Scientology versus the InternetTagged as: culture goldsmith lecture repression scientology
“Because none of us is as cruel as all of us” Anonymous says. In an open lecture at Goldsmith College, University of London yesterday, Gabriella Coleman presented her research on the Scientology vs. the Internet meme. Netizens have been fighting Scientology since the ancient times of Usenet messaging board system. Postings of “copyrighted scriptures”, property of the alleged church, triggered its pioneering attempts at Internet censorship. Those were the times! The messages have been posted through an anonymous remailer which resulted in: CO$ -- “Epic fail!”
Nontheless, the CO$ continued to hunt down its materials from the web ever since, sueing websites, media and service providers alike, with varying success. Indymedia websites all around the world have faced such attacks as well. In the beginning of the zeroes the frequency of the clashes reportedly dwindled, as if the whole thing was a “bubble”.
In Coleman's interpretation, the Church of Scientology is the “Perfect Nemesis” of certain netizens, a cultural mirror image of all what they stand for. Where these Internet trolls favour such liberal and hedonistic ideas as sharing for fun, free speech as provocation, freedom of association in mobs, and creative cultural production, all in the context of an informed materialist discourse; the CO$ is associated with business, religion and therapy, in the context of an occult system where teachings are only gradually revealed (in return for fees and services). Apart from these general factors, technology, science fiction and authority play a special role in both cultural formations. Internet users, especially hackers, favour the innovative, unexpected, and even unauthorised use of technology; but the CO$'s Religious Technology Center has the mission of ensuring the “correct use” of the CO$'s “religious technology”. Geek culture is inspired by science fiction, often approached from an engineering angle; but the CO$, according to its host of adversaries, sells expensive and (by the genre's critical standards) low quality science fiction as mystical truth. The Internet practice of trolling is a debasement of authority and any (random) popular belief, taken to extremes; but Scientology operates with various levels of authorities in its organisations who allegedly exercise a set of powers over a set of adherents.
Ironically, the mirror image or cultural inversion hypothesis also means that there are remarkable similarities between geek culture and the discourse of Scientology. For example, hacker talk often revolves around the “use of correct technology”, be that a debate about the best operating system or text editor. In contrast, as mentioned before, the “correct use of technology” is CO$ policy. Moreover, while trolls like to ridicule the opaque and self-referential language of the CO$, for example its label of “Suppressive Person” for its enemies, they themselves continually endulge in a an even more self-referential argot (spelled out on Encyclopedia Dramatica). The criticism of the CO$ as an unpenetrable secret organisation that is guarding its business assets aggressively is also paralleled by its Internet enemies' aggressive behaviour against unknown nicknames in chat rooms, their choice of anonymity, and the technosocially sophisticated media they use for communication/coordination.
The second wave of protests were triggered by a leaked video of Scientology adherent Tom Cruise speaking serious nonsense about his relationship to the faith that appear on YouTube. The CO$ used the DMCA — perhaps the single most hated law in Internet circles — to effect the removal of the item. The result was a trolling campaign started by users of the image board 4chan. “Anonymous” declared war against the CO$ through video and press release. Numerous ridiculing images and videos followed suit, with several attacks against online CO$ infrastructure and even a global days of actions when the Anonymous took the streets. Their strongest point proved to be the recognition, distribution and proliferation of propaganda materials, because their original preoccupation has been the freewheeling production of Internet memes. Their efforts were evidence of an increased media literacy amongst young Internet users, especially in using tools for photo and video editing. Notably, despite many of them attended and/or organised protests for the first time in their life, they proved to be adept in the aesthetic of protest as well.
As Wikipedia reports, “[a] new video “Call to Action” appeared on YouTube on January 28, 2008, calling for protests outside Church of Scientology centers on February 10, 2008. On February 2, 2008, 150 people gathered outside of a Church of Scientology center in Orlando, Florida to protest the organization’s practices. Small protests were also held in Santa Barbara, California, and Manchester, England. On February 10, 2008, about 7,000 people protested in more than 93 cities worldwide. Many protesters wore masks based on the character V from V for Vendetta (who in turn was influenced by Guy Fawkes), or otherwise disguised their identities, in part to protect themselves from reprisals from the Church of Scientology. Anonymous held a second wave of protests on March 15, 2008 in cities all over the world, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Vancouver, Toronto, Berlin, and Dublin. Anonymous held its third protest against Scientology on April 12, 2008. Named “Operation Reconnect”, it aimed to increase awareness of the Church of Scientology’s disconnection policy. A fourth protest occurred on May 10, 2008 and a fifth (Operation Sea Arrrgh) occurred on June 14, 2008.”
The protests — as many similar movements around the time — showed the political spontaneity and effectiveness of young Internet users, who are able to mobilise masses by mounting online campaigns that are well orchestrated from a public relations point of view. As Coleman pointed out, these activists often know very little about their object, and it is not necessary for them to know very much either. They do it for fun (“luls”) as much as for “profit”.
Coleman’s presentation was both funny and enlightening, although she often smeared very different and distinct communities together purely on the basis of their presence on the Internet and aversion to Scientology.
An audio recording of Gabriella Coleman’s talk is available through archive.org under Creative Commons Noncommercial Attribution Sharealike licence from
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