MF: Let’s start with the heroic beginnings of electronic networks: when did they appear and what was the political agenda – or, at least, what were the political hopes – of those who created them?
GL: The history of the Internet is well documented; yet, an informed retrospective analysis of its concepts is still lacking. What we have seen thus far is a weak cross breading of academic postmodern cultural analysis and technology sales talk (note: not the technology itself). It is unfortunate that ‘French philosophy’ has been misused in the context of our new media. What may have worked for painting and film, failed dramatically in the case of the Internet. As a result, there is still no clear understanding, let alone a comprehensive study, of techno-libertarianism, even though this philosophical sensibility dominated the 199O’s. Because we are running after the facts, we now have to read Leo Strauss in order to understand the neo-conservatives in powerÉ but this latter group are a very different breed than the radical anti-statist, pro-market individualists of the nineties. And understanding the political agenda of US techno hippies is not easy, especially for outsiders from Europe, Korea or Nigeria. For it is not neo-liberalism: Chomsky, for one, is of no use in this context. For instance, the techno pranksters fight for democracy, yet they fail to see the destructive nature of corporations. They love guns but detest armies. They write free software, while defending the freedom to spread Nazi propaganda. They define today’s network architectures but show no interest in conquering traditional positions of power. They do not like TV, yet love multiplayer online adventure games. These are noteworthy and peculiar contradictions: thus the experiences that they inform should neither be mixed up with a neo-liberal outlook nor with the good intentions of anti-neoliberal ‘media activists’.
MF: You claim that the electronic net-workers of the 1990’s became at once overly obsessed with State control and naively neglectful of corporate infringement in their activities. Can you recount this Ç libertarian È turn of electronic networks politics ? How does it relate to the simultaneous rises of the Ç third way È proponed by Clinton and Blair and of the dot.com economy?
GL: Culturally speaking, early Internet culture has been shaped by young US-American academics, mostly geeks and hackers. It is a white, male community of computer programmers that doesn’t easily fit into the left-right schemes. The values of this hippie scene are surprisingly under-researched. Their key website, since 1998, has been Slashdot (http://www.slashdot.org). It’s one of the most read sites on the Net. However, the scholarly literature about Slashdot only looks at its ‘open publishing’ principles. The ways in which Slashdot diffuses its hardcore libertarian ideology by translating it into ostensibly technical issues remains an unreported factor in the global socialization of geeks.
The key issue, to answer your question, is why the anti-authoritarian mentality of the sixties and early seventies focused it’s paranoid energies towards state control (the very state that financed them), whereas the critique of corporate domination was largely neglected. The IT world had become ‘libertarian’ way before Clinton and Blair got in power so I do not see a direct relation there. The only thing we could say is that by 1992-1993 a variety of forces gained hegemonic status. I am reluctant to venture into a conspiracy theory butbooks such as Paulina Borsook’s Cyberselfish and Thomas Frank’s One Market Under God certainly give clues. Barbrook and Cameron’s famous essay, The Californian Ideology, published in1995, was part of the ‘Wired debate’ but didn’t add much insights. For these UK scholars, however, Blair policies were the exact opposite of the Wired ideology for the simple reason that for Third Way advocates there still is a role for a state, albeit a diminished one, whereas libertarians are either simply against state interventions and investments or refuse to admit that they actually pervade the IT sector.
Mondo 2000, Wired’s predecessor and competitor in the first months of 1993, had a more mellow, weird underground agenda, and was at least open to progressive cultural issues. By mid-1992, Louis Rosetto, the publisher of Wired, had understood the Zeitgeist and suppressed any critical or intellectual concern. I witnessed this evolution from close up, because around that time, the Wired crew moved from Amsterdam, my hometown, to San Francisco. It meant quite a break, away from the cultural concerns of Old Europe, rapidly adapting the New Age agendas of people like Peter Schwartz, Esther Dyson, Stewart Brand and Kevin Kelly. Politically speaking, the magazine moved from alternative to conservative, with George Gilder and Newt Gingrich as its spokespersons. If one wants to dig into the archeology of this metamorphosis, one should do a discourse analysis plus social network analysis of the TED conferences (http://www.tedmed.com/history.html). A key term here would be a comparison between progressive agendas predicated on the notion of ‘change’ and the way in which these business gurus began styling themselves as ‘change leaders’. Change for them meant to get access to money, which, in the United States, is in the hands of the ‘old’ East coast elites. Change in the nineties was all about the merger of (venture) capital with technology. Obviously it was not ‘social change’ that these people had in mind. They detested the power of the television networks, Hollywood and Wall St., but had little to say about the Microsoft monopoly and the unprecedented rise in power of global corporations.
MF: Both the demise of the dot.com entrepreneurs and, even more dramatically, the advent of a new regime of global security, after September 2001, mark the beginning of yet another phase in the short history of electronic networks. What do you see as the features and the main stakes of electronic network politics in the current era ?
