Interview with Ilya Eric Lee

E-mail exchange with Ilya Eric Lee, Taipei/Taiwan

In late November 1999 I went Taiwan, for a second visit. The media activist and nettimer Ilya Eric Lee, together with the art critic and curator Manray Hsue had organized a lecture tour over the island, in which we covered activist strategies, arts, politics and economics of new media. It was 2 1/2 months after the ‘921’ earthquake had hit the central part of Taiwan. I wrote a report about this impressive trip for nettime (posted on December 19, 1999). For Ilya this period was a particular difficult and emotional one as he was about to be drafted into military service for a one and half years period. On July 24 2001 he was a free man again. A cause for celibration – and a reason to do an e-mail interview with Ilya about his experiences in the army, Taiwanese net activism, Chinese-Taiwanese ‘infowars’ and the Chinese language ‘nettime-zh’ mailinglist which Ilya and others are planning to start. With a guest appearance of Autrijus Tang, co-founder of Enjoy.

GL: How did the 921 earthquake effect Internet use?

IL: The immediate syndication of students and TANet (Taiwan Academy Network) BBS administratorsopened up a dynamic virtual channel (DVC), connecting campus information centres and civil resources (e.g. independent BBS) to deliver emergency information islandwide, which was a spectacular work done during the first few months after the earthquake. After the emergency, networking became so diverse and disparate that an online communication environment was required and created. We have powerful and smart local people acting as live clients to find out every possible means for breaking through communication blocks, but due to the lack of long term planning and continuous governmental support, the channel could only last for a short time.   I think the underground BBS syndication is a substantive use of the Internet, even though it happened only on a small scale and was extremely fragile.

GL: Which new media art events recently happened in Taiwan and where do you think such initiatives are going? Would you say it’s a pure commercial environment? Will there be place for experimentation? And if so, where?

IL: There are more and more international visiting artists, DJs and academics/leaders who come to exchange and collaborate with local activists and artists. This breeds the valuable hybridization process that really pushes Taiwan forward. Strictly speaking, however, there hasn’t yet been any new media art events worth mentioning. On the other hand, I don’t think Taiwan is purely commercial.These kind of events indeed need sponsorship and support from both the private and public sectors. That’s the general condition of network survival and growth. People without enough imagination usually think of this condition as signifying that the new media can only be commercial-oriented. If you are a hammer, you’ll see everything as nails. This view manifests the routinely low feedback, under-interactive single direction mode of life and mind. Participants are just considered as customers, and makers as foci of spotlights. I think the interdisciplinary exchange will be the booming zone of new experiments that will happen. At the periphery of schools and labs, well-established art institutions and commercial studios, there’s always some people experimenting and creating. Some TAZs formed around those peripherals will be the lounge of continuing experiments. For instance, the Elixir/ collective is aimed to serve as such a lounge intermediating hacker culture, coding expertise and netivism.

GL: There is much talk about hackers and cyberwars between Taiwan and China. How much of that is propaganda and rumours? Doom scenarios? Wishful thinking?

IL: My fieldwork survey of the so-called war fronts on the Taiwanese side found that most of them are simply hoaxes. By the war, defacement doesn’t represent any real ongoing infowar. Most of the news that focused on the defacement acts was actually playing into outdated nationalism; surely, that’s a way the powerless and thoughtless mass media generate its potatoes. Even though this may instigate some computer geeks to make real fights over the net frontiers,   the practice of reinforcing nationalism in the cyberwar is not something to be praised.

Defacement can be more profound and powerful, as in the late Ogawa Shinsuke film, Summer in Narita (1968), that documented the peasants’ resistance against national violence. Loads of shit covering the bodies as a form of defacement turned into something symbolically and psychologically effective in a real warfare. I think a lot more than simple defacement on the frontpage is required to achieve a real media situation for all, resonating in the participants’ mind and heart, not their huge-egotistic eyeballs. Otherwise, it could only be a sign of doomsday.

GL:   Are there new initiatives from media activists in Taiwan? Do people look at post-Seattle and the phenomena?

