Closed Networks in an Open Society (Plus Interview)


Dedicated to

“Eyeballs around the WWWorld, Unite!”

The so-called open and democratic character of the Internet is not a God-given fact. Throughout the eighties and nineties efforts have been put in by engineers and programmers to open up the academic computer networks. Their concern was not only related to access via a modem or terminals. The main battle was fought out on the level of software and network architecture. After a short period during the mid-nineties, the “short summer of the Internet”, with its utopian promises , rising commercialism and radical cybercultures, a massification of the Net set in. The period of dotcom.mania is one of hyper growth with users turned into click rates generating “eyeballs”. Open, decentralized “citizen” networks are of no use anymore in this environment. Potential customers are only interesting because of their market profile. Within the surveilled safe Intranets of corporations with their entertainment and info businesses, (dissident) opinions are filtered out or at best treated as spin-off effects of virtual environments which mere goal it becomes to generate cash flow. Communication has become unnecessary, boring, and of private concern. Open communication networks, based on open source software, are increasing becoming a thread to corporations and governments. In fact, openness has become synonymous to child pornography and computer hackers. The naïve phase of “facilitation” is over, all parties are gearing up for Infowar. “Get Depressed”. So far for the gloomy scenarios, as monitored from the hyper sensitive, paranoia-driven Internet Observatory (filtered through Prozac).

The response to massification and regulation is the creation of an invisible cyber elite. Already for years it has become next to impossible to discuss topics on public newsgroups. Noise levels on USENET have risen to unbearable levels due to clumsy, arrogant or ill informed individuals or companies sending spam messages and advertisement to public forums. In fast growing networks people tend not to get to know each other anymore so flame wars over nothing are being unleashed, in most cases without any outcome. The effect of this is a loss of confidence in the public sphere of cyberspace, with its relatively open forums and communities. As a response, business and developer groups, as well as activists and researchers have started mailinglists and discussion forums within password protected sites. Who wants to discuss sophisticated concepts with all the booboos and weirdoes which are surfing over the web, looking for places to make trouble? Are you able to keep up with hundreds of e-mail messages one gets in into the inbox every day? What counts is exclusive, high quality information. Filter out the nonsense, whatever that may be. I do not like you, and your silly opinions, so why waste precious time on opinions and attitudes one detests? The argument of an ever rising “complexity” is used as an excuse to no longer shape the network society and leave this task to large corporation and a few governments. Conspiratorial “micro politics” are proposed as an escape route to hide for the expected invasion of the online masses. At the same time the (new media) arts are looking for a comfortable refuge in old institutions such as museums and galleries. The early adopters and cyber warriors, the partisans who fought at the electronic frontiers in the roaring nineties, are withdrawing into private realities, paralyzed by the economies of scale.

What is “cultural intelligence” in the digital age? This is a question the Vienna-based group Public Netbase has raised in their Brussels project Culture is an asset. Whether old or new, high or low, culture is a commodity, one of the fastest growing resources the world is currently exploiting. Arts and culture, though marginal in market capitalization, is turning now into a mysterious factor which can make and break local economies. High skilled workers can based everywhere, and will indeed moved on if a place will turned boring, or too spoiled by money (the rich only consumes culture). So which concepts and ideas are “in”? What is cool and what is out? Welcome to the world of the paranoia cultural producers. A catchy concept can be turned into an Internet start-up or exclusive contract with some media organization. Have you already been accused of cultural spying? Intellectual Property fights are all over the place. In the New Economy IT sector a lot of spying and intelligence work going on. To some extend this plain robbery. Taking ideas in order to claim, patent and copyright them so that you will be the one who will make money with them in the end. So one should better beware and keep brilliant ideas for ones self. Copyright and patent them straight away, send them to your lawyer before you even telling them to your best friends. The alternative is to give them away for free in the naïve hope that someone will be so generous to give you some charity pocket money in the end. You choose. That’s tragic yet realistic State of the Internet 2000.

So far we are only dealing with “culture” on the level of Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” which is going on at the level of world religions and anthropology. In the ruling conservative definition culture is defined by its age and ability to be endlessly recycled and marketed as “cultural heritage”. But the actual “culture business” looks rather different. It is common knowledge that (pop) culture is a global market, a sophisticated machinery of rumors, memes, signs and images, driven by the never-ending desire to redefine the New in order to commodity “lifestyles” into products. It is here that the CultureSpy™ figure appears, presenting him/herself as a curator, photographer, journalist or project developer. These cultural workers have to be situated at the forefront of the conceptual boundaries where the 20-30 years old are pushing the limits in order to reach world fame (these days measured in click rates). The Western elites are perhaps too interwoven to unleash a real culture war on the Net between, let’s say, the USA and Europe. It is much easier to imagine this phenomena occurring on a strict transnational economic level. That makes the concept of “cultural intelligence” all the more interesting. Corporate spying is a booming business and so is spying amongst allies (Israel against USA, USA against Europe, etc.). Training a secret staff of national culture spies could already taking place. This could be an ideal project for a public-private partnership. Japanese corporations have specialized themselves in culture spying over the last decades. We have now arrived in the age of imitating Japanese styles and strategies. Cultural spying is certain one of them.

