Interview with Sole 24 Ore: Crushing the Web 2.0 Myths

Interview with Geert Lovink by Vito Lops
For “Sole 24 Ore” the main economic newspaper in Italy
April 21, 2006

VL: Can we say that we finished the transition from the New Economy to Web 2.0?

GL: Indeed, we have left the post-dotcom era, a relatively quiet period that gave people time to catch up with other aspects of life and develop ideas. Let’s get to the core of the Web 2.0 question: should we welcome the next round of nonsense investments? No. The problem is really not the Internet and the next generation of exciting applications. We should carefully listen to those closest to the fire, like Ed Phillips in San Francisco, who at the nettime list on March 23 2006 observed that surplus stock market money is, once again, roaming around the Bay area, looking for victims. Venture capitalists are Draculas, demolishing interesting Internet initiatives, forcing them into hyper-growth and takeovers. It’s the opposite of distributed and networked activities and their involvement only benefits the further concentration of power in the hands of Yahoo, Google and Microsoft. What is wrong is not 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”. You may look at it differently from the perspective of the individual firm but it is a fact that VC culture does not allow businesses to grow organically and develop sustainable business models. The heightened excitement only further fuels ‘swarm’ locust behavior of users, leaving behind one ghost town after the other. The big difference, however, with 1998-1999 is that many more people now understand such underlying mechanisms. There are very knowledgeable critics these days, such as Nicholas Carr and of course The Register. And for cynics there is the good old Fucked Company. And do not forget individual investors, who have not forgotten all the money they lost.

VL: Is access to the Net really free? What are the obstacles these days?

GL: User growth has been spectacular over the past years. Not many noticed but recently we’ve marked the one billion mark. That’s only 11% of the world population, others would say. That’s correct. And the next billion is going to be much harder. I remain optimistic here. There is a growing necessity for people to connect, even for the poor. The rural areas need to stay in touch with the metropolitan centre. That’s going to be the main driver of the Internet economy over the next decade. Even though I despise his ideology, Nicolas Negroponte is right on track with his 100$ computer. So are others, he is by no means the only one. It’s in the countryside where the vast majority of the world population lives. Europe and the US, all that, will grow and enter the DSL and fibreoptic age, but that’s not were the real challenge is lying. Look at projects like United Villages that connect the last miles in remote places in India and Africa. Or the spectacular growth of mobile phones and how they are used in combination with micro-credits. With the Incommunicado project last year we tried to map the ideology behind these so-called ICT for Development projects. Besides the NGOism and global civil society talk, the obstacles are mountain high. And so are the opportunities. I find it exciting, yes, and try to focus on India, China, Brazil, Nigeria. And such exchanges are going way beyond the sorry talk of outsourcing that is destroying Western jobs. The shift to South-South relations is definitely happening.

VL: On the one side we have peer to peer, blog, free software, community, etc; on the other side there are governments which controls web Information. Where is the Internet heading?

You point out two directions that happen simultaneously. On the one hand you could say, the control that is actually growing at an alarming does not really affect the free software producers, the Western bloggers and other innocent consumers of techno gadgets. It is what Brian Holmes calls the Imperial Infrastructure and we all are its global subjects. It is a subtle surveillance that so far has not yet changed people’s behavior, but might soon as things change on the larger global stage. Yet, we also know that censorship does have an effect on the way users play around with Internet features in countries like Iran and China. The result is the creation of national Internet cultures that you and I in Europe know very little about and have zero connection with, even though it is only one click away. That’s weird. There is less and less global Internet culture, if there was any to start with. The influence of English online is declining, for instance. Just read the statistics and you’ll find out. The reason for this is simple: there is a phenomenal rise of Mandarin and Spanish. Look at Japan and how inward-looking their Internet culture is–and always has been, one could say. Even though they blog like crazy and use all the latest Web 2.0 applications on a massive scale, we lack a basic understand of what is happening in their ‘blogosphere’. So there is more to it than the simple opposition freedom loving users versus evil government censors.

VL: Websurfers are now more conscious about the medium compared to some years ago. Is that a revolution?

GL: I would say they are more familiar with the Web and this makes it easier for them to halfway manage the technical flaws and info overload. Things have become easier to use. What happens is a normalization. Users integrate the use of the Web into their already very busy everyday lives. In that sense I would say that the Internet has almost entered the subconscious. If we enter a room we do not even register that there is telephone, or a television (at least, in most Western countries). This is also happening to the PC. It is no longer strange to see someone using their mobile phone. The Web is accessed through a variety of ever smaller devices. But, for instance in the case of spam and viruses only very few have an idea how to tame these plagues.

VL: Are websurfers really rewriting the Net? What time does this process needs in order to be completed?

GL: This is pure idealism, and I am an advocate of it. I live this naive notion that users have the possibility to shape the medium. So far engineers and academics have done this for them (not even business, to be honest). So, who is rewriting the Net, as you phrase it? I would say, that’s still a surprisingly small group of male, young Westerns with a growing group of developers from elsewhere. We’re not talking about the cool early adopters but about those who actually develop new applications such as writely, wiki or Wikipedia. This is no exactly an elite, and it is not the MBA crowd either. We have seen how little the dotcoms have contributed to the Net in general. They were basically parasites, both towards the tech community and towards commerce, as they did not develop new business models (with rare exceptions such as Amazon and eBay). Rishab Ghosh in Maastricht is doing interesting sociological research into this group of original coders, as I would call them.

