Interview with Geert Lovink

For Bard College Journal

AR: In one of your articles you wrote “media=war.” What role does the internet play in this new war against terrorism? Is it a battle zone?

GL: The media equals war equation is an important premise of contemporary media theory. Paul Virilio and Friedrich Kittler are perhaps the most well known advocates of this conceptual framework. For me this insight is first of all a paradigm, a specific way of looking at the mediated world and its technologies. In media theory one can wear different pairs of glasses and the media=war is a particularly strong one (in terms of negative numbers). However, I do not believe it is a general ‘theory of everything’. It is a hermeneutic theory, interested in (invisible and material) roots, not in appearances.

If we read the theories more carefully we will find out that they point at a boost of inventions of new tools, not so much at the more classic use of media as tools for propaganda and surveillance. War is accelerating the development of avant-garde technologies which otherwise would have come to us much slower or in different ways. To answer your question concerning the role of the Internet. No, I do not think that the Internet is playing any decisive role in this war. There is no battle what’s however. I see a strong need for critical analysis. It is too early for battles. I would even doubt that television is playing such an important role. The ‘war on terrorism’ has not reached a new level of mediation. The reporting on 911 and the start of the ‘war’ has been intense but has not reached a new level. Perhaps there was too much ‘reality’ to cope with, with an enemy which is by and large invisible. As was the case during the Kosovo crisis the ‘other’ side by and large remains silent and, for a variety of reasons, does not have access to the latest media technologies (or doesn’t want to communicate with the ‘imperial’ tools.

There are no bin Laden hackers, Taliban websites and very few people which openly defend these policies. OK, there are very few channels expressing different opinions but they are not strong enough to unleash an info war. The info war has to come from within, particularly from inside the USA, from a strong and diverse anti-war movement, as was the case during the Vietnam years. I do not believe that this is all matter of censorship. The ‘other’ is not so silenced, their opposition is operating on a different level altogether, way beyond the level of media and its theories. I don’t think this situation can be changed by a ‘correct’ representation of Islam. We are not talking about a misunderstanding here which could be resolved by talking or negotiations.

AR: There has been open co-operation between TV media and government since the attacks. Network executives agreed not to air unedited bin Laden tapes, although they discredited the U.S. stance that Bin Laden may be using TV to convey secret messages. One executive said, “The videos could also appear on the Internet. They’d get the message anyway.” Can or will the Internet replace the role of TV as the primary source for information?

GL: I doubt such a theory. It presumes that Bin Laden and other fundamentalist groups are interested to fight a propaganda war as defined by today’s PR firms. This is not the case. Bin Laden first of all addresses his own constituency, not to the global media. His attacks are highly symbolic. As a PR-strategist Bin Laden would lose the info war and he must be well aware of this. To censor tapes is part of a paranoid climate in which every message, every object or gesture can have dangerous intentions or contain secret, unknown messages. I don’t think the US-authorities think that its population unconsciously would be open for Bin Laden arguments (presumed he has any).

AR: Is the net dangerous? Can it be the target of a “terrorist” attack?

GL: The terrorists are inside the Net, not outside. You and me are the “terrorists”. I really believe that the Internet-as-such will become a victim of this crisis. The main aim of the media establishment now is to neutralize the Net by eliminating those forces who are working on decentralized, democratic systems. The time of the Net as a parallel dream world is long over. This is why those who are developing peer-to-peer networks are very likely to become targets, not those who support Bin Laden (who do not exist in the first place on the Net). The issue is civil liberty within the USA, not the repression of some weird media content from outside the West. The enemy is within, like in the case of 911.

AR: Or will it be the target of governments? There has always been a movement from governments to “regulate” or control the internet. Do you think this war will further legitimize that curtailment of civil liberties? One server in the U.S. was shut down by the government hunting for terrorist leads. Is the shutting down of internet service providers, both for economic and “national security reasons” going to seriously impede the flow of information?

