The Dilbert front
Pranks may be as old as flaming bags of dung, but this year, for the first
time, mysterious organizations are publicly offering corporate saboteurs good
money for their trouble. We have entered the age of subsidized mischief.
by Ellen Barry
®TMark changed Jacques Servin's life, but he has never had the pleasure of
an introduction. He sometimes dreams about the group -- "they were this big
organization, and they had this big building, and I was wandering through it"
-- but at this point, a year after he carried out a high-profile act of
corporate sabotage for ®TMark (pronounced "artmark"),
their relationship has probably reached its permanent form: they know who he is,
but he will never know who they are.
It's a shame, because he'd like to say thank you.
"I'm not a fearless person. I just kind of do my job," says Servin, a
34-year-old computer programmer from San Francisco. "But I saw this on the list
[of ®TMark's projects] and it triggered my natural willingness to do
something like this."
What he did was to reprogram a video game called SimCopter so that, instead of
rewarding the player with an image of scantily clad women rubbing themselves
against the hero, the screen showed two boys in swimsuits planting kisses on
each other. The next day, Servin was fired. Right away, things started getting
better. He made the evening news, and he made friends, and -- by the time the
buzz over his prank had died down -- he was making double his old salary. He
also made $5000, which ®TMark sent by money order, telling him only that
the funds had come from an anonymous donor. But the real payoff, he says in
retrospect, was a little more metaphysical.
"I felt more powerful. I brought down a system a little bit. I embarrassed a
whole company," he says. Even at this remove, he regards that single act as a
watershed in his life. "I affected a stock!" he says, more than a year after
the fact, in a tone of apparent delight.
In the dozens of interviews he granted after the SimCopter project, Servin
didn't mention ®TMark once -- he was under explicit orders to pass himself
off as a totally independent, unremunerated prankster, even though he got the
idea, the instructions, and the funding from ®TMark. There was a similar
gag order in the case of the Barbie Liberation Organization, a group that in
1993 received $10,000 in ®TMark funds to switch the voice boxes of 300 GI
Joe and Barbie dolls so that the GI Joes said "I like to go shopping with you"
and Barbie said "Dead men tell no lies." Then, a few months ago, ®TMark
got back in touch with its former collaborators to announce that it was going
public, and wanted assistance in advertising its activities.
"It seemed like a change in policy," says Igor Vamos, a spokesman for the BLO,
"but I figured we owed them."
This could turn out to be the year that organized sabotage comes out of the
closet. The Foundation for Convulsive Beauty -- an anonymous organization that
did not surface after vigorous electronic inquiry -- has publicized its pledge
to award $20,000 on March 1, 1998, for 1997's "Gilbert Kelly Award for best act
of creative subversion affecting any highly visible commercial product."
And ®TMark, which considers the Foundation its "philosophical forbear,"
has taken an aggressive step into public view. ®TMark now maintains a Web
site at http://www.paranoia.com/~rtmark
that lists both the sabotage projects
it is hoping to assign to the right person (e.g., for "an employee of one of
the three largest car manufacturers in the US [to cause] at least hundreds of
cars to be shipped with gas tanks that hold between half a gallon and a gallon
of gas only") and the amount of money available on the missions' completion (in
this case, $2500). Other projects are seeking financing, such as a proposal to
ship out paper cups bearing "the likeness of any widely despised historical
figure." ®TMark representatives promise that this year, one of their
"workers" will carry out a project as high-profile as the Barbie and SimCopter
projects, thereby drawing attention to ®TMark's cause.
(See "Standing offers.")
Precisely what ®TMark's cause might be is a murky matter. In
extensive e-mail interviews over the past week -- this glasnost business goes
only so far -- they identified themselves to this extent: they are a small
group of professionals (mostly, it seems, academics, and mostly West Coast) who
came up with the ®TMark concept in 1991 after making contact with one
another through Internet newsgroups that specialize in anarchist topics. They
trace their philosophy to Karl Marx and anarchist thinkers like the
Oregon-based philosopher Hakim Bey.
