Interview with Geert Lovink

On the occasion of the publication of the Italian translation of Dark Fiber

(On the occasion of the publication of the Italian translation of Dark Fiber)

AL: Your book Dark Fiber is a collection of essays. Do you think it’s a more coherent type of book in the net era as we tend to elaborate small chunks of information more rapidly? And what is the role of the printed page in the digital context? It will become a sort of ‘best of the internet’?

GL: Very much so. The book as a cultural form of knowledge is so dominant because we’re still uncertain how long digital information will last. Will we be able to read HTML pages in a hundred years, or email, written in Outlook Express, Eudora or Evolution? The reason why ‘virtual intellectuals’ like me still publish books is different one, tough. It’s the only way to make a living. Everyone expects content on the Net to be free. My work is precious garbage–sad but true. Freethinking content producers have mixed feelings about peer-to-peer networks. One the one hand they undermine the power of the big media entertainment industry. But one the other hand, they do nothing to resolve the income issue for independent cultural workers. Against the expectations of many, the Net has not produced its own celebrities. That’s still in the firm hand of the old media such as book publishers, TV and newspapers.

AL: What’s your definition of net.criticism?

GL: Back in 1995 Pit Schultz, a Berlin artist and me started the Nettime mailinglist. The initiative was meant to be a hybrid between theory, activism, programming and art. We called it ‘cultural politics of new media’. The aim of Nettime was to do ‘collaborative filtering’ of crucial texts, dialogues and debates that were shaping this new and rapidly exploding discursive field. Netzkritik (that’s German) originally had the intention to deconstruct the cyber libertarian agenda of Wired magazine and its surroundings. Later on it turned into a call for a sophisticated theory of the Internet, developed by insiders, those who actually used and developed this new medium, not by academics who pretend to study it from the outside, as if it were an alien environment. Net criticism had the intention to shape the Net culture at large, not merely focusing on the impact of technology, which is a traditional social science perspective. Whether net criticism as a project succeeded or failed is another matter. It might be too early to make such a judgment.

AL: Are blogs the new independent press embodiment? Does the proliferation of blogs guarantee the pluralism of voices and keep the news free, or does it risk to duplicate endlessly poor compilation of mainstream news?

GL: Blogs are like islands in the Net. The proliferation of such websites should be seen as an interesting step, away from centralized web portals. Blogs contribute to the (re)fragmentation of webspace after dotcommania in which the dream of beating all the competition and becoming a monopolist had become dominant. Yet, you point out at the dark side of blogs: their playful irrelevance. Weblogs as such are not designed to remain marginal but that’s what they essentially have become. They are not attacking the mainstream news production, like intends to do. Instead they reduce their activity to linking and commentating, instead of creating original, critical content. However, that’s not implied in the nature of the weblog itself. There is an enormous diversity in weblog models and it still is. In principle weblogs are very powerful collaborative and decentralized editing and filtering tools. More and more technology is becoming a secondary issue. The tools that we have are becoming so powerful, so easy to use that the ball is really with us: what do we want to say?

AL: Time is one of the more controversial political issues of the net. It has rapidly deteriorated our work schedule until ‘the Fridayization of Sunday’ as Pekka Himanem defines it. What’s the worst danger of this concept of time for the net.workers?

GL: It’s tempting to complain about people not having enough (offline) ‘quality time’ together anymore. It is indeed true that netheads have been the vanguards for flexible working hours. The border between hobby and work no longer exists for many of us. But that doesn’t count for the vast majority of the population. They have to protect themselves against the pressure to be available 24/7. So there are conflicts of interests here. There is no longer one solution, one political demand for all social groups. This has got little to do with oppression of one group by another. Hackers are not consciously intending to attack and dismantle the 9-5 office culture. Quite the opposite. Net.workers that can afford to work under the Himanen paradigm should be happy. The work as passion idea has to be further explored.

AL: From the Laos villages’ bicycle-powered PCs to the small hack lab in Chiapas, are the digital divide’s penalized countries start to recover?

GL: Yes, but we have to be cautious not to create mythologies again. Commandante
Marcos never was online. That type of work was done by activists in Los Angeles and New York. But now we’re talking five ago, the mid to late nineties. Indeed there are lots of opportunities for new media activism out of places like Chiapas. Prices of technologies are dropping consistently and that has a huge, long-term impact. Digital divide programs, financed by NGOs, governments and companies are starting to have an impact, in particular on the young generations. A lot of interesting interventions may come out of
that. But one could also read those initiatives as panic moves to catch up, in a highly unequal world. The main thing to focus on the reinvention of public infrastructure. It’s in the end all about the politics of bandwidth. That’s what the ‘digital commons’ is all about for me. What is a Simputer without proper telecommunication? Even if you believe in low tech, connectivity remains a critical hurdle.

