Date: Sat, 28 Sep 1996 22:19:18 +0200
Back To The Source
an archivist exploring new dimensions of Netactivism
As my official occupation is registered as 'filing clerk' the assumption that I would have something to say about putting archives on line is understandable. And although I use Internet for research and promote Internet for campaigning, I had never put much thought into the idea. And now I know why: I don't believe in putting archives on line. More information on the Net doesn't necessarily lead to more content on the Net.
I came to this conclusion, because as well as being an archivist, my main roles are as an activist and an investigative journalist. My work for Buro Jansen & Janssen (more on which later) made me not only a specialist on the endless problems of computerizing an archive in order to make it accessible, but also taught me how to deal with monopolized media that are basically not interested in serious research. (Jansen & Janssen is fighting an ongoing battle to get background articles across.)
I am convinced Internet could play an important role in breaking information monopolies.
Earlier this year I wrote "Beat the Dutch, Report from Amsterdam about Netactivism" (see ZKP2). This article was first published on the Nettime-list but also travelled around the world autonomously. It is not only a report on several amazing events concerning Internet in the Netherlands, but also an essay exploring the dimensions of Netactivism.This is how I finished that article: 'If the use of Internet adds a certain value to a discussion or supplies a special dimension to a campaign, then something really beautiful is happening'.
Exploring Internet doesn't refer to finding your way in the labyrinth of html-links, passively zapping across static WorldWideWeb pages. Creating content requiers an active search for new opportunities, to bring together surprising strings of information or unexpected coalitions. Netactivism greets the help of features of Internet that have been neglected until now.
Back to the source
I am one of the founders of Buro Jansen & Janssen, named after the two stumbling detectives in the TinTin comics. Buro Jansen & Janssen is a spin off from the strong squatter movement of Amsterdam in the eighties. Activists back then had to deal with the police and secret service a lot, and the bureau started collecting strategies and contra-expertise. Jansen & Janssen started in 1985 and soon grew into an archive on police tactics with particular interest in analysing how the force deals with critical powers that be. The buro published its research on how the secret service tried to infiltrate the activist movement, and on how they blackmailed asylumseekers to work for them. The main goal back then was to fight paranoia by presenting facts & details of homegrown research. Jansen & Janssen kept up with the changes of times and in 1994 revealed how private detectives collect information about lobby groups and sell it to the multinationals involved.
Through the years Jansen has been collecting all kinds of material on the monitoring of the police and secret services. Newspaperclippings, magazine articles, brochures and books formed the more conventional part of the archive. But people also specialized in monitoring special squads of the police which left us with a collection of frequencies, license plate numbers and addresses of interesting authorities. Others approached us with stories about infiltration, with files of their lawsuits or dossiers about criminal investigation against them. Even secret papers from police and intelligence sources eventually found their way to our offices. This was usually the result of typical methods for the (Dutch) activist movement - namely, breaking in and publishing - and we were always ready to give a hand analysing the material.
With the decline of the activist movement of the eighties, the origin of our archive changed slightly. We were now handed complete collections of people who wanted to find a home for a part of their past. (Most of it still waiting to be filed in carton boxes down the hall). With Internet came the totally unstructured digital archive of floppies containing interesting textfiles found somewhere in cyberspace.
As you understand, we felt the need to structuralize this chaos. As soon as we started collecting newspaper cuttings, articles, books and brochures we started using a computer to make the files of cuttings accessible. (It might be usefull to stress once more that this was only a *part* of the collection of the Jansen & Janssen archive.)
The history of buro Jansen & Janssen can be read as the history of archiving with the help of computers. Our first computer back in 1985 was an Apple-II, or rather two Apples-II's, made into one working set ;-). Like the electric typewriters I had been using before, I knew how to repair the hardware in case of minor disasters - and we had quite a few, I can tell you.
I vaguely remember a so called portable computer as well. She was called Vicky and had the looks and the weight of an oldfashioned sewing machine. She was the product of a non- traceble factory called 'Victor' and spent more time in and out of repairshops then with us. Replacing the harddisk - or the drives, I don't remember - didn't make it work: Vicky seemed to be DOS-compatible, but not completely. Exit Vicky.