IL: Yes, and no. New kinds of disciplines and practices gave birth to possible new media initiatives. The universities and colleges are a nice test bed for rebellious youth, but realities fiercely bite back. After the local MP3 Police raided the National Cheng-Kung University campus and caused island-wide panic, the new generation stood out to express their opinion to the whole society. (, and the campaign T-shirt online voting athttp://, etc.) But due to the lack of media awareness and holistic view , the students are fighting very hard. Yes, the campaign to save the university students is the media action. No, they are still isolated, resorting to traditional media attention, and not yet organised enough to welcome the globalisation dawn. The Pots Weekly (, a free local magazine that features alternative cultures and minorities with a critical consciousness, keeps their eyes on news after Seattle to Genoa and Indymedia in their globalisation department. Some of the articles were relayed from the Hong Kong Radical Net and other independent resources; critical minded eyeballs/submarines/translation machines translated other articles locally. 🙂 Take volume no. 156 as example: it’s the precious Chinese information, which exposed details of the diary of Judy Rebick and other images, on the Quebec/anti-FTAA warfront. The zine is widely read by youth in Taipei also as a what-to-do/where-to-go manual. Besides the Pots, Coolloud Web ( is another activist media concerning the global condition. They initiated the website and campaigns since 3 years ago. They are supporting the protest toward Papua New Guinea’s killing event in their Chinese version column in July.

And another kind of new task force is the elixir, a local movement organisation composed of people in the pursuit for media freedom and alternatives of lifestyle. It’s a connection-oriented loose organisation, concerning issues such as net.activism, net.culture, online rights and the digital public domain. I’d been in the elixir for months, and our recent work is the initiative of the project Metalist. The project tries to combine BBS-community, open discussion mailing list threading and Slash-code syndication platform, and to produce the digital public domain. It will make its first announcement atthe ICOS, International Conference of Open Source Taiwan, August 3-5, 2001.

GL: Please tell us a bit more about your new initiative, the Metalist project in the elixir server. Is it gonna be more than Internet? Which projects do you have in mind?

IL: It’s a project of services which serves more than what usually is considered as the Internet. The ‘metalist’ project is designed to aimat connecting most services availablein the Chinese language environment, i.e., preserving the live interactive and vigorous info caves, while affiliating them to one another. Services want to be connected. People are separated along different lines of division, not only physically but also virtually. They aren’t aware that “The Sky Is the Limit,” of the full potential of the fibersphere. People want to act like a gopher, digging around yet remaining confined in their little zapped “customized” fields.

So we have the metalist, It’s an experiment on expanding the individual’s perception by implementing the kind of connectivity originally conjured and now still worked on by the www think tanks. I mean people like Tim-Berners Lee and the Semantic Web, even Microsoft’s the .Net structure. We are working on theories about independent media, picturing technical roadmaps and producing the information infrastructure system needed by possible activists.

The character encoding systems , BIG-5 / Traditional Chinese and GB / Simplified Chinese, segregate Chinese-speaking writers and readers. The first one includes Taiwan and Hong Kong; the latter one includes Singapore and China. For the different groups of people, being able to generate news and follow discussions via their local tongues, the Unicode database is one ultimate solution. Open content and open audience must rely on such a robust infrastructure.

Beside the encoding endeavour, connected services provide a new web for mutual recognitions inside the digital public domain.   That is the idea of the Metalist project infrastructure and the nettime-zh mailing list. On the horizon of connective media / auto exchange between participants, we want to launch the nettime-zh mailing list, introducing networking activities realtimely in Zhongwen/Chinese format while syndicating them into the Metalist.

We are the intersection. (metalist whitepaper:

GL: Are the cyber attacks on the side of both Taiwan and China fake, or more merely symbolic, irrelevant? Do you think they are done by adolescent boys, individuals, or is there more behind the ‘infowar’?

