Local Autonomy Networks: Post-Digital Networks, Post-Corporate Communications

Micha Cárdenas

PhD Student, Media Arts and Practice
University of Southern California

Detroit, along with other cities in the Midwestern United States, is often described with a narrative of post-industrial dystopia and urban collapse. Alexis Madrigal in The Atlantic says “there are lots of places where the apocalypse has already happened,” and cites Detroit as one of these places. [1] Madrigal’s article reproduces a dehumanizing, ableist and racist trope about Detroit when the author compares drug users in Detroit to zombies, reproducing a post-apocalyptic vision of the city that depicts residents as subhuman and devoid of agency, or even thought. In contrast, Jamilah King sets the scene by saying that “Detroit… is famously associated with the collapse of U.S. manufacturing” and “the downfall of Detroit’s economy is legendary” and then shows how residents are responding by creating community based mesh networks. [2] Community based organizations such as Allied Media Projects see a vision of the future in Detroit which is demonstrated by the kind of imagination involved in the Octavia Butler session at the 2012 Allied Media Conference which looks to her science fiction writing as an inspiration for creating new forms of social movement and new forms of living. While digital technology has played a large role in furthering economic inequality along traditional colonial lines of race, gender and sexuality and groups like Allied Media Projects are developing new forms of knowledge and collaboration based on the knowledge of affected communities.

On a sweltering hot Detroit afternoon at the 2012 Allied Media Conference black feminist scholar of time and space travel Alexis Pauline Gumbs said “I have a vision of a post-digital future where the kind of communication we have today with cell phones and internet seems like an ancient relic… And a memory that supports this vision is that my ancestors could communicate telepathically.” [3] From the temporary shutdown of ThePirateBay.org and Wikileaks.org at the DNS level to the shutdown of cell phone communications to prevent protests in Egypt and San Francisco, corporate communications infrastructures are obsolete for resistant communities. In contrast, people in resistance are imagining and creating new post-digital futures.

The Digital as Worldview

Digital technology is the basis for a worldview or an epistemology often referred to as “the digital” which is imbricated with western logics. To imagine and work towards post-digital networks is to participate in a decolonization of technology via a decolonization of the network and to imagine possibilities which both precede and follow the digital. My intervention into media studies is to make a trans of color critique, taking inspiration from the queer of color critique of authors such as Jose Muñoz and Roderick A. Ferguson, that rejects the binary logic of the digital and looks to oppressed communities for alternative logics. Another useful example of this kind of decolonization is demonstrated by Lisa Nakamura’s writing on the labor of indigenous women to extract resources for creating technological devices.

Diana Taylor states in The Archive and the Repertoire how rigid binary gender categories were a construction of colonists used to control populations, saying “from the sixteenth century onward, the Spanish administration in New Spain established the casta or caste system to clearly demarcate bloodlines and racial categories produced by miscegenation… visual and performance strategies accompanied discursive ones to produce the newly racialized and gendered subjects they merely claimed to portray.” [4] Decolonization here also points to the limits of the human, as settler colonialism also uses categories such as human and non-human to identify the barriers between the colonizer and colonized.

In contrast, she describes the indigenous people of Nahua and their practice of “what Mexican anthropologist Alfredo López Austin calls ‘mythic’ thinking… that connects different social and natural processes ‘to find equivalences… in an attempt to discover… absolute congruence and a total order of the universe.” [4] Taylor names this pre-digital thinking as a kind of network saying “her nonlinear way of thinking, usually associated with the semiliterate realm of the past, ironically resembles the digital concept of networks, circuits and interconnectivity.” [5] Yet where Taylor applies the label of the digital to the concept of networks, one can also see how the kind of conceptual mapping resulting in a spiritual connection between beings and objects can also be seen as a kind of pre-digital and post-digital network.

Race as a Post-Digital Network

Another transfer from the digital to the non-digital can be seen in the operation of race online. In Race After the Internet, Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White argue for a “re-envisioning of race in digital technologies as a form of code, as well as a visual representation of a raced body.” [6] They quote Wendy Chun saying “race is more than its representation, more than ‘screen deep,”… it is part of the algorithmic logic of games and digital media themselves.” [7] Building on these arguments, I propose that one can, in a way, read them in the opposite direction. If race can be understood as a form of code, then it can also be understood as a form of communication. As such, one can understand the working of racialized markers such as dress, bodily characteristics and racialized clothing as a system of communication that creates a non-digital network. By taking this digital theory out of its digital context, one can see how racial identification operates as a non-digital or post-digital network of communication.

