Date: Thu, 26 Sep 1996 15:02:59 +0200 (MET DST)

From: Geert Lovink <>

New Media and the Art of Debating:

Second Thoughts on the Organisation of Conferences

Geert Lovink

As many of you might know, I have been involved in organizing a variety of conferences and meetings. At this moment, I feel the necessity to write down some of my experiences and thoughts about this odd and perhaps powerful medium. It is about time to overcome the obvious and almost banal statements about new media increasing (and not decreasing) travelling and the cozy, all-too-human need of us to meet in real-time and space. This is all true. Breast-to-breast communication still is the most powerful, intimate form of gathering and I do not like speculating about the potentials of tele-conferencing and on-line chats. Meeting in real-life, for me, still is the most effective and fastest way to build up a network (like v2_east, nettime or Next Five Minutes) and exchange arguments. It prevents us from making small but fatal mistakes, the most common cause for flame wars, which have destroyed many personal relationships on the Net. One clumsy e-mail can have fatal consequences, a mechanism which can easily be corrected during a gathering on location. At meetings we get a much faster grasp of the context of people's works and intentions.

So why do we meet? Simply because we are social animals? Perhaps not. Individualists from Egoland, armed with objective, selfish goals can also have good reasons to meet. At the marketplace of goods and ideas there is always enough time for informal talks, agreements, rumours and conspiracies. In the case of new media in the nineties, I think, there is a strong need to share feelings and experiences, to reload batteries, to create a sense of common interest and then to return home and continue with the implimentation of something which still is very conceptual, unstable, invisible or even uncomprehendable for outsiders: a never finished Gesamtkunstwerk of images, texts, sounds and meanings. This may sound blurry, but that's what it is. I don't mean this in a negative sense. Mostly, it's not 'just' work (or not yet). Conferences function foremost to gain motivation in order to continue with this kind of work, which requires a lot of creativity and persistence at the same time.

The Fuzzy Economy of Concepts

Besides the hardware and software industry, we have been facing the rise of the 'conceptual sector', responsible for interface design and the re-connection of the human-machine relation to the arts, culture, education and even social and political organizations. And most of all: the difficult integration/synergy of the computer with the 'old' media (audio, video, graphic design, intellectual discourses, theatre, etc.). Most conferences I am speaking about here, deal with such issues. It's only recently that I became aware the conceptual nature of the notion 'cyberspace'. Being more than the Internet and perhaps less ambitious than 'total VR', this rising discipline (which incorporates elements of philosophy, art history, cultural studies, the performing arts and, of course, SF) comes up with workable memes, models and metaphors, which the 'conceptual sector' will finally implement within the framework (and limitations) of the existing software. This work does not fit in the traditional cultural sector. Nor is it merely a technical skill. It's not a job for specialists, but for generatists which might have had many strange, different activities before the rise of the Net. Do we deal here with 'vaporware'? In some cases, yes. There is an increasing pressure on the early adopters to put up an 'anarcho-business'.

But in general, one could could say that the conceptualists are suspicious of commercialism. Neither hardcore academic nor entirely business oriented, the cyber-tactical community is positioning itself as a true 'interface'. Sometimes sensible for social and political arguments, open for critical discourses, always way ahead of the dinosaur bureaucrats but too dreamy for pragmatic sales managers, this sector has created many (temporary) free meeting spaces to tinker on the premises of future environments, with which masses of users will finally work with. Even if we admit the primacy of the hard- and software industry, one has to understand that the users eventually will be surrounded by the conceptual space, not by Intel, Windows 95 or Netscape, at least at the psychological level of perception. In this rising concept business, there is a constant need for visions, metaphysical constructs and spacial frameworks. The well known American 'visionairies' are not only spreading the 'hype' through the traditional media like television and magazines. Their main audience are young professionals, in need for leading ideas, contacts and motivation, necessary in the first, risky phase of their new existence.

