The following is the integral version of an interview/dialogue between Geert Lovink, Snafu and Subjesus. It was made in July for the portal of the Italian pubblic Television Rai.it. The Italian abridged version can be found athttp://www.rai.it/RAInet/smartweb/cda/articolo/sw_articolo/1,2791,137,00.html)
In this text Geert touches a variety of arguments, from the first development of the digital public domain, to the recent evolution of Tactical Media passing for an analysis of the dotcom burst and of the possible development of independent platforms and infrastructures. ——- Interview with Geert Lovink By Snafu and Subjesus
Q: You took a part in several media-related experiences, mostly in the Netherlands: the Adilkno group of media intellectuals, the pirate radio movement, tactical media conferences, the Amsterdam-based community network The Digital City and so on. Could you give a short yet detailed outline of your past activities, and a glimpse at your present days, as a member of a global/local networking culture?
A: Is this a job interview, or what? I am not sure if my personal biography is all that significant for the theory and practice of “becoming media”. Certainly I cannot see an accumulation of knowledge or even experiments in our “alternative” network sector. Growth in the digital arena is more spasmodic than linear or dialectic. Yet, there are waves of change, intense periods in which History and the personal biography seem to fire each other up. In the meantime there is just boredom–the usual, eternal, repetition of the same old topics and patterns in which thoughts and movement come and go. We are now in a golden age of net activism, and we should all enjoy this rare and special period. In my biography the year 1980 was of significance, the squatters movement in Amsterdam and Berlin, urban autonomy in a post-ideological and post-68 condition. Leftist models occurred at moments of regression. They were responsive and regressive, not strategic, imposing dogmatism is in a precious situation where something new was about to emerge. At that time the left had split into a pragmatic faction and an intellectual ghetto within academia which was only able to analyze its own defeats and failures (which is, I agree, a study in itself). Just imagine how different Baudrillard would have been if he would not have had the boxing ball of 1968. The same can be said of Deleuze and Guattari. One cannot understand their intellectual position without basic knowlegde of the French political landscape in the sixties and seventies (which was dominated by the PCF). In the age of ecstatic normalcy, lacking opposition the theory without enemy, without reference, has become a self-mirroring text regime. Activists in this context are, almost by default, forced to respond anti-intellectually. This tendency started in the late seventies with punk. If you have the impulse to do something you have to stop deconstructing yourself. Just do it, as the Nike phrase correctly states. Hit and run. See how authorities and their sign system respond. Trail and error. Ignore those who tell you that all activism ends up in building concentration camps. This is moral blackmail from those who are not involved anyway. Take the moral highground in such situations and respond with a sovereign silence. It is not worth the anger. This also counts for the hacktivism and net.activism debate. Let’s not be afraid, neither for radical action, nor for radical theory–and leave the pc knights outside . Theory is not an ersatz religion. It won’t tell you what to do–nor what to think. It has truely become a Foucaultian toolkit, that is, one which stays in the wardrobe for most of the time. Forgotten pearls. Beautiful but unworn. In this situation the Event becomes an almost holy entity. For many, Events are just falling from the sky because they are no longer created by some Party or Vanguard. Cracking the events therefore becomes precious knowledge. Most people just live their lifes. They wait and see, until something happens: 1989, raves, Seattle, a squat, a riot on the first of May (or not). This eventism can also be found at the media level, with the Internet, or local radio, suddenly creating zones of possibilities, which then fade away, after a wild night, some exciting months in a media project, or however long it might take. That’s my biography. The development from print to radio to Internet, in my case, is not an interesting one. What is interesting is the ability to metamorphorize, as a person, using (new) media, in the way Klaus Theweleit described this process of personal “growth”, using “techniques”. Sometimes one succeeds, in some cases in all seems to fail, ending up in (in)significant misery. The hardest part for me is to judge my conceptual work. The realm of ideas has lost so much of its significance, despite all the warm hearted compliments of theory sympathisizers and reassurements from the side of industry that “one day your good content will rewarded.”
