The Importance of Beeing Media

Date: Sun, 2 Jun 1996 14:50:27 +0200 (MET DST)

From: Geert Lovink <>

A Small Net in a Big World, Or:

The Importance

of Being Media

Geert Lovink

Do you think of the Internet as a gnostic conspiracy against the rotting, material world we all would like to leave behind? Well, to be honest, I don't. Seen from an anti-capitalist, activist and autonomous/anarcho point of view, media are first of all pragmatic tools, not metaphysical entities. The 'Ideology of New Media' comes second and should not uphold any of our activities. Media Theory, Net Criticism, Computer Archeology, Cultural Studies, Digital Art Critique etc. give us an understanding of the 'Laws of Media', but they should not become a goal in itself, despite all of our (my) passions for these heroic-marginal, supra-intellectual enterprises.

For me, it is too easy to make the fancy and at the same time fairly realistic statement, that we should disappear from the realm of the virtual and return to 'social action'. This legitimate call, to leave the highly overestimated 'Infosphere' for what it is (namely overhyped empty 'fashion') and appear again on the level of 'the street', is making a false distinction between real and virtual policies. Social movements have always had a wide variety of media-related activities. Each 'action' (even the most 'direct') has a high level of 'information', addressing different groups and targets. Media, in this respect, express social relations in a very strong way. But what media can't do is to regroup and organize social movements. If isolation and despair are widespread, and disorganisation rules, this is not because of the computer, nor can digital equipment help us out of daily misery. It is too easy to blame the machines as the cause of the current 'real existing vagueness'. It's up to us to bring people together and start some new initiative, the machine won't do that for us.

So, should we just go back to a seventies-like, instrumental use of media (as megaphones for the true counter-propaganda)? No way. It is not any longer our first task to 'have the people's voices heard', the so- called 'voices of the oppressed'. This model still leaves the old top- down media-hierarchy intact. We should try to stop speaking for other people. Nowadays, we can make a step further. With the spread of camcorders, tape recorders, photo cameras, Xerox copy machines and... computers, ordinary people now have the possibility to produce 'content' themselves. It is no longer our duty, in the West, to produce their media-items in a pseudo-journalistic manner, but to spread the knowledge of how to use and maintain the hard- and software and build up a common (global?) distribution system.

In order to do this we have to get a grip on these powerful tools, understand their inner logic, their seductive side and destructive side effects, in order to use them in an effective way. And we should not keep this knowledge for ourselves. In Amsterdam, in the early eighties, there was the slogan: "Let a thousand antennas blossom," which meant, at the time, that we should have as many pirate radio transmitters on the roofs of the squatted buildings as possible. Do not share your broadcasting time with other personalities and groups... but empower groups with their own equipment, thereby destroying, step by step, the 'myth of media' altogether. Finally, after some wild years of radio piracy we ended up with three independant ("consciously illegal") stations and some individuals in the legal, official radio. Having so many different frequencies and voices has secured our existence over the last ten years. The same counts for local cablecasting groups and lately, also for the Internet, having a big variety of our own access and content facilities (like xs4all, digital city, and actions (hacking the Van Traa report, the Scientology-case, etc., see: Eveline's story in nettime).

It seems important not to fight over an artificially created scarcity. The freedom of expression and media will only be fulfilled once the capability to broadcast has been fully incorporated in the daily life 'of the billions'. In my view, each fight for liberation can easily contribute to the destruction of the media monopolies by putting out some messages themselves (graffiti, pamphlets, zines, paintings, songs, imagery). Complaining about the multinational media giants is not enough (a critique of 'Wired' can only be a start...).

The final goal could be the 'democratization of the media' and eventually the 'abolition of media'. This goes further than to merely participate in other people's forums or plain 'public access'. It means an overall dispersion of equipment and knowledge into society. A funny side-effect of this is that media will become less and less important. At this moment, we have the tendency to project a lot of the actual power into this rising 'symbolic realm'. True Marxists, of course, will point us at the much more powerful realm of the virtual capital. Or at the real, hard work that is being done, producing material goods, that is becoming more and more invisible for us, Westerners, because it is done somewhere, in Asia, Eastern Europe or Latin-America. Or even at the dominance of the tourism industry over the relatively small media business. This is all true. But our 'false consciousness' is as true as the other people personal realities. The 'hegemony of the media realm', I would say, seems to be our reality. And we, a relatively small group of media activists, have the (limited) possibility, in this historical configuration, to fight 'media power' as such. At the moment, the Internet is not going into this direction. Funny enough, the 'user friendly interfaces' are keeping people away from using the Net in an effective way. Networks turned into 'services' and users became consumers. Subsequently, we have seen no substantial rise in 'virtual communities' or independent servers. We therefore have to fight from now on all neo-liberal ideologies and supposively 'anarcho' slogans about individuals and their so-called power on the Net. This might be true for a few youngsters, making their way into the ruling 'virtual class'. But this is not how computer networks come into being, start to grow and, perhaps, one day, become a threat to the establishment. We do not have to fear, in the first place, state intervention or even censorship. Compuserve has the right to filter out any kind of message they do not like, that's not censorship but a corporate policy of a large content provider. For me, the danger comes from within, from the inner logic of the Internet and how it is being perceived. Way too many clever individuals are just subscribing to commercial services like CompuServe or AOL, instead of looking for independent, less/non- commercial providers or starting their own server. They are thereby failing to set up their own, autonomous communication structure (and not to forget: money-economy!).

Most of the political activists are still isolated and lack an offensive policy in crucial areas like access and content. For example, both APC ('Third World') and Soros (Eastern Europe) are mainly concentrating on connecting the slow and official NGO-bureaucracies, leaving the rest of the population to 'the market' and its high prices. Of course, this is their own business. What we should do, is to show that it is possible to establish a BBS, e-mail server, webserver, real audio, pirate radio, whatever. In order to achieve this we have to share experiences and technical knowledge (UNIX/linux, routers, even HTML), collect and redistribute old computers and software, share knowledge about sponsors, funds and ways to set up our own economy. Only later, can we speak about content-related matters, like cultural biases and 'European Ideologies', the dangers of neo-Darwinist concepts, the growing necessity to set up 'translation offices' in the Net, in order to overcome the monopoly of the English language and other Subcult issues like the 'abolition of the Net'.

Budapest, sunday morning (!), june 2nd (!), 1996.