Armin Medosch on Sat, 16 Nov 2002 00:06:16 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Network 404

[This text was written for the catalogue of the exhibition "Art For Networks",
curated by Simon Pope, known by many as a member of I/O/D. The exhibition is
currently at Chapter Arts, Cardiff and will travel the UK. The site is currently not accessible but hopefully soon again.]

Network 404 By Armin Medosch


I must admit that I find it incredibly difficult to write about networks. I
started out by trying to define what a network is, by spelling out, point by
point, what are the inherent qualities of networks and how this might relate to
art in general and to the work of the artists in this show. But soon I found
out that this gave me writers block. Over the past few decades and especially
at the start of the internet boom so much has been written about networks, that
the ideas have somehow exhausted themselves. Everybody knows the buzzwords by
now, I guess. We have been told again and again that networks are
de-centralized, bottom-up, hierarchy shattering entities. We have heard about
rhizomes, about micro-politics, about self-organisation. Almost magic qualities
have been ascribed to networks. How they would empower the marginalized and
bring about a more democratic world, sustainable economic progress and maybe
eternal peace. Type 'network' into the search engine Google on the Internet and
you get 70,500,000 results. If you type 'jesus' you get only 13,100,000. It
seems that 'network' is the new god. For some it certainly is. I am talking
about the Extropians here, about people who believe in the sudden emergence of
a global brain, about techno-determinists of all kinds and variations. But over
the past decade not only speculative internet theory has blossomed, there has
been also a growing body of critical writing. (1) The techno-libertarians and
the guys have been given a good and thourough bashing. We have also
learned, I hope, to be sceptical about analogies (2) taken from science and
technology and used in the social sphere, which tend to lead to theories full
of Social Darwinism of the most nasty kind, that reduce human societies to
beehives and bacteria cultures. We have been through all that, the good the bad
and the ugly, with network utopias and their reversal into dystopias. What
struck me as most significant when visiting some of the websites of former
cheerleaders of the internet revolution during the research for this article
was that most of the sites have become largely dysfunctional. Clicking on links
inevitably throws up 404 error messages, the broken links come to signify
broken internet dreams. So why bother anymore, if even the former 'digerati'
cant be bothered to keep their websites alive?

The notion that networks are a somehow benevolent power is relatively new. It
is a view that has been popularized by the blurb that was used to sell us the
New Economy and by the availability of affordable home computers. Now networks
are seen as something soft, human, creative. Before that change of viewpoint,
we were much more likely to fear the control and command aspects of networks.
Networks were perceived as belonging to the domain of large industrial systems,
from organs of the state such as Inland Revenue, Health and National Insurance
to now privatized utilities such as water, electricity and gas. Networks in
combination with powerful computer mainframes had inscribed themselves into our
minds as totalitarian superpowers against whom the individual is often
helpless, a victim of kafkaesque circumstances produced by systems which
neither really listen nor speak to us, except, of course, entirely on their own
terms. But networks are neither innately good nor bad. Environmental activists
who harbour only the best intentions for the future of the planet organize
themselves in networks, but so also do groups of the far right and terrorists.
Think Tanks working for the American military have created a discourse about
infowar, cyberwar and netwar (3) that has had a big influence on the general
thinking about networks. Artists, such as Electronic Disturbance Theatre (4),
New York, and juvenile hackers regularly create their own little skirmishes
with the network organs of the military industrial complex. Infowar,
surveillance, the Echelon network, the society of control, these are some of
the keywords that refer to that other side of networks, which does not simply
go away because we can now also play back a video from a server. Networks can
be agents of segmentation and stratification of which the biggest is the
growing divide between the information rich and the information poor.
Technology cannot heal the wounds that are inflicted by cluster bombs and deep
structural inequality. "The stupifying naivety of the technology-dazed but
well-meaning, politically correct and liberal Internet user who believes that
all problems will be solved when everyone is wired into the World Wide Web is
symptomatic of the schizophrenia of (post-)modern media culture." (5) It is
therefore the case that the most important task is to detach ourselves
sometimes from the networks that have become such a dominant influence in our
lives and revel in re-discovering the analogue world.