Q: You have written a lot about the digital public domain, often with a realistic and disenchanted view. Yet, if we look at experiences such as DDS and xs4all, we have the impression of an early European net.culture able to highly influence the digital innovation, by acting as a subject of the early networks. Nowadays the mediascape has clearly mutated its outlook. Despite the apparent crisis, dotcoms and telecom are monopolizing and re-shaping the net. Yet, we feel that many issues raised by the digital avant-guards (if we can use this term.) have been absorbed by mainstream new media: access for all, low costs of connection, availability of webspace and various facilities are on the agenda of any big corporation. In the context of the Next5minutes 3 you launched the “free for what?” campaign (www.waag.org/free), which was exactly focusing on these issues. At which level the ideology of a generalised free access have been absorbed and emptied of its idealistic drive and at which level it has positively influenced the economical development? Did that ideology help to reduce the digital divide, or the market continued to be driven by its own logic, without being affected at all by social dynamics?
A: Let’s not be overly afraid of co-optation. I don’t think it is all that interesting to design memes which cannot be used by the evil forces of the state and the market even though it is quite a challenge. We did serious work into that direction with Adilkno and our “strategies of failures” were certainly not the most popular. Amongst your peers it is not widely appreciated to be on the “heights of despair” (Cioran). Utopian ideas speak to the people. This is simply the case, despite half of century of organized disgust of utopianism. Even amongst distinguished scholars negativism has never been popular. I have always been willing to take the risk of promoting digital ideas, knowing that, at the end of the day, they would be perverted, not just be third parties, but also by classic infightings within the alternative ghettos. Increasing the media-cultural complex needs new ideas, just to feed itself, with regardless what. One day you are their “content”, and next day you don’t exist anymore. It is our normal state to be ignored. Only the scandal will bring you in the spotlight of the Spectacle. There is really nothing special about this media law. Nothing to be upset about. In the case of the demand for public access to information and the communication networks it is a broad and diverse new media culture which counts, in the end. The projects themselves are interesting enough. Some of them are even really exciting! What then counts is to leave that particular stage or project early enough not to get bitter or cynical. When we are speaking about the birth of (public access) media it is all about the Art of Appearance and Disappearance. I know, these are ugly terms from the postmodern eighties. Too bad. But they really make sense (combined with a healthy dose of economic theory from both liberal and critical perspectives). You want your ideas to spead and you don’t want to become complicant. Fine. Your choice. Then don’t blame others for making money with them. If the gift economy gets corrupted, move on. If everyone has Internet and the revolution still hasn’t arrived, too bad. Change stage. The idea of a Digital Commons is still there, despite IBM and HP buying themselves into the open source movement.
Q: Your last book is a collection of interviews entitled “Uncanny Networks”. You highly contributed to the development of networks in Europe. The original idea, if I’m not wrong, was to create a field of convergence where artists, activists, programmers, designers, critics and academics could meet. Over the years “the tactical media” space has been filled with a variety of events and solutions, from the Next5minutes to the Browserday, from a diffused net plagiarism to the Toywar. On the other hand, in the introduction to your book you say “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.” What are the results of the efforts of weaving these networks over the years? The process of crossing the fields is still too young or is already gone?
A: You are right. Where does our fascination to work with other disciplines originate? Why this is a passion so many people share, comparable to the common hateress against the Microsoft monopoly? Are we really locked up in the cages of specialized fields of knowlegde? Discontent about the division of labour is certainly there. Does it come out of a false hunger for totality, a holistic drive towards a unified existence in which everyone can do anything at the same time? I can only ask questions here. Perhaps working with Others is what people really want compared to the demand for social change in the first half of the 20th century. Specialists constantly need new imput in order to remain creative and competitive. The underlying idea of working with the professional Other is that he or she has hidden ideas and energies which will collide and fuse with ones own. In the office world and the work floor having to others is not all that special. Multi-disciplinary task forces are pretty common. The strategy of mixing, creating temporary, hybrid solutions and (art) works is only shocking for those who have something to lose, aka those who are running institutions. Internet does not belong in visual arts, theory is not activism, real technology does not need art, etc. But people do not fit in categories and some resist the constant need for qualification and the specific education and reward systems. Undermining self-referentiality within disciplines is a somewhat bizarre, not very rewarding hobby. It is of course better carreerwise to stick to the rules of the administrators rand just do your own art, cultural studies, television