geert lovink on Fri, 1 Nov 2002 03:41:01 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] A Virtual World is Possible (with Florian Schneider)

A Virtual World is Possible: From Tactical Media to Digital Multitudes
By Geert Lovink and Florian Schneider

We start with the current strategy debates of the so-called
"anti-globalisation movement", the biggest emerging political force for
decades. In Part II we will look into strategies for critical new media
culture in the post-speculative phase after dotcommania. There are four
phases of the global movement becoming visible, which all have their own
distinctive political, artistic and aesthetic qualities.

1. The 90s and tactical media activism
In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall the term 'tactical media'
arose as a renaissance of media activism, blending old school political work
and artists' engagement with new technologies. During the early nineties
there was a growing awareness of gender issues, exponential growth of media
industries and the increasing availability of cheap do-it-yourself equipment
created a new sense of self-awareness amongst activists, programmers,
theorists, curators and artists. Media were no longer seen as merely tools
for the Struggle, but experienced as virtual environments whose parameters
were permanently 'under construction'. This is the golden age of tactical
media, open to issues of aesthetics, experimenting with alternative forms of
story telling. However, these liberating techno practices did not
immediately translate into visible social movements. Rather, they symbolized
the celebration of media freedom, in itself a great political goal. The
media used - from video, CD-ROM, cassettes, zines and flyers to music styles
such as rap and techno - varied widely, as did the topics. Commonly shared
was a feeling that politically motivated activities, be they art or research
or advocacy work, were no longer part of a politically correct ghetto and
could intervene in 'pop culture' without necessarily having to compromise
with the 'system.' With everything up for negotiation, new coalitions could
be formed. The current movements, worldwide, cannot be understood outside of
the very personal and diverse cry for the digital freedom of expression.

2. 99-01: The period of big mobilizations
By the end of the nineties the post-modern 'time without movements' had come
to an end. The organized discontent against neo-liberalism, global warming
policies, labour exploitation and numerous other issues converged. Equipped
with networks and arguments, backed up by decades of research, a hybrid
movement gained momentum, wrongly labelled by mainstream media as
'anti-globalisation.' It seemed one of the specific flags of that movement,
that it hasn't been able and willing to answer the question, which
constitutes any kind of movement on the rise, any generation on the move:
what's to be done? There was and there is no answer, no alternative - either
strategic or tactical - to the existing world order, to the dominant mode of

And maybe this is the most important, and liberating, conclusion: there's no
way back to the twentieth century, the protective nation state and the
gruesome tragedies of the 'left.' It had been good to remember, but equally
good to throw off, the past. The question 'what's to be done' should not be
read as an attempt to re-introduce Leninist principles in whatever form. The
issues of strategy, organization and democracy belong to all times. We
neither want to bring back old policies through the backdoor, nor do we
think that this urgent question can be dismissed with the (justified)
argument of crimes committed under the banner of Lenin. When he looks in the
mirror Slavoj Zizek may see Father Lenin, but that's not the case for

It is possible to wake up from the nightmare of historical communism and
(still) pose the question: what's to be done? Can a 'multitude' of interests
and backgrounds ask that question, or is the agenda the one defined by the
summit calendar of world leaders and the business elite?

Nevertheless, the movement has been growing rapidly. At first sight, by
using a pretty boring and very traditional medium: the mass-mobilization of
tens of thousands in the streets of Seattle, hundreds of thousands in the
streets of Genoa. Tactical media networks played an important role in its
coming into being. From now on pluriformity of issues and identities was a
given reality. Difference is here to stay and no longer needs to legitimize
itself against higher authorities such as the Party, the Union or the Media.
This is the biggest gain compared to previous decades. The 'multitudes' are
not a dream or some theoretical construct but a reality.

If there is a strategy, it's not contradiction, but complementary existence.
Despite theoretical deliberations, there is no contradiction between the
street and cyberspace. The one fuels the other. Protests against WTO,
neo-liberal EU policies, and party conventions are all staged in front of
the gathered world press. Indymedia crops up as a parasite of the mainstream
media. Instead of having to beg for attention, protests place under the eyes
of the world media during summits of politicians and business leaders,
seeking direct confrontation. Alternatively, symbolic sites are chosen such
as border regions (East-West Europe, USA-Mexico) or refugee detention
centres (Frankfurt airport, the centralized Eurocop database in Strasbourg,
the Woomera detention centre in the Australian desert). The global
entitlement of the movement adds a new layer of globalisation from below to
the ruling mode of globalisation, rather than just objecting to it.