Unlike most anarchist theorists in the past, though, ®TMark singles out
corporations as the ultimate -- and in fact the only -- enemy worth addressing,
representatives told me. The idea is this: protesting the government is
pointless, since corporations now "rule the planet." Protesting
corporations is a subtle business, says an ®TMark spokesman. Labor unions
have been ineffective at changing the way people think, because their tactics
are not dramatic enough, and they "certainly haven't made workers militant in
the least," a member writes. So ®TMark has dispensed with the picket-line
model of activism.
"People know how to protest the government -- there's a huge history to that,
a lot written, a lot of examples -- but not how to protest corporations," wrote
one spokesperson. "We hope to redirect people's thinking about protest now that
power has been redirected."
The method ®TMark has come up with relies on high-concept, nonviolent,
nonharmful internal sabotage. Generally, the project is assigned to someone
willing to lose his or her job for the cause. Over the past five years, 17
projects have been funded and carried out, and in three of the cases, the
perpetrator has been fired as a result, according to ®TMark.
Ideally, the project should make individuals feel just the way Jacques Servin
felt -- as if they have the power to affect institutions. Ideally, corporations
themselves will be forced to adjust to the growing ranks of activist workers
"by giving free rein to their conscience, and also by making life good enough
for the worker so that the few thousand dollars that can be offered by
®TMark (or successor organizations) will not seem significant." This
utopian vision will be attained when workers make clear their ability to wreak
daily havoc, forcing corporations to acknowledge them as formidable forces and
abandon what is commonly known as the "corporate mindset."
Ideally, this would usher in a whole new relationship between the corporation
and the individual. "Perhaps," ®TMark muses electronically, "each
corporation will have an aesthetics and philosophy department."
has described itself as "a matchmaker and bank, helping groups or
individuals fund sabotage projects." Until about six months ago, potential
donors or saboteurs would dial into ®TMark's
database on an anonymous
Internet server and propose, or accept, certain projects. Well, the cloak and
dagger have been tossed aside -- low-profile political theater, after all, has
a certain tree-falling-in-the-forest flaw -- and these days,
anonymous masterminds are perfectly willing to chat about their methods,
ideology, and intellectual forbears. They can be reached at
has promised at least two major actions over the next few months,
and there's plenty more where those schemes came from. Here are some open
offers for all you Saccos and Vanzettis out there in Web-land:
Projects for which funds already exist
$3000 to a "worker at one of the five biggest mailing and parcel
delivery services who can cause several thousand large packages, addressed from
one corporation to another, to be delivered instead to social welfare agencies
that work with children, during a holiday like Easter or Christmas, with the
name and address of the social welfare agencies replacing the originals on the
$5000 to anyone who can "find and administer a substance to a great
number of cattle that will make their beef unfit for consumption -- perhaps by
discoloring it -- without harming the cattle's health."
$750 to each policeman in a major city no smaller than Chicago who
"for at least five days, between the hours of six and eight o'clock, at least
10 times a day asks a businessman in a suit and tie for his identity papers,
and then informs the businessman that there is a curfew for affluent men. The
policeman must say, `So, why aren't you home with your wife?' "
Projects proposed but not yet funded
"A worker at a paper-cup manufacturer must cause a shipment of cups
to bear one of two things: the likeness of any widely despised historical
figure, or extremely off-color jokes."
"Make any famously beautiful but highly polluted body of water turn
black with a harmless black dye at the moment it is being filmed by a
"Drop, from a blimp flying over an NFL football game, a vast number
of Mexican flags with a soccer logo on them, printed on tissue paper (or
anything else that will not injure on impact)."
