Testo dell'articolo scritto da Mattew Fuller e pubblicato sulla rivista americana
WIRED, #1.03, June 1995, UK edition

(Freedom of) Speech Pattern Recognition

Matthew Fuller

published on WIRED, #1.03, June 1995, UK edition

On the morning of the last day in February members of the Italian
Carabinieri Anti-Crime Special Operations Group raided the homes of a
number of people in Rovereto and Trento associated with the local
self-managed social centre 'Clinamen'. This social centre is one of a
large network of usually squatted buildings run by their users, taken over
to make a cheap space for gigs, meetings, political or cultural organising
and for getting together that can be found throughout Italy and beyond.
The police were looking for a terrorist BBS.
The cops were waving a court warrant using legislation brought into
deal with the Red Brigades, Marxist 'armed struggle groups' of the
seventies: 'association with intent to subvert the democratic order', a
charge carrying a penalty of seven to fifteen years imprisonment for those
convicted. Typical of anti-terrorist legislation, it is a charge requiring
little or no proof for conviction. The board they were after is Bits
Against the Empire.
In the understatement of the year, Luciano Paccagnella the sysop of
the board tells me, 'it's been a very strange incident, indeed'. Bits
Against the Empire's terrorism consists of being an on-line library of
documents and conferences for discussion of "the social use of new
technologies, self-managed social centres, independent music production,
along with hundreds of reviews publicly available throughout the world
computer network."
The BBS computer and all the other material seized by the police
were returned over three weeks after the raid, (though Luciano believes
that they have made copies of everything). Whilst Bits Against the Empire
is up and running again, the police have delayed announcing whether they
are going to charge anyone. As they deliberate, it looks increasingly
likely that this was a crude fishing trip to find out the kind of material
being circulated. According to Luciano, "The Italian magistrates and
police forces have for some time now shown a certain fascination for places
such as Cybernet and the European Counter Network, places which have
experimented with new forms of social relations, new forms of contaminating
culture in the light of digital media".
After the stupendous 'Italian Crackdown' of May last year where a
national police operation took over one hundred boards off-line in order to
arrest two small-scale software pirates using Fidonet (and now with the
anticlimax of the raid on Bits Against the Empire) it looks like the
Italian cops have slowly worked out that people don't often log on to their
favourite BBS with an armalite slung over their back and a box of semtex
tucked under the modem.
A week after the raid against Bits Against the Empire, at a special
conference at the Boccioni University called 'Hackers, Terrorism and Mafia
Crime', Dino Finolli the chief of Milan's Special Operations Group debunked
arguments that hackers were connected with terrorism - or for that matter,
to the Mafia. To the dismay of some of the companies who had financed the
meeting, wanting to hear dastardly tales of data-banks being cracked,
viruses being spread and of on-line drug-pushing, Pansa, the chief of the
Italian criminal police and an expert in computer crimes agreed with him.
So if they aren't terrorists, and if even the cops are beginning to
work that out, what are the Italian digital underground? One thing that is
very noticeable about many of the groups and initiatives in Italy is how
much people are aware of their potential strength: that in developing new
communications mechanisms and information dynamics they are in effect
reconfiguring society. Italy is a new state, only about 150 years old -
and subject to dramatic change in constitution, language and geographical
shape even within that time. People can see that nothing is permanent - so
why not have a go at changing things by creating your own media, opening up
a social centre, setting up a BBS, or if you're poor, doing some mass
shoplifting (known as proletarian shopping)? It is because people have
this understanding of their own strength that they are often able to put
into operation what people in many other countries in Europe often only
dream about. This self-awareness is obviously subject to ebbs and flows
but currently, according to Gomma of Decoder, "This is the first time
since the 60's that a young counterculture has moved this close to the
needs of society in general."
Strano Network - the Strange Network - Florence-based organisers of
a recent large meeting of sysops, journalists, users and on-line activists
called "Cyberspace Rights at the End of the Millennium" see that the
self-production of networks, materials and events whilst having a strong
political dimension also ties in with traditions of amateurism and the
possibilities of developing the networks as a gift economy. (If free trade
is the circulation of materials without imposition by the state, then a
gift economy is an anti-economy: the circulation of materials for free -
without imposition by the economy). Their activities include producing the
decidedly manic Metanetwork, a one-disk e-zine produced in the simple
hypermedia programme Hypercard that includes articles and graphics on
critical cyberculture; and Strago di Stato a recent multimedia history of
Italian state terrorism - again available on one high-density disk and
distributed on the networks or through record shops.
Tommaso Tozzi, a member of Strano Network, shows that doing it
yourself is also essential if you want to experiment. He sysops two BBSs.
The first, Hacker Art, has been on-line for several years now and as well
as the usual BBS stuff focuses particularly innovatively on developing
collaborative projects over the networks. Some of these are pictures
passed around from user to user and added to or mutated as they go: varying
from smears by people who believe that simultaneously using every filter in
Photoshop will guarantee you a good result, to things that are actually
worth seeing. Other projects have been sound-based. A couple of years ago
Tommaso released a sound/data CD Happening Interactivi Virtual that
featured tracks produced by bands and individuals that collaborated to put
them together on Hacker Art. For this project participants made digital
sound files, passed them back and forth via the BBS, adjusted them and
mixed them together until they were ready to be heard. His new playground
is another BBS, run on First Class, called Virtual Town TV. Using an
interface that pictures different areas of the city devoted to different
subjects or ambiences this is an experiment in creating a basic interactive
TV system based on Quick Time movies. Here you can find home-made
newsreels on political demonstrations, sample a clip from a promo video or
see the results of someone wobbling a handicam around in a show by video
artist Nam June Paik.