3. Confusion and resignation after 9-11
At first glance, the future of the movement is a confusing and irritating
one. Old-leftist grand vistas, explaining US imperialism and its aggressive
unilateralist foreign policy, provided by Chomsky, Pilger and other baby
boomers are consumed with interest but no longer give the bigger picture. In
a polycentric world conspiracy theories only provide temporary comfort for
the confused. No moralist condemnation of capitalism is necessary. Facts and
events speak for themselves. It is the situation that drives people to the
street, not an analysis (neither ours nor the one from Hardt & Negri). The
few remaining leftists can no longer provide the movement with an ideology,
as it works perfectly without one. "We don't need your revolution." Even the
70s and 80s social movements, locked up in their NGO structures, have a hard
time keeping up. New social formations are taking possession of the streets
and media spaces, without feeling the need of representation by some higher
authority, not even the heterogenous committees gathering in Porto Alegre.

So far this movement has been bound in clearly defined time/space
coordinates. It still takes months to mobilize multitudes and organize the
logistics, from buses and planes, camping grounds and hostels, to
independent media centres. This movement is anything but spontaneous (and
does not even claim to be so). People travel hundreds or thousands of miles
to attend protest rallies, driven by real concerns, not by some romantic
notion of socialism. The question: "reform or revolution?" sounds more like
a worn-out blackmail to give the politically correct answer.

The contradiction between selfishness and altruism is also a false one.
State-sponsored corporate globalisation affects everyone. International
bodies such as the WTO, the Kyoto Agreement on global warming, or the
privatisation of the energy sector are no longer abstract news items, dealt
with by bureaucrats and (NGO) lobbyists. That insight has been the major
political quantum leap of recent times. Is this the Last International? No.
There is no way back to the nation state, to traditional concepts of
liberation, the logic of transgression and transcendence, exclusion and
inclusion. Struggles are no longer projected on a distant Other that begs
for our moral support and money. We have finally arrived in the
post-solidarity age. As a consequence, national liberation movements have
been replaced by a power analysis, which is simultaneously incredibly
abstract, symbolic and virtual, while terribly concrete, detailed and

4. Present challenge: liquidate the regressive third period of marginal
moral protest
Luckily September 11 has had no immediate impact on the movement. The choice
between Bush and Bin Laden was irrelevant. Both agendas were rejected as
devastating fundamentalisms. The all too obvious question: "whose terror is
worse?" was carefully avoided as it leads away from the pressing emergencies
of everyday life: the struggle for a living wage, decent public transport,
health care, water, etc. Both social democracy and the real existing
socialism depended heavily on the nation state. A return to the 20thcentury
sounds as disastrous as all the catastrophes it produced. The concept of a
digital multitude is fundamentally different and entirely based on openness.
Over the last few years the struggles of the multitudes have created outputs
on many different layers: the dialectics of open sources, open borders, open
knowledge. The deep penetration of the concepts of openness and freedom into
the principle of struggle is by no means a compromise to the cynical and
greedy neo-liberal class. Progressive movements have always dealt with a
radical democratisation of the rules of access, decision-making and the
sharing of gained capacities. Usually it started from an illegal or
illegitimate common ground. Within the bounds of the analogue world it led
to all sorts of cooperatives and self-organized enterprises, whose specific
notions of justice were based on efforts to circumvent the brutal regime of
the market and on different ways of dealing with the scarcity of material

We're not simply seeking proper equality on a digital level. We're in the
midst of a process which constitutes the totality of a revolutionary being,
as global as it is digital. We have to develop ways of reading the raw data
of the movements and struggles and to make their experimental knowledge
legible. To encode and decode the algorithms of its singularity,
nonconformity and non-confoundability. To invent, refresh and update the
narratives and images of a truly global connectivity. To open the source
code of all the circulating knowledge and install a virtual world.

Bringing these efforts down to the level of production challenges new forms
of subjectivity, which almost necessarily leads to the essential conclusion
that everyone is an expert. There's a superflux of human resources and a
brilliance of everyday experience, which get dramatically lost in the
'academification' of radical left theory. The new ethical-aesthetic paradigm
lives on in the pragmatic consciousness of affective labour, in the nerdish
attitude of a digital working class, in the omnipresence of migrant
struggles as well as many other border-crossing experiences, in deep notions
of friendship within networked environments as well as the 'real' world.

