Geert Lovink on Fri, 7 Aug 1998 12:13:52 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Network Fears and Desires

Network Fears and Desires
Some Strategies to Overcome the Malaise

By Geert Lovink

"When I hear the word 'interactive', I grab my gun. And shoot." (Andre Simon)

Once a network, with its loose groupings of individuals and groups has
gone through the exciting, initial phase of meeting, discovering each
other's new ideas and concepts, and staging common events, it seems boring
to continue, engage with the same old persona and read the same arguments
again and again. Suddenly, we are discovering our own limitations. There
were the short, intensive periods, full of ecstatic collective experience
and the dull, stretched years of isolated struggle and survival. The dense
time of the small, expanding (inter)networks now seems to reach its
vanishing point. Work is being continued in smaller groups which might be
more sustainable in overcoming the Long Boom of Boredom. The seamless
creative potential of the collective body has ended up in repetition and
certain patterns begin to reveal themselves. The Euro-summer of '98 smells
like the mid seventies, late eighties. Not dark, rather grey. No paradigm
shifts ahead, just business as usual. The web is in place, corporate
content now finally dominates and the constant technological inventions
keep on surprising, creating an addiction for even more promising updates. 
Ready for the next disappointment. 

Network growth is not a linear process. Once the Net enters the level of
the economy-of-scale, it leaves its first inhabitants behind and enters
entirely different levels. Even the most ugly, compromised cultural
managers, former net pioneers turned exploiters, will, sooner or later, be
overruled and puked out by the powers to be. We are now in the latter days
of, Yahoo!,, Netscape etc. Their success stories will
not last forever. Don't believe the market. Widespread neo-liberal market
biases makes it hard to make a realistic estimation of their chances - let
alone making a critical analysis (or even materialistic theory) of the
cyber economy. For the time being we all are still blinded by all the
promises, potentials, rumours, hypes. This especially counts for the
astronomical, truly virtual stock values.

Growth no longer effects net-related initiatives in the fields of arts,
culture and politics, no matter if they are into making money or not. 
Mega, "the Art of the Big", Wired's 6.07 cover story by Bruce Sterling,
about Hong Kong's new airport, Shanghai's sixty-nine skyscrapers under
construction, China's large dams and the tunnels of CERN can also be read
as an exotic travelogue for those who have stayed behind, not simply as an
appeal to the (tired) community to transcend in order to, once again,
re-invent itself. The role of the business avant-garde is played out and
they can learn some lessons now from their historical art predecessors.
There is, for example, a saturation point for bandwidth, beyond which,
more simply does not mean faster. Against all expectations, the Internet
is creating a new Mass of "users" that just shut up and click/listen. 
They are "watching Internet", a phrase that would have been impossible to
come up with a few years ago. This silent majority in the making, which
will only know the red 'Buy' button, was not envisioned by the early
adapters and the visionaries of the first hour. "It is a Mall World, after
all," Wired's Gary Wolf has to admit, not sure whether to be disgusted or
to embrace it.

Political economy? Not again! It should have died long ago, stumbling into
some non-linear hole of history. There is a return of the suppressed. 
Economy is not such a favourite topic in the age of pastel-coloured
optimism, despite of the rise of popular capitalism with its junk stocks. 
We'd better ignore it and keep on tinkering. But this form of economic
escapism is not an option anymore. We all have to survive. After the long
farewell of the Welfare State and its less successful relative, state
communism, neo-liberalism is in place now. It has not been imposed on us
but has slowly gained importance, as a bottom-up ideology. Alternative,
small scale do-it-yourself projects seem to fit well into this. Even the
radical autonomous and anarchistic utopias that had their historical
objections against the State. 

Everybody is bearing some guilt, expect perhaps for a handfull of
analytical Marxists. They have always been right, being in the luxurious
position of not having been involved in any struggle for the last 20, 30
years. Their objective Truth is gaining importance as an unbearable wisdom
of the fatal destinies ahead of us. With one eye on the screen streaming
financial data, FT on the breakfast table, this Friendly Marxism without
Subject, has reached its highest stages of scientific alienation. Now it
is for a bloody cold dialectical switch, to become what Marxism always
was: hardcore economic analysis. This time, made in the United States. 
No, Monsieur Jospin, the Internet is not one of the Tres Grand Projects,
despite the European origin of WWW (Geneva). Your "Market economy, not
market society" phrase is a useful (Euro-French) distinction. But let us
not fool ourselves. Marx is at Stanford now, back from the new Berkeley
library, studying the dynamics of Microsoft, Silicon Valley and Wall
Street, writing on his critique of the global managerial class. 

