An Exchange with Molly Hankwitz

For the Globalization issue of Mesh

Molly Hankwitz speaks to Geert Lovink…

This interview/exchange came about due to a few new publications from The Society for Old and New Media which have included provocative interviews and exchanges between Geert Lovink and other players in the networks. Given that globalization is a dominant trend and that Geert travels a great deal listening, teaching and talking to artists and thinkers the world over, it seemed apt to raise a discussion with him regarding “the globe” –and its cyber-populations…

MH: There is a statement made by digital art critic Lev Manovich in an exchange you had with him recently regarding the avant-garde. “The new avant-garde is no longer concerned with seeing or representing the world in new ways but , rather, with accessing and using previously accumulated media in new ways. In this respect, new media is post-media or super media: it uses old media as its primary material.” The idea of the avant-garde itself has been challenged by numerous post-modernists, feminists and critics from non-western cultures as being exclusionary, too white, too male, etc. Do you believe that there is a new avant-garde and, if so, where is it? What hopes are there for an avant-garde to broaden its spectrum and become more inclusive and multicultural in its thinking?

GL: The list of obstacles along the road towards this avant-gardism is so huge, and depressing, that I’ve come to believe that this whole notion of avant-garde inside the IT-sector is a pure negative utopia. An anti-concept rather than something which is already there, in essence. I think most of the new media artists, activists and critics are driven by a tremendous idealism, to storm the virtual media Bastille’s of our time, perfectly aware how futile these efforts are.

I am sure that the imaginary avant-garde, suppose it existed, would be multicultural. It would consist of people from different continents and cultures, which is also the case in Silicon Valley at this moment. We all know that this is a meaningless form of diversity, problems are even getting worse. The amount of women working as programmers is going down. The more powerful geek culture is getting, the more disgusting I am starting to find it. Its lack of self-referentiality. Its triumphant self-righteousness. Maybe this is because I have just finished Pauline Borsook’s “Cyberselfish”, an accurate, though historical account of the libertarian male monoculture which, in my view is still defining the architecture, moral system, the whole look and feel of new media, from Internet to game culture.

I consider myself very much part of the hackers and cyberculture. Ten years later, after the first hype of VR and the Net, I amazed how little has actually changed in the attitude, how slow people in that industry have grown up, moved on, opened up, yes, in particular to other cultures, the ones next door, they don’t have to travel to Tibet to get a different experience. It’s all there, especially in California. I don’t need to tell you this. Geek culture as we know it has an amazing ability to replicate without mutating, in cultural terms. In that sense we need any kind of new direction, away from the boys and toys culture.

MH: The boys and toys digital “revolution” in the dominant literature and advertising is predictable, annoying. Underserved communities are still trying to get connected, more women are back working in the home because of the Net, it is estimated. Artists are still working often at great expense, depending on which country they are from, with poor tools. Any seeming egalitarianism is mostly wealthy American and European access and privilege. It is an illusion.

GL: The white box, as we know it, comes with a culture, a specific mode of logic, written in the code, silly interfaces, the primitive keyboard, up to straight forward neo-liberal ideas attached to slogans about “freedom” of such tricky, “cool” facilitators as yahoo! or even AOL.

MH: Do you see more projects which increase access and skills for under-represented groups? What types of spaces would you form? What are the important points of learning being made to achieve increased diversity and access in global media?

GL: The media labs, which are now founded on the fringes of the new economy, built on the ruins of what was once thriving state sponsored culture, will hopefully do more then just color up the existing Internet. Let’s not dismiss different strategies here. Access is important and the start of everything which might come later on. The fight for inclusion and education is invaluable. For me, the story starts on the level of operating systems, open source software, designed user interfaces, decentralised “peer to peer” networks. It is on that basic level where we most need radically different approaches, which can then have a lasting impact. In order for this to happen we need a variety of media labs (and non-local working groups) which can start experimenting, outside of the pressure of the market, even outside of the “arts” system. We’re talking fundamental research here, not about quickly putting some scripts in order to quickly come up with a product or artwork.

MH: How do you see this research in relation to global media? What should artists be looking for? Is it simply a matter of getting the up-to-date-gadgets with which to work?

GL: I would emphasise the democratisation of technology. With the exception of some 3D virtual reality systems, like the CAVE, most of the ‘state of the art’ work is done on personal computers with a reasonable price tag. Even digital video editing, a field which had been rather expensive and exclusive (AVID) or complicated if you had opted for a cheaper, Mac-based system like Media100. Of course there is still a lot of horse power necessary to render Hollywood-level animation sequences, but even there we see dramatic changes. I love today’s limitations at the level of realtime video streaming, not to mention the video aesthetic of cell phones, which is basically back to ASCII. That’s the irony of technological progress. As soon as a sophisticated level is within reach, we are doing two steps back and starting all over again, thanks to the dominance of the hardware industry.

MH: Do you see any anti-technology tropes around?

GL: I don’t expect a sudden rise in anti-tech. We are actually just leaving an anti-tech era which was dominated by anxieties in response to silly sales talk and ignorant media and politicians who refuse to address real issues in new media such as surveillance, cryptography and corporate power. People are taking tech in their own hands, it is out of control, but not in the way Kevin Kelly spoke about it. I am talking about civil society here, which now has serious means to tame both state and corporate power.

MH: Are you referring to the open protests in the US? The September 2000 protests S11 in Melbourne? What kind of culture do you mean?