or radio and not behave like a mad scientist in search of the recipe for making gold. Because what should the outcome, for example in the case of multi-media, look like? Q. I’m not very interested in “professional” cooperation. Ultra-specialisation of labor makes multi-disciplinarity necessary, if not vital to exist on the market. My question was more referred to people (like you) that decide to cooperate following a desire, a tactical line of flight, a trajectory which is meant to lead somewhere or nowhere else. Tactical media was naming many different spaces of invention. This definition wasn’t only indicating what to do in “the next five minutes “. It was the expression of a new infrastructure and a new way to communicate amongst real people, through space and time. Not for the sake of “cultural innovation”, but with the intention of building a shared code, a procedure of attack. This chain of reactions worked perfectly with the Toywar, for instance. But, is it always necessary to wait for an emergency to verify our power? What is the network doing for the rest of the year? According to your experience, is it stronger than 5 years ago? I know it’s very hard to make a complexive balance, but you are one of the few people who really travelled through many central experiences. [Sorry, to be so specific but this is the real core of the book. I was talking to Ricardo Dominguez recently: he said that one of the netstrike tools is to upload questions on the target server, like “Is democracy.html on this server?” And the answer would answer “democracy.html is not found on this server”. 404, a tipical net.art gesture becomes in this way part of a tactical action. What is usually considered a physical attack, shift into a syntactical one. This is the space where single gestures become rings of a chained discourse. It’s the space where net.art meets hacktivism or where hacking meets net.art, e.g. life sharing by 01.org. I’m very interested in this space, it’s my favourite one, because it keeps the heritage of the XX century avant-gardes, but being much less elitist to me. I want to understand if these different communities meet just occasionally or are building the conditions for a paradygm shift. On one hand, net.art seems to dig more and more into conceptualism, interface design; hacking is all focused, at least in Italy, on writing softwares under GPL; hacktivism seems an endless count of online actions more or less related to the current “anti-glob” agenda. Here the function of the networks become crucial. If you read the subjects of Nettime you have the feeling of a very balanced, integrated world; on the other hand, anyone keep following h/er own thread; i know that the network doesn’t have a personality, it’s not a subject or a party. I don’t want to reduce it to a definition, but in the last 5-6 years many things changed inside and outside of it=85 i’d like you to paint a fresco of this shift, frome the point-of-view of an insider=85]
A: The Web is not the Party. It is not even a movement. What we face here is an increasing uncertainty over the political. There has been a shift over the last twenty years, away from clearcut political structures and activities towards a much more blurry field of “cultural exchange”. Others have written at length about the shift from politics towards arts and culture, specially in Germany. The somewhat closed circles around magazines such as Spex, Texte zur Kunst and Starship have reached a sophisticated discourse around that topic (however, not (yet) accessible for non-German audiences). The uncertainty on the Net is a big issue, as far as I can see. Will the Other answer? The essence of networks, one could arguably state, is collaboration. Not just communication or exchange of information. However, the cases of a successful collaboration remain rare. This is partly because so many are new users are not yet accustomed to the Net. They merely use it as a tool (making money, for example). This is why I am hestitant about using the Net for attacks. It is not very creative and sophisticated, at least not at this moment. In my opinion the density of self-organization has got to rise first. The lose cultural networks we see at the moment are going nowhere. They may create a bit of discourse, but that’s all. That even counts for the activist sites such as indymedia.org. They still have to reach the level of workgroups. It will start to get interesting if netizens, the global online citizens will have their own intranets. Substantial islands within the net, also software-wise. That will not so be ignored or knocked-down. I am not if the invisible, tactical strategies of the Deleuzian age will last forever. They were written in response to the declined, at that time still powerful structures of the communist parties in France and Italy. Such entities do not exist anymore. We are living in the post-89 world in which micro-politics and rhizomatic strategies have become almost hegemonic concepts. It that sense it is right to say that this a Deleuzian Age. But I am not the kind of person to obey the Deleuzian State Region. Neither would Deleuze, I suppose. It’s hard to deal with fashions if you like them. As many have noticed before, viral marketing has become a mainstream corporate strategy. I am very concerned with the lack of infrastructure in the net culture. Virtuality alone will not do it. We have to physically own and develop (or hack, steal, etc.) cables, satellite, offices to work from and not buy into the advertisement of the happy mobile nomad. This is also means that we have to go beyond the somewhat primitve and moral critique of institutional politics. I am keen to see how complex and diverse superstructures, virtual institutions can be developed. Not just a website plus mailinglist. We should not get stuck at that level.
