally female, and makes it her project to recover the history of the relationship between women and machines. In her works she notes women’s close proximity to machines through history, starting with the loom. She has argued that computer programming actually emerged from the tradition of weaving (Plant, “The Future Looms” 1995); that women have made up the core labour of telecommunications (Plant, Zeros and Ones 1997); and has written extensively about Ada Lovelace and her role as a computer programmer (Plant 1995, 1997; Galloway 2004, p. 185).

Plant argues that this history threatens phallic control and thus technology is a process of emasculation and an opportunity to weaken the patriarchy. According to Galloway, this marks a move from centralized control to a distributed network.

Though cyberfeminism encompasses many strands and perspectives, Galloway says that the themes of body and identity are central to the movement. Theorist Allucquère Rosanne Stone / Sandy Stone in particular examined the relationship between materiality and meaning that constitute bodies in cyberspace. She argued that online spaces mirror our “Cartesian” understanding of physical space. In other words, bodies are still gendered (and subject to other social hierarchies) in cyberspace. (This has also been argued by other scholars, like Lori Kendall [1998].) However, Stone says that since communications technologies help produce online identities, communities, and provide a mode to navigate both of these things together, tactical media like cyberfeminism presents an opportunity to refashion the organization and understanding of space.

The role of the body in cyberfeminism and in cyberspace is fraught, as demonstrated by Lynn Hershmann’s claim that the internet prompted the largest immigration in history — from offline to online. Plant argues that it is about reshaping matter, rather than escaping it.

Conflicting Diagrams

Galloway introduces John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s term “netwar,” which refers to “an emerging mode of conflict (and crime) at societal levels, short of traditional military warfare, in which the protagonists use network forms of organization and related doctrines, strategies and technologies attuned to the information age” (p. 196).

Galloway says peer-to-peer, bureaucracy, and hierarchy are all diagrams; peer-to-peer (or distributed network) is the diagram of the internet. Gene Youngblood argues this as well.

Like the rhizome is thought to be a solution to the tree, Galloway argues that viruses and cyberfeminism are network conflicts a solution to hierarchies; network conflicts are essentially conflicts between different social structures or diagrams.

Galloway writes that increasingly, decentralized and distributed networks are being adopted: the internet was invented to avoid “certain vulnerabilities of nuclear attack” (p. 200), and cities are being designed with industrial targets outside of the urban core. In other words, the bomb or threat of destruction drives dispersion. Following this logic, Galloway argues that the internet is strong because it is weak, because its power is distributed or decentralized. Similarly, hierarchies are weak because they are strong, because its power is centralized.

Using these examples: terrorism is the only real threat to state power, homeless punk rockers are the only threats to sedentary domesticity, and the guerilla is the only threat to the war machine, Galloway argues that hierarchies cannot fight networks; only networks can fight networks.

He says “This is indicative of two conflicting diagrams. The first diagram is based on the strategic massing of power and control, while the second diagram is based on the distribution of power into small, autonomous enclaves” (p. 201).

Just as he says this should give subcultures reason to rethink their strategies, he suggests we take this kind of thinking and apply it to media.


Criminal charges can be laid for computer viruses, virtual damages can be assessed, and the advent of cyberspace is said to have sparked the largest immigration in history — from offline to online; how do these notions tangle with Baudrillard’s concerns about disappearing space and the ecstasy of communication, but also with Youngblood’s call to leave the culture without leaving the country?

What are the limits of using binary code to dismantle hierarchies? Can Plant’s argument that as “protocol rises, patriarchy declines” be used for dismantling other social hierarchies, other than gendered ones?

Plant argues that women have traditionally comprised the laboring core of networks of all kinds, particularly the telecommunications networks. When we consider the histories she presents, this is true! Many other forms of women’s labour are similarly necessary, yet unseen or unrecognized. How do in/visibility and marginality make this possible? Is there any benefit of being invisible while being at the centre of something so fundamental?

How does tactical media relate to future cinema?

How can tactical media be seen as a solution to the crisis Gene Youngblood describes?

Tue, November 24 2015 » future cinema 2015