Interview for M/C Review

Interview with Geert Lovink By Graham Meikle, for M/C Review: Original: Media theorist and Internet critic Geert Lovink has been involved in an impressive number of cybercultural interventions. A former editor of Mediamatic, Lovink is a co-founder of Amsterdam’s Digital City project, the Next Five Minutes conference series, and the nettime mailing list. He has recently relocated from Amsterdam to Canberra.

GM: The title of this issue of M/C Reviews uses the term “alternative media”, but I know you don’t like to use this label any more. Could you explain what you think the problem is with the term “alternative media”? GL: In general, the term “alternative” has been a troublesome term over the last decades. The phrase has lost its power, if it ever had any. Being alternative, coming up with alternative concepts and policies, is a meaningless gesture these days. Everyone has to do it: it’s required in all management courses. Alternative has been effectively reduced to style. In the media context, this means that we can no longer sell a certain forum (Website, radio station, zine) as subversive or even revolutionary. It will have the immediate danger of being turned into a fashion, a lifestyle item. This tendency towards branding and commodification of criticism poses a serious dilemma for all those who are opposing the powers that be. Even the possibility of dissent has been taken away: not by repression or integration, but by emptying all forms of culture altogether. This is why serious opposition these days has to be on the run. GM: How does this relate to other terms which you’ve used in your writing, such as tactical, hybrid, and streaming media? GL: The term tactical media, proposed in 1992 (see is one such approach. It emphasises the use of new technologies, temporary coalitions between artists, designers, activists, theorists and critics who are working both inside and outside the mainstream media. Hybrid media refers to the ever unfinished patchwork of platforms and standards, which, though converging, are creating disconnection and dysfunctionalities, also within the Internet and the digital realm as such. Hybridity as the a priori of technical communication is also a political statement against attempts to create monomedia in which all data and standards are subordinated under one powerful signifier — the wet dream of the advocates of convergence. Peter Lunenfeld, in his book Snap to Grid states that a defining quality of digital media is its “aesthetic of unfinish”. I think that’s correct.Streaming media was introduced to counter the top-down, push-media approach behind WebTV. It’s a wonderfully vague concept, with lots of open ends and still undiscovered possibilities, mainly on the software and interface side. The Panta Rei [“everything flows”] take on media is slightly naïve, of course, but can have interesting creative and even subversive potential (see: pirate radio). The fight for the right to broad/Webcast on the Net has only begun. These are the golden days of and mp3, which can easily be killed or marginalised as happened in the past. For the time being, everyone should just start streaming, from anything, anyway, and see what happens. Digital equipment is in the hands of millions, all of the potential producers. It is up to society, our (media) culture and politics to encourage this. Or frustrate, which is more likely to happen. It is in the interest of both the industry and the state to turn the rising class of ‘prosumers’, the ‘consumeriat’, as the Swedish theorist Alexander Bard calls them, back into tamed citizens, who will only buy and shut their mouths, careful not to leave any digital traces somewhere on a server.

GM: This emphasis on streaming raises the question of bandwidth. A widespread assumption is that megamergers like AOL/Time-Warner prefigure an era in which, while we may have access to a lot of s coming at us, the response channel may be a lot smaller. A broadcast model, in other words. But bandwidth access doesn’t appear to have become a major activist cause as yet. How significant do you expect this issue to become in net politics? GL: In general there is not much media-specific activism, funnily enough. The few things, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and some other privacy lobby groups, remain exceptions. Little independent research is being done in the area of new media. Most activists, for good reasons, are focussed on environmental issues, labour rights and gender. Not on technology or new media. This also counts for the cultural studies industry. They are all captured within their own eighties paradigms. It will take a long time until a new generation of activists, researchers and academics will be able to proactively be involved in the IT-New Economy media sector. Let’s hope that the baby boomers will be kicked out of their secure jobs. I do not see any other option. A palace revolution. Massive closures of universities. Something. If nothing happens, we have to wait at least until 2015 until anything has changed. In the meantime, net politics will be defined by completely different players, such as the young hackers, whether we like it or not. GM: The Society for Old and New Media in Amsterdam, where you were based until recently, is organising its third annual Browserday for May 19, a design contest for new web interfaces. Like the Mongrel search engine, which is designed to question the assumptions built into other search engines,Browserday appears to be about calling attention to the social/cultural values which are built into computer interfaces. Underlying this is the assumption that these technologies are, of course, not neutral, but have intrinsic politics as a result of their design and societal shaping. Could you comment on this? GL:The series of International Browserdays is first and foremost a competition for media art and design students. It is explicitly not called Web design or multi-media. We believe designers and many other professions have been left out in the design process of machines literally hundreds of millions of people are using daily, both at work and for entertainment. The silliness of most graphic user interfaces is staggering. A crime against humanity, I would almost say.GM: What would be an example of something you see as a particularly bad interface? GL: Both Windows and Apple Mac GUIs [Graphical User Interfaces], I would say. I have no idea what the good reputation of Apple is based upon these days. They have done innovative work in the past, yes. But that was 15 years ago. Now they are as boring as Microsoft in their dogmatic use of the desktop office metaphor. Another tragedy is Netscape. A more recent example would be the mediaplayers. They will quickly have the same reputation as VHS recorders when it comes to userfriendliness and overall design. They look like machineguns, copy-pasted from some boyish shootup game.
13 In part this is related to the still dominating culture of engineers. The rise of the IT-business has not really changed this, which to me says something about the poverty of business culture, but anyway… I am not blaming the geeks here for their non-existent visual sensibility. It is a matter of management in IT-firms, long-term research, and of education. That’s why the Browserday starts at schools. We have the naïve idea that programmers, designers and business can team up in order to develop innovative, competitive, quality products which challenge the organised stupidity of most US-American software (and its copies). We think that a technological culture can be truly polydisciplinary, shaped by all, not just consumed. Perhaps this is all too much of a European idea. Euros can be cocksure and have this fatal tendency to fail. But why not try instead of just adapting? GM: In a recent essay on the nettime list (“Cyberculture in the Age of Dotcom Mania”) you suggested that much writing about cyberculture is still rooted in ideas whose time has passed: things like identity fluidity, or the virtual community of text-based interaction. So, what kinds of knowledge about cyberculture do we need now? GL: I am on a crusade to increase what I call “economic competence”. Any kind of business is a good one, because it will give you a good inside view on how big Websites are being operated and what it means to get millions of clicks on your site each day. Economics is boring, I know. And I should reject it being an anarchy-pragmatist. But I don’t. If we still have the naïve idea that an open and diverse cyberculture can somewhat influence the course technology is taking, we now have to start up businesses and pollute the concepts used under the umbrella of the term New Economy. I have the feeling that we are running out of time. Soon the Net will be a closed mass medium with little or no room for new players. But we can then begin to build parallel networks, underground systems, somewhere in the margins. Wonderful subcultures will blossom, so please do not become depressed. There is still enough time to create parallel, independent infrastructures in which cyberculture can re-invent itself.