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<nettime> Fragments of Network Criticism
Geert Lovink on Mon, 23 Aug 1999 13:19:33 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Fragments of Network Criticism

Fragments of Network Criticism
By Geert Lovink

"What is good is what is new, in both form and content. A product of the
eye, not of mind and habit. What is good forgets whatever form it might
have had, and is unexpected." (V.S. Naipaul)

Media are about archiving. Endless life castings are soon becoming
unbearably boring. Nothing anymore happens if cut the feedback to history
files. During the entire 20th century the techno-modernist movements have
been obsessed with revolutionizing the standards, the computing and
storage capacities of the technical media. Engineers were not focussing on
how to conserve the cultural heritage which these media are carrying.
Technical media are self-referential, specially in its stages of
development. The fight over standards and ownership is a passionate one,
quite different from regular industries. Why identify with a commercial
standard in the first place? If you cannot stand its overload emptyness,
stupidity, if you don't like gambling and debating, then stay away from
the computer topic. Only very few can treat it as a tool. One never knows
if an idea or concept will ever be further implemented. So do not even
start looking for a sustainable communication standards. Computers are not
made for eternity. Only in fifty years or so we will be able to evaulate
the premises and promises of new media, then sunken into the sediments of
popular culture. Future generations will look down on our time and think:
why did they all use these crap Microsoft products? Why did not they
revolt against the supidity ot its interface and the corporate take over
of this once so public and open Internet platform?
Will anyone understand the holy wars between PC and Mac? No. They will be
full of nostalgia about the utopian aspects of our 'universal' machines
and the primal Net.

Media, these days, are still partial media, with a promise to reach an
ultimate moment of synergy, the medium to end all media. That utopian
moment, to invade, and connect all senses has a particularly strong,
irrational, mythical drive. WebTV is a current buzzword for this.
Multi-media is a more general term, referring to a general device to see
movies, watch TV, listen radio, read books and newspapers, make telephone
calls, send e-mails. Will the data reach us via telephone cable, the TV
cable, via the ether, via satellites? Will we indeed have seamless
bandwidth, eternal conversations? This digital Gesamtkunstwerk' is
creating bizarre structures, hilarious failures, crippling interfaces,
tragic bankrupcies, brilliant monsters, invisible eyes that will watch
over us. It is actually all existing, and already history, driven by
ordinairy commercial interests. Nothing special about this e-goldrush.
What is the driving force behind this Inclination to Synergy? Is it the
good old 'claim on an absolute totality' (Kant)? Why this obsession with
standards? Who could care less about PC or Mac? It is perhaps just a
curiocity, to look into the future, besides the all too human hunger for
power and profit. Where is the totalitarian aspect hidden in the
architecture of these Gesamtmedia? And what could be its possible
negation? Little is yet known of its radical opposition to the digital
utopia, except for some forms of fundamentalism. The attitude of
indecision has lost its supreme position long ago. Consumer choice rules,
the option to reject and boycot certain products is presented as the far
more powerful follow-up of voting, the only left weapon of 'civil society'
to influence global markets. 

Why there is such a lack of ironical distance in new media? Few can afford
to look down on this pumping techno engagement, not being obsessed,
overworked, without ruined bodies -- and free of ignorance. Show us your
joyful pessimism, supreme neglect, your spiritual wisdom, over all this
hollow data trash! Today's neo-luddites are unable to disdainfully detest
technology, driven by their apocalypic chimera. Forget them. Their
scientific ecology lacks any outrage. The rage against the Machine will be
ignited by proletarized 'knowledge workers'. A meta-techno intelligensia
is on the rise, transcending the primitive social darwinism with its
winner-loser and adapt-or-die logic. The organized stupidity of e-commerce
will be challenged. Being a 'virtual intellectual' understanding today's
tools, working within the Net is not enough. "The concept of intelligensia
must not be confused with the notion of intellectuals. Its members think
of themselves as united by something more than mere interest in ideas;
they conceive themselves as being a dedicated order, almost a secular
priesthood, devoted to the spreading of a specific attitude to life,
something like a gospel." (Isaiah Berlin) Sociological categories, such as
the intellectual, are dull and static, lacking any style, direction,
conspiracy. Active social vectors are essential components, otherwise all
network(ed) efforts deteriorate into lifestyle design, and inward fights.
We will come up a new elegance and comfort which is openly hostile to the
global managerial class, and its New Age cults, necessary to compensate
the massive damages caused by their commodity culture. The cultural
studies strategy, to embrace ambivalant feelings towards pop(ular) culture
fullfilled its role, and liberated many from rigid and dogmatic
anti-positions. But this creative impulse was still operating from within
new social movements which have long gone. It crossed borders, to return
safely. Today's customized luxury is cheap and predictable, no matter its
prize -- and thrives without alternatives. The 80s model of the Temporary
Autonomous Zone, as a mysterious, flexible reponse, could now be stripped
of all its lifestyle aspects, and be connected to the technological
contradictions and social struggles of 2000 plus.

