Net Criticism 2.0

An Exchange with Ted Byfield

Net Criticism 2.0 A Fast Conversation of Two Nettime Moderators
With Ted Byfield and Geert Lovink

[in preparation for the ‘nettime bible’, the upcoming book which will be released in november at the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival, V2, Rotterdam]

Posted on the nettime mailinglist, July 21, 1998.

GL:: So let us have an exchange about the current and possible ‘net criticism’ and how we think this genre should be (further) developed. Who are your masters, big examples? Is NC different from IT-business reporting, investigative journalism, essays? I wonder, for example, what you think of all these books with examples of ‘successful’ websites and their design. Few people question that genre and discourse. The same counts for software manuals, the dummy books etc. Well, there is (or was) a Wired critique, yes. But how to get beyond that?

TB: You may remember that when phrase like ‘net criticism’ and ‘net discourse’ first cropped up, I was pretty skeptical about them. Not about the work being done under those rubrics, but about the possibility of these fields or disciplines: whether the subjects or objects were understood clearly enough to hold together as a project. At the time i drew a parallel to a distinction floating around in some newsgroups devoted to various problems of the net, between abuse *on* the net (flaming, basically) and abuse *of* the net (spam, forged cancels, etc.). We still see this ambiguity, in efforts to elaborate genres that are somehow ‘native’ to networks and claims that ‘the net was used to organize the opposition in Indonesia.’ There is that kind of confusion, which hasn’t really been worked out, and then there’s another kinds of confusion that stems from how quickly the medium (however you want to understand that term) has changed. So I don’t think these efforts have come together clearly, but the more recent confusion may be a sign that, as you’ve called it, a ‘Net Criticism 2.0’ Is coming together. It’s certainly needed.

GL:: I wonder if we can harass the masses to join a competition about ‘net criticism 2.0’ and what it should be all about. Or is this already too self-referential? the problem here is really one of positive or rather negative role models, types of text one falls in love with, mind-blowing critiques that shake the fundaments of the current Net (business)…

TB: That’s a question for future historians to ask, whether it was all too self-referential. As for ‘harassing the masses,’ who knows? This relates to another ambiguity, namely, what is the net for? Is it instrumental, a means of communication? Is it a medium, whether for art or for publishing? Is it an empty notebook, or a television, or a telephone, or an arena? It’s very easy to think of a particular forum on the net as a kind of context, but what’s harder to understand, I think, is the reception of that context–as something for passive edification or entertainment, or as a ‘push-back channel’ for finished works, or even as a testing ground for unfinished experiments? Some combinations of these possibilities are very vital, others not so vital. So the question might be what’s the most vital option? But maybe *that* is too self-referential.

GL: The best discourses are perhaps those which cultivate and differentiate their language and internal reference system without becoming completely obscure, a seductive game of closures and openness. The relatively closed system of the mailinglist can be a good environment to develop a rich set of ideas, before the army of recyclers like academics, journalists, and cultural mediators take over. But by and large it is an irrational process that can not be simulated or even staged. And it should have a certain radical approach. Moderate voices can only come up with sweet synthesis at the end. So the NC 2.0 Is in need of new forms of narrowness. The cyber ideology now needs new directions, enemies, targets, and positive goals also, of course.

TB: I used to wonder if, as the net became a normal part of life like the telephone, the possibility of ‘net critique’ would somehow seem like ‘phone critique’–a quaint historical wrong turn. But I don’t think so: one reason net ‘exploded’ was the possibility it opened for circumventing the various establishments of only slightly older generations who had become quite comfortable in their professionalized forms of discomfort: enforcing suddenly stratified structures in academia, journals, galleries, activist organizations, and so on–very much at the expense of those who sought to continue critique, if not ‘follow in their footsteps.’ And so we saw this fast proliferation of soapboxes, networks, and so on. I don’t believe the dissatisfactions and ideals that drove that move are gone, done, settled, we’re all happy now, no more problems, everyone is all of a sudden moderate. So there is your potential radicalism. But what are the frustrations and goals these few years later?