AL: You have a long time experience in encouraging the development of online autonomous communities. Please tell the three most important rules you’d always suggest to a newbie who wants to start a new one.

1. Get many involved in an early stage. Do do not write up a concept all by yourself. The collaborative projects are usually the most interesting ones.
2. Then arrange legal matters before you start. The question of ownership has to be arranged as soon as possible. Who owns the domain name? Who will pay the bills? Which provider do you use? Will you pay the programmers and designers? Minor issues in the beginning that will most likely kill the initiative later on. Most Internet initiatives are pre-democratic and are administrated under very primitive circumstances.
3. Do not be afraid of becoming successful. Don’t be afraid for appropriation. Build alliances and open up to other disciplines and groups as soon as you can. The worst thing to happen is to build an inward looking community that is too afraid to disagree. Cyberspace is still in danger of becoming isolated, despite its hyper growth.

AL: Has the role of the mailing-list medium changed after eight years of Nettime? What about your involvement in the Australian Fibreculture?

GL: Despite the rise of weblogs, lists remain powerful communication tools. That’s got to do with the ubiquity and at the same time the intimacy of email. However, the importance of email is rapidly decreasing. The Nettime project has stabilized. I am no longer actively involved, apart from being a regular contributor. However, Nettime still has a considerable seize and influence. There is no weblog yet that has taken over its function. and do not have the kind of multidisciplinary, intellectual approach of Nettime. What Nettime in the end could not resolve is the issue of moderation (and who should do that). There has not been a meeting in real space since 1998. As a virtual-only entity it cannot really grow and transform into something else. For that one really has to organize real-life meetings. After having moved to Australia I started Fibreculture with David Teh, in early 2001. It’s a medium size list
(650+ members), mainly consisting of academic new media researchers. We had meetings in Melbourne and Sydney and there will a third one in Brisbane. Fibreculture also produced a book and a free newspaper. The debates are quite Australia-specific but that’s exactly what makes them so good and relevant.

AL: Tactical Media seem to be the most effective forms of media activism. As you write they are “creating temporary hybrids of old school political data and the aesthetics of new media.” Is the invention of new strategies and techniques essential for their continuing effectiveness?

GL: Unfortunately, yes. Media activism has to submit itself to the Laws of Fashion. To operate outside of the realm of the ‘cool’ would be a foolish thing to do. There are anyway enough activists who are positioning themselves outside of society and do their thing. They are not concerned with contemporary issues of aesthetics and tactics. Yet, a growing amount of artists and activists got genuinely interested in media-specific questions. They accepted that you have to operate within the boundaries of advertisement and the infotainment complex. But this running around can make one really tired. It forces you to be creative and re-invent yourself constantly. Some can deal with this pressure, others couldn’t bother less.

AL: As in the recent cases concerning the ‘The Thing’ network (at risk after Verio pull the plug due to a Dow parody site) and the 0100101110101101.ORG site (forced by PSINet to remove the text file of the Luther Blisset’s book ‘Lasciate che i bimbi’, pretending that it’s ‘illegal, defamatory and relating to pedophilia’) large telcos are more and more condemning parodies and radical essays as if they’d be a real threat for them. How the power of big telcos could be effectively contrasted to avoid gratuitous censorship?

GL: I have a bit of a heretic opinion concerning this issue. For me Verio has the right to no longer host The Thing as one of their customers. I wouldn’t call that censorship. It would be censorship if no one in the USA would host The Thing. Or no one in the world for that matter. The problem here is the ambivalent and contradictory hacker’s point of view which says that telcos should NOT be content providers and ought not discriminate ANY data over their networks. But the techno-economic reality has never been like that. The convergence between telcos and the media industry has been going on for a long time, in particular in the USA. It’s a highly regulated business. On the other hand, The Thing is not hosting content they don’t like. Neither is your site. We have the freedom to say no to content and so has PSINet. The problem starts when telco companies start to have real and effective monopolies. I am not a free marketer. The market cannot solve such issues. They can only be solved by radically separating the (public/neutral) infrastructure from other interests.

AL: Is the net there to remember? Internet servers host sound, video and textual data even if they are always uncertain, due to lines, dns and servers (temporary) switching off or being moved. Do you think that the net will have a concrete historical role in the preservation of memory? Or is it too unreliable for being considered as an effective source for research?

GL: All digital technologies are ‘instable media’ (as the phrase of the Rotterdam V2 organizations says). Standards have been changing so rapidly. That might level off at some point. The symbolic capital invested in computing is still very high. In order to answer your question we might first have to ‘unthink’ the computer and do something completely different. These days the computer works really well to manipulate–compute–data. Increasingly the speed over networks also increases. Storage capacity is also not the problem anymore. What’s left is the issue of sustainable standards so that we can access data in a few hundred years. At the moment it is really hard to overcome this issue conceptually. Only optimists can do that.

See also: (interview from 1996)