The autopoesis of the new media is exhausting itself in total
self-glorification. Regression into an aristocratic lassez faire, lassez
passer gesture of the ousider has its dramatic qualities, but even the
snobbish rich and famous can no longer afford non-involvement. The logic
of the new has to abandoned altogether. A first step could be the
acceptance of technology being in a phase of permanent revolution (not out
of control). The second would be to build in feedback loops on social,
political and cultural level regarding the endless repetition of the
R&D-introduction-acceptance chain. One day the new itself will be wornout

There is an ultimate moment of synergy: the medium to end all media. In
these serious dreams, senses are shortcut, having become suspicious about
the eye, ear, nose. They fail to register modern invisible phenomena such
as the psyche, electricity, radiation, radio waves, computer data. It is
from this real existing discontent that the desire arises to directly
connect the body's nervous system. Today's interfaces are too slow, too
clumsy, too rational. An example of this common discontent is David
Kronenberg's eXistenZ, where a slimy biopod gets plugged into the bioport,
positioned at the low spinal column. Nothing in this classic VR-genre film
reminds of the grey plastic office machines, or their opposites, the
decayed, open cyberpunkish gagets. In eXistenZ, the clean modernity of
highrises has disappeared altogether. What is left is a freaky universe, a
return of medieval environments where US-Westcoast subcultures have gained
all but world primacy. Foucault's bio power has finally triumphed over the
cold and dead, metallic mechanisms. Kevin Kelly's rules have been followed
up: "Move technology to invisibility." His vision to "mimic biology" has
literary whiped out the current computer hard- and software culture. As a
result of this, relations between the realms of the Real and the Virtual
have altered. In the eXistenZ computergame Virtuality no longer is an
archaic or futuristic setting. Instead, the Real gets subversed, implanted
by animated game characters, almost indistinguishable from nominal
participants. Hyper reality is sold here as the ultimate drug: social,
interactive, intelligent. Reality as playground seems to be most
addictive, compared to all secondairy, escapist phantasies. We don't need
no Disneylands, our existantial Reality TM is weird enough. Where are the
de Beauvoirs, Sartres and Camus of the Digital Age now that we need them?

"They discuss why new money doesn't give to charity. There are nine
new-moneyed men sitting in this room, trying to tell they'd rather invest
in startups than donate to modern art museums or Unicef. Technology is
modern art. Technology will save the world, they say." Wired, 7.07

Are the venture capitalists, young enterpreneurs, lonely coders of
Sillicon Valley, obsessed with their first 20 million $, the only role
model for the Network Society? Kevin Kelly's opening sentence  says it
all: "No one can escape the transforming fire of machines." Technological
determinism claims to have history on its side. "The mighty tumble, the
once confident are left desperate for guidance, and the nimble are given a
chance to prevail." According to Wired 7.07, one in 1000 business plans
will finally get enough money to be further developed. It's a "digital
gold rush," like the heroic episode at the close of the 19th century.
Sudden wealth for a few, based on luck, more than anything else, like
today's business plan lottery. This migration was based on the gold
standard, which started to thumble a few decades later. But this
historical analogy, or prediction, is not what the "Generation Equity" is
eager to hear. It is not encouraging to face the fact that all their tiny
software applications, after the hype has faded away, profits have been
taken and profits been made, will just be a cog in the machine of the
Third Order.

Corporate America by now has digested the preachings of Kelly, Peters and
Gilder. It has installed its ethernets, intranets, its web servers and
e-commerce, and gears up for the next phase: e-business. Concepts, models
and technical features have been incorporated, while stripping off
redundant libertarian elements. Wired is still brilliant catching this
ideology: "Markets should be fair by design, so they don't need regulation
or monitoring, democratic (the more participants, the better), and
rational. Usage fees should be reasonable and encourage participants to
behave in ways that are good for everyone." But then the sad part. Josh
Levine, a programmer of on-line stock trading software, "remains
unimpressed by the progress toward this ideal marketplace. So far I
haven't seen anyone do anything strikingly bold or brave,' he says. 'Most
are just reacting to the changes that technology forces upon them. Myself
included." Finally, a pragmatic confession of the Digital Situation, from
Brooklyn, that is. The Wired Generation is not in such a fortunate
situation to face actual developments. It had to cut all ties to
'European' ways of thinking such as negation, critique, deconstruction,
scepticism, etc. Until they passed all exits. From there, only one
discourse was left: the how-to management sales talk. The road ahead, can
only lead straight into Paradise. Or we might all be struck by the
Apocalypse... In the early days, it was enough to project some trends into
the future, without any solid analysis of the present. But these days,
with the digital revolution well under way, the future is becoming much
harder to predict. There is a much more dynamic, complex image, with
culture, economics and politics interfering into simplistic, linear
out-of-control creed which merely states that "iron and lumber will obey
the laws of software." In the case of Kelly's New Rules even the basic
reality checks fail. Writing the book in late 1997, early 1998 he manages
to blind out all references to the financial crises in South-East Asia,
Russia and Brazil. The very cybernetic notion of feedback loops does not
even exist. In this child-like vision there is only seamless growth, and
some "creative destruction" of old institutions. Reckless, early victories
have not resulted into a more sophisticated knowlegde of the workings of
the global economy. No collapse of Baring Banks, no hedge funds crisis, no
Japanese recession. 
The global, intengible, interlinked networks lack any awareness of their
surroundings. Just self-regulating, self-optimizing swarms, killed in a
second by some corporate spray-dose poison, due to failing self-defence
mechanisms. What would Nietzsche have thought of the Californian
Uebermensch, preaching to embrace the herd? 