Then came the software. The first software we used was a very simple database structure with a few search options, written in dBase-II. The step to our first PC, an XT with two 5,25 inch floppy-drives was a milestone in 1986. This asked for better software. The best solution turned out to be to learn dBase III programming myself in order to create an upgraded version of the orginal programme. Basically this software was very simple. The facts about each article: title, date and source where connected with a few keywords, and the name and code of the place it was going to be filed, and could be found again. The first AT computer with a harddisk (what a relief!) came along with dBase IV.
Later attempts to refine the software focused on the layout and on trying to make it seem more intelligent. As the archive and the amount of people working there grew, the collection of keywords expanded like a malignant tumor. Alternative spelling, plural or not, use dots or don't, not to mention the equivalents: using different meanings for the same thing - or the other way around.
The ideal software should help make us more distinctive and rule out the options not allowed. With this tool the search options could be refined, and our computer program would be the best there was. At least that is what our second programmer promised us. As did the third, and the fourth. From the very beginning we sought the help of friends who were really into computers. They were very good at giving us the feeling that our homegrown software was peanuts and not the real thing. Unfortunately each of them failed to translate what we wanted into acceptable, userfriendly and *working* software.
Looking back, I think we were too early. The people that were willing to help us in fact needed us as a project to improve their own skills. Small modules were completed, but admitting the work was way beyond their level appeared to be impossible. To cut short a long and boring story of software engineers who left their traces in our office... Each of them had his own way of building up the structure of the program, so we ended up with different versions that turned out to be not completely compatible. We went through endless sessions of shifting the keywords (thousands and thousands), only to find out the programmer managed to install a draft version of the definite list. Even when we paid them, they kept promising to come up with something eventually. I got so sick of it I don't even know the nature of our present variation. I believe it is an adaption of something programmed in C by the second, unraveled and rewritten in another language by the third and disapproved of by the fourth who prefers yet something else. And every time we hoped and wanted to believe it would really work this time. It never did. We should have stuck to the honest dBase versions...
This course of events had dramatic consequences for the work on the archive. In the beginning we had a dream... of getting the clipping archive up to date (One Day) and of adding modules to include our brochure collection - not to mention the extending library and all the unselected items mentioned earlier. In reality we faced arrears that kept haunting us over the years. Waiting for a new version of the software often meant the old one could not be used for a while. No input into the computer meant no impulse to continue cutting newspapers and magazines. Of course there were enough reasons to ignore the necessary paperwork - like exciting research or other outdoor activities - and we have managed to work away arrears of six months or more, several times...
But computerising access turned out to be a neverending story. We have now decided to accept the fact that some temporary files and large dossiers on special subjects will get a permanent status (fifty or a hundred newspaperclippings in one filing folder). The separate articles will never get the special treatment they used to get in the early days (sigh..) - we are even behind on the temporary files. The cutting of mainstream papers has become less important over the years anyway. With the entry of digital versions of papers, on line or on CDrom, the oldfashioned handicraft will be superfluous in no time, meaning that we'd only have to concentrate on the specialized press.
On the whole we've given up the ambition for completeness. It is no longer a goal to have our archive ready for presentation at some later date. Jansen & Janssen is archiving present time issues - we are not a newsservice, or server. Lack of energy, personpower and money made us more realistic in our priorities. The work will never be finished or ready for presentation - it will be permanently Under Construction. This goes for both the archive and the software making it accessible.
But even if Jansen & Janssen would be technically able to put the archive on line, we would decide against it. Don't take me wrong, I do favour newspapers and magazines putting complete editions on line. I do welcome reliable sources on the Net, but that is not the same as providing content.
In our case, the computer has never been more than *one* of the ways to search our archive. Going through the files by hand always proved to be a rewarding: most parts of the library were not included in the system, and through the years a shadow system of temporary files and personal drawers made the quest even more complicated. Finding sources is never enough, it is the combination of facts & figures that makes the story. It is the extra input of research that turns bare information into content. The point I'm trying to make is this one: without the librarian, without a guide, you're nowhere out there.