3 is an initiative to build a  wireless community network. Similar
initiatives exist now in almost every major city in the industrialised world.
(6) The basic idea is to use collective purchasing power to reduce the cost of
broadband internet access. But this is only a starting point. Closely
interwoven with this first idea are others that seem to come straight out of
the theoretical toolbox of an earlier internet utopia. Wireless community
networks do not actually build networks that cover town and country and follow
a master plan that is steered from the center. What they do is to propagate the
idea that everybody can set up a wireless node for open access. They show how
this can be done at a minimum of cost, DIY style. Those who have the skills to
build antennas and configure routers teach others how to do that. Ideas are
being discussed if and how to formalize the relations between free wireless
access points and its users. The bigger plan is to make wireless connections
between the individual access points to create a meshed network that would
cover large parts of the respective metropolis. There are obstacles to this,
partly technological, partly having to do with urban topography and the
distance between nodes. But once this is achieved this would be networks very
different from those of large internet or mobile phone service providers. The
network as a whole would not be owned by anyone. Each access point would belong
to somebody else, but they would all inter-connect on the basis of self-devised
rules. It is intended to keep these rules simple. The network should be kept
open, accessible to everyone and non-discriminatory regarding the content that
is trafficked through it. And it is hoped that the network would have some
social benefits too, that it would help to create awareness of what is going on
in a certain area and enable people to collaborate and develop new services. In
the grander scheme of things it does not really matter if wireless community
networks ever manage to establish sustainable large meshed networks. The window
of opportunity that has allowed wireless community networks to grow, could
close again soon, because of changes in the regulatory environment or because,
and there are already some signs of this, big commercial operators muscle in on
the field. The point is that a relatively large infrastructural network can
literally be "pulled out of the ground" as James Stevens, one of the founders
of, said in a recent interview. (7) Infrastructural networks are
usually built either by city and council administrations or by big
corporations. But wireless community networks try  to 'grow' the network,
rather than build it, out of the resources of a community, and thereby prove
the viability of the concept for a self owned, self-regulated net.
Speaking about wireless community networks offered a way into a subject that
would otherwise have been blocked. They put some elements of the working
hypothesis 'network' into practice, which enables me to write about 'networks'
without going through all the cyber blah blah again. These projects show that
the ideas and hopes that have been associated with networks cannot be summarily
discredited, just because a few dot.coms went off the rails and too much
gibberish has been tossed around. The lines of flight between the commercial
sector and net culture have crossed at some points, but generally developments
have been far from parallel. While the mainstream of society has gone through
the boom-and-bust cycle, others have worked quietly on the foundations of a
future networked society which is neither utopian nor a digital revolution. The
empowerment that networks are said to facilitate is not an automatism but the
result of deliberate human agency  within specific historic circumstances.
Wireless community networks, online collaborative environments, art servers and
context systems (8) can flourish only because of a longer continuity of the
collaborative spirit in techno-culture. The computer programs that manage core
functionalities of the net have been developed by scientists in an era when
shared knowledge was the basis of technological progress. They created the most
basic layer of network technology, the protocols that determine the format and
transmission of data, TCP/IP. These protocols belong to the public domain which
means that nobody owns them and everybody can use them and build applications
around them. The open source and free software communities have continued to
work in this collaborative tradition and created software that is deliberately
kept in the public domain. Their 'open code' model guarantees that the public
domain in computing  survived throughout an era, when almost everything else
was privatized. They developed operating systems, web servers, programming
languages and audio and video file formats, which can be freely used by
everyone. People can use the software, change it, develop their own
applications and even make money with it. American lawyers have introduced the
term "digital commons" to describe the relevance of this open code phenomenon.
Their claim is that "it was this commons that engendered the extraordinary
innovation that the Internet has seen. It is the enclosure of this commons that
will bring about the Internet's demise." (9) Because "the commons was built
into the very architecture of the original network, its design secured a right
of decentralized innovation. It was this "innovation commons" that produced the
diversity of creativity that the network has seen." (10) Yet despite the
combined efforts of legislators and large corporations to privatize the digital
commons and restrict digital freedom through the introduction of ever more
restrictive laws and the creation of media conglomerates who do not only own
the content but also the means of distribution there is no sign of a decrease
in file sharing, peer-to-peer networking and other collaborative networking
practices. On the contrary, millions of users are simply ignoring legislation
which is directed against behaviour they consider as natural, and the tools are
there in abundance to support digital civil disobedience on a massive scale. In
the light of these developoments the emphasis of the debate has shifted away
from networks towards code and intellectual property. Code, pregnant with
meaning, has become the new challenge for artists who try to work on a more
structural level. They understand that it is the digital commons that gives
them the space to breathe and that it is important to keep this space open. The
'open code' model is getting tested for its applicability in other areas.
Experiments with 'copyleft' licences for works of art and 'open content' models
are getting circulated. Collaborative work, sampling and re-mixing have long
been important cultural techniques, but are now seen in the context of a wider
struggle about the future shape of the so called information society.


On a sunday some weeks ago a group of people met at the old Limehouse Town Hall
in East London. They came to the monthly open workshop of Most of
them had laptops, but some had also brought along other things, tools,
cardboard, wire, some old computers. From midday to the evening, people got
their heads together around a large table and got involved in a number of
activities. Some tried to get the old computers running, by installing FreeBSD
on them; some built antennas of different sizes and shapes; some played around
with the live streaming facilities on a web-server; and some just sat together,
their laptops on their knees, the red lights of their wireless cards flashing,
as they talked and typed at the same time.

(1) A landmark text, that revealed the ideology behind the early stage of the
internet gold rush is Richard Barbrook and Andy Camerons 'Californian Ideology' A large body of critical writing about
the net can be found on the archive of the mailing list nettime 
(2) The issue of analogies transfered from science and technology on to the
social sphere has been investigated recently by John Barker, in "Dodgy
Analogy", "Variant", number 15, summer 2002 
(3) The Advent of Netwar, John Arquilla, David F. Ronfeldt 
(4) Electronic Disturbance Theatre 
(5) Robert Adrian X, Infobahn Blues, CTheory 
(6) A good resource for wireless community networks is 
(7) Interview with the author of the article, unpublished 
(8) Both the terms "art servers" and "context systems" refer to collaborative
online platforms that support the creation of art works for the net. This
notion has been explored by the conference "Art Servers Unlimited", London
1998, The term "context systems" has been introduced by the
German artist Joachim Blank, who was involved with the creation of such a
system with the now defunct "Internationale Stadt Berlin" 
(9) Lawrence Lessig, "The Internet Under Siege",
(10) Ibid.

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