Time to move on. The permanent digital revolution in danger of becoming a
reformist project? The System is effectively taking over, even sucking
itself into the intimate spheres of friendships and personal aims. The
objective Wheel of Net History is taking subjective tolls. Time slips away
and we are caught up in something we never really wanted in the first
place. Web design for Dummies. Anxiety over nothing. Debates with nothing
at stake. Rivalries when there is plenty of loot. But wait a minute. We
know all this. The so-called unavoidable process of decay is not God-given
or a Law of Nature. It is about time to introduce intelligent social
feed-back systems. Indeed, a Collective Intelligence (thanks, Pierre
Levy!)  that can overcome the rather primitive 20th Century model of
birth, rise, success and fall that numerous groups and movements have gone
through. It should be possible to resist both historical and technological
determinism, or at least play a game with these now predictable forces.
This is the search for a media theory, or digital studies in which we can
finally fit the charming or rather fatal wetware factor within the larger
forces of hardware and software development., where are you, now that we need you? Big
silence. Perhaps it is up to us, this time. Next player. It is easy to
write down the draft of "The Rise and Decline of the Global Empire". See
the stock markets fall. But that's too macro. It is good to gather
knowledge about economic forces that are behind the Will to Get Wired. But
in the end, they will not tell us much about the psychological processes
within smaller networks, which the Internet still consists of, despite the
current massification. That is what the marketing gold diggers are looking
for: the ultimate secret of the Virtual Community, whatever that may be. 
We need a network psychology, not in the form of some brillant
observations by academic outsiders, but fast and pro-active social wisdom
which can be implemented in groups, small organizations, lists,
techno tribes. Not only to prevent conflicts over nothing, but mainly to
stage real fights, if there is something at stake.

First of all, there is the Media Question. The Spectacle has entered every
possible domain, and its widespread power has made it virtually impossible
to imagine a gesture, form of communication or action which is not
mediated, digitised, archived. All forms of protests and politics are
under its spell. But this tragic reality should not limit ourselves if we
are looking for ways out of broadcast misery. Fine, there is still the
TAZ, the hacker ethic, models for Electronic Civil Disobedience, tactical
media, concepts that might be flexible enough to resist the pressures from
the Forces of Simulation. But like all ideas, these Memes have a limited
lifespan. They must be updated constantly and renamed in order not to lose
their magical attraction. We should not be sad, or even conservative about
this. If the Bolo Bolo, TAZ, squat, rave, virtual community is turning up
in a new configuration, we should be able to recognize and welcome it. And
to witness the birth of such a new entity is certainly a privilege. 

After the gold-rush, the We is being questioned, in danger of
disintegrating into a thousand lonely hearts, potentially becoming victims
of the commodification strategies of the Big players. We are not one, and
there has never been unity, specially not these days. The We form in the
age of the Net is one of the few possibilities left to address groups,
sub-networks and formulate common strategies, (if indeed people are
interested in collaboration and exchange...). Heterogeneous policies are
always in danger of falling apart, much more than parties, trade-unions
and other institutions. One of the tricks to avoid people organising
themselves is to reduce their argument to their Private Opinion which is
seen as a contribution to the general (democratic?) discourse. In times of
consolidation, dispersion and decay, the We is under debate, whilst at the
same time more used than ever. It is the time of strategies. At the moment
of the short highs there is only the unspoken, ecstatic We feeling. Later
on, we do not want others to speak for others. This is anyway a
more general tension, a feeling of discontent, between explicit ways of
hyper individuality and loneliness on the one side, and the closed,
sometimes claustrophic atmosphere inside groups, collectives, companies
and movements on the other side. This should be the starting point for
every contemporary debate on new ways of organizing.

