Interview for Libération, by Marie Lechner

Interview with Geert Lovink
By Marie Lechner, for Liberation (edited, French translation published on January 12, 2008)

— this is the original, unedited English version of the email exchange —

ML: You are a longtime observer and critique of internet culture, what are the significant changes of the past several years?

GL: What fascinates me is the spectacular growth of the Internet user base, away from the West. A little less than 20% of the world population now has Internet access, 1.25 billion, with double the amount of mobile phone users. New users are located in Asia, Latin America but also Africa. Internet use is finally picking up in the Middle East. As Internet users are not just info consumers but potentially also software producers I am keen to see in what direction these new user cultures will take the Net. We’re also at the beginning of large scale education initiatives such as One Laptop per Child. The debates around this project are really interesting and go way beyond Negroponte-bashing, the former MIT media lab boss and Wired columnist who gave up his job to devote his time to this project.

One just doesn’t sit back and consume new media, the user is a vital part of the story. For instance, what interesting software come from Nigeria? This will not be easy to predict. Look at how interesting the blogosphere in Iran still is, despite all the crackdowns. There is a ‘democratization’ across the board, from software for village schools to ‘digital Jihad’.

What is a pity, is the way in which social movements are lagging behind. They’re hiding behind their email boxes, so it seems. So-called global civil society has been asleep and again left the whole Web 2.0 craze to Sillicon Valley. Why don’t we have a global social networking site that connects activists? The indymedia model of ‘alternative news’ is now almost a decade old. What fails here is a subversive and playful understanding of networking, one that goes beyond the ‘rhizome’ and is willing to dig into today’s social complexities of what happens once you digitize the ‘friends of your friends’.

The Internet has gone ‘social’. The Net is primarily used to connect ‘living’ people, not that much to send around ‘dead’ information. Social networking sites such as MySpace, YouTube and Facebook are giant, language-centred beehives. Blog cultures are also primarily language-based. Ordinary users just aren’t that obsessed with what is happening in the Anglo-Saxon part of the Net. Whereas, technically speaking, the Internet still is a global medium we see an increasing ‘Balkanization’ happening, centred around language clusters (and so much nation states). We’re talking about large, distinctive archipelagos with tens of millions of users. Just think of the Japanese and Korean cyberspaces. The vastest growing of them all, the Chinese Net, is literary walled. But how much do we know what’s going on there? Within these ‘islands in the Net, as Bruce Sterling already called it ages ago, a multitude of niche cultures occur, what Steve Anderson coined the Long Tail. From a user perspective these free services make it easy to search for specific goods, services and people.

ML: Does the web 2.0 hype differ, in your view, from the late nineties dotcom days?

GL: The main difference is the relative absence of venture capital and corporate finance types. Web 2.0 has been a real hype, since one or two years, but it’s been nothing compared to late nineties dotcommania. Back then it was all about empty portals and defunct e-commerce. Right now the hype is centred around gathering user profiles that are resold to advertisers. This should concern us because of the rampant privacy violations, mainly amongst the youth who seem to be unaware how Google and all the rest make money. They think: we get all these fabulous services for free, so why worry? The problem is that no one really explains them what the Web 2.0 business is all about.

ML: You do not seem to share the euphoria, or let’s say at least, the optimism of web 2 promoters, you talk about the « darkening of the web ». What do you mean ?

GL: I am not a doom prophet. Still, the corporate and state control of the Internet has risen in unprecedented ways. As a matter of fact, one shouldn’t research this topic because it is utterly depressing. In November 2007 data of 25 million individuals in the UK got lost in the mail, thanks to the privatized mail service TNT. The lost data included the names, addresses, dates of birth, national insurance numbers and bank account details of those who receive government child benefit. The data were stored on two password-protected but unencrypted CD. The package was neither recorded nor registered, and it was never received. This incident tells us something about the collective dream state we’re in (others called it organized stupidity).