GL: Avital Ronell would love your ‘phone critique’, but anyway, the question now is if we, the users of the Net, simply accept the standard as are now being developed. No more research and development. This is also the starting point of that brilliant ‘anti mac’ piece that was on nettime a little while ago. It states that the Apple Mac interface has not changed for a long time and that the human-machine interface are lot likely to be revolutionized some time soon. The same can be said of Microsoft and it critics. We are in danger of getting stuck into web normalcy. This could be the point where the real existing frustration comes up. After all the sell outs, mergers, bankruptcies we can think of organizing the discontent of the more experienced users that did not get trapped into cheap cyber fascinations, through new models of trade unions, consumer organizations, and the appearance of the dissatisfied masses that are committing ‘electronic civil disobedience’.

TB: I wish I could say that I loved her _Telephone Book_, but no–in part because it ‘anticipated’ in print some of the big dead-ends that have trapped electronic media (‘event’ instead of continuity, melange instead of synthesis, hype instead of substance, etc., etc.). There’s a danger in falling for the seductive cosmopolitanism or worldliness that the net offers: eclecticism very easily devolves into a reactionary mode, but rarely reveals itself as such because its concern for input and reception provides no basis for saying ‘OK, enough for now, we know what our principles are, time to act on them.’ I think this is the fascination with the free or open-source software movement: ah, this eclecticism has paid off, now we’ve found an ideal that’s native to network. All well and good, but then these forces come out with a silly ‘Open Content License.’ it’s like they jumped through Alice’s mirror and into the wonderful world of hypertext, but they’re ‘back’ button is grayed-out: they forget that content always was open and still is. Some freedom: so now the _Communist Manifesto_ becomes the compiled binary, and you can only distribute it under OCL, with the _Grundrisse_ ‘comments’ and _Das Kapital_ ‘source code.’ David Bennahum jokes about the ‘gif economy’ and ‘wysiwyg society’; what I’d like to see is an ‘ascii revolution.’

GL: OCL is one thing, but have you seen the expensive coffee table edition of the Communist Manifesto, published for the 150th anniversary of that text? ascii is now what pulp for the newspapers used to be in the 19th century, a fundamental resource which is driving all these virtual and spacial revolutions forward. But this is not obvious! Code is rapidly becoming less and less visible. We are essentialists in that we like to believe that the elements behind the spectre is that which counts. The same can be said of certain media theories stating that war is the mother of all media technologies. That might be all be true. But the on-line masses are blinded by interfaces, funky imagery. Net Criticism cannot only have that one strategy, to constantly ‘uncover’ and deconstruct other people’s java scripts and clever HTML… We should also understand and ‘trust the masses’ in their cheap admiration for the ephemeral.

TB: It’ll be interesting to see whether the trend toward making code visible (open source) will make it more legible. For many, no: it will be like transliterating hieroglyphs into phonetics. But literacy is a ‘technology’ too, and from the 11th century it went from being rare in the ‘upper classes’ to a basic tool for tradesmen; and that ‘renaissance of literacy’ brought about a ‘renaissance of heresy’–people exercising literacy outside of the institutional structures that taught not just the technology but how to interpret, explain, and apply it. (And this wasn’t the result of a programmatic push by a progressive intelligentsia; on the contrary, the ‘intelligentsia’ *fought* it.) So maybe there’s a historical wisdom, a new kind of technology in this melange of barely understood code, funky graphics, ephemera–maybe somewhere in that combination that seems so disorderly is the historical force. Let’s assume for a minute that the model we’ve been taught to trust–an intellectual vanguard that supposedly learned compassion from its excesses and respect for ‘the masses’–is in fact a reactionary force trying to protect its political patrimony by imposing traditional interpretations and ideals. What could come from this incredible soup of visual and instrumental techniques? We complain and worry about how interfaces are ‘stopping’ people–but what if those interfaces don’t matter at all?

GL: That would be heaven, perhaps even the end of the NC project. Instead of an ecstasy of collective net constructivism, we might expect a return of the (cyber)cultural pessimism. In the end, all the cynical outsiders will be right. But that’s unbearable. Recently I was inspired by the idea that the virtual class, venture capitalists and all these suits are not more than ‘paper tigers’ we should not be afraid of. We still have the ability to organize ourselves (in new ways, yes) and claim hegemony against microsoft, apple, UUNet, compaq, netscape, sun, worldcom and whoever. This had not even been tried. The lonely freelance subjects are so tamed, numbed, still captured in old stories but that will change as soon as this 20th century is over and certain traumatic events have faded away. NC 2.0 should be social science fiction and be ready once the temporary lapse of reason (over the Question of Organization) will be over.