The most common way to encounter these blessings is, besides reading magazines like Wired, is to attend a conference. In this atmosphere, an unspoken consensus seems necessary. The brainstorm should not be upheld by critical remarks. Any reference to old discourses can be deadly disturbing. Of course, one can make historical references, reintroduce old rituals, celebrate the unity of body and spirit, but negativism seems to be out of the question (at least, until recently). Such conferences should not raise controversies. There is hardly any pro and contra and little time for discussion. This is decided by the programmers of events in an early stage. And who likes to spoil the party anyway? One lecture after another, with a panel to answer some questions, that's it. This format is now becoming quickly obsolete, without an alternative model in sight. Will future conferences only have small workshops for the happy few who are able to pay the high fee, for those who are already members of the cyber elite, the famous 'virtual class'? I would never like to organize such an event. But maybe this is too easy, too simple. Conferences are about inclusion and exclusion. Who will be on the list of invited speakers? Who comes in for free? Do we care for those who cannot afford to pay the trip, hotel and entrance fee from Eastern Europe, for example? The bigger institutions in Europe tend to look first for big names. If they can actually contribute to the chosen theme, plays a less important role. Visitors will end up with a strange mix of speakers and a conference without much focus.

This of course is compensated by the short period of numbness and hallucination when the Cyber Star is on stage and delivers his or her prophetic lecture-performance. From the very start in the early nineties, multi-media and net-related festivals had the function to generate consensus, not controversy. This goes together with the general tendency to 'stage' podium discussions and estheticize boring conference halls. Over-organized events (sometimes managed by hired professional laity) are eliminating spontaneity and are raising the consumer mentality of visitors who would like to get spectacle for their money and precious time. In general, I have nothing against 'directing' big public gatherings. Only Germans have the phantastic discipline to discuss and enjoy with 300 people their 'Thesenpapiere', 'Rednerliste' and 'Wortbeitraege'. In Amsterdam, for example, as soon as the debate turns boring, people start screeming and walk away. In other countries, the audience remains silent, whatever you try, because it is not common to speak in public and they prefer to express their opinion rather in a much more informal, intimate environment, like the cafe. Still other cultures might have to deal with 'machismo', dull academic rituals, etc. In this respect I have learned a lot from Marleen Stikker and Carolien Nevejan, who are now heading the Society for Old and New Media (De Waag) in Amsterdam. In the past they used to work in De Balie and Paradiso and organized an endless list of debates, meetings, public discussions, lecture series and conferences. They have always been looking for ways to rearrange the setting of speakers, to get rid of the static and passive formats: how to place the seats, to instruct the chairman/woman, to conduct a 'live magazine', to work with imagary in order to overcome the real existing consumer culture which is killing public debating at the moment. Most conflicts are hidden nowadays. Victims can only speak within the victim discourse. Institutional power structures are finding their own way to make deals. And the 'enemies' are hiding until violent clashes and bitter hatred suddenly occur. The rest is dealt with in a boring, rational way, using the well known empty phrases you can find in the newspaper, day after day. And the rising cyberculture finds itself in the middle of this crisis of the public discourse/space, while dreaming of an electronic democracy and many-to-many communication.

Discussion without Critique?

But there is something else: the critique on technologies of the eighties has not been able to regroup and has failed to attack the neo-liberal cyberhype in the public arena. The only well known commentators are cynical journalists, who would like to eliminate the hype as soon as possible. No Luddites in sight (with the exception of the Unabomber). Noam Chomsky and others have no clue about new media and still speak about the New York Times and the networks. The same counts for Neil Postman and other conservative defenders of book culture. The same can even be said of the 'cultural studies', which is mainly dealing with the (MTV) television/pop culture and feminism. This is slowly changing at the moment, but the introduction of critical texts and their authors still takes a long time.

Another factor in the upholding of a rich discussion culture is the language and translation problem. It is not enough to critique the ideological premises of American cyberculture if we do not organize other voices at the same time (not only European, of course). And they express themselves in other languages. This has been one of the most frustrating, implicit exclusion mechanisms in the organization of recent cybermeetings. Critical cyber discourses from France, Germany, Italy and Japan (even general media theory) is not entering the international arena (if we restrict ourselves to the 'developed world'). Who is able and has the courage to speak in English in front of a huge audience? And how do you organize the translation of your paper if you are not a native English speaker? Simultaenous translation is expensive, and conferences tend not to have a budget for such translation. "Yes, yes, the automatic translation programs are on their way", says the eternal optimist. But we can't wait for technical solutions and slow publishing houses; we have to come up with other solutions soon. I know this is not a concern of people from the UK, USA, Canada and Australia, alltough they will be the first to benefit from it. The initiative has to come from other countries. It would be great to start with a truly global 'virtual translation desk', which will bring together writers, translators, publishers and organizers of conferences.