The amount of private data that a company like Google is gathering about us is unheard. This situation will only turn worse and become so bad that the only option left will be to ‘nationalize’ or rather ‘socialize’ Google. The reason for this is that their profitability will depend on the gathering of ever more precise user profiles. What is needed is a renewed sense of the global public nature of the Net. The Internet is a digital public realm in which our data are stored that should not be owned by national states and corporations. This is not so utopian as it may sound. In fact, this could already have been proposed and implemented by international bodies such as UNESCO. Unfortunately, these UN organizations have lost touch with society and have become old-fashioned bureaucracies that do not have the vision, and energy, to intervene in this field. We have seen this with the tragic World Summit of the Information Society in 2003 and 2005. In the case of ICANN and the Internet domain name system we see a similar dilemma: what if UN bodies have lost their credibility and we neither want to go back to give the Internet in the hands of authoritarian governments? From a media activist perspective we need to do a lot more work to come with a credible answer to this situation.

Another aspect of the ‘darkening of the web’ is no doubt the hunt on individual users of peer-to-peer networks. After the first law proved unenforceable, the new Sarkozy law will use surveillance capabilities in such a paternalistic way, like grounding a naughty kid, keeping him off the Net. On nettime Alex Foti called it the digital equivalent of chopping off the hands of supposed thieves. How are these kids are going to do their homework, if they can no longer access the Net? Doesn’t Sarkozy understand that education simply no longer happens without the Internet?

ML: Are you nostalgic of the early days of the internet? Do you think that something get lost since the early 1990s? That there is a switch in values?

GL: It is not in my nature to be nostalgic, but you are right, it was fun in the 1994-97 period when the Internet had just opened up to the general public. The corporate world was still clueless, as were politicians and media people. Don’t forget, back then the Internet was slow and remarkably unspectacular, even compared to what computers were already capable of doing. The World Wide Web had just been introduced. It was the time of desktop publishing, CD-ROMs and multimedia. The fun part of 1990s Internet was the Californian cyberculture a la Timothy Leary in their role of business gurus. The ‘short summer of the Internet’ was an odd mixture of virtual reality, drugs culture and pirate romantics. Looking back it’s wicked to have these hippies covered as the founding fathers of the Internet. Even the luddist Hakim Bey, an islamist anarchist showed up at new media conferences, visited by curious suits.

It all could have been worse. Unfortunately, most of the creative baby boomers sold out to big business. Why this generation has become so uncritical towards the corporate world is a fascinating question that has not been researched. Their skeptical attitude towards the state, while embracing the MBA values of global finance and its auditing firms was something that I could not comprehend at the time and are still baffled by. The dotcom ecstasy culture of the late 1990s was so hilariously silly. It was pure potlatch, a feast of nihilism. We need many more Michel Houllebecqs to describe this truly millennial party, and hangover. Theory never caught up with this era and got lost in summing up all the vanishing concepts of the outgoing 20th century and since then lost its meaning all together.

ML: You mention Net critic Nicholas Carr about the lack of a critical approach concerning « all things that web 2.0 represents. Participation, collectivism, virtual communities, amateurism becoming unarguably good things ». Do you agree with his view?

GL: I am a fan of Carr and consider him a new type of ‘net critic’. Until a few years ago there were only two types of writers who reported about the state of the art: journalists and cultural critics. With Carr we see the emergence of a third category. intelligent writers with a business background. They have thus far lacked, just look in bookstores how poor the literature on Google is. It is all corporate self-glorification. This wouldn’t matter all that much if the Internet wasn’t the viral infrastructure of our times. In the nineties business only generated gurus (and servants that immortalized them, such as Michael Lewis). Think of Kevin Kelly, Nicolas Negroponte, Don Tapscott and George Gilder. All they did was celebrating business, no matter what, straight-out suppressing any critical investigation. This also lead to a ban of any proposal in the direction of Internet as a public infrastructure. This cannot be seen outside of the privatization of telecoms and the disastrous stand against Internet of the national telecom carriers around that time.