In his book discussing queer of color critique, Abberations in Black, Roderick A. Ferguson illustrates the heteronormativity of Marx through an analysis of the ways that “capital produces emergent social formations that exceed the racialized boundaries of gender and sexual ideals, [to] help explain the emergence of subjects like the drag-queen prostitute.” [8] In doing so, he describes the role of surplus populations citing Marx saying “the capitalist buys with the same capital a greated mass of labour-power, as he progressively replaces skilled workers by less skilled, mature labour-power by immature, male by female, that of adults by that of young persons or children. (788)”, to which Ferguson expands “to adapt this insight to the circumstances of U.S. working populations we might add ‘immigrant’ and ‘nonwhite’ to that of ‘less skilled’, ‘female,’ and ‘child.’ Hence, the creation of surplus is the violation of the boundaries of age, home, race and nation.” [9] Here again one can see how race, gender and nationality operate as information nodes that affect economic networks, changing the value signified by a particular act of labor, and creating a non-digital network resting upon the substrate of capital.

The Electronic Disturbance Theater has referred to the Transborder Immigrant Tool (TBT) as an example of Science of the Oppressed, an approach that is informed by forms of knowledge production that are marginalized by the rational focus of digital. [10] The fundamental operations of digital technology, AND, OR and NOT, are derived from George Boole’s development of Boolean logic which was first described in the pamphlet Mathematical Analysis of Logic published in 1847. [11] While the Boolean logic that is the basis of digital technology is based in western systems of reason, Science of the Oppressed includes concepts such as Mayan Technology, proposed by Ricardo Dominguez to signify non-linear causalities and technologies such as the stick the little mayan boy waves at the Mexican army helicopter to make it go away. My work on the TBT led me to Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets), which is being developed in collaboration with community based organizations including Gender Justice LA, Allied Media Projects, Strong and Beautiful and Detroit Represent.

Local Autonomy Networks: Autonets

Local Autonomy Networks (Autonets) is an artivist project focused on creating networks of communication to increase community autonomy and reduce violence against women, LGBTQI people, people of color and other groups who continue to survive violence on a daily basis. The networks will be both online and offline, including handmade wearable electronic fashion and face to face agreements between people. The networks will be established through a series of workshops, performances, presentations and discussions at art, activist and academic venues in the Americas and Europe. The project was started by myself but is rapidly expanding into an ecology of networks involving many artists, hackers and activists.

Autonets includes a line of mesh networked electronic clothing with the goal of building autonomous local networks that don’t rely on corporate infrastructure to function, inspired by community based, anti-racist, prison abolitionist responses to gendered violence. The Autonets garments, when activated, will alert everyone in range of the the local mesh network who is wearing another autonet garment that someone needs help and will indicate that person’s direction and distance.

These technologies are being developed through workshops and collective design processes, inspired by existing networks of horizontal knowledge production in queer, transgender, survivors of gender violence and diasporic communities. We are currently in collaboration with groups wanting to use Autonets to prevent disappearances in Bogotá, Colombia, help provide safety for sex workers in Toronto and facilitate queer youth of color to avoid violence in Detroit. The main focus of the project is currently to establish networks of people who agree to keep each other safe in Los Angeles, Detroit and Bogotá, Colombia. Over the year and a half of work on this project, it has become clear that the non-digital social networks are far more important than the digital technologies involved, because even if the technology worked perfectly flawlessly, and it is still in the prototype stage with a number of issues to be solved, the technology would still rely on the human will to respond and the social agreements as to what to do in case someone else in the networks needs help.

