Towards a European Public Sphere (interview within an interview)

Questions for Geert Lovink after „Towards a European Public Space“ Vienna, November 8th 2007

Eurotopics: During the past ten years the Internet has changed dramatically. What is the role of the users in this process?

Geert Lovink: As in the case of any other product and service, the ‚customer’ can straight out reject Internet and simply not buy it. They have sufficient other communication tools, or are simply not ready for the computer age, such as the elderly and the under-fours. But that’s perhaps not what you are pointing at. Funny enough we never talk about Internet users as customers. It is amazing how clever the ‚access industry’ and later dotcom and Web 2.0 firms have been to blur the economic side of the Internet business. Is it all about ‚free’. In fact, we pay around 20-30 euros a month, as an Internet customer, but we never see this as a subscription fee, nor do we take the costs of the hardware and software into account — considered we think about the cost of internet in the first place.

Before the invention of the user-friendly World Wide Web and before ordinary people had access to the Internet around 1993, there were — strictly speaking — no users. Everyone was supposed to be a system administrator in that you had to know how to work with the Unix operating system. There were no graphic user interfaces. Everything was directly done in code, from the command line. There was little or no difference between those who ran the technical network and those who used it as infrastructure to remotely login to a computer somewhere else in another building — or continent.

In the early days of public Internet access, training and customer support were crucial. Modem banks fell out and entire Internet service providers (ISPs) went offline for hours. Once ISPs switched from dial-up to broadband, access improved. Not only became the Net much faster, it also got more reliable. This in turn made it possible to shift from the customer to the user status. Together with the Dutch designer Mieke Gerritzen Californian design critic Peter Lunenfeld has written a booklet simply called User. Lunenfeld talks about the shift away from watching to interacting. We expect activity, or ‚interpassivity’ as Slavoj Žižek and others call it. In the age of Web 2.0 everything revolves around freely available ‘user generated content’. Everyone is subjected to the economics of the amateur. Compared to a decade ago users are no longer seen as ‘eye balls’, whose attention the e-commerce and webvertisement marketeers should catch. The prime task of the user now is to generate as much user profiles as possible and roam around in other people’s networks. I wouldn’t even say that users are interesting because of the content they create. The ‘end luser’ is someone whose social media traces are being exploited.

ET: In your talk you claimed that our understanding of knowledge has changed because of the introduction of the Web. Meanwhile, many users have little or no trust in Internet sources. How may web actors achieve trustworthiness?

GL: I would encourage not trusting any information source, independent of the carrier. The lesson of the 20th century should be a massive distrust of all media messages. „Don’t trust anyone, not even me.“ Everytime we see a photograph, either in a newspaper or online, we should be aware of the ‚photofuck’ potential. In the age of Photoshop all pictures have been manipulated. That is the default, not an exception. There is no truth in images – but we knew this already. We should not project truth onto some expert, just because he or she published a book. The idea that, because someone has an academic degree, is a media celebrity or newspaper journalist, has some higher authority, and should therefore deserve our trust, is simply misleading. Instead of reproducing old knowledge hierarchies to encounter the waves of junk messages we should further increase media literacy. Widespread scepticism can overcome ignorance — as long as we turn the rejective attitude into an art of posing the right questions.

How are we going to survive the information age? By reversing the trend to disinvest in education. We have to also stop the privatization of education and turn it, again, into a vital public infrastructure. Let’s give education the strategic importance that it deserves, or otherwise shut up and even use terms such as ‚knowledge society’ anymore. Do everything you can to prevent the levels of general education to drop. Only mass reflexivity will save us. That’s different from the ‚wisdom of the crowd’. And we should not outsource the most difficult of tasks what is and what is not to be trusted. It’s madness to believe that paper can be more trusted than digital information, no? The fact that editors manipulated information should alarm us, and not calm us down.

ET: Jürgen Habermas describes the Internet as a secondary public sphere. What is your opinion on this?

GL: Habermas’ Internet description as an informal public sphere that has to submit to the higher authority of formal media such as publishing houses, newspapers and magazines, is in the end a moral judgment as to how the world should function. I am not a guru who claims world supremacy for this or that protocol. Both positions are perfectly valid. The Internet can be ‘secondary’ while becoming powerful at the same time. Keep in mind: there is nothing spectacular about networking. And this is exactly why leading intellectuals and theorists are not aware of the current power transformations. They still sit in front of the television and watch the evening news. Fine. Let’s not forget that corporations and institutions are also still in the process of adaptation. It’s hard to keep up. The introduction of computer networks within organisations over the past decade has changed workflows, but hasn’t reached the level of decision-making. In this period of transition and consolidation we get confusing answers to the question of whether ‘new media’ are part of mainstream culture, or not. In that light Habermas’ proposal is a diplomatic gesture.

ET: Media entrepreneurs like Rupert Murdoch are perceived as a threat to the freedom of media and journalism. You, on the other hand, prefer to warn about Google and its consequences. What is the difference between Murdoch and Google, and what are the risks connected to Google in specific?

GL: Who else could answer this question better than the Australian media theorist McKenzie Wark, who moved in 2000 from Sydney to New York. In the 1990s he wrote for the Murdoch newspaper The Australian. „The problem with Murdoch is that he controls the content of his media, the problem with Google is that they don’t. Google is control of media as pure form. People argue about how their algorithms rank pages, but really what’s interesting is their indifference to content. Their approach is purely vectoral. They aim to control, and hence profit from, relations between information — any information. They have an audience to sell to advertisers that is not produced by making interesting content but by connecting an audience to whatever it thinks is interesting content. They have outsourced the usual business of media companies to their own audience. It is the vacuity of media perfected as a power over nothing at all except its own mediating function.” As McKenzie indicates we see a fundamental shift here of how we define media — and media power. In the past, people were focussed on content, and used methods such as ideology criticism or discourse analysis to deconstruct the power of corporate and state media. These days we have to study the underlying architecture of networks and software.

ET: You mentioned that a European public space actually does exist on the web and that this space has the properties of an ‘Easyjet culture’. What do you mean by this?

GL: There is a lively exchange between cities, facilitated by budget airlines and pan-european SMS texting, but also highspeed trains and highways. We do not read much about it, expect in the travel supplements, about how much fun it is to wander around clubs and rave parties in Barcelona, Berlin and London. Low-cost tourism is the actual existence of Europe. Add to that the Europe of migrant workers, e.g. the imaginary space shared by all East-European workers, wherever they are. If you talk about a ‘public space’ you might have something else in mind, but I do not want to reduce the European project to officially recognized intellectuals talking about literature as a foreign relations item. It is important to move away from the old formats of ‘cultural exchange’ and include the concerns and interests of young people. Obviously we face the issue of translation in all of this. Older generations shy away from creative use of English, for instance. For them it is still a problem that English is the dominant global language. As Alex Foti from Milan says: “There is a post-national, mongrel youth emerging out of the Web, Erasmus, urban immigration in Europe. They often speak “europidgin”, a continental version of English that mixes MTV-English with local argot, and hiphop profanities coming from all the banlieues of the earth. 21st century Young Europe is radically pragmatic: English is the idiom prevalent on the Web, in business and pop culture, and young people use it creatively, unconcerned by nativist battles fought by aging politicians dependent on the nation-state and its cultural space for their power.”