Interview with Geert Lovink

For the Release of Dark Fiber

With the highly-regarded and well-used nettime mailing list, Geert Lovink established himself as one of the few, true leaders of sober, useful Net criticism (a discourse he in effect co-founded). Now, with Dark Fiber: Tracking Critical Internet Culture (MIT Press, 2002) and the forthcoming Uncanny Networks: Dialogues With the Virtual Intelligentsia (Leonardo Books, 2003), he further expands his vision where others have fallen silent. Finally, with the end of the dotcom hand-waving, comes a voice for all of the fissures in the facade.

Lovink is one part activist, one part visionary and two parts critical thinker. Peter Lunenfeld calls him ‘one of the great ones,’ and Dark Fiber proves it with insight, street cred and wit to boot: a truly brilliant book by a truly brilliant guy.

frontwheeldrive: The openness (the ability for most anyone most anywhere to participate) of the Web has been one of its most touted aspects. You contend that this ‘openness’ is being cut off by corporate interests. Could you briefly explain how you see this coming to pass?

Geert Lovink: For most corporations the user is a consumer that needs to monitored, and, if possible, lured to buy something. This is a fundamentally different attitude from the user as ‘netizen’, which is primarily seen as a producer. A good example of this are the weblogs and other open publishing tools. This silent revolution has not been developed by commercial entities. The new architecture of the Internet is treating users by default as thread. Lately I’ve noticed that one can no longer switch on a terminal of some network and open a telnet session. Firewalls simply do not allow anymore to use this basic application. I do not want to blame the demise of the open Internet on corporations only. Governments all over the world are acting as willing executors of corporate interests. Everyone is paranoid these days. Remember, it is American IT companies who help the Chinese government to censor and monitor their part of the Internet. Apparently they are more then happy to do the job. This sad fact proves that Gilmore’s law, which says that the Internet is treating censorship as damage and will route around it, no longer works. ISPs are storing traffic data of their users, ready to hand them over to federal investigators. This is happening all over the world. I wonder how many of us are aware of this. In the meanwhile, the official Internet ideology still talks about cyber freedom, as if nothing has changed. I guess at some point these contradictions can no longer be covered up.

What’s really going on with blogging and collaborative text filtering that makes these areas so conceptually vibrant? This seems to be emerging as the next major focus of the study of the evolution of Web use.

Weblogs are bringing the issue of open publishing and collaborative filtering to the next level. Weblogs are so much more sophisticated, compared to the relatively primitive, linear email-based, mailing-list software. There is a constant threat of information overload, these days. People don’t surf anymore. For good reasons they have high demands on the quality of computer-mediated communication. However, they do not want to hand over their online freedom. This is the background why open publishing tools such as weblogs have taken off so much. Users want to have a greater say about the information they receive and send out. Yes, they want read carefully edited pieces and have reliable information on their screens. But at the same time they do not want to give away the control over the medium entirely to commercial Web portals. It’s a fine line and software is playing an increasingly important role in the delicate balancing act between the Internet as a professional medium and an open environment where everyone has a say.

You’re the first person I’ve heard make mention of the fact that the ‘New Media’ won’t always be new. Labeling seems to have quite a lot to do with the development of critical theory. With everything still on the move (even in our post-dotcom era), Net critique is still scrambling to describe and analyze its subject(s). Where should these energies be focused?

In his late work Marshall McLuhan formulated the Laws of Media. By now everyone should be aware of them. There are cyclical movements, from mythology and hype to the creation of a market, followed by a mass acceptance and the subsequent ‘disappearance’ of the technology into everyday life. We no longer see the refrigirator and vacuum cleaner. Literally. In that sense the computer will also become part of the household furniture, apart from the fact that PCs are anyway getting smaller and lighter. The shocking fact here is not this particular development but the blatent refusal by so many technology gurus and corporate consultants to admit this bare fact and communicate it to their clients. The terror of being positive has to come to a hold. But despite the dotcom crash and all the corporate scandals many still believe in the saga of a new ending boom. We thus have to a cultural analysis to understand where this collective blindness, this unwillingness to analyse movements of markets and trends in society is coming from. Obviously many have a vested interest in a bull market. But why are so many, still, buying into those stories? We can only explain that with the tools of mass psychology. Venture capital models can only thrive on herd mentality. In that sense the United States business culture is everything but individual and entrepreneurial. In short, Moore’s law may work for chips but cannot be applied to the IT sector at large. Technology has its booms and busts as well as anything else in society. The Internet cannot be located outside of society. It is subjected to certain economic laws and we all have to be aware of them.