What is wrong is not the Web 2.0 with its tagging, blogging and collaborative writing tools but the way business is done. Technology firms are a pray for those with ‘funny money’. Venture capital does not allow businesses to grow organically, stay independent and develop sustainable business models. The willing victims here are the clueless users that indeed behave like willing sheep. Heightened excitement further fuels ’swarm’ locust behavior amongst users, who move from one free service to the other, leaving ghost towns like Friendster and Orkut. The big difference with the 98-99 madness is that many more people these days understand the underlying mechanisms of Internet startups, and Nicolas Carr is one of them. He, for instance, informs us about the economics of data centres, located there where cheap electricity and bandwidth meet. Datacentres are the invisible hearts, the factories of Web 2.0 that we rarely read about.

ML: There is a kind of backlash about amateur culture ( see the big echo given to Andrew Keen’s Cult of the Amateur), the praise of the amateur and the distrust of the professional. Do you think like him that today’s internet is killing our culture or at least flattening it?

GL: Time and again, with big pleasure, I have analyzed the cultural pessimism the Internet mobilizes amongst intellectuals. The culture of complaint will perhaps never die. The problem behind the ‘information overload’ fear is a technological one: we can no longer distinguish between a written and oral culture. Our oral culture has become recordable. Instead of less we write more and more text messages, emails and blog entries. However, we no longer do this according to the 19th century rules of writing letters and novels. What we in fact do is store fragments of spoken conversations. In the past this was simply not possible. The result of this is an avalanche of half finished and grammatically incorrect sentences that are digitally archived and thus become searchable. The problem with Andrew Keen is that he starts treating all these informal data streams as journalism or even literature. Many bloggers have the same issue. They cannot distinguish between online dialogues, digital leisure such chat and gaming, and news production. For them everything becomes ‘news’ simply because it is tagged and on the web. The current generation search engines only make things worse as content is treated as one and the same time-based activity. But it’s not. Take the most popular blog topic, cats. People love blogging about what their cats are up to–but they do not claim that is it ‘news’.

The way to go here would be to develop a peer-to-peer version of the Airbus approach. What we need is a strong, European alternative to Google that understands itself a decentralized knowledge structure, much like Wikipedia, that works for the public good. There will be a lot of support as long as the project is developed in an open way, so no more fears (and desires) for patents and industrial espionage. Most Europeans will be skeptical about the French search engine Quaero that Chirac so clearly positioned as anti-American. I believe it is much better to drop the type of industrial secrecy that surround such national projects and re-brand it as the future of the European public domain. We have to make it clear that Google is a for-profit company that is in dire need of our private data in order to further develop its monopoly position. In order to get Google willingly supports non-profit activities. The blurring of for-profit and public interest is a new type of corporate strategy, which we need to understand much better.

ML: You do not seem to share the ideology of free and the gift economy. Why?

GL: Indeed, and I am not making myself popular by openly questioning the do-good mentality of people like Richard Stallman and the Creative Commons crowds. In my view you cannot simply demand that cultural producers have to give away their produce, be it code, research or music, for free, without providing them an alternative economic model. The resistance against proprietary (closed) software and intellectual property is fully justified. But what works in software might not work in music or journalism. Second Life, Amazon, eBay, iTunes, and so on: the list of Internet project with a money component is long and fast-growing. I do not buy it anymore if Lawrence Lessig or Joi Ito come and preach to the creatives that they have to become amateurs and give away everything for free. In the end the redistribution of resources is also a software issue that can be solved. This by no means implies that we have to go back to the old regimes of intellectual property rights.

ML: The title of your latest book is Zero Comments. Why did you choose this specific reference to the blog world?

GL: ‘Zero Comments’ is what you find underneath most blog postings. For me this is not a sign of desperation. We have to treat the Internet as a gigantic note book, a distributed notation system that we access from anywhere. We should enjoy the possibilities instead of complaining about our own futility.

