Interview with Geert Lovink

For La Repubblica, November 2002

Q: During the ’90 the *so called* left politics placed a lot of attention on the Internet and the Information Technology (with the mantra *information must be free*). Right now what remains of that experience?

A: I don’t think the left had any idea about the Internet and new media, to be honest. They were–and still are–focused on the old media such as print, television and radio. Apart from this ignorance most leftists prefer state control and don’t really like free global media. Leftists love patronizing and are deeply provincial. They do not see the computer as a machine that can produce social networks. Instead they can only think of Microsoft and corporate mind control of all the poor, passive users. What you are perhaps referring to are the post-1989 techno-libertarian movements. They have very little in common with the traditional left. That gap is still there. Most young hackers are suspicious of any type of political 1968 rhetoric. Despite the fall of the dotcoms and the stock markets, their sense of ‘cyber freedom’ is still very strong. It is just that the short marriage of interests with conservative politicians and corporate gurus that happened in the mid-late nineties has now fallen apart. What remains is Linux and other open source and free software projects. Or the networks of activists and artists that I am part of. They are not affected by the current recession.

Q: Could you tell us what the term tactical media means? Since you were part of the 90’s techno culture can you tell us about the birth and the development of Nettime, and of other European experiences such as Digital City, Internationale Stadt, and Public Netbase? These are examples of tactical media, aren’t they?

A: Tactical media is one of many ‘post-1989’ concepts that try to get away from the traditional leftist media policies. The term came up in the early nineties after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That historical moment, which was seen as a positive liberation of totalitarian communism, merged with the rise of cheap consumer electronics such as PCs, video cameras and audio equipment. It is part of a wider techno culture that broke with the boring politically correct identity politics of the left. The democratization of technology meant that we no longer have to speak on behalf of the ‘repressed’ Other. What we need to do is build networks and spread the knowledge about new media. What people do with it is their matter. The politics of representation has come to an end.

The initiatives you refer at could all be considered tactical media. Tactical just means that you break with the old logic of alternative versus mainstream. Everyone knows about the appropriation that happened to ‘alternative’ culture. Such dichotomies no longer work. The same counts for ‘pop culture’. That’s also an empty term these days. Ten years ago people tried to look for other models for media activism. The ‘tactical’ refers to the will to experiment and form new social alliances, using technology. It’s very much a nineties concept and perhaps no so useful anymore after 911 and the rise of global conflicts. Times are much tougher now. This is the age of control and confrontation. It is time to use all the gadgets and features. New media are no longer new. The next generation will integrate them into their lives and struggles; and will perhaps not anymore that obsessed with the Media Question as we were.

Q: What about The Well and Lamdamoo?

A: These are two US-American Internet projects. In the early nineties the Well was an influential model for virtual communities. It still exists as an Internet service provider. People on the West coast log on and play out their identity politics. The Well survived an enormous amount of hypes and business models. Lambdamoo was an academic virtual game environment, often connected to identity swapping. These days people are no longer that much interested to go on the Net to change their identity. Yes, it’s a feature, but not more. I have never seen the revolutionary potential in pretending that I am someone else. But that’s perhaps because I am coming from a liberal city (Amsterdam) that is dominated by repressive tolerance towards sex and drugs and other sorts of quasi-deviant lifestyles. Perhaps people that come from rigid cultures such as the USA still appreciate to pretend that they are woman, a dog etc. By and large the Internet has lost its magic, perhaps because people got used to it. It is integrated in everyday life, like the vacuum cleaner and the microwave.

Q: Right now, what are the experiences connected with tactical media? Can we say that cyberspace is still a work in progress?

A: Very much so. I am not a professional optimist. I am a radical pragmatist. Not an Internet skeptic, by the way. Some people think I am too negative, but that’s not my nature, for those who know me a little bit. I am practicing negative thinking, which has a great philosophical tradition. This is a necessary method if one is to be able to do ruthless self-examinations of one’s dreams and premises. The new media industry is dominated by ‘bullish’ new age forces that can only think in terms of growth and new market opportunities. In the age of media it can be tempting to ‘sell’ your ideas as if they were a product you have to market. There is enough of that in the new media sector. But besides that, yes, I see lots of possibilities. In particular for the mobile phone and other mobile devices. There is an interesting clash coming up between the Internet and wireless technologies: one where artists and activists can contribute a lot to. It’s again a field that is not very visible for the retiring baby boomers, but who cares?

Q: Could tell us about your experience from Albania, India and Taiwan?

A: Traveling to places outside of the grid of global cities teaches you to be humble about your premises and vocabulary. I am a critic of the Digital Divide discourse. In my experience it does not reflect the complex contemporary relationships between localities in today’s network society. The countries you mention, that I describe in Dark Fiber, are highly unequal societies. Yet, there are also interesting techno-social experiments going on there. Many places in affluent Europe are simply too rich and become bored, media wise. They do not need to develop techno competence. They have delegated technology to their engineering class. Technology can therefore not enter the broader social-cultural field. In many places in the West technology is treated as merely tools. Once you start to travel the globe you will come across a multitude of initiatives that break through the rigid contradiction between culture and technology. In Dark Fiber I have tried to report about a few of them.