It could be useful to have a heretic psychology of the virtual class. The
lack of 'techno realism' is now turning the sixties generation of computer
visionairies into tragic, even schizophrenic figures. On stage, in their
publications, on their web sites they have got to praise the non-existing
economy, to all costs. They are performing in front of ever growing hoi
polloi of 'baby suits', switching to auto-pilot, having lost all idealism.
There is no way to express even the slightest doubt -- it might influence
the portfolio of you and your friends. The obsessive believe system makes
it hard to drop out. There are few renegades when it comes of the New
Economy of Sillicon Valley, and its spasmotic turnover of start-ups.
Richmond can be proud of its dissidents.

Slogonomics: "One Planet, One Network, One Leader" - Job Opportunity:
Mobile Phone Assistant - Reclaim the Net - "In cyberspace no one knows you
are an artist" - Nobody Comes Close TM (Firm slogan) - Open Monopolies for
an Open Society - After the Culture Clash (book title) - "Virtual
companies are paper tigers. In appearance they are fascinating, but in
reality they are not so powerful. From a long term point of view, it is
not the New Economy but the users who are really powerful" (Genc Greva) -
Kybernetik der Tat - "We Want Your Ideas!" - "The Global Province" and
Rethorics after Heidegger: "Why do we remain in the Internet?" - Virtual
Failures (conference title) - Know Your Wired Enemy - Virtual Empire: its
Golden Age, Conceptual Renaissance, Nihilistic Moment.

It is being said that self-referentiality is a sign of emancipation.
Discourse growth within the media context would then be the ability to
transform from an applied set of ideas, taken from other disciplines, into
a higher set of complex concepts and references. Can we already speak of a
General Media Theory? Or have we passed the media age, without proper
theory? Perhaps history could answer. Detailed, critical historical
studies, going back to the birth time of 'new' media, the period between
the two world wars, modernism, the hay days of film, and then the period
straight after WW II. We can't have enough of them. And there is still too
little known about the early history of the Internet. For many this
remains a mythological, pre-historical period, dominated by this one image
of the behemoth of the Pentagon (ARPA), mixed with some Kittlerian
premisses of military techno-determinism, including its cult of secrecy
and paranoia. Since the 1991 Gulfwar 'Paul Virilio' has entered popular
culture. Kittler for All: media are of militairy origin, and nature. But
with this theory myth, one will never understand where today's drive
towards a synergy of text, sound and (moving) images into one streaming
medium is coming from. The dark world of the conspiracy thinkers, such as
Thomas Pynchon as his followers, is primarily text based. It can only
interprete the mystical world of imagery (of film, tv, etc.) as a
secondary distraction. It may therefor be important to develop a civic
post historie(s) de media(s), to balance the hermeneutic reading of media,
which can only 'lay out' the essence of phenomenon (software, interface
etc.) through its roots. Popular use of technology has the power (or
ignorance?) to neglect the militairy logic and twist its given formats,
still remaining concious about the titanic forces, residing within the
technologies, which may return one day as an accident. A deep, and
widespread knowledge of this accidental nature can help to take the magic
away from casting/Sendung, the authoritarian power which attempt to
dominate the subject, either through seduction or repression. One day,
origins and basic structures will no longer be dominant. Media can grow,
and transform into something different, more playful, open, with modular
architectures. Breaking the magic spell of meaning and casting will create
democratic structures in which truely flat channels prevail. 

