Meta-Group Dispatch #3

Winter Camp 09 provides resources – space, food, a place to sleep, travel, lots of strangers to talk to and recruit into your network – to support encounters of and across networks. The organizers believe that this kind of interdisciplinary exchange is rare but worth the effort, for a number of reasons, even if cross-network interactions are demanding and may, if only at first sight, seem to divert precious time and energy from the core agenda of each network.

One reason why different networks should cross-communicate concerns the sense that as the social – the ways we communicate, relate, work – becomes more technological, it is more important than ever to address both the excitement and the unease these technologies appear to trigger.

Does this become a question of reclaiming ‘the social’ that is already technological? How do we understand or map the different ways that groups relate to and integrate the technology they use and produce? In other words, though there is obviously a co-constitution of the social and technological, this never happens in a unitary nor uniform fashion. Perhaps one if the most pressing questions is whether the technological should somehow be withdrawn, detached or kept at some kind of manageable (and knowable) distance? Probably not. So it would seem crucial to grasp and confront “the technological” in order to negotiate the social. This brings us to the ‘topologies of expertise’ that underscore the plurality of networks gathered at Winter Camp 09.

In that context it seems odd that there is strong – and almost group-like – desire for a common, universal vocabulary. This has manifested itself in the numerous calls for ‘jargon-free’ talk. While it is imperative to create conditions for translation, it is also important to recognize the limits to the universal. We are conditioned in all sorts of ways (culture, nationality, political values, language interest groups, areas of expertise, particular life conditions) that create differences that can only be partially overcome. Rather than a univeral language, the acceptance and acknowledgement of the necessity of different languages, and hence the need for translation, and translators and mediators, might be a more useful way ahead.

But to be slightly more provocative: who wants to live in a world of perpetual self-affirmation where everything is a predictable, reiteration of the same. Why get out of bed in the morning for that? It would be easy to miss one day, knowing with comfort that the next day will bring more of the same. Consumer capitalism, day jobs, and all sorts of relationships in modern life are meant to be uniform, rational, and predictable. But dynamic networks? If it’s not quips against ‘high theory,’ that is supposedly the opposite of ‘doing things’, then there’s the charge against the impenetrability of geek-speak. But what is this will-to-total knowledge all about? Who wants to know everything? Let’s remember, less can also be more. That in itself can be an excessive amount to handle and come to terms with.

For a brief moment during the plenary session, the diversity of Winter Camp participants seemed to be reduced to just one distinction: whether you are techie or not, with the implications that people who work on seemingly non-technological issues of creativity, social justice, human rights, and other forms of more directly political engagement are somehow closer to a real world of emergencies.

This is partially true, of course. Of course we could and perhaps should be attending demonstrations instead of sitting in meetings, and one campaign that demands attention is the hunger strike at the Schiphol airport detention center, and several Winter Camp participants are involved with the effort of Migrant 2 Migrant Radio. At the same time, the permanent state of emergency around us is creating an urgency that almost threatens to overburden us, making us impatient with discussions that don’t seem to relate to the world of social change directly yet are necessary to identify and chart future
paths of collaboration.

There is so much to do, to be engaged in, we can only pick and choose and then hope that others will join. Given the limited attention and resource pool we can draw from, attempting cross-network collaborations (despite the clear difficulties in doing so), is simply crucial.* *And while all of the networks at Winter Camp have social and political agendas, it seems that a disproportionate number of them are ‘technological’ networks dedicated to the creation of new infrastructures. Given that one dominant medium for communication is technological, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the networks have a technological orientation. Another way to look at this, however, is to recognize that many networks have adopted and reappropriated technological tools and idioms because they are useful in describing and sustaining what they do.

And yet, there is diversity among the so-called technological networks and “techies.” Some are primarily oriented toward /using /and building technology and others gear the use of technology primarily for social change. Many non-technological networks must deal with technology and often have participants with technological skills and capacities. The techie/non-techie divide is not only misleading, it also threatens to obscure the extent to which many of these efforts have already reappropriated, subverted, and recreated mainstream technological idioms that have little to do with social justice, and put the question of justice back into them. This is the task at the heart of many free software projects: they reject the neutrality of proprietary solutions and make visible the extent to which intellectual property frames the kinds of politics we can engage in and what sorts of alternative structures and modes of production we can build.

Unsurprisingly, one of the various linguistic or terminological debates has been around the term ‘network’. Ton Roosendaal from Blender memorably declared ‘what is a network!?’. He and others came back to the term community, suggesting it connected much more closely with the people they work with. There can be no consensus over what terms mean or don’t mean, but it did became clear that ‘community’ corresponded to the question of scale. You know folks directly in your community, but many of course at Winter Camp have met for the first time, suggesting the networks had both ‘abstracted’ into the online, virtual realm, quite likely in the first instance.

There was no debate around the constrictive nature of ‘community’ as a term that corresponds with the reproduction of repressive traditions. Perhaps this is just a (critical) European response to community as distinct from other regions in the world that don’t associate ‘community’ with this type of baggage. Perhaps also it has something to do with the relatively new entry of the term ‘network’ into our social-technological vocabularies. Community is a term that has circulated within society for considerably longer, and thus holds a familiarity that the term network perhaps still does not. Maybe Winter Camp can also provide us with more specific terms to describe these social/collaborative/technological/creative/productive/reflexive formations.