Let's now look at strategies for Internet art & activism. Critical new media
culture faces a tough climate of budget cuts in the cultural sector and a
growing hostility and indifference towards new media. But hasn't power
shifted to cyberspace, as Critical Art Ensemble once claimed? Not so if we
look at the countless street marches around the world.

The Seattle movement against corporate globalisation appears to have gained
momentum - both on the street and online. But can we really speak of a
synergy between street protests and online 'hacktivism'? No, but what they
have in common is their (temporal) conceptual stage. Both real and virtual
protests risk getting stuck at the level of a global 'demo design,' no
longer grounded in actual topics and local situations. This means the
movement never gets out of beta. At first glance, reconciling the virtual
and the real seems to be an attractive rhetorical act. Radical pragmatists
have often emphasized the embodiment of online networks in real-life
society, dispensing with the real/virtual contradiction. Net activism, like
the Internet itself, is always hybrid, a blend of old and new, haunted by
geography, gender, race and other political instances. There is no pure
disembodied zone of global communication, as the 90s cyber-mythology

Equations such as street plus cyberspace, art meets science, and
'techno-culture'-all interesting interdisciplinary approaches-are proving to
have little effect beyond the symbolic level of dialogue and discourse. The
fact is that established disciplines are in a defensive mode. The 'new'
movements and media are not yet mature enough to question and challenge the
powers that be. In a conservative climate, the claim to 'embody the future'
becomes a weak and empty gesture.

On the other hand, the call of many artists and activists to return to "real
life" does not provide us with a solution to how alternative new media
models can be lifted to the level of mass (pop) culture. Yes, street
demonstrations raise solidarity levels and lift us up from the daily
solitude of one-way media interfaces. Despite September 11 and its
right-wing political fallout, social movements worldwide are gaining
importance and visibility. We should, however, ask the question "what comes
after the demo version" of both new media and the movements?

This isn't the heady 60s. The negative, pure and modernist level of the
"conceptual" has hit the hard wall of demo design as Peter Lunenfeld
described it in his book 'Snap to Grid'. The question then becomes How to
jump beyond the prototype? What comes after the siege of yet another summit
of CEOs and their politicians? How long can a movement grow and stay
'virtual'? Or in IT terms, what comes after demo design, after the countless
PowerPoint presentations, broadband trials and Flash animations? Will Linux
ever break out of the geek ghetto? The feel-good factor of the open, ever
growing crowd (Elias Canetti) will wear out; demo fatigue will set in. Does
your Utopia version have a use-by date?

Rather then making up yet another concept it is time to ask the question of
how software, interfaces and alternative standards can be installed in
society. Ideas may take the shape of a virus, but society may hit back with
even more successful immunization programs: appropriation, repression and
neglect. What we face is a scalability crisis. Most movements and
initiatives find themselves in a trap. The strategy of becoming "minor"
(Guattari) is no longer a positive choice but the default option. Designing
a successful cultural virus and getting millions of hits on your weblog will
not bring you beyond the level of short-lived 'spectacle'. Culture jammers
are no longer outlaws but should be seen as experts in guerrilla

Today's movements are in danger of getting stuck in self-satisfying protest
mode. With access to the political process effectively blocked, further
mediation seems the only available option. However, gaining more and more
"brand value" in terms of global awareness may turn out to be like
overvalued stocks: it might pay off, it might be worthless. The pride of "We
have always told you so" is boosting the moral of minority multitudes, but
at the same time it delegates legitimate fights to the level of official
"Truth and Reconciliation Commissions" (often parliamentary or
Congressional), after the damage is done.

Instead of arguing for "reconciliation" between the real and virtual we call
here for a rigorous synthesis of social movements with technology. Instead
of taking the cyberpunk-derived "the future is now" position, a lot could be
gained from a radical re-assessment of the techno revolutions of the last
10-15 years. For instance, if artists and activists can learn anything from
the dot-com rise and subsequent fall it might be the importance of
marketing. The attention economy of the dotcom eyeballs proved worthless.

