Josephine Berry on Sat, 12 Sep 2015 01:11:31 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> The death of the net that was (1998)

Here's one from the archives. I was looking through my old old folders in
search of something I wrote on Jameson's post-modernism book as a
compulsory assignment for my PhD, when I stumbled upon this unpublished
and possibly unfinished article triggered by this list and the cybersalon.
I can't resist publishing it here now (completely with file format mangled
ending), since somehow I still think it may apply. When we think about the
recent death, and unexpected rebirth of the Labour Party in the UK, it
somehow gives me hope.


The place is the CyberSalon - a monthly gathering point for London's cyber
intelligentsia; only half a year young but already showing the first signs
of disillusionment at its increasing formality borne of its own success.
The time is April 1998 - in the cold dawn of a 'post-hype' internet
culture. The speaker is Heath Bunting - a pioneer net artist and
techno-prankster - who confidently tells the audience that the days of the
internet's revolutionary potential are truly over. He suggests that the
bio-economical time bomb of bio-technology could be the new site of
radicalism. Obviously the odd degree in embryology wouldn't go amiss when
volunteering one's interventionist services to the cause, but OK.

Heath Bunting is far from the only person to be calling time for the
internet revolution. He is also joined by old-timers Geert Lovink and Pit
Schultz, the founders and moderators of the nettime mailing list, where
cyberologists daily run the gauntlet on this intellectually and
politically high-risk discussion forum. In two recent postings they have
both expressed the view that the days of 'the hype' or 'net.hype' are over
and the age of what Lovink rather pointedly calls "radical pragmatism" are
upon us. Contrary to the incessant eulogising of the internet which most
of us continue to experience through media and advertising, these two
seasoned net.riot boys can only be referring to the demise of the
communitarian aspirations of its early years which have steadily slipped
into the out-of-control, free market rhetoric notoriously championed in
Wired magazine. This political and rhetorical sell-out has been prompted
by what Lovink calls the, "accelerated growth of the mediascape",
ineffectually countered by the regulatory measures of nation sates.

The up-shot is the depressingly moderate and fatally compromised position
that the former net activists and artists find themselves in,
characteristically forced to capitulate by escalating economic pressures.
The fire of revolutionary zeal, which cast cyberspace as the domain in
which renegades from the pervasive power vectors of off-line realities
could conceive radically non-material(ist) alternative cultures and
communities, has produced a bastard child: "The pseudo-democratic mass
consumer panic of internet-for-all", in Schultz's terms. This brave new
net has become what Schultz calls,"the sleeping colossus of the collective
body of the couch potatoes of all lands". As ever, the avant-garde and the
masses tend not to mix.

But, regardless of the undoubted commercialisation which has changed the
face of the net and brought  that "short 'divine' time" from 95-97 to an
end, "radical pragmatism" has become the trope with which to paradoxically
claim both the authentic radicality of those early years and the
repetitious inevitability of history. This stance, far from falling into
the obvious traps of revolutionary idealism, brings the chapter to a close
and knowingly adjusts itself back to business-as-usual mode. It sighs and
claims to know what's in store for us, because after all, nothing has
really changed. As Lovink concludes in his post,"perhaps there are not any
fundamentally new aspects to the 'cybereconomy'. After all, business is
business, and the same goes for politics, culture, the arts, and so on."
But hold on, is all the revolutionary promise of the net really come to
this? Maybe not because, as we learn, "The magic of (shared) communication
in itself remains untouched by these developments. What counts are
illusion and imagination, in whatever environment". So networked
communication isn't really so different from going down to the pub? Err,
that's not quite it, clearly there was something different about this
internet business, and that does need to be protected because: "these
fluid untamed elements are precisely what is endangered now."

Reading these posts I can feel a severe dose of world-weary pragmatism
coming on myself, because we've repeatedly seen critics frame alternative
or avant-garde culture in this way before. Critques, such as Peter
Bürger's famous Theory of the Avant-Garde , which distinguish an
avant-garde whose transformative practice is deemed authentic and
historically effective (the 'historical avant-garde' i.e. pre WWII) from
the belated, redundant and repetitious gestures of the ensuing generations
(the neo-avant garde WWII). A distinction which condemns anything
falling outside a synchronous enlightened moment in history to emptiness
and insignificance. One which nostalgically romanticises a by-gone moment
of radicality while refusing a similar possibility for contemporary
culture and society. It seems that a similar sentiment underpins
discussions of the brave new net and calls to either resign oneself to the
inevitable or decamp to a new revolutionary address. Given that radical
departures in media on the scale of the internet don't come along too
often, it's hard to see where the next Arcadia is coming from.
 u of London's cyber-theecoonllectually and politically high stakes  on
the nettime and eyebeam lists,ideologicalrated growth of the mediascape"
coupled with theattempts by nation states at regulationoderate and
fatally compromised climate former net radicals are finding themselves
defeated bydescribes as the avant-garde and the masses lets out a sigh of
superior wisdom

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