I love negative book titles. They challenge the very New Age notion of book sellers that only positive phrases appeal to buyers. I believe that it should be possible to establish an essay tradition a la Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag that is not only critical but also technologically informed. You have to keep in mind that it is obligatory within IT circles to be positive. Thee is no tradition of criticism at all, like in art, literature or theatre. What I am trying to establish, together with many others, is a rich culture of concepts and references. With Adorno negative thinking moved itself into a academic one-way street. What became known overseas as ‘French’ thinking has also become hermetic. There is a constant fear amongst young researchers: do I quote enough Deleuze? Should I catch up with Babiou? This is all unnecessary noise that shuts down instead of opening up radical thinking. The quotation market is in fact not propagated by any of the mentioned thinkers, but the institutional grip on sophisticated writing is killing. With the Internet we have a unique opportunity to liberate free thinking, and experiment with new styles that can be, amongst many things, also negative in nature.

ML: In your book you formulate a theory of weblogs that goes beyond the usual rhetoric of citizens’ journalism. You write that blogs brings on decay. How?

GL: Blogs break down centralized meaning structures, in the way that ‘alternative media’ did before. In past decades independent underground press has mainly been on the progressive, left-side, but that’s no longer the case. In the USA most blogs are on the conservative side. In Holland the so-called ‘shocklogs’ dominate, populist websites that insult the left-liberal consensus. Mass media and the news industry are under scrutiny from all sides, including the popular right, Muslim activists, Christian fundamentalists and mainstream conspiracy thinkers that are, for instance, pre-occupied with 9-11.

ML: Bloggers proclaim they are alternative media makers, citizen journalists, but you contest the fact that they really challenge the mainstream media. Could you explain what makes you think so? Do blogs really produce critical information or just a cosmos of micro-opinions?

GL: As Internet and society are merging, we cannot expect that a piece of software by itself can challenge current power relations. Let’s not go there. Blogs provide us with an specific easy-to-use information architecture. It’s a piece of software that makes it easy to search for specific content. If blogging as a collective effort is subversive or rather reproduces existing power relations cannot be answered outside of ‘Zeitgeist’ context. Media technologies themselves do not bring social movements into being, which I still consider the main drivers of social change. Once the unrest is there, they can shape the protest in a certain direction, let’s say, create hit-and-run ‘smart mobs’ that grow out of the distributed, decentralized

ML: You are the co-founder of the nettime list. What is the difference between blog culture, and previous email based lists culture?

GL: Blogs are web-based and require that you are online, preferably through broadband, whereas lists are email conversations that can written in any given circumstance, in bed, on the road, in the class room, on the work floor, and so on. As more people are getting broadband this difference is becoming less significant. Most of us blog individually, this is what blogs defines, it is primarily a reflective activity of a single person, even though it perfectly makes sense to blog together. I am not saying that blogging is a product of our ‘electronic solitude’. It is often is a very social activity, as one responds to others and comments a link to other document, somewhere on the Web. Together with the US-American Jodi Dean I am currently working on a small book called Blog Theory in which we try to describe the ‘distributed subjectivity’ that blogging invokes. The fact that only a hand-full scholars studies this mass practice is something that keeps amazing me.

ML: You diagnose the nihilist impulse of blogging to empty out meaning structures, whereas others see its emancipatory potential and a vigorous counter culture? How do you define and explain this nihilism, its specificity, its very nature?

GL: We should have a bit more fun about our blog affairs! Blogging is all about ordinary people who sit down and start to ‘talk back to the media’. That’s in itself a revolutionary step. But seen from a content perspective it a tragic joke. At best users express their doubt, at worse blogs are merely reproducing the hegemony. Let’s not set blogging apart from wider trends in society. If you’re not ready for the futilities of life, then please skip blogs. If people blog they write about their everyday life, how their relationships are unfolding, share recipes, read a novel and go to a movie. Miraculously blog software invites Internet users to confess what’s up. The online diary is a peculiar, immediate mix between public and private. Thanks to Michel Foucault we know that people nowadays believe that their liberation requires them to ‘tell the truth’, to confess it to someone, a priest, psychoanalyst or weblog, and this truth telling will somehow set them free. There is a strong inner will to transparency. We cannot keep secrets well and digital equipment facilities this tendency, also called ‘self disclosure’. in an unprecedented way. Saying aloud what you think or feel, in the legacy of De Sade, is not only an option—in the liberal sense of ‘choice’—but an obligation, an immediate impulse to respond in order to be out there, with the others.

