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<nettime> Cyberculture in the Age of Dotcom.mania
geert lovink on Sat, 15 Apr 2000 18:04:13 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Cyberculture in the Age of Dotcom.mania


Cyberculture in the Age of Dotcom.mania
A Vista over Internet Strategies

By Geert Lovink

The early, mythological phase of digital culture is now rapidly running
out of its utopian energies. There are hardly any signs left of cyberspace
as an autonomous, supra-national, trans-gender sphere. According to the
British science fiction writer Gwyneth Jones, there are no indications of
a rise of the cyborg and its apparent ability to overcome patriarchal
structures.  Internet has proven incapable of creating its own
consciousness. Instead law and order are taking command over the last
pockets of digital wilderness.  Logging onto the Net will soon be as
fascinating and meaningful as picking up the phone, so Jones in her essay
collection "Deconstructing the Starships." 

The taming of the cyberculture by "click 'n mortal" businesses and their
willing government executors took only a few years. The Net has been a
successful financial gain for some and left behind a scattered scene of
small enterprises, stagnating networks and dead links for most of the
early participants. The time of institutionalization, mega mergers and
security paranoia has arrived. These new conditions, driven by the current
hyper growth, has a yet invisible effect on the cultural new media sector
(arts, design, education), which had perceived itself for so long as
"ahead of the wave". Whereas start-ups with youngsters are speeding up
towards their IPO (Initial Public Offering) epiphany and eventual sell-out
or bankrupcy, the cultural sector of the new media branch is in panic. The
accumulated cultural capital now has to be safeguarded. Where to go with
all these experimental interfaces, artistic interactive installations, 3D
worlds, techno samples, rich alternative content, packed in databases,
stored on CD-ROMs and web sites, not designed for the market in the first
place? Now is the time to cash in, but the promised high value of
so-called "cultural content" will be not rewarded any time soon, so it
seems. Most money is still made with software, infrastructure and access,
not with content. The interest of venture capitalists in cultural content
is next to zero, with little or no cash returns or profit in sight. How to
cash in when there is little or no interest in avant-garde quality
concepts, with mainstream non-design and instant content proven so popular
and financially successful? Back to charity? The danger of marginalization
is immediate. A way back into state funded projects, museums, galleries
and academia seems to be only left option for the once so mighty cultural
arm of the virtual class. 

The paradoxical position of web design can prove as an example here. Just
as designers have the technology to create interactive web pages packed
with sound and movement such as flash/shockwave, the future seems somewhat
monochrome, as Fiona Buffini characterizes the state of web design in the
Australian Financial Review (April 8, 2000). The small screens of mobile
phones is forcing design to again dramatically reduce expectations
concerning color, fonts and download speed. Similar limitations are the
case for interactive television. Two steps forward, one step back? Or is
it one step forward, two steps back? Web design no longer has the pioneer
role to convince a cultural savvy audience about the high performance
"interactive" capabilities of the Web. 

Seductive buttons and surprising multi-layered content, linked in such
ways to make surfing an exciting journey through the yet unexplored
hyperspaces, has been brutally cut short to lucid functionality. "Coolness
as the single one criterion for a website's success has been dumped in
favor of "the higher plain of simplicity" as main portals strive to
increase speed", so Buffini. Sites such as Yahoo!, Excite, Amazon, search
engines such as Google, and virtually all news organizations, which
together take a majority of the click rates represent the new breed in
screen design. With no graphic art or technical experiments, all space is
used to maximize the amount of text-based information on the front-page. 
Buffini: "Usability, it seems, has become the major task of web designers
with big commercial clients." With millions of clicks a day, high ratings
on the stock exchange and high, risky venture capital investment, the
leading web companies cannot afford their customers to crash on some
plug-in. Buffini quotes media analyst Ian Webster: "Yahoo! and Amazon
deliver because they're designed to the last pixel. You can be a design
snob but these sites are amongst the most sophisticated. With Internet
population growing you have to design something that will work for 50
million people." In order to get this level, designers have to become
neutral and provide users with "mass customization."