Net criticism is not that different from theatre criticism or film reviews. What the IT sector needs is its own class of independent critics that are willing to stand up against the powerful interests of corporations and their governments. Great examples are Cyberselfish of Paulina Borsook and Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God. For me it all starts with the acceptance of negativism as a strong and creative force within society. As long as New Age is ruling over the corporate board rooms, not much will change. There is enormous need for investigative journalism, outside of academia. It is not healthy to concentrate the public intellectuals within the walls of the universities. What new media need is a sophisticated vocabulary, shared by a great deal of its users. We have to accept that we are living in a techno culture. The core of today’s arts and culture are deeply technological. We can no longer afford to seperate the two. That’s a very broad agenda for net criticism, I know. I purposely do not want to narrow it down to the critique of corporate power. Its agenda should be based on a broad cultural analysis, like that of Bauhaus, the Frankfurt School and postmodernism. It is high time for the humanities to leave campus. Get technological! Build networks!

For me good critics are not outsiders but insiders. At the same time the supremacy of the engineering class has to be questioned as well. An engaged form of criticism can only happen if people are forced to debate. In order to get there we need more conflicts, more scandals, more public liability. I no longer believe in begging for interdisciplinary programs in which scientists, artists and theorists peacefully work together. That soft approach has failed over the last decades. It simply did not happen. It should be part of a shift in IT culture to go on the attack.

Can you give an overview of what you mean by ‘Tactical Media’?

The tactical media was developed in Amsterdam in the ‘post 1989’ years and is associated with the Next Five Minutes conference series. We tried to find an expression for our discontent with the existing definition of terms such as ‘alternative media’, ‘subculture’ and ‘underground’. They simply didn’t work anymore. For today’s media activists the opposition alternative versus mainstream is no longer useful. Everyone is involved in ‘tactical’ interventions in the mainstream. This does not mean that these people have sold out. There is no long march through the institutions. That’s a romantic vision of the baby boom generation, at a time when there were still plenty of tenured jobs to be given away within the press and universities. Today everyone is more or less a freelance worker, permanently on the move. Work is a project. The whole idea that one has to ‘penetrate’ the mainstream in order to do ‘good work’ from inside the system is not valid anymore. But there is also a technological reason for this shift. Tactical media such as small radio stations, websites and mailinglists, record labels and zines are all thriving because of the enormous drop in the prices of hardware. This means that it is much easier to have your independent media infrastructure. It is no longer a political choice to remain in this or that ghetto. The so-called ‘anti globalization’ movement proves how broad concerns are over the environment and world trade. The backbone of these movements are sites such as Activists these days try really hard to get beyond the lifestyle level and address a variety of social groups. This capacity is partially due to better understanding of the workings of media.

In Dark Fiber, you call for a return of cybernetics. What void do you see being filled by a return to cybernetic thinking in IT culture?

Cybernetics was a unique form of science. We have a lot to learn from it, despite its mythological and speculative approaches and somewhat stubborn belief system. Unlike the present IT theories, cybernetics was deeply interdisciplinary and stood in direct contact with contemporary philosophy of its time. That link was lost in the seventies. Most engineers look down on cultural studies, postmodern thinking, gender issues and post-colonial theories. The other way round is also true, of course. One of the great challenges of our time is the opening up of the technologists with other disciplines. Here I am not referring to spiritual levels. I am an enemy of New Age. I do not believe that the engineer has to open up and become sensitive for the ‘metaphysical.’ I am talking about society here. It would be such a step forward if technology would see itself as part of culture. We live in a technological culture. Society is not a user that ‘adapts’ to the great inventions. Engineering culture is itself part of the bigger picture. Historical cybernetics was aware of this. Because of World War II and the fact that many of its members were refugees, there was a critical understanding of social and political issues. Yet, I am not nostalgic. There will be new sciences in the future that will overcome the fear for humanities. The common effort called ‘Net criticism’ can only be one such attempt.