Q: What do you think about the Soros networks?

A: The same as what I think of Greenpeace or Amnesty International. Beyond good or evil. These are transnational NGO industries. As unaccountable as their counterparts, the global corporations. As you can see I am critical of NGOism. But that’s perhaps because I am a dissident inside such networks of the ‘global civil society’. I do not want to discredit the do-good people. I have seen a lot of interesting (media) projects in Eastern Europe that were being sponsored by the Soros Foundation. They are now gradually withdrawing from the region, leaving it up to the EU countries to take over the role of building up a post-totalitarian ‘civil society’. So the question should rather be: what is Italy planning to do in Eastern Europe? Will Italians also support independent media, like Soros used to do? What did Europe learn from the Cold War? In short, do, for instance, Romanians tumble from a Ceaucescu dictatorship into a Berlusconi media monopoly?

Q: What about high and low-tech, related to what you call ‘the bandwidth dilemma’?

A: Worldwide there is a broadband stagnation going on. There is an enormous surplus of unutilized bandwidth. The technical term for this is Dark Fiber. Five years ago, at the beginning of the dotcom boom, cyber gurus and IT entrepreneurs preached a quick roll out of broadband. Everyone would have access to high-speed Internet lines. This is still not the case. In the meantime a global telecom crash happened. All the multimedia applications and content are waiting in vain for the predicted mass audience. Instead most users are stuck with their 56K modem. This could be one of the reasons why the general audience is losing interest for the Net. They use a bit of email and web. That’s it. The so-called low tech artists who only use text and make abstract, code-based works, have anticipated this first Internet recession. The dilemma you refer to is a question everyone has to ask when they go to produce something for the Web: do I make interesting yet inaccessible and complex content or something low tech? Do I want to fit in the usability harness or rather make a funky flash animation?

Q: Can you provide an example of what is meant by the phrase ‘the Internet is no longer sold as a disembodied spiritual realm’?

A: The religious overtone with which the Internet was propagated has disappeared. The whole mix up of Internet and virtual reality was a mistake to start with. The Net is a very basic, down to earth, mostly textual medium. You’re not losing your body down there. Quite the opposite. It’s a very physical torture, to sit in front of the computer screen. Computing is causing specific PC-related illnesses such as RSI. Right now people are using the Net as an information service. They quickly look up a site to check their email. There is nothing spiritual about that. Yet, as a medium it is still pretty remarkable, especially its global nature. The Net is not some escapist parallel world but a mirror of today’s contradictory movements. It belongs to corporate giants and grassroots initiatives. At least, so far. The challenge we are facing now it to create a new public domain, a ‘digital commons’, as Lawrence Lessig calls it. We can no longer assume that the foundations of the Founding Fathers of the Internet are still there. Much of the original features on which the Internet was build, 20 or so years ago, have now eroded. The takeover of global corporations and their governmental partners is not a future nightmare scenario. It’s happening right now. The New Age talk has often been used to divert from such issues. The freedom on the Net cannot be taken for granted and needs to be defended and conceptually brought onto new levels of technology. Cyber freedom is not a God-given fact, deeply embedded into the technology. The onslaught of control after 911 is very real. These issues may look boring, at times. Software and protocols for mobile phones are by and large of a proprietary nature. Future networks will not be like the Internet unless developers and early adaptors are explicitly fighting for open standards.

Q: What’s up in the new media scene? Is the digital aesthetics looking for a new strategy and a new space in the imaginary of the XXI century, or the Internet has lost its imaginative attraction?

A: Over the last few years three interesting developments emerged. First of all the peer-to-peer networks. The most well known of them is Napster, but they were forced to close down. Others are Gnutella, Freenet, Kazaa etc. Most interesting at this level is the proliferation of the P2P as a concept. Like free software and open source P2P is now ‘migrating’ into other social and cultural contexts. Howard Rheingold has just written about the background of P2P called Smart Mobs. Instead of only looking at kids downloading MP3 files, it is high time to see file sharing as a broad cultural phenomenon.

The second development would be rise of weblogs. Started and, there is now software available so that everyone can start an open publishing website. Weblogs have caused a renaissance of the mid-nineties idea of the ‘homepage’. Weblogs can be incredibly simple or complex–whatever you want. It has brought a whole new revolution of communication to the Net. Thirdly there are the so-called WiFi wireless networks that liberate laptops from their network cables. It might not be interesting for many to walk on the street with their laptops and get free wireless access to the Net. The implications will be elsewhere, for instance in the architecture of new buildings. It could mean that schools can get rid of their media labs. Students can access the Net everywhere. This will, again, revolutionize education. All in all these developments point at another world besides the monoculture of the e-commerce web portal. Yet one issue remains unsolved: developing a sustainable business model for those producing online content. Giving away your work is now the default option. In the near future it should be your personal choice.

(edited by Ned Rossiter)