Interaction design seems to have lost its battle against interface
stupidity. The office metaphor of the previous decade has been exchanged
for an adaptation of the newspaper front-page outlook as the dominant
information architecture. In this regressive move, back to the old mass
media of print, references to space or navigation are no longer needed.
What is presented here as a step forward, from the adult-like "grooviness"
to "usability", is (again) light years away from the Bauhaus imperatives
in which sophisticated design was not seen in conflict with mass
production.  Telephone books, dictionaries, paper money have all had
decent typography and graphic design. So why not the world's most visited
websites? Is it perhaps the unholy alliance between geekness and money
which has pushed the HTML designers of the first hour off their thrown?
The profession of interaction design has to adjust itself to the new
circumstance, leaving behind only a niche of still interesting sites. Will
the design branch rebel against this set back and push forward with a new
visual language of esthetic functionality, embedded in a broader set of
social, cultural and political a- priori? Or will it adjust and except the
growing division between high and low culture within cyberspace? 

This is the age of implementation, not innovation. With governments
withdrawing from the cultural sector and the IT-sector, and a fast growing
Internet business being solely interested in mainstream content generated
by old media such as the printing industry, film and television, the cyber
avant-garde threatens to be left alone with empty hands. All we deal with
here are the attempts to write and claim history, filled with fading
images and nostalgic stories and an amazing amount of iron goodwill
towards business and the public sector to at least safe some of original
intentions and visions. We are not speaking about the usual tragic cycles
of appropriation here. Unlike pop cultures such as rock, punk or rap,
cyberculture born in the late eighties has refrained of any gesture of
resistance towards the establishment. This makes its rise and fall
different, less predictable, and to certain extend softer, and perhaps
even the more spectacular. The ruling market ideology generates the sweet
illusion that there is enough place under the sun for all of the players. 
Cyberculture at the dawn of the 21st century can no longer position itself
in a utopian void of seamless possibilities. Collective dreams of
out-of-body experiences, digital forms of consciousness and virtual gender
ending have been rapidly overturned by mainstream market forces and
government efforts to regulate the new media industry. No more crossing of
borders, with drugs, technology, fooling around with identities. Playtime
for the early colonizers is over. Now it is the turn of the civilization
teams and marketers to mark territories and set rules for just behavior so
that the painful struggle for profit will not be undermined by some
weirdo's who pretend that their Internet is an extension the Wild West.
Economy has invaded the Net, and the Net itself has turned into an
economy. At least, that's the idea and the Big Picture we are confronted
with in the numerous dotcom advertisements and their accompanying
reporting in the old media. In order to get there, key premises such as
free communication and anonymity have to given up. The wild and free
floating user has to be turned in a civilized, liable and accountable
cyber citizen, who, like any other citizen will shop, vote and pay taxes. 

Internet has a history by now, going back to the 1960s. As computers its
history reaches back into the thirties and forties. Its genealogy as
technical media can be traced back even further, centuries ago, via
Leibniz back to Raymond Lullus. The history of the roaring nineties is now
being written by both business journalists and art historians. But how
about its immediate future? Which strategies are available now for its
further development? Fundamental research and the development of new
programming languages and protocols seem to have come to a hold. A crisis
in informatics as an educational program is becoming visible as professors
and their students change job for well paid positions in the IT-sector.
Graduate students even drop out of elite business schools, lured by
dotcoms' fast money. Why study four years, or more, if you can earn a
fortune as a programmer or even have your own start-up? Why do research if
the overall situation will change overnight? Only large corporations have
enough funds and a long term view to embark for a yet unknown destination
and courageous enough to set billions of dollars in the sand if the
application turns out to be a failure and is not accepted by industry or
consumers. "The Internet craze has been accompanied by far too much
short-term thinking. It's time to get back to thinking in ten-year
increments" says Phil Agre in one his postings to his Red Rock Eater News
Service of April 8, 2000. Time for the Open Source community to reveal its
first Five Years Plan? Is the graphic interface killer app version of
Linux already on the radar screens, or would that be over ambitious? 

