self interview

The Art of Electronic Dialogue A Self-Interview as introduction to Geert Lovink, Uncanny Networks, In Dialogue with the Virtual Intelligentsia, The MIT Press, 2002.

Going through the table of contents there are a few familiar names, but not that many. How did you select them and what do the people you’ve exchanged ideas with have in common? What is your conceptual framework?

The people I exchanged ideas with combine a passionate pragmatism to define and shape the architecture of new media with a similar drive to investigate these tools. They love to speculate about the coming of something yet unknown, whilst being aware that technology is not developed in a vacuum. I am interested in the beauty of digital discord. Business interests from both the Old and New Economy, in close harmony with governments and the “moral majority” will do whatever they can to limit the potentials of new media. A right mix of speculative imagination and thorough economic analysis – and competence – could therefore have fantastic, subversive impacts. This willespecially happen if this potential movement, if I may use my favorite concept, becomes trans-cultural, multilingual and truly global, not just Western. As this selection of interviews shows, new media culture is nowhere near global. Yes, the user base is gradually changing, but this has not yet effected the core of matters such as discourse, software and interfaces. Still, we are moving away from the male engineer (geek) culture and theirlibertarians visionaries. This book reflects this trend – or should we say attempt? I believe that it should be possible to exchange and amplify desires between different generations and social groupings and not get caught in a ghetto of terminology, identities, lifestyle or choice for this or that standard or platform.

Over the last decade much effort has been put into overcoming thedifferences between artists who do conceptual work, old school political activists, involved in investigative journalism and developing political arguments, theorists and critics; constantly in danger of getting stuck in structural analyses, the programmers who are writing the code and do install and maintain the networks, and last but not least designers shaping the media aesthetics (grahics, interfaces, etc.). An independent new media culture needs all these disciplines. We are talking here about a delicatebalance between individuals, groups and companies/institutions. Even though people are increasing forced to develop a variety of skills, multi-disciplinarity remains an idle goal, not a daily reality. The division of labour is still there, due to the highly specialized knowledge of each field. All of these people are using and contributing to the network (not just their own) and this is one place where they meet, and converge. At least that’s my utopian drive. This book is an expression of tactical and temporary synergies and tries to further encourage cross-fertilizations ofconcepts and experiences, not only between professions but also between different cultures and social groups, worldwide.

This all sounds inspiring and idealistic. I am not sure if the culturalnetworks you are referring to here have a long term goal. Certainly they have pasts. What would these suggest?

To understand my personal take on current new media culture, I think it useful to compare it with the prior era. Unlike most of their predecessors, the artists and critics featured in this book are working with the technology itself. There is no outside position anymore, nor is this perceived as something desirable. The laity has become engaged in the fight over the rules and tools we communicate and work with. For decades the research and development of these media spaces had been in the hands ofpoliticians, companies and their engineers. It is only during and after the nineties that we see a democratization of new media, world wide. It had beco me anachronistic to have the 1984 type of nightmares, with its counterpart, the wet dreams of out-of-body virtual realities. It is no longer about rejecting or embracing the new media. Computers had become what they had originally been envisioned as: general computational devices. They come in all shapes and sizes, to be used for any possible purpose, including global surveillance and virtual sex.

In retrospect, the eighties in Europe look like one crisis loaded,apocalyptic age, dominated by conservative postmodernists, privatization and budget cuts, new wave “guitar” music and fading social movements. There was a hardware revolution taking off, with the rise of VCRs, fax machines, PCs. Despite the personal computer’s reputation of being a hippie invention, the self-satisfied ’68 generation had a rather hostile stance towards the introduction of computer networks. In short, they were not in need of yetanother revolution. Reworking their own New Left past was time consuming and savage enough. New media did not fit in their elitist concept of culture. This inward-looking intellectual climate, dominated by deconstructivist historicism, caused a considerable delay for the cultural and academic sector in the West to start dealing with these issues. Both the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of computer networks took the post-war generation by surprise.

The rise of institutional cultural studies wasn’t much more than a petit salon revolution. Identification with media consumers and their small pleasures was still situated in the realm of broadcast media, television, radio and film. Cultural studies was all about creating meaning, not data. It is only in the mid-nineties that we, all of a sudden, find ourselves in the middle of heated debates over software piracy, the heroic Netscape, privacy issues, telecom pricing, the monopoly of Microsoft, cool and bad interface design. New media had become an issue you could exchange argumentsabout with perfect strangers, on the streets of Melbourne, in a Bucharest cafe, at a bus stop in Montreal, on a suburban train gliding over Osaka.