VL: We are witnessing a strange phenomenon, e-diaries becoming specialized portal (vortal) that make business on the Net or help newspapers supplying them with news (for example the syndication between blogs or the recent deal between BlogBurst (that collects more than 600 weblogs) and some newspapers such as Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle). For that can we can say that these kinds of website create confusion into the blogosphere? One thing are blogs (in original sense of personal diaries) another are ‘vortals’ that simulate (using wrong name of the blog) the role of press agencies?

GL: I submitted my own blog to BlogBurst, just to see what happened. It was, of course, rejected as they, rightly so, did not consider it producing news items that are of use for mainstream US-American newspapers. We all can imagine what kind of blog they would consider worthwhile to include. First of all, none of them would be from outside the USA or in a non-English language. That’s completely outside of their range. Then it would be those who argue against the ‘liberal biased news monopoly’ a la Instapundit as they form the majority of the US American Technorati bloggers. Then all those have to be already high up in the food chain of the A-list, the most well-read bloggers on the so-called A-list. And last but not least, all of those have to operate within a growing list of blogging requirements. They have to be ‘snarky’ and cynical and write 250 words pieces at the time. They can’t do investigative journalism because that would be too dangerous. But they won’t. In the end, they are just frustrated white males living out their ethnic anxieties. A pretty small and non-representative group, isn’t it? But they are well organized when it comes to their Web visibility. It’s linking that counts. Many Europeans are still reluctant to put their material online, let alone that they start linking to each other. To maximize your blog is a pretty labor intensive job.
VL: Do you think it’s now a good moment to formulate a general network theory?

GL: It is true that network theorization have been scattered over a variety of disciplines. If you want to go back in time, sociology has dealt with networks for decades. Actor Network Theory has been around for a while and Bruno Latour has made a successful attempt lately to summarize its findings in his Reassembling the Social (2005). Literature historians and humanities scholars write up their case studies how the train and electricity networks has interacted with the human psyche. There are the American pop science books of Watts, Surowiecki, Johnson and Barabasi that all transport mathematical snippets of knowledge into the social realm. Then there are Net critics and new media theorists like me. And do not forget the fascinating social network analysis maps that visualize massive amounts of data and, for instance, relate one news item, or person, to clouds of similar data crumbs. Over all this hovers the Internet. With the rise of the ‘network society’ (a concept so exclusively tied to Manuel Castells) we can only expect that there is a growing market for easy to digest network theory which will link social and technological research findings. Interested? Hop on and become the next Malcolm Gladwell. But get a New York agent first, OK?

VL: Speaking about communities, what evolution do you imagine for next years? Will there be a Web 3.0?

GL: There will be more colors and shapes of the social, in a way that we may not have envisioned in the nineties. It is going to be crowded out there, with people searching everything you can possibly imagine (but most of all dating partners). The Internet is not going away, so yes, there will be more ups and downs. However, TV also stabilized after some point, technologically speaking and only growths further in terms of add revenues and genre. As I already indicated, the nationalization of the Net is only a matter of time, and in fact has already happened. In that sense it would be interesting to developed explicitly cosmopolitarian projects. Ever worked with people from all continents? I tried last year and it was a unique but also very difficult process. The blockades of the West to communicate with Africans was shocking.

VL: Concerning artists, how can such communities distribute power on the Net?

GL: In my next book I have a chapter about the current crisis of ‘new media arts’. That’s a 30-40 years old genre of experimental art perhaps only few people have heard about. I am quite skeptical about most as it tried in a cheap way to ride the avant garde wave but that didn’t work as it had nothing for sale. There was nothing to commodify or feel cool out. Galleries and museums didn’t buy it, in the way the engaged with video. Perhaps it all needs time. Whereas a decade ago there was at least a tiny group of artists working on net politics, that’s now all gone. Artists do contribute to social software, open source, wifi and all that, but no longer is their work presented as art. Maybe that’s better for all. Artists and designers remain to do very interesting work in our field, but they are no longer seen as gurus with a message.

VL: What do you think about the role of software in the circulation of cyberculture?

GL: Compared to 10-15 years ago, the role of software has indeed increased. The awareness has risen and so has the possibility to use free software and adjust your own code. This all thanks to the free software movement. However, this FLOSS world is so incredibly odd, it is such a male mono culture. Only 1% is female. The boys are happy and harmless in their tinkering and have no intention at all to change their culture. Time and again, I am surprised how little has changed over the past decade when it comes to the social-gender composition of those who produce the highly interesting stuff. It is culture, not technology that is the main obstacle why FLOSS has so far reached only such small group in society.

VL: Finally, is it possible to think of a virtual world?

GL: How nineties of you to ask! You got such a beautiful country, why this desire to drift away? I know, in particular for the young ‘precariats’ Italy is not much fun. All the more reason to escape in cyberspace, one would think. Still, the virtual world you envision is really nothing else than the factory or the office, the school or family living that you run away from. Give up you all hope if you enter–and enjoy. No, serious, I think the virtual is an identity tredmill, a place to work out bodily exercises (including brain gym). I see it as the new work place, as something only the rich in mind and mentality free themselves of. The most luxurious moments are offline. The other poor suckers have to be online.