Finally, a big dilemma arises for me between self-organisation and going public, at least when it comes to 'net criticism'. A conference always has both elements. The exchange of ideas and concepts is the primal motivation to travel and get together. This is sometimes hard to admit for the organizers of an event, who are under the pressure of foundations, institutions and sponsers to come up with concrete results and examples where this cyberthing is actually heading to. It seems such a luxury, so incrowd, such a waste of money and all the effort. The results do not find their way into the general public, except for the many interviews done for radio, TV and local magazines. But for the insiders, it's another story. They are building up a largely invisible network of contacts and friendships, exchanging materials and getting a clearer idea where their specific projects fit. With nettime, V2_East and Next Five Minutes, we have been explicitely trying to strengthen this kind of network. Now it is time to make it more visible, richer, and look for controversies, without causing a backlash, ending up with real old-fashioned, dogmatic fights over cyber politics and the lagging fear about the final sell-out to Babylon. I strongly believe in the continuity and the building of small, independant communication structures, whatever may happen to the hype or even the proclaimed end of 'net criticism'.

Information: a slippery term

Originally, information was a minor, specialized scholastic (Latin) term --"informatio"-- meaning the act of giving or changing the form of a particular piece of matter; it implied, however, a very sophisticated double process back and forth between act and potence. From scholastics the concept jumped to natural philosophy and cultivated language, and later to the emerging scientific disciplines. It is in the 20th century when the concept reaches its peak: information makes a triumphal massive entrance in the postwar period, with cybernetics, systems theory, the so called information theory, game theory, control theory, the development of computers, the birth of artificial intelligence, the new linguistics, the neguentropy discussions, the chase for DNA, etc. Indeed an atmosphere of tremendous optimism was generated in relation with the concept. In 1941, in a letter to von Neumann, R. Ortway captures the mood of the times when he writes:

"these days everybody is talking about organization and totality. Today's computing machines, automatic telephone switchboards, high-voltage equipment, such as the cascade transformer, radio transmitter and receiver equipment, and also industrial plants or office are technical examples of such organizations. I think there is a common element in all of these organizations which can be the basis for an axiomatization." (Nagy et al., 1989, p. 188)

Information, clearly was the answer. In 1948, N. Wiener, the founding father of cybernetics, was definitive: "Information is information, not matter or energy. " (p. 132). "The role of information and the technique of measuring and transmitting information constitute a whole discipline for the engineer, for the physiologist, and for the sociologist." (Wiener, 1948, p. vii)

But perhaps the time was too short, and the theories and disciplines contained too many gaps. Somehow, the concept became confusingly entangled in too many places. Looking in retrospect it is easy to appreciate a process of conceptual degradation and loss of confidence --the hegemony won by the sciences of the artificial (Simon, 1969) during this time was not alien to that. Progressively, in spite of its tremendous potential, information was felt by the new generations of scientists coming to these interdisciplinary fields more as a source of misunderstanding and paradoxes than as a source of enlightenment. A recent comment (1989) on information theory by E. Wigner illustrates the prevalent change of mood:

"The present information theory is entirely uncharacteristic. And I think it would be time to change it. But I have a very hard time with it. I have not succeeded. Perhaps I should not have mentioned it because it is not good to admit that one tries to do something and is not able to do it." (p. 256)

Certainly information has become "Jack of all trades". During these decades it has been entangled:

* with the formulation of the second law and the concept of entropy (e.g., the discussions on Maxwell's Demon);

* with the measurement process in quantum theory;

* of course with Shannon's information theory;

* with non-equilibrium systems and non-linear dynamics;

* with cellular DNA and the enzymic processes;

* with the evolution of living beings and the status of Darwinism;

* with the measurement of ecological diversity;

* with the origins and evolution of nervous systems;

* with the functioning of the brain;

* with the nature of intelligence;

* with the representational paradigm of AI;

* with logic (logical depth, algorithmic complexity);

* with linguistics (meaning, semantics);

* with the very foundations of epistemology and ontology;

* obviously with "electronics" and the work of hardware and software engineers;

* with the mass-media and all the new communication technologies;

* with the theoretical claims of library science and documentation management;

* with the basic postulates of economy and the social sciences;

* with political philosophy...

The use of the term information in all these provinces is not incorrect, but its overall coherence has become minimal. It seems that every aspect of human endeavor or biological behavior --or even of cosmic evolution-- contains and processes information; but there is no glimpse yet as to how such overextended acceptations can be consistently conceptualized.

The advancement in the solution of this puzzling concept, entrenched into the foundations of numerous disciplines, may demand drastic changes in view --perhaps including the reflection on what it actually means to establish a 'disciplinary' point of view.