Where does your fascination with this “secondary” text genre of the interview originate? Wouldn’t time be better spend writing original pieces? You are not a journalist.

It’s tempting, at times, to play with the real existing disdain againstsociety and its wasteful human interest. We don’t live in the earlyTwentieth Century anymore, even though that is my favorite period. Aristocratic elitism from that age has caused enough damage – and so has identification with totalitarian ideologies.   It is certainly easier and more rewarding for today’s intellectual to withdraw than it is to engage. Interviews are all about creating contexts, together with chats and debates, reviews, links and other reference systems. They are one amongst many sorts of imaginative text one can use in creating common, networked discourses.

I started making interviews around 1980 when we produced two books as a student research group on the Dutch anti-nuclear movement. Then I co-edited the weekly of the squatters movement “bluf!” for about two years in which I also published interviews. One of the best from that period was an exchange between me and Eveline Lubbers. We wrote our masters thesis together andincluded a self-reflexive “conversation between two typewriters”. This both serious and funny work on squatting, alternative media strategies and their economic models even had a guest researcher who wrote a chapter. The day our supervisors rejected the thesis, while we were selling printed versions outside, certainly counts as the height of my academic career.

I really got the taste, and routine, when I started a weekly radio show called “The Portrait Gallery”, first at Radio 100, then Radio Patapoe, both free, pirate stations in Amsterdam. I made around 120 of these one-hour programs. The idea was to give weird, fringe thinkers and researchers from both inside and outside academia the “royal space” to talk about their topic. A space they would normally not get in the mainstream media, not even in academic journals, especially not in an anti-intellectual culture such as Holland. The attitude of most science and humanities journalist was, and still is, to behave in a pseudo-critical way, complain about typos, mistakes in footnotes and other nonsense details, ridiculing the person they would talk with in the name of the imagined “average listener” who was portrayed to be too stupid to understand anything. In response to this organizedinnocence I offered Ph.D. students, theorists and lay thinkers thepossibility to talk freely and push the envelope in front of a microphone which was all one ear. I hardly edited the programs. Instead, I learned to listen patiently and encouraged the interviewees to create a shared space of immense density – and freedom of thought.

The introduction of the PC and word processing programs around that same period gave a similar possibility to create dense, “compact texts”. When did you start with online interviews? Are they that much different to face-to-face conversations?

I got access to the Internet in early 1993 after having played with Bulletin Board Systems earlier on. Conducting interviews online, sending questions and answers back and forth, thereby composing a common text over a period of time, is a surprisingly recent phenomena. It may be hard to comprehend, but people really had to get used to e-mail. It took a while for everyone todiscover its potential, which, in my view, is still not entirely unveiled. It is being said that people are more open, straight forward in e-mail. This is why flame wars so easily start. Fights over nothing which seem to come out of the blue, with sometimes tragic, fatal consequences. It is certainly not true more direct encounters, by definition, will lead you deeper into the matter. Real-life conversations create trust, in a quick way but that’s no guarantee for a better reflexion. Online interviews in this book usually took weeks to accomplish, in some cases even months. That’s slow compared to the speed of light in which we are supposed to communicate. You need to be really patient and not be bothered with deadlines. The good thing is that the result will not simply be a snapshot full of timely references. There is a subtle balance here between the exemplary nature of stories from every day life and the stunning beauty of pure concepts.

Could you explain what exactly is being exchanged during an interview?

Certainty not arguments; in most cases not even information. Both my texts and interviews are of a strategic nature. I am more curious about opening new possibility spaces than to have a polemic. Unlike its public image, most of the cybertribes, whether organized as company, newsgroup, list or “virtual community” are not keen to debate with outsiders. Libertarian thinkers, instrumental in creating the Internet hype in the mid nineties, were not keen at all to debate. As good visionaries they were preaching, not contributing to public discourse. Like the big guys in the corporate world they knew that debating with some wacky outsiders could potentially endanger your market position. Rumors are fine, “sniping” is not. In volatile times, one bad remark in the (online) press can bring down your stock or postpone your IPO to infinity. Playing down your critics could have the opposite effect and might be too late anyway. It is much wiser to ignore them altogether. New Age gurus unanimously promote “positive” thinking and strongly advise today’s leadership to route around “negative” sources. Thisvery principle has so far prevented any real debate over the future of the “information society”. There is simply no time, and as Paul Virilio and other have pointed out, reflection needs time, which is the scarcest of all commodities in the Society of Speed. With unaccountable companies, incompetent politicians and isolated artists and researchers, not familiar with the language of the mainstream, no wonder we end up with the “eternal repetition of the same”. In general there are no big ideological debates insociety. The Internet is no exception there. I am not enough of a believer in technological determinism to think that the global dissemination of a dialogical medium will eventually spur real discussion, guaranteeing social change. Technology itself is the change.