GL: No, of course not. Quite the opposite. This is what AOL-TimeWarner, EchoStar, Microsoft and all the other media convergence industry leaders have been dreaming about. For them there can only be a ‘safe’ next generation Internet if government authorities have enough power and legitimacy to not only come up with tough legislation but actually shuts down ‘dissent’ servers, arrests hackers, scares off youngers from fiddling around with code etc. With or without 911 this security paradigm was going to become the next stage of the Internet. Otherwise there wasn’t going to be much e-commerce and e-business anyway. Now the interesting part of this story is to see how the leftovers of the New Economy are responding to this trend. On the one hand they need government support to bring the tech sector back on track., The defensive position of the techno-libertarians is interesting. I find their confusion rather amusing but the trend is whole is of course anything but amusing.

AR: What do you see as the fundamental problems facing the net as a vehicle for information? Is it accountable to anyone? Does it really reach the widest demographic? How does it remain a largely western phenomenon? What are its weaknesses?

First of all, I never believed that the Internet was a global media. From the start it has been firmly in the hands of governments (with the US at number 1). It is a techno-libertarian dream to think that the Internet can rout around national borders. The Net is a medium firmly in the hand of US-government agencies. To a lesser extend other national governments have sovereignty over their own part of the Net. No one had serious objections against these (invisible) last instances. This is why the Net could develop such a global ‘cloud’ around its core. The attempts to formulate and practice a democratic form of global governance (unrelated to national agencies) and formalize this global dream haven’t seriously started. The issue of ownership and governance has first to be defined before we can start talking about accountability. I don’t see the Net as something particularly Western.

I don’t believe in the story of the Digital Divide either. The Net is a very effective and cheap medium for the poor to communicate. The poor are not victims of a lack of technology (or representation for that matter). That’s not the issue for me. The rising inequality within the USA, within the rich countries and on a world scale is not related to the communication issue. Let’s not turn the phenomena upside down. I do not believe that poverty can be solved with the Net. It’s certainly useful but technology is not able to reverse the speed in which inequality is growing. Please let’s not expect too much. What is really important for me in this context is the question of the future of the nation state, our ability to redefine politics outside of the Nationstate Inc. and the issue how we’re going to define—and shape—the public sphere. That’s not so much a problem as it is an enormous challenge, one that so many of us are struggling with: how can a public realm be defined after the bankruptcy of the welfare state and its corrupted agencies? It is interesting to see that there is a longing for a return of strong government. But that whole concept has to be defined first before we can talk about implementation.

A interventionist state cannot be run by neo-liberal Reaganists. Or… perhaps they can. Look at Eastern Europe. Who would have thought that the ‘transition’ to the ‘market economy’ in most countries would be managed by former communists? In that light we could perhaps better understand why republicans could well become the better New Dealers… There is not much we can expect from Third Way politicians either. They are effectively neo-liberals when it come to the Net and their cold cynicism is shocking. They are moralists, if you look at Blair, refusing to act strategically. So the fundamental problem I see a lack of agencies at the higher level. I am not pessimistic at all about the grassroots level.

AR: A recent Village Voice article wrote about the role net-hackers could play by helping track down the terrorists. A) What do you think that role is, and B) how will a potential co-operation between government and net actors change the direction of internet innovations?

GL: Hackers have been tracing down other hackers from the very beginning. There is nothing new about this co-operation with government agencies. Maybe this is not so well known. The hackers community since the mid eighties has been closely monitored by the intelligence community. This has been the case in the US, Europe and elsewhere. It’s a complex relationship and will certainly be different from person to person. One of the reason for this is the non-political nature of most of the hackers. They do not define themselves in term of opposition. They are not dissidents, they are playing around with technology and that’s dangerous enough. This is going back to the military-secrecy and the scarcity of computers. We have to keep in mind that historically hackers are those who open systems. In my view that’s a heroic and at the same time necessary activity. Authorities have responded in an ambitious way. They need hackers as much as they want to rid of them. There is an element of spying and conspiracy attached to it, specially if you enter the terrain of cryptography. For decades people like me have been waiting for a ‘political’ generation of hackers but that has been in vain. There is a growing political awareness visible within free software circles but by and large hackers remain long boys, slightly under the influence of techno-libertarianism.