In Grant Kester’s The One and the Many, he describes in detail many of the reasons leading to a widespread practice in contemporary art of privileging the knowledge of the artist as privileged by an autonomous separation from social reality that simultaneously discredits the knowledge and agency of participants in and viewers of contemporary art. Kester attributes this to both the history of aesthetic autonomy as it is associated with religious concepts of purity as well as to the canonical acceptance of poststructuralism, which views all real political action as necessarily flawed and encourages experimentation to remain within the aesthetic realm. With Autonets, I am attempting to reverse this common hierarchy and find other theoretical supports such as post-colonial, queer of color critique, Latin American based traditions such as Theater of the Oppressed and border consciousness, and instead to engage in an open collective design process with the organizations I am working with. My first prototypes for Autonets were hoodies, a political symbol I felt needed modification given the recent dialog around the murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch participant. Yet when speaking to members of the Strong and Beautiful group for women of color in Detroit, they expressed the sentiment that bracelets which could be worn every day would be far more useful. In response, I have changed my work to focus on making bracelets. But this is only one small part of the process. Throughout my collaborations with queer and trans people of color who are most often the survivors of violence, I have begun to question the usefulness of wearable electronic technologies at all, given their high cost. I am currently in dialog with members of both Gender Justice LA and Cero29 in Bogotá, Colombia to consider other, low-fi or no-fi approaches to creating communications networks to enable safety.

Autonets is fashion hacking for social reorganization, recoding the meaning of fashion symbols such as hoodies that have associations ranging from Trayvon Martin to the Black Bloc, or femme fashion elements like dresses and bracelets, into symbols of connectivity and autonomy. My goal is to change the story about these forms of violence, so they are no longer seen as an individual problem to be solved by an individual, but as social problems to be dealt with collectively. As Morgan Bassichis writes in “Reclaiming Queer & Trans Safety” in The Revolution Starts at Home, “safety comes through stronger relationships, more healing , and increased support, not more prisoners or police or longer prison sentences.” As global capitalism continues to produce new forms of emergency daily, from ecological to economic disasters to mass uprisings, people can no longer depend on corporate networks of communication. Autonets will create local mesh networks through collective action.

Queer Sensing and Post-Corporate Networks

In addition to post-digital networks, there are a number of post-corporate networks that are pointing to examples of more liberatory possibilities of communication. Commnuity based mesh networks that turn home routers into community hubs are one such example that is being developed by the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition. [12] The Pirate Bay has experimented with “the development of GPS controlled drones, far-reaching cheap radio equipment and tiny new computers like the Raspberry Pi… small drones that will float some kilometers up in the air. This way our machines will have to be shut down with aeroplanes in order to shut down the system. A real act of war.” [13] Technologies such as these may prove to be more resilient to law enforcement attempts to take them down and lead to more widespread usage of post-corporate methods for serving data that is increasingly illegal, yet persistently popular.

What precedents do we have for the kind of ubiquitous sensing of our friends and loved ones that Gumbs promises will make our current digital networks seem like ancient relics? Alicia Arrizon in Queering Mestizaje describes Gloria Anzaldúa’s “new mestiza consciousness” as “important as a Chicana/o postcolonial knowledge” [14] and as a theory of racial mixing and border identities of many kinds it has performed an influential role in the development of women of color feminism, often cited as an inspiration for queer of color and trans of color critique. Arrizon writes “the queering of mestizaje further represents the body as a border dweller capable of constructing its own space or la facultad hat resists negation and subordination.” [15] Yet where Arrizon quotes Anzaldúa is where one can see this “new mestiza consciousness” as a kind of network, she states “La facultadis the capacity to see in surface phenomena the meaning of deeper realities… it is an instant ‘sensing,’ a quick perception arrived at without conscious reasoning.” [16] Arrizon describes Andaldúa’s border consciousness as “positioned against poststructuralist theory.” [17]

The kind of pre-rational sensing described by Anzaldúa can lead us to future possibilities of post-digital and post-corporate networks. A recent article on the Grinder movement describes biohackers implanting magnets into their bodies to create a simple input through which they can sense energies in the world usually outside of human perception. While their libertarian politics and ableist dismissals of the concerns of differently abled people are disconcerting to say the least, they describe one possibility for a purely analog sensing of magnetic fields which can indicate one possibility of future modes of communication. [18] The article describes the biohacking movement emerging from a combination of biomedical knowledge and post-industrial poverty in the Midwestern US city of Pittsburgh. Grant Kester describes the community based research project Emergent Species (1995) of the group Ala Plastica, working in the Rio de la Plata region of Argentina, who find inspiration for networks in the roots of reed-beds “the connection of remnants within one another generated a practically indescribable warp of intercommunication deriving into unnumerable actions that developed and increased through reciprocity.” [19] Other forms of biomedia have been explored by many new media artists, such as Joe Davis’ recent bacterial radio (2012) which uses bacteria to grow an equivalent of “a crystal radio.. a basic resonant circuit requiring only induction, capacitance and a radio ‘crystal,’ a mineral semiconductor used to convert received radio signals into DC electrical signals that can be resolved with headphones as sound.” [20] This is perhaps one of the clearest examples of the potential for biomedia to create post-digital networks. Additionally, wearable electronics are being developed with e-textiles that can carry signals in a purely analog fashion, such as a conductive fabric which when stretched changes its amount of resistance and changes the amount of illumination of an LED. [21]