TB: OK, a compromise definition: NC 2.0 should be the atomized foundations of a future we can’t imagine. But what we *do* know is that new forms of organization will get caught in the same old traps if they rely on same old analytical tools. So let’s break some of those. I nominate the ‘Conspiracy’ as the first idiotic idea to smash: it involves everything you say–pessimism, suits, hegemony, and a lonely freelance subject captured by old stories. What is a ‘Conspiracy’? An organization that’s effective, hierarchical, doesn’t talk, and plans to ‘rule the world.’ So, if someone opposes this organizational model, what values is s/he *supporting*? Ineffectiveness, a happenstance program, hype, and individuated powerlessness. Oh, and ‘Conspiracies’ are ‘Evil.’ But what does that mean, other than attributed motives? Yeah, killing people, imprisoning people, people, and exploiting people are unethical–but do we need to consider ‘motives’ to condemn these things? No, we can condemn them on objective grounds. So what if we ignore this motive of a ‘Conspiracy’? We end up with the idealized model of a corporation: effective, responsive, organized, forward- thinking, and growing. Perfectly good ideals for many social organizations. So let’s throw this idea of the ‘Conspiracy’ out–and throw out this fascination with ‘motives’ while we’re at it. So that’s my nominee for how to proceed with NC 2.0. What do you suggest?

GL: Conspiracy theories do not honor the Enemy, they want to erase, kill, and delete. But you do really suggest that this line is dominant these days? Because there is little else? I can see similarities with the ‘ascii movement’ in the sense that it is all about tearing down the corporate-state masks under which a self-explanatory truth will reveal itself, without answer the urgent question of new ways to organize and gain hegemony outside of the neo-liberal project of the global market. It is prolonging a desperate form of individualism which is not even suitable for networks. So NC 2.0 could also be about making free space to design new forms of (collective) subjectivity.

TB: Dominant, I don’t know, but growing? Yes. We’re building tools that we designed with naive, limited, or idealized assumptions, but the world produces other conditions: so maybe the tools ‘break,’ or maybe they do exactly what we specified but with consequences we never intended–for example, they will run amok. And they provide new metaphors for thinking about older problems, social configurations: society as agriculture, society as steam engine, society as chaos theory, society as cybernetic process. *This* is ‘interface culture.’ So now the neo-liberal global market likes to talk about itself as ‘information flows,’ ‘frictionless microtransactions,’ etc. There is no self-explanatory positive truth ‘underneath’ these metaphors, just a dialectical relation between them, on the one hand, and where we are and where we want to go, on the other. So I think we agree: NC 2.0 should be a project to articulate and create new powers, new freedoms. When you tear down a wall, you have to put the stones somewhere. So when we tear away at a dumb idea, we find we criticized ideals we need. And you say: The problem is the neo-liberal project of the global market. OK, then: Which parts of it should we tear away at, which parts should we keep, and how do we reconfigure those parts? The answers to this question will begin to give us priorities and the seeds of a plan.

GL: George Soros and others have suggested that we introduce a tax on global trade of stocks and currencies. We could reduce global trade and traffic, stop the silly sale of Dutch flowers in Chile and New Zealand (for example), while at the same time fight for the right of people to freely move from one country to the other. Why this the right only of flowers and dollars? One could focus on local networks and forget the whole international English media culture for a while. And re-enter on the global stage, if necessary. Universal accessibility should not be our principle–it is just one option among many. Attacking the standardized department stores, shopping malls and hotel cultures is another strategy besides the struggles against multinationals like Shell, McDonalds, Nike etc. (this is somehow obvious); and at the same time building up truly numerous transnational networks from below, not merely to exchange but also to collaborate in a direct way, without intermediaries, free of ideology and control, eager to express anger, not afraid to organize and fight back. That is my, very private, vision of net criticism, the next generation.