This is a terrain of true taboo knowledge. Dot-coms invested their entire
venture capital in (old media) advertisement. Their belief that
media-generated attention would automatically draw users in and turn them
into customers was unfounded. The same could be said of activist sites.
Information "forms" us. But new consciousness results less and less in
measurable action. Activists are only starting to understand the impact of
this paradigm. What if information merely circles around in its own parallel
world? What's to be done if the street demonstration becomes part of the

Increasing tensions and polarizations as described here force us to question
the limits of new media discourse. In the age of realtime global events Ezra
Pound's definition of art as the antenna of the human race shows its
passive, responsive nature. Art no longer initiates. One can be happy if it
responds to contemporary conflicts at all and the new media arts sector is
no exception here. New media arts must be reconciled with its condition as a
special effect of the hard and software developed years ago.

Critical new media practices have been slow to respond to both the rise and
fall of dotcommania. In the speculative heydays of new media culture (the
early-mid 90s, before the rise of the World Wide Web), theorists and artists
jumped eagerly on the not yet existing and inaccessible technologies such as
virtual reality. Cyberspace generated a rich collection of mythologies;
issues of embodiment and identity were fiercely debated. Only five years
later, while Internet stocks were going through the roof, not much was left
of the initial excitement in intellectual and artistic circles. Experimental
techno culture missed out on the funny money. Recently there has been a
steady stagnation of new media cultures, both in terms of concepts and
funding. With millions of new users flocking onto the Net, the arts can no
longer keep up and withdraws into its own little world of festivals, mailing
lists and workshops.

Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for goodwill, still portray
artists as working at the forefront of technological developments, the
reality is a different one. Multi-disciplinary goodwill is at an all time
low. At best, the artist's new media products are 'demo design' as described
by Lunenfeld. Often it does not even reach that level. New media arts, as
defined by its few institutions rarely reach audiences outside of its own
electronic arts subculture. The heroic fight for the establishment of a
self-referential 'new media arts system' through a frantic differentiation
of works, concepts and traditions, might be called a dead-end street. The
acceptance of new media by leading museums and collectors will simply not
happen. Why wait a few decades anyway? Why exhibit net art in white cubes?
The majority of the new media organizations such as ZKM, the Ars Electronica
Centre, ISEA, ICC or ACMI are hopeless in their techno innocence, being
neither critical nor radically utopian in their approach. Hence, the new
media arts sector, despite its steady growth, is getting increasingly
isolated, incapable of addressing the issues of today's globalised world,
dominated by (the war against) terror. Let's face it, technology is no
longer 'new,' the markets are down and out and no one wants know about it
anymore. It's little wonder the contemporary (visual) arts world is
continuing its decade-old boycott of (interactive) new media works in
galleries, biennales and shows like Documenta XI.

A critical reassessment of the role of arts and culture within today's
network society seems necessary. Let's go beyond the 'tactical' intentions
of the players involved. The artist-engineer, tinkering on alternative
human-machine interfaces, social software or digital aesthetics has
effectively been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Science and business
have successfully ignored the creative community. Even worse, artists have
actively been sidelined in the name of 'usability', pushed by a backlash
movement against web design, led by the IT-guru Jakob Nielsen. The revolt
against usability is about to happen. Lawrence Lessig argues that Internet
innovation is in danger. The younger generation is turning its back on the
new media arts questions and operates as anti-corporate activists, if at all
involved. After the dotcom crash the Internet has rapidly lost its
imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell phones can only temporarily
fill up the vacuum; the once so glamorous gadgets are becoming part of
everyday life. This long-term tendency, now accelerating, seriously
undermines future claims of new media.

Another issue is generationalism. With video and expensive interactive
installations being the domain of the '68 baby boomers, the generation of
'89 has embraced the free Internet. But the Net turned out to be a trap for
them. Whereas assets, positions and power remain in the hands of the ageing
baby boomers, the gamble on the rise of new media did not pay off. After
venture capital has melted away, there is still no sustainable revenue
system in place for the Internet. The slow working educational bureaucracies
have not yet grasped the new media malaise. Universities are still in the
process of establishing new media departments. But that will come to a halt
at some point. The fifty-something tenured chairs and vice-chancellors must
feel good about their persistent sabotage. What's so new about new media
anyway? Technology was hype after all, promoted by the criminals of Enron
and WorldCom. It is sufficient for students to do a bit of email and web
surfing, safeguarded within a filtered, controlled intranet. In the face of
this rising techno-cynicism we urgently need to analyse the ideology of the
greedy 90s and its techno-libertarianism. If we don't disassociate new media
quickly from the previous decade, the isolation of the new media sector will
sooner or later result in its death. Let's transform the new media buzz into
something more interesting altogether - before others do it for us.

(Edited by David Teh)

Nettime-bold mailing list