On 17 April 2003, after receiving more e-mail from a supporter of Re-code, we wrote the following missive and circulated it as both an anonymous posting to a variety of Web sites (including the Chicago Independent Media Center) and as an e-mail:
It's no longer appropriate, constructive or desirable for politically engaged artists to criticize each other; loyalty is the order of the day. Or so said "Nathan Hactivist" and Geert Lovink at a recent presentation in Chicago on "tactical media." And so, this missive -- which dares to criticize http://www.re-code.com -- can't fail to be dismissed as traitorous, unproductive, jealous, resentful, unfathomable or even COINTELPRO-like. But we have undertaken to write and circulate it anyway, because we are confident of the accuracy and usefulness of its insights, which are sure to eventually find receptive, sympathetic and thoughtful readers.
Because they have recently received precisely that which they'd been hoping to receive (i.e., a threatening letter from a lawyer representing Wal Mart), http://www.re-code.com has sent out various e-mails, one of which asks people to "defend" and "help" them. And how can we help out? "By searching your local papers [for references to or coverage of Wal Mart's letter] and watching your local [TV] news with a videotape ready to record." Strange request! Note well: they don't want us to actually visit their website and use their bar-code generating service, i.e., the thing to which Wal Mart has predictably objected; instead, http://www.re-code.com want us to help generate and collect (even) more news coverage for them.
And *why* should we help them? Because http://www.re-code.com is "political satire" and "political satire" is commonly practiced and must be defended whenever it is attacked. But this bar-code generating sevice is neither political nor satirical! Politics concerns public or civic affairs ("the government," elected representatives, the military, the bureaucracy, the law, the police and the criminal-justice system), but none of these institutions are put into question or even implicated by http://www.re-code.com, which limits itself to economics and the private sector (commodities, brands, advertising, prices). As for satire, it must be pointed to be effective, but the "satire" of http://www.re-code.com is dull(ed) because bar-codes are far from a new or alarming invention (they've been around since the 1980s), and because people have been "saving money" (stealing) by switching pricing labels on products for many years.
Ironically, the only way that http://www.re-code.com would be genuinely political if its creators dropped their stupid pretense that their service is satirical (nobody believes or is fooled by their "legal disclaimers") and forthrightly admitted that http://www.re-code.com is both an incitement and a means by which one can steal from (commit fraud against) big corporate chain-stores. But "Nathan Hactivist" isn't going to do that. When push comes to shove, he's an artist, not a committed political activist: he isn't willing to go to jail for his convictions.
He and http://www.re-code.com can do whatever the fuck they want (obviously). This is their 15 minutes of fame, and they'd be foolish not to exploit it. But it makes no sense to "defend" http://www.re-code.com against an attack that it wants, is trying to provoke, indeed, is dependant upon for its continued relevance. Calls to "defend political satire" should only be made when the attack is real and UNWELCOME.
Sent this statement as an e-mail, "Nathan Hactivist" -- a cynical opportunist who is trying to use "hack-activism" (hacktivism) as a way of making a name for himself -- responded to it as follows:
i think that is a fair critique[.] i take issue with several of the much more hostile sections of the letter, but all in all is fair. i wish i knew who sent it
i would instead suggest that the uoc [he means "upc" or universal product code] generator itself has ceased to be the drive of the project[.] the pressure put on us to shut down a simple site is rather the issue
i do not want to fight and risk federal jail time over defending the right to keep this site live[.] truthfully i don't want to maintain such a site anymore - it is a pain and not worth it to me
it was a stepping stone for greater discussion and now for the issues surrounding corporate bullying - which must go documented
yes i am sometimes and artist - but it's better than being an employee, and i have done both
strange that the writer watched us speak at versionfest in chicago - a very artsy event
thanks for passing this along
again i think it is a fair critique and i am glad it exists[.] it will be added to the archive like the rest
It's nice that "Nathan" recognizes the fairness of our critique and is honest enough to say so. But it appears that he's learned nothing from reading it. Rather than questioning his ignorance of political institutions and his obsession with corporations, Nathan has simply repeated his original mistake: the issues now, he says, are "corporate bullying" and "the pressure" brought to bear on him by Wal Mart. No, the issues are artistic cowardice and so-called adults who give in, without a fight, to the first discomforts of "pressure." The UPC generator isn't fun anymore; I want a new plaything.
Around the same time that we were composing our critique, a long message entitled "Corporations Win Again! . . . but Re-Code.com corporate mascot Rico Barco is still smiling" was posted on the Re-code site. In part, this message stated:
Hey Boys and Girls! I'm Rico Barco, the talking bar code. I'm not afraid of Jail, cause - I've been "behind bars" since I was born! But the real boys and girls who created me don't want to go to jail for a fictional crime! So let me help to explain some very simple things about their little project that even a dumb binary code like me can understand!
Re-code.com never had any malicious or larcenous intent. The kids who made it perpetrated no theft in its production! It is an elaborate satire of Priceline.com, which promotes the notion that a consumer can set the price - it was this notion taken to an extreme. But the UPC symbol has become so powerful that its mere decoding and reproduction has brought on the wrath of multinational corporations down on a couple of kids who spent their afternoon making a funny website! This little episode speaks ill of our freedom of speech, not to mention our national sense of humor [...]
So what made this website different? Why all the attention? Making it onto the evening news confused the kids who made the site, and it has even wrinkled my bars a bit! The fact that people were excited by the website was a success of sorts - and the fact that advertisers were seeking space on the site was the source of intense laughter for the kids. But when it became a mass media spectacle it was a source of tears for this little barcode. It saddened me because even as this little Robin Hood Story was unfolding, The Sheriff of Nottingham was robbing us all blind.
Why is there an interest in this little website, when the leaders of our great country are passing a tax cut that gives to the rich and steals form the poor? Why is there an interest in this little website, when the leaders of our great regime are giving our tax money to corporations that they own, to rebuild a country that they used our tax money to destroy? Now that is stealing, and on the largest scale imaginable.
So why, when there is this kind of wholesale robbery going on, does anyone care about a website put up by a bunch of kids trying to tell a funny story in the spirit of Robin Hood? Why are we so eager to applaud the Sheriff of Nottingham as he fleeces us?
So remember kids! Rico Barcode says: Say whatever you want! its a free country!
Once again, the childishness -- the self-infantilization and the infantilization of others -- is striking. And boring, very very boring.
-- NOT BORED! 20 April 2003
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