When you've finished checking out the BBSs, reach over for a copy
of Decoder. A wild border-zone in print, where the intense mutie-graphics
of Professor Bad-Trip, hacking news, guidelines for knocking up some
night-vision goggles, essays on virtual identity, drugs and the breakdown
of copyright collide to produce a high bandwidth info-explosion that has
been essential in engineering the techno-contaminants of Italian
cyberculture. According to Gomma, a member of ShaKe, the collective that
produces Decoder: "Our objective is to give cultural instruments to aid
survival in the post-industrial phase, and to develop the production of a
social sense that engages with the new media."
ShaKe also publish books and videos and organise events, 'Media
Parties', festivals of hands-on technology crossed with raves. Gomma can
happily acknowledge that, "the ShaKe co-operative has become in a brief
time and with great surprise a point of reference not only for the Italian
digital underground, but also for many people who work in the field of
informatics and information." They cross an optimistic vision of
technology that comes from direct knowledge and use, with a critique of
power that stems from their roots in the Autonomia.
This diverse movement has repeatedly influenced the course of
events in Italy over the last thirty years. The Autonomia began in the
massive factory based movements of the sixties and seventies that
instigated an almost Copernican shift in the relationships between workers
and bosses, where everything from the conditions and length of work to the
price of food, transport, entertainment and housing were often decided by
mass working class movements. Later it also mutated into the freakshow
take-over of city space by autonomous currents such as the Metropolitan
Indians, (maybe similar to war-painted versions of the travellers of
today's Britain, but who would temporarily take over the urban cores rather
than head for the fringes) to its influence on the self-proclaimed
cyberpunk activists of today, the Autonomia has consistently reinvented
itself through creating direct solutions to the boredom and inequality of
what currently passes for society.
In a country where the financial flows of the media, politics and
drugs are often seemlessly merged, the Italian mediascape is one of the
most excessive in the world. An infinitely limited choice of home
shopping, cascades of wobbling mammaries, sport, cheesy politicians,
thrill-packed soapsä Italy beats the USA hands down when it comes to
telly. Here, the politics of democracy appears at its purest pixelated
intensity. Instead of Reagan, a mere actor after all, Italy ditched the
middleman and got its spectacle uncut in the form of Silvio Berlusconi,
(who owns six television networks and radio channels, twenty newspapers and
magazines and an advertising agency).
Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia, are so blatant about the
connection that when you ring the number of Video On-Line, the new
information super toll-road service in which Berlusconi's core company
Fininvest has a large stake, the telephone is answered by organisers from
the party - it becomes the same service. Politics is interactive TV: but
Forza Italia is the remote control turned back on the viewer.
The ruling class of Italy dream of making it a country
"more Japanese than Japan". In the industrial triangle area of the North
East of the country this is in some ways just what is occurring, with the
average working day being extended to 12 hours. This latest aim though is
just one layer in the intensely complex structure of Italian society. A
look at the legislation governing media reveals that the Italian copyright
laws were copied directly from the US as part of the process of reshaping
the country after the Second World War under the Marshall Plan. Meanwhile,
other media-related legislation remains from the Fascist period, with
democratic governments finding their big brother's hand-me-down powers too
useful to relinquish. In a law from the time of Mussolini's rule still
used to make it hard for oppositional points of view to get into print,
every publisher of books, papers or magazines has to register with the
government. They want to know who people are and what they're saying.
However, in Italy as elsewhere, what Gomma of Decoder called the
'post-industrial phase' presages an irreversible mutation of the DNA of
politics that takes place as a change from the stage managed conflict
between left and right to a fractal antagonism between Molar (block-like
structures that work by force of weight) and molecular (horizontal,
self-organising) systems, means that the often inherently molecular
computer networks are a focus for intense debate and activity.
Alberto Castelvecchi a book publisher who has newly moved into this
area following the success of groups such as Decoder believes that in
Italy, "We haven't got cyberpunk writers. We have a cyberpunk
counter-cultural life." The street finds its own uses for cyberpunk
through developments such as the AV.A.NA BBS based in the gigantic squat,
the social centre Forte Prenestino in Rome. This board and around forty
others like it are members of Cybernet, one of the most fecund areas of
networked reality you're ever likely to come across. Cybernet has message
and file areas such as: garage virtual realities, hacking, otherwise hard
to get AIDS information, news of the social centres and other movements,
all infused with an inspiring technologised optimism and political suss
that gives it a strong influence.
As well as running the board, the sysops of AV.A.NA who go under
the multiple name 'Mr. Tuttle', after the renegade plumber in the film
Brazil, produce techno videos and organise meetings. There, as on the
board, they closely focus on debates around media and technology. An
inspired move is their recent initiation of a hyper-soap opera, the
Post-Fordist Love Story. This is the tale of an "immaterial worker' and a
'hyper-aesthetic housewife" as they struggle through everyday trials of
viral infection, mutation and hair-dye to find love, and where the next
calamitous daily episode is decided by the multiple choice entries of the