IL: The cyberwar never exists without/outside the real warfare domain. There is a real plan’n’plot set to penetrate each of the two BIG intranets mutually. And the military institutions must prepare for more than that, in order to generate enough energy to precede any action. On this level of defense and attack, sadly, it’s concrete enough, practical and serious. Even to the hoaxes, jokes, loveletters, and worms. No matter how vulnerable the BIG intranet is, cyberwar is ,like Castelles’ word, a real form of virtuality. What’s confidential under satellites’ surveillances and scandals ‘ media exposure? What’s confidential in this era of globalized information society? Or, it’s the propaganda set to its own people and soldiers?

AT ( co-founder, Autrijus Tang): Besides, netizens already understand that voluntary demonstration, e.g. the Blue Ribbon campaign against CDA, has a power far superior than destructive attacks like DDOS or security breaching, because it moves real people. Like Falun Gong or Napster, this kind of infowar is fought more fiercely and actively than those defacement actions. Hence, both government’s main weapons are not any black-hat cracker teams, but their sophisticated measures on blocking and distorting the information flow both from and toward the Internet. For example, FreeNet has became the de facto publishing platform for dissidents in China, and the Chinese government has shut down access and prohibited its use recently. It is a common suspicion that China will outlaw strong encryption schemes like Mixmaster and PGP altogether, as the government is gunning down ISPs allowing these services. That’s one of the reasons China is   pushing the Hague Convention so eagerly.

GL: Please say something more about nettime-zh. You are about to launch a Chinese language version of nettime which is going to be part of the Elixir initiative. Or should we say Mandarin? Where does zh stand for? What kind of people and topics do you think the list is going to deal with? Will nettime-zh be a truly global list, with participants from, let’s say, Vancouver, Osaka, Sydney etc.? AT: I think calling it Mandarin is improper, since Mandarin is but one dialect in which written Chinese could be spoken. As you would’ve guessed, ‘Zh’ stands for ZhongWen, incoporating zh_cn (China), zh_tw (Taiwan), zh_sg (Singapore), zh_hk (Hong Kong) and zh_ma (Macao). What we imply by nettime-zh, me thinks, is that its content will not be constrained to any particular character set (Simplified/Traditional/CJK), political region (see above), or spoken dialect. So as long as its participants understand Unihan ideoglyphs, I think, membership could be truly global. Of course there are technical concerns on how to operate a cross-encoding mailing list, but we’ll strive to solve it.

IL: Based on the fundamental cross-encoding concern, I think, ‘nettime-zh’ will represent two important tactics of our praxis. One is the technical reality taken into consideration rather than – outdated politically confined language imagination. Chinese is imaginable since the millenniums before last, but as the huge Other for all the peripheral brains’n’pens to project their emotions to, the C is quite empty and vague. The encoding reality brings the old and new Zh alive; we then have found/created a new imagined community. It will be a global list if we discover something in common in the digital new medium territory translational wide. We use our native language to discuss and exchange, but this time it’s not only a backward translation, culture broking and reselling to a place the digital tide has not yet covered. It is simultaneously proceeding and serving as the basis informational backbone cross encoding barrier and boundaries, the intersection.

GL: Ilya, over the last 18 months you have been in the army. You just got out. How did you survive there and what did you do? Did you have access to the Net?

IL: When you cannot do anything, at least you can watch and listen. Before disappearing into the ‘national war system’, I was an Internet activist dealing with the government; witness that networking issues became more and more important. So many business people take the free ride making a profit from it. The military zone is another closed circle, a special kind of society for people to make a living. Those masters always need people to serve, not minds to interact and exchange. I happened to enter a project which needed a network administrator and programmers. As a professional submarine and listener, I could serve people’s need of administration and programming. To separate the mind and the basic, functional daily routine, I got my offline freedom to surf and listen. That transformed me a lot, to re-discover the everyday life on the post-coldwar island.

