Insurgency is a military term usually used by imperial powers as a synonym for guerrilla rebellion or anti-colonial struggle. It was developed by US military scholars in the 1970s, in the context of America’s unsuccessful colonial invasions. Insurgency, as a term, was coined to reflect the critical advantages that made anti-colonial resistance so successful. One such key strength was the asymmetry of information.
In colonial wars, the entire environment is hostile towards data extraction by invaders: locals do their best not to disclose information, maps of the territory are lacking or outdated, routes for communication are scarce and less developed than those operated by the resistance forces and so on. This asymmetry of information and communication is the core of what I call insurgent computing. From the friendly fire intentionally staged by the resistance to ambush attacks, insurgent computing has been a key cause of losses among the Soviet and later, Russian soldiers in its colonial wars after the Second World War.
This asymmetry of information was a key concern for American military thinkers in the 1990s who developed the very concept of cyberwar as it is used today. According to the core cyberwar experts of that time, information, revolution and the rise of networks exacerbated the pre-existing potential of highly-coordinated insurgencies. Around the same time (and on the opposite side of the political spectrum), the second issue of the anarchist journal Tiqqun came out with the article ‘The Cybernetic Hypothesis’, arguably one of the most well-known texts of this generation of thought. This text foresaw the immense power in the cybernetic diffusion of guerrilla warfare, invisible to the eyes of the Empire.
To explain the conceptual grounds of ‘computing’ in insurgent computing, I would like to recall the ‘cyber’ of ‘cyberattack’, as I imagine these terms to be directly related. The cyber in cyberattack refers to networks; computing in insurgent computing should also be understood with a network at its core—an information-rich network, to be precise. The difference comes from the active agency implied in the term: rather than an environment (cyber) where something takes place, it refers to a performed action (computing). Computing, understood as an action against a network, aligns well with conventional practices of insurgency such as the sabotage of transport networks. Indeed, computing builds upon the close relationship between insurgencies and networks. It highlights information as an operational quality of such a network, leaving the potential to both sabotage existing networks and create novel ones. (Anna Engelhardt)