Perhaps the most hope for the possibilities of human communication that is post-digital and post-corporate can be seen in Detroit. Grace Lee Boggs, an activist and author whose writing has been a primary inspiration for the Allied Media Projects organizers, describes the mesh networking and community agriculture networks in Detroit as a cultural revolution, which she differentiates sharply from the cultural revolutions she has witnessed, as a woman approaching her ninety-seventh birthday, such as the Bolsheviks or the Maoists or the events of the 1960’s. She states “today’s cultural revolution, which is emerging from the ground up especially in Detroit, is as awesome as the transitions from hunting and gathering to agriculture eleven thousand years ago and from agriculture to industry a few hundred years ago.” [22] One can imagine the impact that the rigid binary division between zero and one at the basis of digital culture has had by looking at its reflection in rigid conceptions of gender, race, sexuality, ability and in broader systems such as the prison industrial complex which decides whether a person is worthy of participating in society or should be locked in a cage. By looking to communities such as transgender and genderqueer people, mixed race and mestiza people and who actively challenge these binary conceptions, one can see the potential for new systems of knowledge to be the basis for new forms of communications networks that are just beginning to take shape.


1. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/technology/2012/09/how-technology-fueling-urban-inequality/3421/#
2. http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/10/detroit_mesh_networks.hml
3. My paraphrase of a comment she made in the “Body Memory in the Space/Time
Continuum, Part 1: Reclamation and Invention” workshop. http://talk.alliedmedia.org/amc2012/sessions/body-memory-spacetime-continuum-part-1-reclamation-and-invention
4. Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire. Duke University Press. 2003. p. 89
5. Ibid.
6. Lisa Nakamura and Peter A. Chow-White, Race After the Internet. Routledge. 2012.
P. 8
7. Ibid.
8. Rodeick A. Ferguson. Abberations in Black. University of Minnesota Press. 2004. P. 11
9. Ferguson, p. 16
10. Micha Cárdenas, Amy Sara Carroll, Ricardo Dominguez, Brett Stalbaum. “The
Transborder Immigrant Tool: Violence, Solidarity and Hope in Post-NAFTA Circuits of Bodies Electr(on)/ic” http://www.uni-siegen.de/locatingmedia/workshops/mobilehci/cardenas_the_transborder_immigrant_tool.pdf
11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Boole#Symbolic_logic
12. http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/10/detroit_mesh_networks.html
13. http://thepiratebay.se/blog/210
14. Alicia Arrizon. Queering Mestizaje: Transculturation and Performance. University of
Michigan Press. 2006. p. 24
15. Alicia Arrizon. p. 26
16. Ibid.
17. Alicia Arrizon, p. 27
18. http://www.theverge.com/2012/8/8/3177438/cyborg-america-biohackers-grinders-body-hackers
19. Kester. P. 26
20. http://prix2012.aec.at/prixwinner/7023/
21. http://openmaterials.org/2011/03/27/materials-101-electrotextiles/
22. Grace Lee Boggs. The Next American Revolution. University of California Press.
2012. p. xxii


micha cárdenas is an artist, hacktivist, poet, performer, student, educator, mixed-race trans femme latina survivor who works at the intersection of movement, technology and politics. micha is a PhD student in Media Arts and Practice (iMAP) at University of Southern California and a member of Electronic Disturbance Theater 2.0. micha’s project Local Autonomy Networks was selected for the 2012 ZERO1 Biennial in San Jose and was the subject of their keynote performance at the 2012 Allied Media Conference. micha’s co-authored book The Transreal: Political Aesthetics of Crossing Realities, published by Atropos Press in 2012, discusses art that uses augmented, mixed and alternate reality, and the intersection of those strategies with the politics of gender, in a transnational context. micha holds an MFA from University of California, San Diego, an MA in Communication from the European Graduate School and a BS in Computer Science from Florida International University. They blog at michacardenas.org and tweet at @michacardenas.