GL: A lively and diverse third culture, a public sphere not owned or ruled by either state or corporations. The least thing in the immediate future citizens, artists, activists can do is to create such an in-between media culture. We are not talking revolution here. If possible this public media culture would consist of as much hardware and telecom infrastructure as possible. I know some will not agree with this approach. It should, of course, be contextualized and innovative content which counts. Not just channels. But funnily enough in most Western countries access to the pipes is indeed the problem. How to get onto cable, how to get a citizen’s satellite channel, a plain old local FM frequency (worth millions of dollars these days), sharing streaming media servers up to cybercafes where specific social groups can get the skills to upload their vital content. All that. I wish the access problems were solved. We sometimes may think they are, living in such a rich media environment. It is a seductive thought, to think that from now on only content matters. That’s wishful thinking, a vital utopian promise. Still the current protests in the US and beyond do have this aspect, having produced a two hour daily (web) TV show put out via satellite, including a news site, radio shows, print newspaper. The news is really going out now. Dissent is no longer the isolated phenomena (seen in mainstream media) of some life-style youngsters; it is touching, real…

MH: Or the “live” news reports that Dee Dee Halleck did recently during the Republican convention in Philadelphia (August 2000). She’s a grand dame of alternative media and this was a first! How will streaming media will fit into the global picture? Will it be restricted? I know there is a bandwidth problem, but 5 years ago there was a memory problem.

GL: And in 5 years we will have a copyright problem. The recent call in Australia to regulate streaming media in the same way as any other broadcasting channel should be seen as a global wake-up call. The attempt to legislate netcasting was quickly withdrawn but still there are already numerous issues related to artist fees, etc. Some years ago, a few thousand listeners to a site was seen as a technical achievement and a considerable financial effort. Now big oldline broadcasters are buying up seamless bandwidth, serving a next to unlimited audience. Streaming is still not that cheap, especially if you compare it to pirate radio, distributing cassettes or having a regular homepage. It is all about who is first and who will set the rules. At least, that’s the digital Darwinist business philosophy. I think we are entering the short summer of streaming, a temporary autonomous zone of global wildcasting. Until restriction sets in. “The same as it ever was.” Until the fight for freedom starts again, on unknown, not yet occupied levels.

MH: Well, apparently, under some repressive governments, Indonesia at least, the thought police are 2-3 years behind those using the Internet for activism and dissent. The military there is slow to perform simple tasks and don’t take the power of the internet seriously, so the mice play while the cat is away! Technological toys are morphing so rapidly that the turn over is unpredictable and new inventions are here but access is limited, so old technology has to be used. In modernity it’s all happening simultaneously.

GL: Yet, the image of crusty old state and corporate structures versus the flexible, ever changing, chaotic, holistic enterprise is not a correct one. Like all powerful myths which appeal to everyone’s imagination, the stubborn Stalinist central committee/IBM-ITT-GM CEO is a powerful one. It is a seductive thought to think that we’ve gone from the top-down to the bottom-up approach, while leaving the Cold War behind. This is obviously not the case. State and corporate structures have, to a certain extent, become more flexible, but not more transparent, or even smaller. We do not have to believe today’s management theories. The same applies to civic use of computer networks. The current lead of Internet activists is a relative one and needs to be constantly renewed in order not to repeat itself. This requires a real, and shared, drive for creative innovation, both in a social and technical sense.

There is not much difference between the activist and the “guerilla marketing” types. Hit and run, though, implies that there are brief moments of attack and long periods of hiding. There is no permanent media presence, not even for Greenpeace. Let’s look into the never-finished project of modernity with its technologies which are never given the possibility to grow into a stage of stable maturity. The permanent stage of tinkering comes with a prize. Not just that of the “global accident”, which Paul Virilio tirelessly reminds us of. I wonder what would happen if people would proclaim a moratorium on the further development of computer hard- and software.

Certainly, we would see much more recycling happening, not just of hardware but also of brilliant software, which is now disappearing without further notice. Ideally this would imply that society could focus on other levels of deficit, not just on the further acceleration of communication between humans, objects, and the world. Not such a utopian idea if you think of the automobile and the television set, which did not fundamentally change over the last decades. They were merely “used”. Of course, with the drop of the price and capacity of the chips this phase of relative stability has ended. Still, there is no indication that Moore’s law is a) still in place and b) should last forever.

MH: Can we say that globalization is another historic shift, as was industrialization? Our cities, for example, are postindustrial, now. They are ‘digital cities’ are they not?

GL: First and foremost digital cities are conceptual. They are products of a productive metaphorical misunderstanding. There is a discussion on the nettime mailing list called “there is no place in cyberspace”. Intellectually, it is liberating to state that place doesn’t matter. We all know it matters, but that doesn’t matter. Power is organized in a spacial way, no matter where it is, real or virtual. The shift in the Western discourse from material production to knowledge is also an attractive idea for an intellectual class which has lost its hegemonic status. The same can be said of becoming “postindustrial”. All these motives suck people into something which is being portrayed as seductive and fatal, unavoidable. What can you say about “globalization” if it is presented to us as a meta-level historical process? It is like being against the Middle Ages. It all depends how people shape events, in our case, how they design their mediascapes. The critical discourse about globalization has been too responsive and defensive, in my view. The old school eighties NGO’s are too dominant and do not take the younger generations into account even though they actually make up the majority of the current “Seattle” movement. Let’s reclaim the globe and forget the globalization agenda of big corporations and their governmental slaves.

MH: Yes, I’m all for it. Thanks, Geert.

Molly Hankwitz is a curator, activist, architect, media writer and artist born in the United States, based in Brisbane, Australia.