Interview with Geert Lovink (March 2005)

For the BALSAS online magazine

VM: We are starting a new journal on media culture. This sphere is considered to be almost empty field in Lithuania. I mean that we have TV, radio, internet but nobody is revising/questioning them. We do not want to be journal-for-media-beginners, but still we have to figure out some notions. What do you define as media culture?

GL: Media culture starts when a critical mass of ‘consumers’ (the so-called citizens) discover that media are not just there to consume. Instead, you can actively use them to produce content. In the 80s some called that process ‘talking back to the media.’ This requires some civil courage as authorities (in any society, really) do not like if people open up their own communication channels. You can think of local radio, newspapers, video initiatives, public screenings, wall papers, cafes but also weblogs and lists on the Internet. Culture only comes into play when people ‘deconstruct’ technology: hack consumer products and in order to turn them into production machines. Another aspect of culture is loose ties between individuals, groups and scenes. We can only speak of media culture if there is a diversity of initiatives, makers and channels. Only if there is a ‘relative autonomy’ between the actors, culture can start to florish. Obviously there is no media culture if you only do stuff on your own. The need and desire to network and exchange has to be there—it has to emerge beyond the ghetto of the familiar. This is why it is so hard to maintain forms of culture in villages. They lack scale and diversity. One could also say that media culture depends on the existence—and quality—of criticism and reflection. If these are absent there is only propaganda and marketing. So yes, the list is quite long.

VM: Looking from the historical perspective McLuhan was the first, who spoke about the role of media culture in society. Nowadays German media theory says that the notion of Culture is defined only when Culture is Communication (texts, signs, media). It says that the object of media culture is relationship between media and subject (or society). Do you agree? What kind of critical insights are applied to media culture?

GL: What could media culture learn from media theory? Good question. I would say, this depends on the context. In most circles hardcore techno determinism is unknown and badly needed. Kittler’s fight against the idealism of our times is justified. Even insiders have no clue about the internal architecture of the hardware they use and the software they click on every minute of the day. In that sense it is politically dangerous to argue for more ‘culture’ in the media sphere. That would be a wrong approach because we are really not talking about more and better quality content. Media landscapes cannot be changed for the good just from a content perspective. It’s the misuse that counts. The ‘notworking’ as I have recently called it in my inaugural speech.

VM: A growing part of media culture could be labeled Net culture. Who are today’s critics on the Net? Do they differ from the times, when you published your books? Things change so rapid in Net culture or maybe they have already a bit slowed down?  Your last book ‘My First Recession: Critical Internet Culture in Translation’ appeared late 2003. Does it say that we are living in a kind of steady era of the Net culture?

GL: The Internet has indeed gone into a phase of consolidation. Of course there is still a large growth of the user base, in particular in non-Western countries. I don’t see a growth of Internet critics. I wouldn’t know where they would come from in the first place. Certainly not from universities. New media studies, outside of marketing and social science, remains a tiny area. Users are so much ahead of those who study and interpret user cultures. That gap is only widening. That even counts for old media such as television, radio and film. It is only theatre, painting, classical music and literature that have rich traditions in thinking about such ways of expression. One of the problems for critics, as you mentioned, is the fact that the new media scenery is changing so fast.

VM: You initiated and contributed to different kinds of journals on media culture and mailing lists (mediamatic, fibreculture, nettime, sarai, etc.) Could you provide us with short historical insights about these days’ environment and audiences? What are today’s trends and problems in this field?

GL: The initiatives you list cover a wide variety of topics and audiences. Some do, others don’t have a physical space, for instance. That makes a huge difference. Some are volunteer networks, others employ staff. It makes a big difference if you employ around 100 people, like Sarai, or have zero budget as a virtual network, like Fibreculture. But what they have in common, perhaps, is that do not position themselves in the mainstream. Neither can they be labeled as ‘underground’ or sites of political activism in the classical sense. They develop a new media culture that sees itself as a ‘laboratory’ where concepts, ‘memes’, interfaces, models for software and network cultures are ‘invented’ that might later on be ‘implemented’ into society. Today’s alternative cultures still work with the premise that they have to build parallel structures. Network cultures operate with the ‘viral’ model in which an idea, image or concept has to go out into the world wide network to prove itself. This model sounds plausable but in fact has a lot of problems attached to it. Most ‘memes’ do not leave the smallish new media scene. There is little knowledge of how ideas can ‘bounce’ from one context to the next. It is hard for this culture to ‘scale up’. Instead, new media culture has a strong tendency to get stuck in self-referential tendencies. As we know from Luhmann and Bourdieu, cultural and artistic production has an almost fatal attraction to its own reference systems, its own institutions, opinion leaders, magazines etc. Network cultures do not network. I know that sounds strange but there are clear limits for social groups, even if they are global and affluent and have connections into the state.

VM: Lithuanian society is frightened by the notion of ‘new media’. Mostly they conceive it as highly complex ICT. In my opinion, there is always a close relationship between ‘new media ‘and ‘social’ matters. I mean, new media in most cases should have ‘social new media’ connotation.

