Network Fears and Desires

Some Strategies to Overcome the Malaise

“When I hear the word ‘interactive’, I grab my gun. And shoot.” (Andre Simon) Once a network, with its loose groupings of individuals and groups has gone through the exciting, initial phase of meeting, discovering each other’s new ideas and concepts, and staging common events, it seems boring to continue, engage with the same old persona and read the same arguments again and again. Suddenly, we are discovering our own limitations. There were the short, intensive periods, full of ecstatic collective experience and the dull, stretched years of isolated struggle and survival. The dense time of the small, expanding (inter)networks now seems to reach its vanishing point. Work is being continued in smaller groups which might be more sustainable in overcoming the Long Boom of Boredom. The seamless creative potential of the collective body has ended up in repetition and certain patterns begin to reveal themselves. The Euro-summer of ’98 smells like the mid seventies, late eighties. Not dark, rather gray. No paradigm shifts ahead, just business as usual. The web is in place, corporate content now finally dominates and the constant technological inventions keep on surprising, creating an addiction for even more promising updates. Ready for the next disappointment. Network growth is not a linear process. Once the Net enters the level of the economy-of-scale, it leaves its first inhabitants behind and enters entirely different levels. Even the most ugly, compromised cultural managers, former net pioneers turned exploiters, will, sooner or later, be overruled and puked out by the powers to be. We are now in the latter days of, Yahoo!,, Netscape etc. Their success stories will not last forever. Don’t believe the market. Widespread neo-liberal market biases makes it hard to make a realistic estimation of their chances – let alone making a critical analysis (or even materialistic theory) of the cyber economy. For the time being we all are still blinded by all the promises, potentials, rumors, hypes. This especially counts for the astronomical, truly virtual stock values. Growth no longer effects net-related initiatives in the fields of arts, culture and politics, no matter if they are into making money or not. Mega, “the Art of the Big”, Wired’s 6.07 cover story by Bruce Sterling, about Hong Kong’s new airport, Shanghai’s sixty-nine skyscrapers under construction, China’s large dams and the tunnels of CERN can also be read as an exotic travelogue for those who have stayed behind, not simply as an appeal to the (tired) community to transcend in order to, once again, re-invent itself. The role of the business avant-garde is played out and they can learn some lessons now from their historical art predecessors. There is, for example, a saturation point for bandwidth, beyond which, more simply does not mean faster. Against all expectations, the Internet is creating a new Mass of “users” that just shut up and click/listen. They are “watching Internet”, a phrase that would have been impossible to come up with a few years ago. This silent majority in the making, which will only know the red ‘Buy’ button, was not envisioned by the early adapters and the visionaries of the first hour. “It is a Mall World, after all,” Wired’s Gary Wolf has to admit, not sure whether to be disgusted or to embrace it. Political economy? Not again! It should have died long ago, stumbling into some non-linear hole of history. There is a return of the suppressed. Economy is not such a favorite topic in the age of pastel-colored optimism, despite of the rise of popular capitalism with its junk stocks. We’d better ignore it and keep on tinkering. But this form of economic escapism is not an option anymore. We all have to survive. After the long farewell of the Welfare State and its less successful relative, state communism, neo-liberalism is in place now. It has not been imposed on us but has slowly gained importance, as a bottom-up ideology. Alternative, small scale do-it-yourself projects seem to fit well into this. Even the radical autonomous and anarchistic utopias that had their historical objections against the State.