As in the United States (e.g. the Communications Decency Act) and the UK
(e.g. the recent Criminal Justice Act) one of the key areas for the
introduction of laws governing on-line activity here is - suprise, suprise
- sex. The wildest speaker at the conference organised by Strano Network
was undoubtedly the voluptuous Helena Velena, 'transgender high-priestess
of cybersex', the sysop of a Bologna based BBS called Cybersex, an on-line
library of texts relating to sex, gender and technology. She believes that
sex, with its complex interrelation of the physical and mental is an ideal
vector through which to explore networked realities, and as a result,
ourselves: "Cybersex is very important on the net as it allows people to
look at their inner feelings and to develop a new definition of yourself"
With the possibilities for transversal identity produced by digital
technologies, Helena believes that, "At a certain point cybersex and
transgenderism fuse together". "Many transgendered people come out on the
net. Because on the net they have the possibility to check themselves...
They say 'let's try and see if I could be something different from what I
am' You can experiment in a safe environment and see what happens".
Helena though, goes beyond the often heard ideas of the network as a cosy
therapeutic encounter-zone. Claiming that, "Cybersex is a means of
communication" she sees that its effects start to spill out into 'normal'
life. "I believe the net will play a big part in mutating sexual identity.
You start on the net and then go out on the street fully transgendered."
Perhaps this is a frightening thought for some. Helena believes
that once people start to experiment with their sexual desires on or
off-line, many other parts of their lives that might have previously gone
unquestioned start to be looked at in a different light - hence society's
lurid fascination, yet inability to cope with, the possibilities of
cybersex. "They are using now this 'terrible thing' that is pornography to
try to say that we must put regulation, put rules and laws, on the
Helena sees that the spectre of pornography on the net is being
totally hyped and cites a recent article in the Italian current affairs
magazine L'Espresso that claims that 50% of the traffic on the networks is
to do with "voyeurism". Pointing out that only fifteen out of around seven
thousand Usenet newsgroups are to do with sex she believes that the only
real voyeurists on the net are journalists and the politicians who feed off
Citing the two-faced history of repression common to Europe, where
legislation is introduced ostensibly to attack one thing but is really
meant for another, she declares that: "They need to start their fight in a
way in which everyone would agree. If they say we need this regulation
because there are so many dangerous pedeophiles on the net everyone, left
and right, everyone will agree... but when the regulation will be passed
then it will be used for different purposes."
According to Luciano Paccagnella of Bits Against the Empire, "It is
not suprising that the repressive organs of the state have reacted to their
own technical and social ignorance by seizing an instrument of
communication like a BBS: if they can't understand something, it means that
they control it, and what can't be controlled is dangerous for a social
order based upon fear and institutionalised violence. The advantage then,
will always lie with people who are trying to do something rather with
structures that try to stop things happening. As Helena points out: "If
you really want to send something and you don't want someone to intercept
your messages you can still do it. The Government has got the new
technology, the underground has got the new counter-technology so the fight
goes on."
This strong understanding of the dynamics of power, and of its
potential displacement in a networked society makes the real action in
Italian Cyberspace distinctly underground. Here people are getting
together to reformat reality directly by cutting out the endless ranks of
middle-men who maintain things as they are in every sphere of life. This
strong, experimental and antagonistic will to self-determination certainly
has room to grow, but you can feel a real sense of life in the boards,
magazines and networks here that are maybe not so concerned with asking for
Freedom of Speech - but with actually producing freedom as a result of
their crazy, passionate, technologised speech.

AV.A.NA BBS (0)6-2574110
Bits Against the Empire (0)39-464-435189
Cybersex BBS (0)51-523556
Decoder BBS (0)2-29527597
Decoder decoder@stinch0.csmtbo.mi.cnr.it
Hacker Art BBS (0)55-485997
Virtual Town TV (0)55-485997