geert lovink on Tue, 24 Jul 2001 10:03:01 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> E-mail exchange with Ilya Eric Lee, Taipei/Taiwan

E-mail exchange with Ilya Eric Lee, Taipei/Taiwan
By Geert Lovink

In late November 1999 I went Taiwan, for a second visit. The media activist
and nettimer Ilya Eric Lee, together with the art critic and curator Manray
Hsue had organized a lecture tour over the island, in which we covered
activist strategies, arts, politics and economics of new media. It was 2 1/2
months after the '921' earthquake had hit the central part of Taiwan. I
wrote a report about this impressive trip for nettime (posted on December
19, 1999). For Ilya this period was a particular difficult and emotional one
as he was about to be drafted into military service for a one and half years
period. On July 24 2001 he is a free man again. A cause for celibration -
and a reason to do an e-mail interview with Ilya about his experiences in
the army, Taiwanese net activism, Chinese-Taiwanese 'infowars' and the
Chinese language 'nettime-zh' mailinglist which Ilya and others are planning
to start. With a guest appearance of Autrijus Tang, co-founder of Enjoy.

GL: How did the 921 earthquake effect Internet use?

IL: The immediate syndication of students and TANet (Taiwan Academy Network)
BBS administratorsopened up a dynamic virtual channel (DVC), connecting
campus information centres and civil resources (e.g. independent BBS) to
deliver emergency information islandwide, which was a spectacular work done
during the first few months after the earthquake. After the emergency,
networking became so diverse and disparate that an online communication
environment was required and created. We have powerful and smart local
people acting as live clients to find out every possible means for breaking
through communication blocks, but due to the lack of long term planning and
continuous governmental support, the channel could only last for a short
time.  I think the underground BBS syndication is a substantive use of the
Internet, even though it happened only on a small scale and was extremely

GL: Which new media art events recently happened in Taiwan and where do you
think such initiatives are going? Would you say it's a pure commercial
environment? Will there be place for experimentation? And if so, where?

IL: There are more and more international visiting artists, DJs and
academics/leaders who come to exchange and collaborate with local activists
and artists. This breeds the valuable hybridization process that really
pushes Taiwan forward. Strictly speaking, however, there hasn't yet been any
new media art events worth mentioning. On the other hand, I don't think
Taiwan is purely commercial.These kind of events indeed need sponsorship and
support from both the private and public sectors. That's the general
condition of network survival and growth. People without enough imagination
usually think of this condition as signifying that the new media can only be
commercial-oriented. If you are a hammer, you'll see everything as nails.
This view manifests the routinely low feedback, under-interactive single
direction mode of life and mind. Participants are just considered as
customers, and makers as foci of spotlights. I think the interdisciplinary
exchange will be the booming zone of new experiments that will happen. At
the periphery of schools and labs, well-established art institutions and
commercial studios, there's always some people experimenting and creating.
Some TAZs formed around those peripherals will be the lounge of continuing
experiments. For instance, the Elixir/ collective is aimed to
serve as such a lounge intermediating hacker culture, coding expertise and

GL: There is much talk about hackers and cyberwars between Taiwan and China.
How much of that is propaganda and rumours? Doom scenarios? Wishful

IL: My fieldwork survey of the so-called war fronts on the Taiwanese side
found that most of them are simply hoaxes. By the war, defacement doesn't
represent any real ongoing infowar. Most of the news that focused on the
defacement acts was actually playing into outdated nationalism; surely,
that's a way the powerless and thoughtless mass media generate its potatoes.
Even though this may instigate some computer geeks to make real fights over
the net frontiers,  the practice of reinforcing nationalism in the cyberwar
is not something to be praised.
Defacement can be more profound and powerful, as in the late Ogawa Shinsuke
film, Summer in Narita (1968), that documented the peasants' resistance
against national violence. Loads of shit covering the bodies as a form of
defacement turned into something symbolically and psychologically effective
in a real warfare. I think a lot more than simple defacement on the
frontpage is required to achieve a real media situation for all, resonating
in the participants' mind and heart, not their huge-egotistic eyeballs.
Otherwise, it could only be a sign of doomsday.