Everybody is bearing some guilt, expect perhaps for a handful of analytical Marxists. They have always been right, being in the luxurious position of not having been involved in any struggle for the last 20, 30 years. Their objective Truth is gaining importance as an unbearable wisdom of the fatal destinies ahead of us. With one eye on the screen streaming financial data, FT on the breakfast table, this Friendly Marxism without Subject, has reached its highest stages of scientific alienation. Now it is for a bloody cold dialectical switch, to become what Marxism always was: hardcore economic analysis. This time, made in the United States. No, Monsieur Jospin, the Internet is not one of the Tres Grand Projects, despite the European origin of WWW (Geneva). Your “Market economy, not market society” phrase is a useful (Euro-French) distinction. But let us not fool ourselves. Marx is at Stanford now, back from the new Berkeley library, studying the dynamics of Microsoft, Silicon Valley and Wall Street, writing on his critique of the global managerial class. Time to move on. The permanent digital revolution in danger of becoming a reformist project? The System is effectively taking over, even sucking itself into the intimate spheres of friendships and personal aims. The objective Wheel of Net History is taking subjective tolls. Time slips away and we are caught up in something we never really wanted in the first place. Web design for Dummies. Anxiety over nothing. Debates with nothing at stake. Rivalries when there is plenty of loot. But wait a minute. We know all this. The so-called unavoidable process of decay is not God-given or a Law of Nature. It is about time to introduce intelligent social feed-back systems. Indeed, a Collective Intelligence (thanks, Pierre Levy!) that can overcome the rather primitive 20th Century model of birth, rise, success and fall that numerous groups and movements have gone through. It should be possible to resist both historical and technological determinism, or at least play a game with these now predictable forces. This is the search for a media theory, or digital studies in which we can finally fit the charming or rather fatal wetware factor within the larger forces of hardware and software development., where are you, now that we need you? Big silence. Perhaps it is up to us, this time. Next player. It is easy to write down the draft of “The Rise and Decline of the Global Empire”. See the stock markets fall. But that’s too macro. It is good to gather knowledge about economic forces that are behind the Will to Get Wired. But in the end, they will not tell us much about the psychological processes within smaller networks, which the Internet still consists of, despite the current massification. That is what the marketing gold diggers are looking for: the ultimate secret of the Virtual Community, whatever that may be. We need a network psychology, not in the form of some brilliant observations by academic outsiders, but fast and pro-active social wisdom which can be implemented in groups, small organizations, lists, techno tribes. Not only to prevent conflicts over nothing, but mainly to stage real fights, if there is something at stake.

First of all, there is the Media Question. The Spectacle has entered every possible domain, and its widespread power has made it virtually impossible to imagine a gesture, form of communication or action which is not mediated, digitized, archived. All forms of protests and politics are under its spell. But this tragic reality should not limit ourselves if we are looking for ways out of broadcast misery. Fine, there is still the TAZ, the hacker ethic, models for Electronic Civil Disobedience, tactical media, concepts that might be flexible enough to resist the pressures from the Forces of Simulation. But like all ideas, these Memes have a limited lifespam. They must be updated constantly and renamed in order not to lose their magical attraction. We should not be sad, or even conservative about this. If the Bolo Bolo, TAZ, squat, rave, virtual community is turning up in a new configuration, we should be able to recognize and welcome it. And to witness the birth of such a new entity is certainly a privilege. After the gold-rush, the We is being questioned, in danger of disintegrating into a thousand lonely hearts, potentially becoming victims of the commodification strategies of the Big players. We are not one, and there has never been unity, specially not these days. The We form in the age of the Net is one of the few possibilities left to address groups, sub-networks and formulate common strategies, (if indeed people are interested in collaboration and exchange…). Heterogeneous policies are always in danger of falling apart, much more than parties, trade-unions and other institutions. One of the tricks to avoid people organizing themselves is to reduce their argument to their Private Opinion which is seen as a contribution to the general (democratic?) discourse. In times of consolidation, dispersion and decay, the We is under debate, whilst at the same time more used than ever. It is the time of strategies. At the moment of the short highs there is only the unspoken, ecstatic We feeling. Later on, we do not want others to speak for others. This is anyway a more general tension, a feeling of discontent, between explicit ways of hyper individuality and loneliness on the one side, and the closed, sometimes claustrophobic atmosphere inside groups, collectives, companies and movements on the other side. This should be the starting point for every contemporary debate on new ways of organizing.