®TMark's concept is based on the assumption that employees have a
deep-seated desire to misbehave. Fortunately for ®TMark, this is the case;
as Martin Sprouse documented in his 1992 book Sabotage in the American
Workplace (Pressure Drop Press), practically everyone who is
employed already misbehaves substantially, with or without a philosophical
underpinning. After interviewing hundreds of workers -- who had done things as
mundane as stealing office supplies, and as aggressive as knowingly cashing bad
checks -- Sprouse came to the conclusion that "work is the one place where
people actually get revenge."
Sabotage of the more theatrical variety can even be a professional asset.
Through his new Web-based organization, Whistlesmiths, ®TMark alumnus
Servin makes the case that a high-profile act of subversion can make a worker
appear bold, irreverent, and original ("Do you feel trapped by your job? Did
you know that getting fired creatively, with much attendant publicity, will
most likely enhance your career?"). As well as principled. What makes
®TMark's task easier is that most of their collaborators have their own
political messages: the Barbie Liberation Organization, for example, was
organized to challenge gender stereotypes and had planned the voice box switch
long before its members had even heard of ®TMark.
As far as ®TMark is concerned, its anonymous spokespeople write, one
political message is as good as another. What's essential to ®TMark's
cause is the moment of public shock. This nondenominational political theater
lies at the heart of ®TMark's ideology: there is no ideology. There
is just an assault.
"We're hopeful about our chances for survival because our program and agenda
are relatively nondogmatic," one representative wrote. "We don't have points
over which to argue. . . . The only requirement we have for new
projects is that they subvert things, with a purpose."
To date, though, those purposes have been traditionally liberal-left: the
feminist Barbie project, the gay-rights SimCopter gag. ®TMark spokespeople
say they would gladly accept a conservative project, such as an anti-abortion
message, so long as it "also points out the crassness of consumerism and helps
highlight the massive control corporations have over our heads." Ideally,
however, ®TMark projects would be pure dada -- dictators on paper cups,
for instance, bring home no message other than that culture can be messed with.
But even with the promise of cash rewards, ®TMark doesn't come across too
many underemployed dada activists.
It would be wrong to call ®TMark's masterminds revolutionaries; they
consider revolution impossible, at least for the time being. Instead, they want
to make people think differently. And they hope that after the Idi Amin Dixie
cups have been recalled, companies will go to work trying to make room for the
power of the individual. But in the few projects that have been carried out,
the quantifiable impact disappears like a footprint in a mud puddle: in the
case of Jacques Servin, for instance, his employer came out with a program to
remove the kissing boys within one day of the bug's discovery. And after the
Barbie Liberation Organization went to all that trouble savaging Mattel's
approach to gender, Vamos was left wondering if the money he received had come
from Mattel's competitors -- or even from Mattel itself, because there is no
such thing as bad publicity.
It's hard to measure the effectiveness of this kind of tactic; ®TMark's
anarchic strategy is so oblique that it can be infinitely misunderstood. And to
wait for the psychological changes to reach the point of social upheaval -- a
world in which corporations worry about their cumulative impact on human
identity -- would require the patience of a million swamis, as well as truly
evangelical optimism. It's a form of revolution for activists who have given up
on the idea of revolution.
In that, ®TMark is not without historical precedent. In Russia, the
Soviets used to ship high school students out to the collective farms to pick
potatoes in the late summer; the teenagers would take the opportunity to lose
their virginity and practice drinking vodka. My friend Yuri used to tell me
about it, and he always said there were two kinds of teenagers: the teenagers
who earnestly assisted in the harvest, and the teenagers (Yuri was one of
these) who sat on the harvesting machines and threw potatoes into the
When the Party breathed its last, in 1991, credit went to Mikhail Gorbachev,
and to Ronald Reagan, and to the martyred dissidents who risked their lives
railing against the system. Perhaps some notice should have gone to the
generations of adolescent potato-throwers, who may not have envisioned real
change but who did their part by stubbornly gumming up the works. Then again,
the potato-throwers didn't tend to disable the harvesters for very long. The
machines burped, faltered, and then roared back to life.
Ellen Barry can be reached at ebarry[a]phx.com.