Never underestimate the Human Factor
The dialectics of progress stroke us on yet another level. A large part of our aim when pioneering this sort of use of computers was to inspire and enthuse others. Jansen & Janssen started regular meetings inviting other grassroot research groups to discuss mutual problems. In the Netherlands the tradition of what is called tactical research since the last Next 5 Minutes Conference, is treasured by independent investigators, individuals and collectives, who value their work higher than careers and big money. They all descend from the activist movement in the eighties.
For instance, there are various groups monitoring the extreme right parties and ultra nationalist groups in the Netherlands. They hold impressive files and archives on the whereabouts of virtually everybody who is linked with neo-nazi and nationalist people and their connections in Europe and abroad. The Anti Militarist Research Collective AMOK concentrates mainly on the conventional kind of arms trade. They have a huge library and clipping archive focused on military movements from the Cold War period and international warfare like the Gulf War. Other examples are the Anti-Nuclear Archive, the Speculation Research Collective, and a number of individuals with a wide variety of specialities.
Jansen & Janssen was not alone. We all faced similar problems and tried to find ways to become more cooperative. One of the main issues at the regular meetings was computerizing. A concrete result of which was the development of filing software that would be fit for all. Apart from the very familiar problems this project faced, it was not to our benefit to join. We had based our physical storage system on the computer codes generated by our own software system and we were not willing to give that up or to adapt ourself to new ranking files. As a consequence we remained unconnected - no easy exchange of modules with information for us.
Another important topic was the relation between collecting information and what to do with it. Making money was always a problem, but at the same time a non-issue. Selling information was not within our power, we preferred to remain marginal if that meant free to appoint the agenda of our own activities. We frequently discussed opening up our archives for visitors, subscribers or scholars, but always decided against it because it would mean an incredible amount of work to get the archive up to date and to keep it that way. Most of our our personpower would have been eaten up by this work and we prefered to spent our time on research and writing. Even the production of regular newsbulletins or investigative bulletins never succeeded, which is something that I still regret. Professionalising the management of information is a skill we still not possess. We are forced to ask for money for research from people who used to be fellow activists or friends now landed in the mainstream media arena. We couldn't survive on the give-one-take-one relationship - not financially at least. But in our hearts, we would have rather kept things between us.
This so-called unprofessional attitude also turned against us when we tried to get our stories published. The mainstream media scene is unable to deal with us in a normal way - they just can't handle the fact that we cannot be labeled into a specific corner. We cannot be placed in the category of freelance journalists, because our work is too much biased. On the other hand we have proved to deliver reliable information, yet with a tiny trace of activism. Not asking big sums - or 'fair amounts'- of money seems to be unflattering as well these days. Not everybody is taking us seriously all the time, but is that a problem? The question is: do we want to be treated as grownups all the time, or do we prefer to be the joker of the neighbourhood every once in a while...
We need to find our own ways
New media require the development of new strategies to create public consent on important debates. The monopoly of mainstream media is challenged by Internet. Manufactured consent, orchestered by the traditional massmedia is fading away. On Internet an endless amount of paradigms compete for the attention of the electronic audience
Growing public access to Internet has conflicting consequences. The power of Internet is fragmented. Instead of the collective global time of mass media - CNN in the Gulf war - there is the personal time of groups and individuals. Mass media will be replaced by permanent archives and real-time channels for smaller organisations or groups. This trend offers opportunities for social and political movements to organize themselves on a global scale - to create real and virtual communities.
Internet offers new possibilities for groups without power, extending their potential to influence society. Internet is important for the distribution of information among all segments and levels of society. It takes away physical limitations and creates more possibilities for countries in the South.
There is a radical difference between Internet and other, older media. Michiel Bauwens, a philosopher from Belgium, explains Internet can be seen as a meta-medium, a combination of massmedia and personal media in one and the same environment. This combination leads to completely new forms of mass intercommunication, where television was nothing more than the next broadcaster, only with images.
Most of the time we are not aware of the potential of these new dimensions. We are so used to making a distinction between internal communication, and messages coming to us through mass media. Internet is generally seen as either (1) a means of communication or (2) a mass medium. However Internet fulfills both roles simultaneously. Maintaining a distinction between both roles is crucial in underestimating the potential of Internet.