GL: The dotcom crash, the corporate scandals around Enron and WorldCom AND September 11 all came as a relief for the Internet as a whole. I am saying this with mixed feelings because I have often stated the opposite. The 2000/2001 events precipitated the sudden eviction of an aggressive business class that had become synonymous with the medium. These were often people that had moved into the Internet sector coming from other business backgrounds and, luckily, they left as quickly as they arrived. We should not underestimate the size of this, now demised, greedy ‘virtual class’ and the worldwide gold rush atmosphere in which it came to be. What struck me was their disinterest in the technical issues and even in the users of the technology . For them, the Internet was merely a vehicle to get rich quick. Once they left, we witnessed an interesting renaissance of the Net. Think of the rise of weblogs, wikis and wikipedia, free software and open source, podcasting, Internet telephony (Skype), social networks like Friendster, Orkut, Flickr and yes… Google. Now, investors look much more closely at what the hundreds of millions of users are actually doing online. Dotcom entrepreneurs had no time for their customers. Even though Internet is said to move at the speed of light, the building of user communities need time.
I understand what you are aiming at with your question, but we have to be aware that security and privacy concerns do not drive the Internet business. This goes back to the deep ambivalence of the geek coding class towards these issue. Hackers are concerned with privacy while admitting at the same time that there is no such thing. Remember: hackers write and fight viruses at the same time. They build the content filters for China to censor the Net and, at the same time, develop a program like Tor, which facilitates anonymous web browsing.
MF: For the sake of engaging you in a case study, how do you analyze the evolution of MoveOn.org, an entity initially constituted as a network of American citizens opposed to the political exploitation of the Lewinski affair and presently considered to be one of the most prominent agents of renewal on the left side of the US democratic party ?
GL: Over the Summer I read Joe Trippi’s account of the Howard Dean campaign,The Revolution will not be Televised. The US-American Internet campaign ‘sphere’ is one that I am not intimately familiar with. To put it in friendly words: I do not have much in common with US Democrats. What surprises me, however, is the efficiency and scale of such web-based citizens networks. What activists can learn from moveon.org is how one can set up, and maintain, large volunteer networks that can migrate from one campaign to the next. There is plenty of academic literature about the ‘learning organization’. But how do we imagine a learning network? Social bonds are loose these days and many campaigns have to start from scratch.
MF: Electronic networks, insofar as they manage to sustain themselves without becoming networked organizations, are experiments both in sociality and in governance: at least, this is how your work invites us to look at them. So let us ask you, first, what you see as the distinctive features of network sociality – insofar as the network can neither be defined as a community nor reduced to a mere gathering site?
GL: For German theorist Christoph Spehr the definition of free cooperation has to be negative. That’s incredibly creative, to put negation center stage. For Spehr we can only speak of free cooperation if members are able to leave the group voluntarily, without devastating consequences. I would like to say the same thing about network sociality. The absence of the social, the community etc. is not something we should complain about. Loose ties are constitutional, these days. We should stop reading them in terms of decline. If you want to organize the masses, you should both strengthen the ties in your neighborhood and, beyond that, prepare yourself for a sophisticated culture of indifference and non-commitment. Engagement comes in radically new ways. Networks are playgrounds, they are probes. There is lots happening–but please let’s abandon all hope to recreate fixed social structures such as a Party or a Church. Networks are not the surrogates of 19th century sociality. This T-Shirt slogan says it all: “I Will Not Love You A Long Time.” No more bonds meant to last untill death tears us apart. Once we realize that, a whole new world opens up.
MF: Second, regarding the governance of electronic networks, why do you think that organized networks are incompatible with the procedures of representative democracy but that they have the potential to resist autocratic models, such as those of the avant-garde party and of the corporation? In other words, what do you see in the self-government of electronic networks that could foreshadow a post-representative democracy?
GL: Networks need no outside representation. In the large world out there, network members have a multitude of memberships. They are not primarily concerned with formal relationships. This may sound like an adolescent gesture, as if networks haven’t grown up and refuse to play by the rules of the adult world, dominated by institutions. That’s one way of looking at it. But of course such a complaint itself is a fraud, as it is full of immature resentment. We’re facing two contradictory tendencies here: networks are gaining importance, their numbers are rising exponentially, however, their culture remains deeply informal. They are pervasive and invisible at the same time. Conspiratorial thinkers and Jesuits would not see this as a contradiction, but in a world which claims to be open, accountable and transparent, it is. The level of commitment shown by members of networks remains generally low. Their involvement can be passionate but it often is topical and temporary. What Ned Rossiter and I have written about ‘organized networks’ is rather speculative and starts with a simple question: do networks need incorporation in order to fully operate in today’s society? NGOs went through that process of incorporation, but, thus far at least, networks did not. If we take the network as a form of social and political organization seriously, and we should, then we should expect some form of legal and financial incorporation. The other issue is internal power relations. Networks claim to be open and egalitarian, but very often they are not.