At numerous occasions you have used the term “old” and “new” media. What do they mean to you?

First of all they are to be used in an ironic way. We have warm, nostalgic feelings for authentic photo cameras, rusty magic lanterns and Telefunken tube radios even though they were as virtual and alienating, fascinating and global at their time. Still, we are such human, simple creatures who love to forget and are easy to impress with the “new new thing”. I am the last to look down on the primal drive to curiosity. The promises of the New is tapping into amazing, undiscovered sources of libidinous energy. It is alazy, even cynical intellectual exercise to deconstruct the New as an eternal repetition of the Old. Scientific and historical “truth” in these cases is not empowering today’s tinkering subjects. I am all for a passionate form of Enlightenment which is willing to cross borders. The absolute, radical new is a deeply utopian construct, which should not be condemned because of its all too obvious shortsightedness. It is only when the mythological story telling is getting reduced to a rigid set of ideas that viligance needs to be exercised for a belief system in the making. So, through redefining categories such as the old and new, we get a better understanding where analysis and critique could start in order to be productive.

What examples of famous interviews did you have in mind while putting together this book?

I have always loved reading interviews. In the late eighties, when I got involved in the new media scene, I got acquainted with the work of   the German critic Florian Roetzer, who interviewed most of the contemporary French and German philosophers, artists, architects and scientists. He published two collections of interviews, both in German. I think I was influenced by him, namely the issues of Kunstforum he edited in the late eighties and the collection of essays he edited called “Digitaler Schein”. Then there are the interviews in Mondo 2000, and the early issues of Wired, which have been brought together in the collection of interviews by John Brockman called “Digerati”. My book could be read as Brockman’s shadow. But be careful. It would be wishful thinking to start making up some global opposition against techno-libertarianism. I have never seen what is often most visibly represented by Wired magazine as a true enemy. There are lots of common roots. I think it was mainly used as a virtual boxing ball, for those in need of a reference system. It would be a tactical mistake to position ones self on the opposite side of “freedom”. It would be ideal to be uncontemporary, completely out-of-context. I have practiced postmodern metaphysics, “deep irrelevance” European style myself for years. At some stage I started to miss the challenge and political context. It had gotten too safe, too easy to constantly be in theory-fiction mode. Deconstruction had fulfilled its function. By 1995 I thought it was time to get into practicality again, and put the search for the “sovereign media” and the”World After the Media” (Adilkno) aside for a while.

Who is in and who is out?

I don’t think I have selected any interview partners because of theiralleged subcultural, pop theory “celebrity” status. I only wish this were the case – that they had it. I think that the people featured in this book need more publicity, much more glamour.   Unfortunately, neither media theory nor new media arts have this social status. The scenes these people are operating in are small. Way too small if you compare it to the hyper growth of the IT-sector as a whole. It makes you wonder whether, against the will of its participants, this new media culture isn’t unconsciously reproducing the highbrow-lowbrow divide in culture.

I noticed that you haven’t made many interviews with media activists or programmers.

True, the choice could be much more balanced. So be it. I indeed have a slight preference for media theorists, who, paradoxically, become known because of the books they put out. This must be a transitional phenomena. The figure of the “virtual intellectual” whose reputation solely exists within the Net, is still one of the many utopian promises. Valuable knowledge about new media culture is still usually stored in book form. Obviously for economic reasons. Selling content inside Internet or through the distribution of cd-rom/dvd titles remains a hard job. “Ideas are cheap, what’s valuable is their implementation.” Those who manage to administrate the implementation of ideas, with the help of lawyers and accountants, are today’s role model. Let’s not complain, or even worse: deny this very mechanism. Yes, Foucault, you are right: ideas are tools. Some will design them, others will use them. Claiming intellectual property doesn’t help much in such a case. It seems better to conceptualize – and start building –
other economic models for the distribution of content.