The In/compatibility of Disconnection

Abstract: This paper discusses the role of disconnection in network culture. I argue that disconnection is a principle according to which our network culture is formed. Drawing from the writings of Kittler, Massumi and Galloway I analyze the emergence and transformation of our network culture in the context of nuclear war and DDoS attacks.

Disconnection as en event appears incompatible with the ubiquitous connections our network culture relies on. In fact since the beginning of the internet disconnection has been a spectre that everyone from scientists to computer security personnel and common users has tried to exorcise. A message needs to be sent and received and there is whole arsenal of technologies from hardware configurations to controlling protocols and translating software set up to make this possible. The network is planned so that its parts are held together in all circumstances.

Now the etymological meaning of incompatibility is ‘incapable of being held together’. This is indeed what disconnection implies. When disconnected the relation between two entities is removed. They do not communicate. If the idea of a network is to connect nodes that communicate with each other we see that disconnection is what is unwanted. Disconnection is then contingent upon the network. What follows is an exclusion of disconnection from the network culture. It is merely an accident that should not happen.

It is this dichotomy between connection and disconnection I want to challenge. Is it possible or even meaningful to think of disconnection as something that is compatible with our network culture? To begin with, we need to rethink our relation to accidents.

According to Paul Virilio (1993) it “is urgent that we rethink the accepted philosophical wisdom according to which the accident is relative and contingent and substance absolute and necessary.” Instead of thinking accidents as surprising failures that “unexpectedly befall” the machine, system or a mechanism Virilio (ibid.) argues that they should be considered as specific failures typical for the machine. What is said is that machines are produced and molded against their typical accidents. Cars are designed to avoid and survive road accidents. Ships are designed to avoid from sinking and so on. It is the threat of destruction as a primal accident that lurks behind the design of our machines. It is always implied in technology but simultaneously obscured almost to the point that it dissipates.

A corresponding idea is found from the writings of Friedrich Kittler (2007)crystallized as the concept of discourse networks. Drawing from Claude E. Shannon’s information theory of source, channel and receiver, Kittler shows that production of discourses is based on networks of institutional power and selection. (Winthrop-Young 2011). Interestingly these discourse networks are very susceptible for changes. In fact, game changing events for Kittler do not take place slowly in process of time but strike like a lighting providing shocks, jumps and ruptures (Armitage 2006).

Two significant moments in the history of the internet are taken into a closer examination: the invention of distributed networks in the shadows of nuclear war in 1960s and distributed denial of service attacks in 2000s. In the first case the aim is to show how the internet was conceived in the context of disconnection, appearing as the threat of nuclear war.

The effect of nuclear war on the birth of the internet has been both exaggerated and underestimated. Mostly however the birth of the internet is credited to ideals such as research and collaboration instead of for example destruction. In fact, being loyal to the Kittlerian position, I am not interested in these discourses as such. They are secondary for the discourse networks of the early internet. Instead, following Brian Massumi’s (2007) discussion on prevention and deterrence I discuss how Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) becomes a founding principle of the internet. In short, the concept of command and control communications is designed to survive a full spectrum of nuclear strikes without being disconnected. An outside threat of nuclear war is adopted as an operative logic of the net; it begins to grow bigger and bigger counting on the survivability of redundancy. Even its protological control, analyzed by Alexander Galloway (2004), is grounded in the madness of Mutual Assured Destruction.

In turn of the 21st Century things however change. Outside threat is replaced by a threat that comes within the network in the form of denial of distributed services attacks. These indiscriminate and indiscriminable attacks hit private users, companies such as Amazon and Sony and even states like Estonia. For destruction DDoS attacks use the very method that was created to save the network. What begins is a shift from distributed networks towards hubs of power – a becoming of anti-accidents by mimicking DDoS attacks. This second mode of disconnection in network culture will be analyzed in the context of Massumi’s (2007; 2009)concepts of preemption, the ecology of powers and neoliberalism.