The nihilistic aspect comes in when we try to make sense of these billions of messages. From a centralized content perspective they simply have no meaning anymore. They break down the urge to get a bigger picture and lead media culture to zero (nihil). Let’s not confuse this nihilism of the late media age with 19th century breakdown of the religious grip on life. After God it is now the Media as the legitimate meaning provider that is about to die. What blogs and many other individual channels do is merely speed up this long-term historical process.

ML: When did this internet cynicism emerge? How does it manifest itself? As a response to what?

GL: Historically Internet cynicism is a response to millennium madness. In My First Recession (2003), I mapped the post-dot-com hangover. In this light, cynicism is nothing other than the discursive rubble of a collapsed belief system, cold turkey after the Market Rush, the retrospectively optimistic-innocent Clinton years of globalization. During the 1990s, at least in some parts of world, there was a popular belief that privatization could work and that slow bureaucracies could be crushed with market forces. That naive belief has gone. We do not even find it in the most hardcore neo-liberal business papers. In the same way people no longer believe anymore that Internet brings change. What it does is speeding up more of the same, resulting in a global surveillance system.

ML: You write also « We seldom find passion (in blogging). Often blogs unveil doubt and insecurity about what to feel, think, believe and like. » Do you think it is possible to overcome this nihilism?

GL: Yes, but not from within the blogging scene. There is hardly a blog scene anymore. The ‘social’ energy has moved to the so-called social networking sites, MSN chat rooms and do not forget text messaging on mobile phones. I don’t think much of the hundreds of ‘friends’ that people collect on MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook, just for the sake of creating networks. There are much more powerful concepts, for instance utilized by the primarily Dutch site Hyves, that links already networks of friends. The idea here is that the Internet enhanced existing social contacts and speeds up communication in case this is desired. In this way there is no ‘nihilism’ as the virtual structures are strongly embedded in people’s everyday life.

ML: Won’t the real luxury be 15 minutes of anonymity instead of 15 minutes of fame?

GL: Anonymity is a bourgeois dream, coming from an age when people claimed they had a ‘right to be left alone’. Literary it means not having a name, but these days it would be more handy not having a face, wearing generic eyeballs, not leaving digital traces behind. Now that’s science fiction. With the current surveillance systems in place anonymity is nothing but nostalgic notion. Hackers are right in this when they insist that privacy no longer exists. This is such a depressing thought. I revolt against the idea, but the hackers are right. Anonymity is not an absolute value anymore (and, of course, never has been a human right). Anonymity is, at best, a temporary situation that exists within the arms race between the hacker and the System. And even this could be questioned as a romantic notion. Even the strongest of cryptographic messages can be cracked. It’s all a matter of time.

ML: Should we stop blogging?

GL: Never! Technorati, a company that ranks blogs, is tracking over 100 million blogs, that’s a little under 10% of the world’s Internet population. Why stop when it has only just begun? Blogging is a mass leisure sport that emerged only in 2003-2004. The blog chapter of humankind started only a blimp ago. We all know that blogs won’t last. They are not even properly archived. Blogs will be succeeded by superior software platforms that come closer to the people’s lifestyles. If there would be less alienation in sight, we could expect to see the need for electronic communication to drop. But the human condition does not look that bright. With the overall rise in economic standards, mobility and work hours, the need for ‘computer-mediated communication’ (as it is sometimes called in academia), will only further grow. Only the rich can cease to communicate. They got their servants to do it for them. The rest, who simply cannot afford to not answer their mobile phones, will have to stay connected and blog in anger, fear and outrage. Being online is their state of ‘moderne Nervosität’ (as Freud called it). Chapeau to those who can afford to ignore cyberspace!