GL:  Are there new initiatives from media activists in Taiwan? Do people
look at post-Seattle and the phenomena?

IL: Yes, and no. New kinds of disciplines and practices gave birth to
possible new media initiatives. The universities and colleges are a nice
test bed for rebellious youth, but realities fiercely bite back. After the
local MP3 Police raided the National Cheng-Kung University campus and caused
island-wide panic, the new generation stood out to express their opinion to
the whole society.
(, and the campaign
T-shirt online voting at, etc.) But
due to the lack of media awareness and holistic view , the students are
fighting very hard. Yes, the campaign to save the university students is the
media action. No, they are still isolated, resorting to traditional media
attention, and not yet organised enough to welcome the globalisation dawn.
The Pots Weekly (, a free local magazine that
features alternative cultures and minorities with a critical consciousness,
keeps their eyes on news after Seattle to Genoa and Indymedia in their
globalisation department. Some of the articles were relayed from the Hong
Kong Radical Net and other independent resources; critical minded
eyeballs/submarines/translation machines translated other articles locally.
:) Take volume no. 156 as example: it's the precious Chinese information,
which exposed details of the diary of Judy Rebick and other images, on the
Quebec/anti-FTAA warfront. The zine is widely read by youth in Taipei also
as a what-to-do/where-to-go manual. Besides the Pots, Coolloud Web
( is another activist media concerning the global
condition. They initiated the website and campaigns since 3 years ago. They
are supporting the protest toward Papua New Guinea's killing event in their
Chinese version column in July.
And another kind of new task force is the elixir, a local movement
organisation composed of people in the pursuit for media freedom and
alternatives of lifestyle. It's a connection-oriented loose organisation,
concerning issues such as net.activism, net.culture, online rights and the
digital public domain. I'd been in the elixir for months, and our recent
work is the initiative of the project Metalist. The project tries to combine
BBS-community, open discussion mailing list threading and Slash-code
syndication platform, and to produce the digital public domain. It will make
its first announcement atthe ICOS, International Conference of Open Source
Taiwan, August 3-5, 2001.

GL: Please tell us a bit more about your new initiative, the Metalist
project in the elixir server. Is it gonna be more than Internet? Which
projects do you have in mind?

IL: It's a project of services which serves more than what usually is
considered as the Internet. The 'metalist' project is designed to aimat
connecting most services availablein the Chinese language environment, i.e.,
preserving the live interactive and vigorous info caves, while affiliating
them to one another. Services want to be connected. People are separated
along different lines of division, not only physically but also virtually.
They aren't aware that "The Sky Is the Limit," of the full potential of the
fibersphere. People want to act like a gopher, digging around yet remaining
confined in their little zapped "customized" fields.
So we have the metalist, It's an experiment on
expanding the individual's perception by implementing the kind of
connectivity originally conjured and now still worked on by the www think
tanks. I mean people like Tim-Berners Lee and the Semantic Web, even
Microsoft's the .Net structure. We are working on theories about independent
media, picturing technical roadmaps and producing the information
infrastructure system needed by possible activists.
The character encoding systems , BIG-5 / Traditional Chinese and GB /
Simplified Chinese, segregate Chinese-speaking writers and readers. The
first one includes Taiwan and Hong Kong; the latter one includes Singapore
and China. For the different groups of people, being able to generate news
and follow discussions via their local tongues, the Unicode database is one
ultimate solution. Open content and open audience must rely on such a robust
Beside the encoding endeavour, connected services provide a new web for
mutual recognitions inside the digital public domain.  That is the idea of
the Metalist project infrastructure and the nettime-zh mailing list. On the
horizon of connective media / auto exchange between participants, we want to
launch the nettime-zh mailing list, introducing networking activities
realtimely in Zhongwen/Chinese format while syndicating them into the
We are the intersection. (metalist whitepaper:

GL: Are the cyber attacks on the side of both Taiwan and China fake, or more
merely symbolic, irrelevant? Do you think they are done by adolescent boys,
individuals, or is there more behind the 'infowar'?

