To what extend has the ‘tech wreck’ and following scandals affected our understanding of new media? No doubt there will also be a cultural fall-out. Critical new media practices have been slow to respond to both the rise and fall of dotcommania. The world of IT firms and their volatile valuations on the world’s stock markets seemed light years away from the new media arts galaxy. The speculative hay days of new media culture were the early-mid nineties, before the rise of the World Wide Web. Theorists and artists jumped with great eagerness on the not yet existing and inaccessible technologies such as virtual reality. Cyberspace generated a rich collection of mythologies. Issues of embodiment and identity were fiercely debated. Only five years later, while Internet stocks were going through the roof, not much was left of the initial excitement in intellectual and artistic circles. Experimental techno culture missed out on the funny money. Over the last few years there has been a steady stagnation of new media cultures, both in terms of concepts and funding. With hundreds of millions of new users flocking onto the Net, the arts could no longer keep up and withdrew in its own little world of festivals, mailing lists and workshops.
Whereas new media arts institutions, begging for goodwill, still portray artists as working at forefront of technological developments, collaborating with state of the art scientists, the reality is a different one. Multi-disciplinary goodwill is at an all time low. At best, the artist new media products are ‘demo design’ as described by Peter Lunenfeld in Snap to Grid. Often it does not even reach that level. New media arts, as defined by its few institutions rarely reach audiences outside of its own subculture. What in positive terms could be described as the heroic fight for the establishment of a self-referential ‘new media arts system’ through a frantic differentiation of works, concepts and traditions, may as well be classified as a dead end street. The acceptance of new media by leading museums and collectors will simply not happen. Why wait a few decades anyway? The majority of the new media art works on display in ZKM, the Ars Electronica Center, ICC or Cinemedia is hopeless in its innocence being neither critical nor radically utopian in its approach. It is for that reason that the new media arts sector, despite its steady growth, increasingly is getting isolated, incapable to address the issues of today’s globalized world. It is therefore understandable that the contemporary (visual) arts world is continuing its decade old boycott of (interactive) new media works in galleries, biennales and shows such as Documenta.
A critical reassessment of the role of arts and culture within today’s network society seems necessary. Let’s go beyond the ‘tactical’ intentions of the players involved. This is not a blame game. The artist-engineer, tinkering on alternative human-machine interfaces, social software, digital aesthetics and more has effectively been operating in a self-imposed vacuum. Over the last few decades both science and business have successfully ignored the creative community. Even worse, artists have actively been sidelined in the name of ‘usability’. The backlash movement against web design, lead by IT-guru Jakob Nielsen, is a good example of this trend. Other contributing factors may have been the corporate dominance of AOL and Microsoft. Lawrence Lessig argues that innovation of the Internet as such is in danger. In the meanwhile the younger generation is turning its back from the new media arts questions and operates as anti-corporate activists, if at all involved. After the dotcom crash the Internet has rapidly lost its imaginative attraction. File swapping and cell phones can only temporarily fill up the vacuum. New media have lost their magic spell. It would be foolish to ignore this. The once so glamorous gadgets are becoming part of everyday life. This long-term tendency, now in a phase of acceleration, seriously undermines the future claim of new media altogether.
Another issue is generationalism. With video and expensive interactive installations being the domain of the 68 baby boomers, the generation of 89 has embraced the free Internet. But the Net turned out to be a trap from them. Whereas real assets, positions and power remains in the hands of the ageing baby boomers, the gamble of its predecessors on the rise of new media did not materialize. After venture capital has melted away, there is still no sustainable revenue system in place for the Internet. The slow working bureaucracies within the educational sector have not yet grasped the new media malaise. Universities are still in the process of establishing new media departments. But that will come to a halt at some point. The fifty something tenured chairs and vice-chancellors must feel good about their persistent sabotage. What’s so new about new media anyway? Technology was hype after all, promoted by the criminals of Enron and WorldCom. It is sufficient for students to do a bit of email and web surfing, safeguarded within a filtered and controlled intranet. It is for this cynical reasoning that we urgently need to analyze the ideology of greedy nineties and its techno-libertarianism. If we don’t disassociate new media quickly from the previous decade, and continue with the same rhetoric, the isolation of the new media sector will sooner or later result in its death. Let’s transform the new media buzz into something more interesting altogether—before others will do it for us.