“A creative virtuality is closely related to affordable spaces”

Interview/Exchange between Konrad Becker and Geert Lovink

For the magazine

KB: What should be the role of the creative community in the “Information Society”?

GL: Throughout the nineties the concept of “creativity” has seen a renaissance. Scientific literature around this topic is booming. With the rise of research, the mystique surrounding the “creative factor” is facing a similar phase of hyper growth. Compare it with the gourmet fashion: what is the right recipe, what ingredients to use (fresh vegetables, obviously), and most of all: how to serve it all the gorgeous multi-media Newark concept in the most attractive way? It all comes down to the right mix of disciplines. Not too much money, not too much technology. Art thrives under poverty. As you can see, I am skeptical about creativity. I would rather emphasize on education, public access and human rights, one of which is the right for housing, not just of individuals and families but also of groups and artists/activists initiatives. There will not be an “information society” if people have to live on the streets. A rich and diverse, yes, creative virtuality start is closely related to affordable spaces.

KB: What are the significant aspects of an artistic practice in a digitally networked society?

GL: The ability to think and conceptualize networks, work in a multi-disciplinary environment and come up with new images, texts, sounds and stories, despite all the tyranny and tragedy of new media. It is a real challenge to master the machines and programs, the budgets and administration work while focussing on the art works themselves. This is the reason why there is so little interesting new media work to be seen. And why people are so excited if there is indeed a new work out which transcends all these limitations and difficulties. It is much easier to make an interesting video piece, simply because this technology has been around for over 35 years now. The Word Web Web on the other hand is only five years young. Limitations are still significant in the digital realm, despite all euphoria. This is why so many artists deal first with technology topics, which may seem boring and self-referential to outsiders.

KB: State and military Intelligence Agencies are spending huge budgets, private and economic intelligence services are booming. What could be the role of intelligence work that deals with cultural public interest?

GL: We have not seen yet a state and corporate run sector of “cultural intelligence”. We might get there soon. The so-called “culture wars” are being fought out mainly a nation level. Example that I know of are in the USA, Australia and Austria. In the UK there is this phenomena of the “culture industries” where culture is seen as mysterious and fascinating factor in the process of economic recovery of run-down local communities. What we have not yet seen is “cultural spies”. In the New Economy IT sector there is certainly a lot of spying and intelligence work going on. To some extend this plain robbery. Stealing other people’s ideas in order to patent and copyright them so that you will the one who will make money first. But this phenomena has not yet been studied enough. So far we only deal with “culture” on the level of Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilization” which is going on the rather primitive level of world religions. The Western elites are perhaps too mixed up to see a “culture war” going on between, let’s say, the USA and Europe. It is much easier to see these phenomena occurring on the economic level. But that makes the concept of “cultural intelligence” all the more interesting. It is still in the realm of the possible and virtual.

GL: It has been stated quite often that not data but meta-data are relevant, contextual/referential information being more valuable than plain “facts”- what do you think of meta-politics of the “information world”? The meta level is certainly the one where the “war on standards” is being fought out. This is the reason why there is so sympathy for technological determinism, despite the fact that people are disgusted by other forms of determinism. There are legitimate reasons to be interested in the “Laws of Media”, as McLuhan called them. The wars over standards are only interesting for a certain amount of time, and then they become boring, and the outcomes are not always that interesting, or that important. Is it really that different, a browser of Netscape or Microsoft. Or electronics from Philips or Sony? Meta-politics, I think, can only intrigue a few number of people. There are much more important topics. We should not overemphasize the importance of technology? AC or DC? Did that really define world history? I would love to believe so, but I am not a paranoid believer in conspiracies. I am more in favor of a playful, ironical distance towards technology. At least I would like to claim the illusion of freedom, while being fully aware that the world and its human inhabitants is increasing ruled by the machine logic.

KB: Having rejected technological determinism and looking behind the dialectical rhetoric of “the (free) market serves the (conscious?) consumer in a (fair) vote with his dollars” what do you see as the (imbedded) forces shaping the info sphere and its societal manifestations?

GL: I do not want to go into the debate over the techno gnosis. Certainly we start speaking here about the big philosophical questions of metaphysics. I am careful about moving into that territory and leave that to the New Age believers, cyber visionaries and apocalyptic cyberpunks and their followers. There is a Will to Virtuality as much as there is there a dirty and wild set of practices, going in all sort of directions. I reject the idea that media, networks and information systems have a teleology. All attempts to define a greater historical aim should be criticized, or even better, perverted.