GL: Fear and anxiety in continental Europe has been around ever since the late 18th century when philosophical, literary and artistic movements such as romanticism revolted against the early signs of industrialism and modernity. Some of the anxiety is justified, by the way. Linux is very hard to install on existing hardware that was designed for Microsoft. Manuals for software, DVD players and VHS recorder can be unreadable. There is some sense in the web interface critique of Jacob Nielsen (which says that most websites are user unfriendy and in fact badly designed). But we have to, on the other hand, put this in contrast with the ease in which ordinary people use mobile phones and SMS, drive cars and deal with complex bureaucracies. This is anyway a non-issue for youngsters (but unfortunately, they are not in charge). Demographically speaking, Europe is going to be ruled by technophobes for many years to come. We may have to wait at least another twenty years until these generations drop dead (and that’s a long time, counted in the speedy time of technology development). Remember, the baby boom generation is obsessed with (political) power so they are not going to give it up easily. In that sense your question is justified and not merely limited to Lithuania. Most of us would have thought that technophia would have vanished by now in Europe, but this is not the case. We wrote about it in the Media Archive book (under the author name of Adilkno) in the early nineties. I wrote about it with Pit Schultz as ‘Netzkritik’ and then me as an individual author in Dark Fiber and My First Recession. Techno anxiety sits deep, and figures like George Steiner, Syberberg and Dreyfus are not exactly marginal figures, in particularly when you get higher up in the cultural establishment.

VM: Fear of new media could have a variety of reasons such as lack of education and cultural politics. Do you still have these problems in Netherlands? How did you overcome them?

GL: I cannot say that the Netherlands is struggling with a massive fear of new media. Instead there is a widespread ignorance and indifference towards these gadgets. The level of critical understanding of issues that come with the introduction of Internet, gaming, SMS or blogs is embarassingly low. In part this is because of the rising populism and deeply rooted–and now official–anti-intellectualism in Dutch society. Holland is out of sync with neighboring countries, and these days that’s meant in a negative way. Here, a cynical consumer culture is rampant. You can laugh about it (it has its cute aspects), but in fact it’s boring and primitive. Let’s say, it is unsophisticated. Education levels amongst students are amazingly low. Basic concepts and authors are unknown. Yet, new media consumption is one of the highest. However, this does not translate into interesting and innovative user culture, software, interfaces etc. for the simple fact that these ‘artifacts’ derive from the general level of culture in society. Computers and mobile phones alone will not do the job. Techno culture depends on a general level of intellectual engagement. Techno cynicism in this case is not enough but it empties itself out, not the power structures it jerks off on.

VM: Old and new media. Is this division still valid? Or do we refurbish every old media into a new one?

GL: Let’s not repeat the ‘remediation’ debate of Bolter and Grusin. I strongly believe that ‘the digital’ will penetrate every form of creative expression, including painting and sculpture. In those fields the computer is an ideal secondary (research) tool. We see spectacular changes, for instance, in the field of fashion design, a profession that you could somehow describe as traditional, seen from the perspective of IT. The implementation of the computer in different fields of society is going so fast that it is unwise to ask computer scientists or even media theorists this question. What I see is a conservative turn in new media. There is a great desire to consolidate. Old media on the other hand quickly learn how to integrate (networked) computers, even up to the point that we do not even notice that the so-called authentic 18th century opera performance has been completely ‘directed’ by computers. So we have to be careful to dump on old media and praise the new ones. What is a real issue is the validity of new media arts as a legitimate art form. Old media fight new media on an institutional level. There is no doubt about this, and this fight will only get more intense. Most likely the old media will win this battle—which says something about the real interest in society to innovate.

VM: At first there were sovereign media, then tactical media. Do we have a newer term for them? How do you define tactical media? Did they gain the result which was expected?

GL: We could say that for a number of years ‘locative media’ that use mobile phones, PDAs, laptops and GPS-readers have been the new kid on the block. Tactical media are nineties to the core. They were a response to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of new movements, the pop culture of dance and techno and last but not least the dramatic drop in prices of consumer electronics (read: the camcorder revolution). Locative media take this development one step further in that they leave behind the space of the radio studio, the video editing suite and the privacy of the study and garages  behind and literally start building new public media spaces. They are so much more lighter and virtual. Locative media are now in their experimental and ‘technical’ phase so it is a bit premature to accuse them for their lack of content. Their problem is an immense visibility for surveillance by authorities. Anyway, the control on (new) media is really intense these days and it’s an aspect that’s very hard to ignore in this War on Terror age. It makes subversive acts futile and ‘real’ resistance almost unimaginable. I guess it’s to reassess the subversive in the age in which everything is cynical and ironical and pre-self-deconstructed. In that sense sovereign media still remain the only true utopian project because it is so hard to admit that ones media actions are useless and only targetted at the Self. Against Bolter and Gruesome we could say that all mediation is self-mediation. That’s something to chew on. If the teleology of media is not to reach out but to implode into the Self, then there is something to look forward to, at least for me because I would be curious about how we will eventually get there. Instead of the horror of Total Communication and Perfect Networks, there is at least a sense of humour in this podcasting to your own Pod.