Commodify your dissent. Certainly. And you will be commodified too. This
fear is even more prominent and destructive these days compared to the
unavoidable mediation we have to deal with, (and practice). For some,
there is the pleasure of getting to know the rules of the game,
understanding the tricks of Doing Business, studying the metaphysics of
making money and its ritual, sacral aspects, fooling around with The
Suits. But for most, the workers and not executives, commodification means
regulation of work, creativity and (soft) subversions. At the first
glance, commodification feels like justice, a liberation, a chance to
finally get back some of the money for all the efforts that have been
invested in the video, music, text or software one has been working on for
such a long time. But in most cases this only remains a promise. The
famous Sell-Outs seldom pay off, compared to the real money others are
making with ordinary jobs. This cheapness, combined with strong, personal
feelings of discontent, even guilt is the main reason behind the current
wave of paranoia about commodification. It is the fear of betrayal for no
reason, being left alone with empty hands, having to work with strangers
that have no clue at all. Yes, one can become infected by corporate germs,
but this is easy to cure. One good book, documentary or travel will do. We
all have to be aware of neo-liberal rhetoric, but ideology is not the
issue here. From the political, strategic perspective, the fear we are
speaking of here is one of the main obstacles for people to organise
themselves and engage with each other in serious way beyond occasional
collaborations. Commitment and dedication these days intertwine with
business, and this is deadly. 

Conciousness Regained.  Radical media pragmatism demands that the actors
remain Cool. Who can still proclaim to be Multi-media after the monstrous
misuse of this term? Yes. It should still be possible to ignore all market
forces, cheap trends and keep on playing. There is a state of
hyper-awareness, to transform, disappear, give up terrains that have been
occupied, and continue at the same time. What now counts is integrity. It
is getting easy these days to become resigned. There are a thousand
reasons to quit, or to continue on the same grocery level. The world,
structured by pre-cooked events, ready to be microwaved and consumed, can
be rejected.  Downright reality is unbearable these days. "No spiritual
surrender", an Amsterdam graffiti says. Colourless digital existence can
be softened by self-made utopias, hallucinatory experiences, with or
without recreational drugs and technologies. Regular switching to other
channels which are outside the cyber realm is an option. There are
countless universes.  Negroponte's existential reductionism ("In being
digital I am me.") is just one of them. "You are only real with your
make-up on." (Neil Young) 

Here Comes the New Desire. Unknown, forgotten forms of negation, refusal,
anger and pleasure are there and will be open (even towards E.T's), whilst
still encrypted against the (mentality) police forces and fashion hunters.
There are plenty of sadistic traps for the trend researchers and their
clientele: Alternative radio, Independent labels, French theory (from
twenty years ago), interactive games, on-line events, This is
so cruel: see them buying, the poor bastards, desperate to get an
identity, any, which makes them feel alive, for a moment or two. 
Cybercynical Knowledge 98. So their search engines have to be distrusted,
ignored, misled. The people-to-people networks will lead one to the right
source, not the databases of the corporations/states. Computers generate
useless data, not contexualized information. This should be knowledge4all.

The postmodern late-leftist discourse of the '68 generation has now closed
all its possible options. There is no way out for them, locked up, as they
are, in their down-sized, optimised, professional institutions. So let it
be. The same can be said of the more recent 'new social movements', with
exception of sudden outbursts of un-controlled (and therefore not
organized) social-ethnic unrest. Let us not get distracted by ideological
pseudo-events such as the Culture Wars or paranoid waves of xenophobia. 
Some fights are shadow boxing. Others are real. Now it is time for other
options, in search for the genuine New that does not fit into known
patterns of eternal return, being taken back into the System. Virtual
Volutarism means being able to overcome moods of melancholy, perfectly
aware of all possible limits and opportunities, looking for the
impossible, on the side, out of reach of both futurists and nostalgics.
Being able to present alternative realities, chocking the Johnsons, way
out of reach of the Appropriation Machines. The market authorities will
arrive too late. Yes, this is a dream, but we do cannot survive in a
(digital) environment without options. In order to get at the point, we
should reach a level of collective 'self conciousness' to overcome the
system of fear and distrust which is now spreading. No attempt to
reconstruct what worked once. No glorification of the inevitable. In order
not to throw away everything which has been built up we should invent
concepts on top of it and not narrow all our options into making the world
institutionally legible. The "Next Age", the name of a department store in
Pudong/Shanghai, is hybrid: half-clean, somehow dirty, never entirely
digitised, stuck between real growth and an even more real crisis. 
Obsessed with progress, in full despair. But there are other options, and
we can realise them. "Get Organised" (n5m3) 

[edited by matthew fuller]

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