This dual role is being reflected in the seperation between the features that have become the most important on Internet - email and the WorldWideWeb. Most people are active users of email and passive consumers of Web-sites. And that's all. The intermediate world of mailinglist or newsgroups is restricted to a more selective part of Netizens. Not to mention the telnet-libraries, the ftp-archives trapped in dust; and whatever happened to good old Gopher?
More information on Internet doesn't necessarily lead to more content. Content is being generated by the people who work with this information. Piling up archives doesn't garantee people will get there and use them, no matter how attractive the entrance looks. It is the context that counts.
Buro Jansen & Janssen recently broke the monopoly of the State Publishing House by putting two parliamentary reports on criminal investigation methods and corruption online. The first one was very expensive, the second one pretty secret - 5500 pages in total. It felt so good to break the monopoly of a (privatised) state organ, and to use Internet to make information public that is supposed to be public anyway. This is what Internet was meant for, people said, and I couldn't agree more. In thinking about the meaning of this action, I guess the value of it is in adding a dimension. The breaking of this information monopoly could not have been done - at least not so easily, or not without problems with the law - without Internet. On the other hand, the action added something to the ideas of the use of Internet and so was very inspiring.
The best example of using Internet in a multifunctional way, is the campaign against McDonald's. This campaign is now focussed around The McLibel Trial, which has pitted the mighty McDonald's Corporation against two unwaged environmental activists from London.
Internet was involved from the very beginning. Since the start of the trial, in June 1994, extracts from the transcripts of the hearings were being published on the Net, and McDonald's didn't like it at all. The McLibel mailing list serves to keep campaigners from anywhere up-to-date with all of the activities in the world-wide Anti-McDonald's campaign. Suburbians against McDrives, looters in Kopenhagen, Ghandi-inspired Finns discussing with their local McDonald's, India against the invasion of McDonald's - all connected through Internet.
The mailing list is a very good example of Internet adding a certain value to a campaign: the list connects otherwise relatively isolated protesters of all kinds. Internet helps to create a movement on a global scale as people who act in their own environment and with their own means, realize that their activities are part of a larger context.
Earlier this year the McSpotlight site was launged. A WWW-site with all the information about the longest running civil case in Britain ever, and more. Complete with an audio Guided Tour narrated by the McLibel 2, taking visitors round the key pages on the site - the case, the company, the curriculum vitae of all the people involved in the trial and the coverage in the media.
The Campaign section offers groups from all over the world to present themselves and their material. Translations of current Anti-McDonald's leaflet can be printed out in any desired language. This service falls into the category 'added value' - you could call it an Internet speciality. In combination with all the information McSpotlight provides, it is the first worldwide activist manual. Facts and figures are available, as well as a platform for publicity and support from all over the world. Not to mention the added bonus of the site acting as an easy way to keep the public and the press informed about what's happening in the court case.
The latest feature on McSpotlight - and as far as I know, this is the first time anyone on Internet has done this - is the 'Guided Tour of McDonald 's Website' in which they use the 'Frames' browsing system to hijack McDonald's own corporate website and to present their criticisms and McDonald's own pages side by side on the viewer's screen.
The reason why I keep on rambling about McSpotlight is because of its innovative spirit: it has nothing of the boring static formats I mentioned earlier. On the contrary, McSpotlight presents a combination of virtually all available Internet features in one integrated environment: I guess the spirit lies in this combination. It shows how background information can be presented in a creative way. An information monopoly has been broken, by putting facts online within the correct context. The information is being used by campaigners worldwide. Campaigners who still rely on email and their malinglist to keep in touch. And on their own regular meetings and day to day activities in the real world.
This is why I am against putting archives online. The McSpotlight site has shown a way forward for Internet. There is no doubt that this is an example of the beauty of Internet, and that is what we should be exploring and working on - not just dumping endless megabytes of information into the depths of cyberspace. It is the fantasy of the people who use Internet, that creates its potential power. That's how the whole thing got started anyway, remember?
Maybe it's time for a revaluation of the true merits of Usenet. Back to the source!
Buro Jansen & Janssen:
P.O. Box 10591
NL - 1001 EN Amsterdam
tel. ++ 31 (0)20 6123202
fax. ++ 31 (0)20 6168967