Yes, while in the army I had access to the Net. That’s quite a privilege. When they need people to pave the road towards the Net, I was right there, just in time. It really made me think of the situation: access/literacy as the valuable/ expensive commodity, and what it really means. I developed a way of dealing with email, digested during the weekdays and action/discussion on the weekend. They called me the “Weekend Internet Activist,” dually lived and thinking. Luckily, I found a group of people considering similar things with practical mobility, and they also discussed on the weekend. 🙂 With Elixir, we have a strong syndication after the last several months of my military life: not only access, but also thinking and practicing, collaborating. Dialogue is the best way to overcome isolation.

GL: Could you tell us a bit more about the circumstances of the army basement and the work you had to do there? How do you look at all these stories about technological warfare now that you have been in the army yourself?

IL: It’s really hard to write it inside. Taiwan was once a police state for more than 40 years under martial law. We have for a long time an intimate enemy to solidify our island identity, and under that we can only talk about anything commercially. 🙂 Even though we have been free for more than a decade from many bad restrictions, the imaginative threat still prevails and only a business risk can be reasonable enough for folks here to break it. There’s no law protecting people. There’s only a law to protect security and national war-related welfare. So how can I write anything in detail? Or, part of the truth? Which part would be the safe part?

I think that’s most people’s consideration. Which keep Taiwan’s military bureaucracy under ‘safely’ protected by responsibility-free, underdevelopment situation, even though the governments change from the long ruling Kuo-ming-tang KMT party to the new Democratic Progressive Party . I served in an information centre of logistics services, acting as one of the network admins of the whole headquarter. It’s more like one of the Kong-wen (Official Document) processing centres, not a decision making headquarter. Most officials were tied on documents to and fro. I don’t think people buried in the documents, all day signing papers, have time to think and make decisions. Most officers view the commercial world as more challenging and riskful /resourceful, even though what they held in their hands are important decisions to make and will influence others in the military sphere. Low communications between these institutions, units and decision-making groups, were mostly formal. Maybe that’s the same in other places, maybe not. Collectively, they form a mute mass following welfare trends and policy directions, waiting for a great leader to evoke, or being passively quiet in their militarily life trajectory.

A bit sad, I feel. ‘Cause inside the military milieu, you feel quite normal as ordinary people. Only can we imagine the necessarily tough training and cool hard new tech attack means,. even though we are proximal to the top organisation. Being a military soldier is totally different from a technical warfare reader performer. If you were among the soldiers, you must believe the fragmented POV given from above, doing everything hard and snap as possible as you can, waiting for the day of retirement. Vaguely   adapting the nihil confinement, counting the days. Working hard, and taking the technical warfare seriously, you will get schizophrenized.   Contrasting this, I think activists are a group of people who live positively-like aliens.. More exchange and dialogue, which will really modify the formalistic errors and save the vague people, if the imaginative war could end   some day.

GL: What are your feelings about defending Taiwan against a possible attack of China? Do you think the young democracy on Taiwan is worth defending? Or would you rather take a pacifist stand? How do you see the conflict between Taiwan and China after having been in the army? Different?

IL: The young democracy in Taiwan gave birth to us. Our parents survived from inner and warfare displacement, the Japanese colonial period, the KMT, the cold war and the new government. The adaptation is not quite well, because we are so young to join that. Because we are so stubborn, we aren’t yet used to confront the conflict, and to negotiation. That’s from my native eyes. But the place’s still open, still having the possibility to catalyse other nodes in the Zhongwen/Chinese speaking/reading area. But we need to prepare; we need practice. Before the military confrontation has us all, before the commercial nihil emptiness swallows our young spirit, before the patent confines our inquiry and discovery(TM) as invention.

Defending means to identify with the beautiful things discovered among the ruined mess, and means to find something really beautiful. I love the people, in their most native ways of living, their kindness and insistency on their dreams. I want to explore their potential, just as myself. The potentiality exists in open spaces, the public domain, the border-free DMZ (de-militarised-zone), then we can envisage the beautiful in the mess. I will defend the beautiful in the mess. I think it’s clearer after the army examination, a small more closeup of society’s reality check. Maybe   that’s not popular, not embracing the mainstream ideology of living, ways of working and dying. If that’s Taiwan, who and whatever they are, I will defend it.

(edited by Manray Hsue)