IL: The cyberwar never exists without/outside the real warfare domain. There
is a real plan'n'plot set to penetrate each of the two BIG intranets
mutually. And the military institutions must prepare for more than that, in
order to generate enough energy to precede any action. On this level of
defense and attack, sadly, it's concrete enough, practical and serious. Even
to the hoaxes, jokes, loveletters, and worms. No matter how vulnerable the
BIG intranet is, cyberwar is ,like Castelles' word, a real form of
virtuality. What's confidential under satellites' surveillances and scandals
' media exposure? What's confidential in this era of globalized information
society? Or, it's the propaganda set to its own people and soldiers?

AT ( co-founder, Autrijus Tang): Besides, netizens already
understand that voluntary demonstration, e.g. the Blue Ribbon campaign
against CDA, has a power far superior than destructive attacks like DDOS or
security breaching, because it moves real people. Like Falun Gong or
Napster, this kind of infowar is fought more fiercely and actively than
those defacement actions. Hence, both government's main weapons are not any
black-hat cracker teams, but their sophisticated measures on blocking and
distorting the information flow both from and toward the Internet. For
example, FreeNet has became the de facto publishing platform for dissidents
in China, and the Chinese government has shut down access and prohibited its
use recently. It is a common suspicion that China will outlaw strong
encryption schemes like Mixmaster and PGP altogether, as the government is
gunning down ISPs allowing these services. That's one of the reasons China
is  pushing the Hague Convention so eagerly.

GL: Please say something more about nettime-zh. You are about to launch a
Chinese language version of nettime which is going to be part of the Elixir
initiative. Or should we say Mandarin? Where does zh stand for? What kind of
people and topics do you think the list is going to deal with? Will
nettime-zh be a truly global list, with participants from, let's say,
Vancouver, Osaka, Sydney etc.?

AT: I think calling it Mandarin is improper, since Mandarin is but one
dialect in which written Chinese could be spoken. As you would've guessed,
'Zh' stands for ZhongWen, incoporating zh_cn (China), zh_tw (Taiwan), zh_sg
(Singapore), zh_hk (Hong Kong) and zh_ma (Macao). What we imply by
nettime-zh, me thinks, is that its content will not be constrained to any
particular character set (Simplified/Traditional/CJK), political region (see
above), or spoken dialect. So as long as its participants understand Unihan
ideoglyphs, I think, membership could be truly global. Of course there are
technical concerns on how to operate a cross-encoding mailing list, but
we'll strive to solve it.

IL: Based on the fundamental cross-encoding concern, I think, 'nettime-zh'
will represent two important tactics of our praxis. One is the technical
reality taken into consideration rather than - outdated politically confined
language imagination. Chinese is imaginable since the millenniums before
last, but as the huge Other for all the peripheral brains'n'pens to project
their emotions to, the C is quite empty and vague. The encoding reality
brings the old and new Zh alive; we then have found/created a new imagined
community. It will be a global list if we discover something in common in
the digital new medium territory translational wide. We use our native
language to discuss and exchange, but this time it's not only a backward
translation, culture broking and reselling to a place the digital tide has
not yet covered. It is simultaneously proceeding and serving as the basis
informational backbone cross encoding barrier and boundaries, the

GL: Ilya, over the last 18 months you have been in the army. You just got
out. How did you survive there and what did you do? Did you have access to
the Net?

IL: When you cannot do anything, at least you can watch and listen. Before
disappearing into the 'national war system', I was an Internet activist
dealing with the government; witness that networking issues became more and
more important. So many business people take the free ride making a profit
from it. The military zone is another closed circle, a special kind of
society for people to make a living. Those masters always need people to
serve, not minds to interact and exchange. I happened to enter a project
which needed a network administrator and programmers. As a professional
submarine and listener, I could serve people's need of administration and
programming. To separate the mind and the basic, functional daily routine, I
got my offline freedom to surf and listen. That transformed me a lot, to
re-discover the everyday life on the post-coldwar island.
Yes, while in the army I had access to the Net. That's quite a privilege.
When they need people to pave the road towards the Net, I was right there,
just in time. It really made me think of the situation: access/literacy as
the valuable/ expensive commodity, and what it really means. I developed a
way of dealing with email, digested during the weekdays and
action/discussion on the weekend. They called me the "Weekend Internet
Activist," dually lived and thinking. Luckily, I found a group of people
considering similar things with practical mobility, and they also discussed
on the weekend. :) With Elixir, we have a strong syndication after the last
several months of my military life: not only access, but also thinking and
practicing, collaborating. Dialogue is the best way to overcome isolation.