AR: At Bard you gave a presentation on net-activism. Have net activists been effective in their campaign since September 11?

GL: There hasn’t been much (net) activism after 911. This is a time to reconsider goals and means. The Seattle movement has faced its turning point in Genoa in August, before 911. There is a global recession under way. A huge battle is taking place over the Greenhouse effect and the Kyoto treaty. The anti-war movement hasn’t been all that big (with the exception perhaps of Italy, but that has more internal reasons). I think broad anti-war movement can only come into existence when military operations take months and months, or even years. This is no longer the case and this makes mobilization of broad parts of the population much more difficult. Activism on the Net can of course be much more faster, and flexible, but then again, its effects will also big rather small. The net activism which works best is still one which is closely tied to similar struggles on the streets.

AR: Do you think the element of net-activism that relies on disruption will continue to be at all effective?

GL: We are only witnessing the very beginnings of what electronic civil disobedience can be. A lot needs to be invented at that level.

AR: How would you define globalization? Is it inevitable?

GL: I don’t like the broad, historical definitions. It’s a truism that globalization started in Mesopotamia or Egypt, six thousands or so years ago. Of course the Portuguese, Dutch and English empires realized their versions of globalization. For me globalization is a very specific ideological construct of the nineties: the “golden straight jacket” (Friedman), brutal privatization, destruction of public sphere, declining wages, child labor etc. The so-called free-trade politics have been devastating and have become visible after Seattle and are now, after 911, even more under attack. But we shouldn’t be too optimistic. There are not yet global social movements to speak of which can really make a difference. The NGO-model of unelected bureaucratic lobbyists is undermining the growth of really new social and political formations. They are products of the cold war period of the sixties and should first wear off before we can see the rise of something else. The current models such a is too weak to really replace the NGOs.

AR: Has the role of the state changed since Sept. 11? If so, how? What forces or actors are challenging the power of the state?

GL: It’s a bit early to say that. Don’t forget we are in mixed situation now. There is not only 911, there is also a global economic recession which won’t be over soon. It could very well become a long flat recession such as the one in Japan. The Japanese crisis wasn’t solved with more government. There have be other measures. But any step to hold off further privatization should of course be welcomed. However, does that create new form of public infrastructure? Will social justice, education and new media infrastructure be improved? Or will a strong government only bail out large corporations?

AR: Is there such a thing as a “net-citizen”? If so, how does globalization impact the structure of the state – for instance, is it likely to lead to more democracies, or more dictatorships, or more socialism?

GL: It is funny that you use the word socialism. What’s at stake on the long term is to redefine the role of state. I am arguing for experiments of socialism outside of the state. How could forms of ‘the public’ be thought outside of state control? The state (or federal) level is severely corrupted by corporate thinking. After decades of neo-liberalism many state agencies are run like corporations. In my view they can only collapse, and go bankrupt if you wish. They are beyond repair, so to say. They can’t be reformed. The question really is to what extend we can go back to a 60s/70s welfare state model. To answer this question we can’t really trust those of the 68-generation. That’s another major obstacle. This generation is politically bankrupt for me. They have first supported neo-liberalism and their nostalgic move back to the national social welfare state (mixed with moral forms of repression). In this climate it is hard to think of global governance. The ‘netizen’ is still a somewhat tragic clownesque figure, the universal tourist so to say, a nostalgic, romantic movement longing for ‘world peace’, ruled by a ‘world government’. I would love to see much analysis of already existing institutions and initiatives in this respect. Let’s start with an evaluation of the United Nations. Not a small task. Or the question of global justice and the workings of international courts. And from there move on to the Internet and see how ICANN and other Internet bodies function. On the basis of such analyses we could then build new experiments and trials. It is much too early now to come up with true alternatives to the nation state.

AR: Who or what are the most important non-state actors? Has this changed since September 11? How do non-state actors shape globalization?

GL: Let’s reverse your question. What did nation states contribute? Not much. Most of what is called globalization is driven by non-state actors, outside of our visibility, lacking any form of transparancy and legitimacy. It don’t see this changing very much any time soon.