David Hudson on Sat, 4 Jan 1997 12:12:41 +0100

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Data Conflicts, Potsdam 12/96

Harald Weilnboeck on the Data Conflicts conference
Potsdam, December 1996
(translated from German by David Hudson)

"Data Conflicts: Eastern Europe and the Geopolitics of Cyberspace"

A glance at local press coverage of the Internet and new media reveals the
fears, second thoughts and wishful fantasies of the homely living room.
Questions are being asked - always fundamental ones - as to whether wiring
everyone will serve as a civil chat room for electronically educated
citizens of the world or merely market virtual pseudo-communities; whether
the Net gives rise to collective values or highlights our differences;
whether it cultivates a rich, new way of seeing, or rather, prejudice and
the pornographic gaze; whether or not it widens the chasm between the
sexes, spoils the development of our children, etc. For some, the Internet
offers Lacanian therapy of the utterly self-absorbed sort, for others,
nothing but unreal, superfluous nonsense. And the most pressing of all
questions: When will the computer finally begin to feel?

While for folks like us the networked PC wavers in our attention between
the bildungsroman and the soap opera, between a fundamentally democratic
utopia and anti-capitalist cultural pessimism, those in the non-western
world are asking entirely different questions. The Einstein Forum in
Potsdam, always exemplary for its engaged interdisciplinary cultural
programs, gathered a wide range of theoretical and practical speakers to
focus on the question of Eastern Europe and the geopolitics of cyberspace.
Thomas Keenan and Thomas Levin, the conference organizers from Princeton,
set out "to see what's actually going on in the media" in those countries
where economic liberalism is now being introduced and where democratic
rebellion is still genuinely risky.

Scintillating and ambiguous as the next Heideggerian, only more amusing,
Friedrich Kittler of Humboldt University in Berlin, provided the historical
review of media as determined by the war and postwar periods. When the
Anglo-American alliance broke the Wehrmacht code through the innovative use
of computers, Stalin was left in the dark and the Pentagon invented the oh,
so postmodern Internet as an atom bomb-proof system for transmitting
orders. Ever since, industrial and weapons systems have spurred along each
other's development.

What the blanketing of the ex-GDR with fiber optic cable has to do with the
eastward expansion of NATO is for others a question of only minor interest.
Even though media, from Napoleon's lantern signals, through Morse code,
radio, the telephone and broadband cable television to the satellite
television beamed around the world unquestionably went through their
metamorphoses determined by their respective arms races, this has not made
the content at each stage irrelevant according to Erich Moechel, the
publisher of Quintessenz in Vienna. Frank Hartmann, managing director of
the Wiener Forum Sozialforschung (Vienna Forum for Social Research),
insists that with the quiet but generally cynical talk of wavering reality
in mass media, for which Niklas Luhmann and others have all but abandoned
the gesture of criticism, the task of a social scientific analysis is far
from complete. The questions that arise surrounding virtual classes of the
information elite and the division of the public into countless,
differentiated parts as well as their resynthesizing around celebrated
themes have psycho-social relevance.

The European media landscape, with its market value of 304 billion ECU, is
also a central vector of the political economy, which naturally is hardly
the same tangled mess of complexities in the East. There, the old party
hands carry on their worn out, inexorable and anachronistic watch over the
media, with all its threat and censorship, or, as in Bosnia, pretend to
pluralism for a watching world with a make-believe plethora of individual
fractions. The new economic cadres are in no way any more forthright.

Even the new, and perhaps only for the moment, not quite as closely
observed telecommunications are therefore taking on increasing importance
in the political order, according to Robert Horvitz, International Internet
Coordinator in Prague. Masha Gessen, a journalist for Itgoi in Moscow,
delivered a report on Yeltzin's commission for a national computer
infrastructure and on how, not quite so arbitrarily, a considerable band of
former KGB officers were gathered, a group viewing the rising tide of data
with an instinctive eye toward secrecy. If the state decides to retain
rights on all data that in any way relates to itself, every independent
news agency will have the floor pulled out from under it; and if all
encrypted communication has to be registered so that the old big brother
can listen in, there won't be much in the way of incentive for going

In the more politically temperate areas of the East, it's the market
strategies that take on a more prominent role. Independent journalism in
places like Slovakia has moved on from its initial political problems to
economic ones as advertising revenues suffer under a new sobriety lacking
in sensation and partisanship. Bill Gates' trip to Hungary to personally
promote liberalism and shake down software pirates doesn't help, says Tamas
Bodoky, a columnist for Magyar Narancs in Budapest. While Microsoft, in
cooperation with the police and governmental officials stage purge-like
public events in which poor and repentant software sinners are paraded, and
while billboards call out for snitchers to take advantage of anonymous
telephone hotlines, the entire legal system itself runs on pirated
material. Ah, well. What counts in the end is clearing the way for
exclusive contracts with national dealers so that the more reasonably
priced goods offered by local dealers are driven out of the marketplace and
the economic barriers for public and private freedom of information rise
once more.

Electronic media play a particularly unique role during times of crisis and
war. The sysops of ZaMir, Eric Bachmann and Wam Kat, reported on how they
mobilized cast off computers, modems and software, went to Sarajevo,
searched for and found a telephone line and showed the people there what
could be done in terms of de-escalating the conflict by countering the
hateful propaganda of their own government. "ZaMir" - "For Peace" is the
name of the network wiring, via Bielefeld, Germany, the cities of what was
once Yugoslavia when the direct telephone connections were out. Then came
the wave of voices from refugees in the diaspora, such as Damir Tomicic,
and their host, Frank Tiggelaar, who set up the "Bosnia and Croatian
Information Pages" in Amsterdam and Erlangen - compared to the dominance of
state-run television and radio, a modest beginning, to be sure. When the
once thoroughly conventional Hollywood producer, Michael Linder, began to
focus on humanitarian elucidation with the underground journalist Jim
Bartlett from Santa Fe, feeding the Internet with information that
challenged the government and CNN as well as human-touch stories that bore
a suspicious TV quality, advertising revenues were expected to follow. But
as they were shut out of the Murdoch, Turner-Time-Warner, etc., cartels,
the team has, for the moment, shut down its effort.

Thought-laden Europe suffers furthermore under the reign of the most
complicated of all media: western intellectuals. Southeastern publishers
such as Boris Buden of "Bastard" out of Vienna and Zagreb and Novica Milic,
literary critic from Belgrade, threw light on the eccentricity of Peter
Handke and Alain Fienkelkraut's Kantish desire for the extra-media
experience, with its feverish obsession for the local. So the previously
perfectly sober Fienkelkraut suddenly found the true soul of Europe in
Zagreb and there was no holding back the sentimentally aesthetic zeal for
the image of the Croatian as victim. On the other side of the front,
Handke, with his entirely different brand of "eyewitnessability," was
praising Serbian physiognomy. The poetic song of quarrel between these two
heroes of the spirit was about as enlightening as Susan Sontag's theatrical
production of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot" in embattled Sarajevo was
appropriate. Jean Baudrillard, usually no less ambiguous, diagnosed a
typical case of the misuse of war for the selfish purposes of revitalizing
the aging master thinkers. Had the culturalists consulted the snubbed
Internet from afar, they'd have arrived at considerably more truthful
conclusions. There, the castaways and victims had begun a truly extra-media
exchange. But within the parameters of war, the so-called free states were
brewing in there, and after the war, commercial interests will dominate.
Where there are no easy answers, as in Potsdam, there is also no pathos.


David Hudson                    REWIRED <www.rewired.com>
dwh@berlin.snafu.de             Journal of a Strained Net


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