GL: Could you tell us a bit more about the circumstances of the army
basement and the work you had to do there? How do you look at all these
stories about technological warfare now that you have been in the army

IL: It's really hard to write it inside. Taiwan was once a police state for
more than 40 years under martial law. We have for a long time an intimate
enemy to solidify our island identity, and under that we can only talk about
anything commercially. :) Even though we have been free for more than a
decade from many bad restrictions, the imaginative threat still prevails
and only a business risk can be reasonable enough for folks here to break
it. There's no law protecting people. There's only a law to protect security
and national  war-related welfare. So how can I write anything in detail?
Or, part of the truth? Which part would be the safe part?
I think that's most people's consideration. Which keep Taiwan's military
bureaucracy under 'safely' protected by responsibility-free,
underdevelopment situation, even though the governments change from the long
ruling Kuo-ming-tang KMT party to the new Democratic Progressive Party . I
served in an information centre of logistics services, acting as one of the
network admins of the whole headquarter. It's more like one of the Kong-wen
(Official Document) processing centres, not a decision making headquarter.
Most officials were tied on documents to and fro. I don't think people
buried in the documents, all day signing papers, have time to think and make
decisions. Most officers view the commercial world as more challenging and
riskful /resourceful, even though what they held in their hands are
important decisions to make and will influence others in the military
sphere. Low communications between these institutions, units and
decision-making groups, were mostly formal. Maybe that's the same in other
places, maybe not. Collectively, they form a mute mass following welfare
trends and policy directions, waiting for a great leader to evoke, or being
passively quiet in their militarily life trajectory.
A bit sad, I feel. 'Cause inside the military milieu, you feel quite normal
as ordinary people. Only can we imagine the necessarily tough training and
cool hard new tech attack means,. even though we are proximal to the top
organisation. Being a military soldier is totally different from a technical
warfare reader performer. If you were among the soldiers, you must believe
the fragmented POV given from above, doing everything hard and snap as
possible as you can, waiting for the day of retirement. Vaguely  adapting
the nihil confinement, counting the days. Working hard, and taking the
technical warfare seriously, you will get schizophrenized.  Contrasting
this, I think activists are a group of people who live positively-like
aliens.. More exchange and dialogue, which will really modify the
formalistic errors and save the vague people, if the imaginative war could
end  some day.

GL: What are your feelings about defending Taiwan against a possible attack
of China? Do you think the young democracy on Taiwan is worth defending? Or
would you rather take a pacifist stand? How do you see the conflict between
Taiwan and China after having been in the army? Different?

IL: The young democracy in Taiwan gave birth to us. Our parents survived
from inner and warfare displacement, the Japanese colonial period, the KMT,
the cold war and the new government. The adaptation is not quite well,
because we are so young to join that. Because we are so stubborn, we aren't
yet used to confront the conflict, and to negotiation. That's from my native
eyes. But the place's still open, still having the possibility to catalyse
other nodes in the Zhongwen/Chinese speaking/reading area. But we need to
prepare; we need practice. Before the military confrontation has us all,
before the commercial nihil emptiness swallows our young spirit, before the
patent confines our inquiry and discovery(TM) as invention.
Defending means to identify with the beautiful things discovered among the
ruined mess, and means to find something really beautiful. I love the
people, in their most native ways of living, their kindness and insistency
on their dreams. I want to explore their potential, just as myself. The
potentiality exists in open spaces, the public domain, the border-free DMZ
(de-militarised-zone), then we can envisage the beautiful in the mess. I
will defend the beautiful in the mess. I think it's clearer after the army
examination, a small more closeup of society's reality check. Maybe  that's
not popular, not embracing the mainstream ideology of living, ways of
working and dying. If that's Taiwan, who and whatever they are, I will
defend it.

(edited by Manray Hsue)

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