Commodify your dissent. Certainly. And you will be commodified too. This fear is even more prominent and destructive these days compared to the unavoidable mediation we have to deal with, (and practice). For some, there is the pleasure of getting to know the rules of the game, understanding the tricks of Doing Business, studying the metaphysics of making money and its ritual, sacral aspects, fooling around with The Suits. But for most, the workers and not executives, commodification means regulation of work, creativity and (soft) subversions. At the first glance, commodification feels like justice, a liberation, a chance to finally get back some of the money for all the efforts that have been invested in the video, music, text or software one has been working on for such a long time. But in most cases this only remains a promise. The famous Sell-Outs seldom pay off, compared to the real money others are making with ordinary jobs. This cheapness, combined with strong, personal feelings of discontent, even guilt is the main reason behind the current wave of paranoia about commodification. It is the fear of betrayal for no reason, being left alone with empty hands, having to work with strangers that have no clue at all. Yes, one can become infected by corporate germs, but this is easy to cure. One good book, documentary or travel will do. We all have to be aware of neo-liberal rhetoric, but ideology is not the issue here. From the political, strategic perspective, the fear we are speaking of here is one of the main obstacles for people to organize themselves and engage with each other in serious way beyond occasional collaborations. Commitment and dedication these days intertwine with business, and this is deadly.

Consciousness Regained. Radical media pragmatism demands that the actors remain Cool. Who can still proclaim to be Multi-media after the monstrous misuse of this term? Yes. It should still be possible to ignore all market forces, cheap trends and keep on playing. There is a state of hyper-awareness, to transform, disappear, give up terrains that have been occupied, and continue at the same time. What now counts is integrity. It is getting easy these days to become resigned. There are a thousand reasons to quit, or to continue on the same grocery level. The world, structured by pre-cooked events, ready to be microwaved and consumed, can be rejected. Downright reality is unbearable these days. “No spiritual surrender”, an Amsterdam graffiti says. Colorless digital existence can be softened by self-made utopias, hallucinatory experiences, with or without recreational drugs and technologies. Regular switching to other channels which are outside the cyber realm is an option. There are countless universes. Negroponte’s existential reductionism (“In being digital I am me.”) is just one of them. “You are only real with your make-up on.” (Neil Young)

Here Comes the New Desire. Unknown, forgotten forms of negation, refusal, anger and pleasure are there and will be open (even towards E.T’s), whilst still encrypted against the (mentality) police forces and fashion hunters. There are plenty of sadistic traps for the trend researchers and their clientele: Alternative radio, Independent labels, French theory (from twenty years ago), interactive games, on-line events, This is so cruel: see them buying, the poor bastards, desperate to get an identity, any, which makes them feel alive, for a moment or two. Cybercynical Knowledge 98. So their search engines have to be distrusted, ignored, misled. The people-to-people networks will lead one to the right source, not the databases of the corporations/states. Computers generate useless data, not contexualized information. This should be knowledge4all. The postmodern late-leftist discourse of the ’68 generation has now closed all its possible options. There is no way out for them, locked up, as they are, in their down-sized, optimized, professional institutions. So let it be. The same can be said of the more recent ‘new social movements’, with exception of sudden outbursts of uncontrolled (and therefore not organized) social-ethnic unrest. Let us not get distracted by ideological pseudo-events such as the Culture Wars or paranoid waves of xenophobia. Some fights are shadow boxing. Others are real. Now it is time for other options, in search for the genuine New that does not fit into known patterns of eternal return, being taken back into the System. Virtual Voluntarism means being able to overcome moods of melancholy, perfectly aware of all possible limits and opportunities, looking for the impossible, on the side, out of reach of both futurists and nostalgics. Being able to present alternative realities, shocking the Johnsons, way out of reach of the Appropriation Machines. The market authorities will arrive too late. Yes, this is a dream, but we do cannot survive in a (digital) environment without options. In order to get at the point, we should reach a level of collective ‘self consciousness’ to overcome the system of fear and distrust which is now spreading. No attempt to reconstruct what worked once. No glorification of the inevitable. In order not to throw away everything which has been built up we should invent concepts on top of it and not narrow all our options into making the world institutionally legible. The “Next Age”, the name of a department store in Pudong/Shanghai, is hybrid: half-clean, somehow dirty, never entirely digitized, stuck between real growth and an even more real crisis. Obsessed with progress, in full despair. But there are other options, and we can realize them. “Get Organized” (n5m3)

[edited by matthew fuller]