What follows is a re-thinking of disconnection in relation to digital networks. The core argument is that threats and accidents such as disconnection are not incompatible with network culture but quite on the contrary they form the basis of how it is constructed, expressed and experienced.


Works Cited

Armitage, John. “From Discourse Networks to Cultural Mathematics: An Interview with Friedrich A. Kittler.” Theory, Culture & Society 23 (2006): 17-38.

Galloway, Alexander R. Protocol, How Control Exists after Decentrailzation. Cambridge, London: The MIT Press, 2004.

Kittler, Friedrich. Discourse Networks, 1800/1900. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2007.

Massumi, Brian. “National Enterprise Emergency. Steps Towards an Ecology of Powers.” Theory, Culture and Society, 2009: 153-185.

Massumi, Brian. “Potential Politics and the Primacy of Preemption.” Theory & Event 10, no. 2 (2007).

Virilio, Paul. “The Primal Accident.” In The Politics of Everyday Fear, by Brian (ed.) Massumi, 211-219. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Winthrop-Young, Geoffrey. Kittler and the Media. Cambridge UK; Malden US: Polity Press, 2011.

6 thoughts on “The In/compatibility of Disconnection

  1. not just Marx that connects our papers :) i’m very curious to hear more about your ideas on networks & protocols and see where we overlap on these & very happy to finally get to meet you in person

  2. I agree in as far as first there has to be connection for disconnection to be possible. Regarding the virilio-ian example above, I don’t think the Wright brothers designed their first planes to survive crashes, they designed them to fly, perhaps concurrently with some ‘safety considerations’. But here an interesting field opens up, how far is MAD the obverse of ISP (Instinct for Self-Preservation)? And what are the socio-political dimensions of the progress agenda through which, once a technological principle has been proven effective, efficiency is to be improved through guarding against failure? Finally, please explain how DDoS attacks are indiscriminate, they require a certain amount of volition, unless what is referred to is the spider/bot war noise coursing through the web and email systems. Could that be considered an amorphous anarchic generalized DDoS attack as status quo?

  3. I’m really looking forward to hearing more on this. More thoughts and comments than questions but the politics of disconnection seems like a pertinent issue in relation to recent waves of civil unrest – from the blockage of internet and SMS access by Egyptian authorities as a means of countering the organisation of governmental resistance (which Anonymous responded to with a DDoS on Egyptian government sites – a battle of disconnections?) to the rumours and fears of BlackBerry Messenger being shut down or having a curfew set in place as a means of preventing the mobilisation of rioters in London and other UK cities in August. With the latter, the threat was never actualised but I’m curious about the power of the threat of disconnection (as opposed to or distinct from actualised disconnection) within such moments of civil unrest as well as connection as weapon (which kind of fits in with your questioning of the dichotomy of connection/disconnection).

  4. Thanks for your excellent comments! I think the point Baruch makes about self-preservation is crucial for the emergence of the internet in the 1960s and it is something I will be discussing in my paper. The focus will be in the early internet and its military (dis)connection.

    The DDoS part of this abstract is, however, something I will probably leave out from the final version of the paper I am presenting in Berlin. However, I will definitely develop it further in the near future since I think it describes our current network capitalism very well.

    • Hi Tero,
      Your comment on DDoS and networked capitalism reminds me of Christin Lahr’s project Macht Geschenke do you know it? Every day she sends 0.01€ to a special government fund for social works, on the transfer slip there is a space for Verwendungszweck (“reason for use”, usually people put “rent” or “health insurance acc’t no. 12345566″, etc. there) there is space for 108 characters in which she is transcribing, day after day, Marx’s Capital and sending it with her penny to the government. Each contribution to this fund generates disproportionate paperwork in the government, slowing down it’s processes like a DDoS attack done by hand…

      • Thanks for this reference! Really interesting example of ‘tactical media’ and might come handy some day.