Q: That’s it. Maybe it’s time to go beyond a mere “we want bandwidth” or “access for all”. Server machines could be a good start: if you want to build a really autonomous network you have to build up your own computer host, like in the BBS-age when anyone could be a sysop and run his own net. The recent wave of interest towards P2P systems such as Gnutella or the much-rumored Freenet seems to signal a sort of growing awareness about that. Recently, www.wired.com reported a not-so-weird proposal coming from the Cato Institute, a kind of US libertarian anarcho-capitalist think-tank, to build up parallel private networks beyond the mounting state-regulation of the web (muck like offshore states, e.g. Seeland). This funny convergence between issues and attitudes so different – typical of this post-all age – may be a symptom. Isn’t it time to claim “server machines for all?”
A: For sure. In a few years we might get there. Now are still in the period of economic downturn and rollout of bandwidth capacity (both for Internet and wireless). However, we are no longer living in the na=EFve (Clinton) years of the cyber plenty. In a time when everything was growing it was easy to be libertarian.We are now moving towards a period of confrontation, away from the third-way agenda of consensus in which, for example, such of Sealand, Wired and Ayn Rand followers such as the Cato Institute perfectly fit. I am not sure if we should continue the strategy of building temporary autonomous zones. It is time to be in the world. That’s the strategy of the so-called Seattle movement against corporate capitalism. Confrontation with the corporate world and its institution, based on decentralized and networked affinity groups and individuals, coordinated by a power portal (www.indymedia.org). We have had enough laissez faire laissez passe politics. Deleuzian rhizomatics was part of that. But the age of “imperial sovereignity” of the Internet is coming to a close. The Net is becoming a battleground, not just a market place for ideas and their data. That image is too simple, too harmonious. Now that the introductory phase of new media is coming to close (despite further tech revolutions) we return to a real politik of the networks in which economic interests of telecom giants, microsoft, governments and regional blocs are becoming real. The recording industry has to go to court against Napster. It cannot just tolerate it. Nor will Hollywood tolerate Gnutella. People who are developing and using such systems have to understand the clandistine nature of what they are doing and take responsibility, take sides. The time of playing and surfing is over. If you run a server, fine, do it, but then you are also the sys-op, and with that comes certain legal and ethic responsabilities. If one is prepared to accept this, then go ahead! But don’t say afterwards, I didn’t know I was only exchanging films and software without knowing that it’s illegal. People have to be prepared to say: “Legal, illegal, Schei=DFegal.”
Q: What are the economic sources on which to build a really independent new media culture? According to Negri and Lazzarato, the economics of information has most to do with the “production of subjectivities”. And this production often needs to assume the form of enterprise acting within (and in a sense against) the marketplace. Negri and Lazzarato define “political enterprise” this new agent, and we are seeing some examples of that rising. xs4All, even after the take-over by the Dutch telecom KPN, could be one of those. What are your feelings about that?
A: New media culture is producing concepts, not value in the speculative dotcom sense. Let alone money. And not content either. They are concepts-in-the-making which need to be tested out first before they can be used on a large scale to produce subjectivity, as Negri and Lazzarato describe it. The fun about this test phase is not the some heroic avant-garde position of showing people the way. I think it is a much more playful, experimental stage, less pedagogical, in which ideas are getting hardwired into a small scale technological culture which builds up its own userbase and rituals and then gets exposed to society and the marketplace in a later stage. The real test then is to see how robust the “meme” is which has been collaboratively developed. There can be sell outs, betrayals and other setbacks. Boredom of the everyday is even more destructive to good concepts. I am not sure if profit or non-profit really makes such a big difference, probably in the speed in which ideas can spread. I am interested in sustainable memes that can constantly change, grow and contract, without losing its core identity and basic ethics. xs4all seems to be a good example. What I do not like are people who build up something precious, together with many others, and then, for some reason, pull the plug and disappear. To me, all CEOs of dotcoms startups which went bust are cowards to me. Many of the dotgone companies were “build to flip”, ran by people who only do business in times of hyper growth. Come on. Who’s afraid of a crisis, or two? Those who grew in the seventies and eighties, without all that easy VC money are ready to take risks, to make something out of nothing. The dotcom business model is for the unpatient so-called enterpreneurs who, in the end, only learned how to burn money. They did not even develop concept, let alone software. What the cultural sector of the New Economy (RIP) has done in the wild years of 1999-2000 is not entirely clear. They mainly fought over the definition of net.art so that art critics could start writing and art collectors could start collecting. Culture was in a volatile, defensive mode and did not profit whatoever from the money fountain. It was a time of survival.