It is said that visual arts are playing a creative role in the R&D of the
visual languages for human-machine interfaces, shortly before they leave
the high tech laboratories. For decades now the paradigm of the
interdisciplinary approach, mainly between engineers and visual or media
artists, has been promoted, yet remains unfulfilled. This is the actual
idealism of the media arts system. It dreams of the fusing of all relevant
disciplines, contributing to the fundamental research and development of
new technologies. A second Manhattan Project for the (WW III?) computer.
With the aim of nothing  less than shaping the final future of mankind,
presuming that the quality of communication is determined by the
functionality of the bio-adaptor. The utopian interface is a holistic
environment in which the body-machine synthesis have reached the highest
state of perfection, disposed of all clumsy mechanic and graphic fittings.
Here, the artist is seen as the genius, envisaging ways to 'capture' the
spiritual world, in a metaphysical attempt to overcome the rather
sub-human model of the cyborg with all its heavy glases, datasuits, touch
screens, implants, trace balls, etc. But for the time being even to get
rid of keyboard and screen seems not such an easy task. The technology is
getting smaller, is still speeding up, but the R&D team remain reluctant
to have any outside involvement. The only labs which operate explicitly
outside of arts and culture, such as MIT and Xerox Parc, manage to gain
some significance. Most of the high end in new media arts is being done
outside of industry and remains invisible, excepts for some art shows.
They lack continuity. The logical consquence would be to take off the
'art' label altogether, be frank and call it entertainment. But that would
question the way of funding and therefor it's legitimation. Electronic
arts, incapable of taking a real avant-garde stand, has maneuvered itself
in an impossible position. It is neither participating in fundamental
research, nor does it have content, compared to 'regular' websites, videos
or audio pieces. At best they are form studies, esthetic explorations, in
search for a visual language, done by arts students and their teachers.
Media arts have been going back and forth between the gallery-museum with
their curator-gatekeeper system, and education, with the festivals as a
middle ground to present works. Research and commerce have been the
exception.  With the rise of commercialism media artists these days are no
longer needed (skilled people with a conceptual sense, yes). Web design
has democratized  the landscape rapidly, creating a new class of
htm-slaves and pixel pushers. Still, human-machine interface design is
stagnating, despite all brilliant concepts. One thing is sure: prices go
down. Within these developments, artists no have a special status (if they
ever had one...). They can easily slip back into the role of decorators,
with Richard Barbrooks figure of the "digital artisan" as a maximum
option. But where are the guilds? An on-line, translocal trade union for
digital workers is another option. Lose, temporary collaborations, sharing
resources within free associations of programmers, designers, critics and
organizers could be another. Running websites, servers, (net.)radios,
tv-programs or a magazines is yet another. Developing software goes one
step further. So does exploiting the hidden gold of content. These are all
models to leave the dilema of new media arts behind. 

In today's popular belief systems, it is being said that media have
replaced, or at least overruled, politics. On the opposite spectrum, we
see the naive idea that politics can be renewed by the active use of (new)
media. But if we just look a bit closer to the relation between specific
policies of the nation states, or particular parties regarding to the
development of cyberspace over the last ten years, we can see a remarkable
influence of the state on the media sector. It is obvious that politicians
need to pay a lot of attention towards their mediated image. Who doesn't?
There is no need to redefine politics for that reason. The media activists
and their concept of the 'image pollution' are just reacting on this
tendency. With the spin doctor comes the net.activist. But relations
between the political hackers, corporations and state differ from country
to country. Specific technology politicies generate different media (or
net.) cultures. In some places there is a very direct media control,
focussing on content and ownership, like in many East European countries,
resulting in 'independant' media. In Nordic countries we see a much more
subtle, structural approach, whereby the state is influencing  cultural
parameters, using indirect financing to secure a limited number of 'open'
channels. Deregulation of media access has not resulted in actual public
access. Nor did it boost innovation. Most companies are not into
fundamental research. The corporate world would never have invented the
Internet. The time spam to develop such a centennial tres grand project is
simple too long. The growing drive to get an immediate return on
investment might even slow down the digital revolution on the long term.
Today's inventions of Internet startups are fake applications. What is
needed are new spaces for reflection and critique, free zones where
researchers of all kinds can work without the pressure of sponsors and
administrators, free from short term commercial pressure. The same can be
said of the 'digital Bauhaus' concepts, which lack any negation of
mainstream digital utopia and are hardly different from average photoshop
plus HTML-courses. 

The computer as a machine will disappear anyway, and will be
dispersed into our daily environment. So it be quite an achievement to
negate and ignore these devices. I do not blame anyone for anything.  Let
us overcome this universal protestantism and instead concentrate on the
architecture of these new media, now that there is still something to
decide. Time is running out. Future generations will look down on our time
and think: why did they all use these crap Microsoft products?
Why did not they revolt against the supidity of its interface and the
corporate take over of this once so public and open Internet platform?

Amsterdam, July 1999

http://thing.desk.nl/bilwet (text archive)
http://www.nettime.org (list archive)
Isaiah Berlin, Russian Thinkers, London, 1978
Kevin Kelly, New Rules for the New Economy, London, 1998

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