In the official version of the Internet success story small companies have
been portrayed as the motors behind the development of the medium. But
this may turn out to be a myth, despite Yahoo! and Netscape (which is
anyway no longer an independent player, after having been incorporated
into the AOL/TimeWarner empire). At the end of story, the New Economy may
as well be characterized as a process of transformation and adaptation of
the Old Economy to information technology and the internet (TCP/IP)
standard in particular in all layers of capitalist production,
distribution and services, including the communication patterns on the
user-turned-consumer side. Chances of Davids turning over Golliaths are
diminishing. The idea that the information age would stand for principles
such as networking, customization, niche production and high-risk
innovation already sounds like overdue vaporware. Instead, we witness
cycles of short innovation cycles building upon even shorter periods of
creativity, set in small labs (or cultural scenes), followed by a
desperate period of finding seed capital, possibly ending in a take over
by big players such as media giants of the print, television and film
industry, telcos, cable companies or old software firms from the eighties.
The result for the Internet standard is, relatively speaking, regression,
not progress. Micro-improvements on applications are, for good or bad
reasons, classified as multi-billion dollars ideas. Because of the immense
financial implications of a possible research outcome, media lab culture
in many places has turned in a closed, competitive, even paranoid
environment. Fights over patents and intellectual property have all but
diminished the innovative culture of the early nineties, so naively
documented in Tim Berners-Lee's book "Weaving the Web". His call for
"intercreativity" could be too late. 

Apparantly even this diplomatic gentleman, now working from MIT Lab, has
recently changed his mind and starts to see the dangers of a corporate
takeover of the Internet. In Ellen Ullman's report for www.salonmag.com
(April 13, 2000) of 10th Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference, a
annual meeting that brings together an unlikely combination of
programmers, activists and government officials, she writes: "Tim
Berner-Lee spoke about what has happened to the Web since he dreamed it
up: e-commerce, big corporations, money. "Libertarians are used to
fighting the government," he says, "and not corporations ..." This must be
very difficult for him to say.  For the libertarians in the audience to
hear that business and free markets may not be the bringers of unalloyed
good ... To imagine that a business is something to be fought, not
respected ... No. But it seems he has recognized a changed world, where
neither he nor some other programmer can do it alone.  "We have to make
sure that when people go to the Internet, they get the Internet," he says,
meaning the real Net, the true one, the original -- whatever that might
mean to him, or us. Somehow, even if it means laws and and rules and
governments, we must find our way back to this idyll. We must route around
the new bad corporate Net, or create a superset of it, or an alternative.
Or something." 

Berner Lee's World Wide Web Consortium (www.w3.org) is just a tiny
goodwill organization, trying to maintain its image as a neutral ground
for negotiating standards. He and others in these gremiums which still
pretend that rules for Internet can be set outside of the realms of
governments, must have recently felt a tremendous pressure.  They know
that those who will be strong enough to define the standards for data
casting and e-commerce will eventually own the Net, thereby taking out the
exciting dynamics of Internet development, which was until recently
embedded in competitive, but still constructive environment. Step by step
we are approaching the final battle of the "War on Standards". With the
age of web pioneers, geeks and visionaries declared history, and the Net
going trough its phase of massification and speculation, we are rapidly
approaching a next stage of codification with a few corporations and
governments left final players. The flip side of this development being
the unleashing "info wars", hackers turning against their former
playground - a platform they once considered their own. 

Like Tim-Berner Lee, taking us back to the romantic period of the early
nineties on a technical level, so does the Margret Wertheim in her book
"the Pearly Gates of Cyberspace" when it comes to the spiritual dimension.
This Australian science writer, now living in Los Angeles, though not a
visionary herself, can be viewed as a post mortem apologetic of the
"Californian Ideology", as described in the classic 1995 essay of Barbrook
and Cameron. "The Internet may seem an unlikely gateway for the soul", as
the book cover states -- and so it turned out to be, I would say. A tiny
faction of mainly US-American transhuman science fiction enthusiasts are
suddenly leveled onto the mainstream and portrayed as chief architects of
the Internet. Instead of positioning the spiritual take on cyberspace as
one amongst many metaphors, existing parallel to others, fighting over the
hegemony of this new medium, an "immense spiritual yearning amongst many
people" is seen motor behind immaterialization. VRML guru Marc Pesce and
futurist science sect of the Extropians have taken positions of corporate
for let's say, Nicholas Negroponte or Ester Dyson. What should be
described in terms of experimental subcultures, dealing with the
exploration of consciousness, positioned at the crossroads of religion,
drugs and technology, en passant paving the way for business to take-over
of the Internet, is mistakenly seen as the essence of the whole
undertaken.  This makes Margaret Wertheim to ask "what is it about our
time and our society that is reflected in the "heavenly" appeal of
cyberspace? In short, what does all this cyber-religious dreaming tell us
about the state of America today?" My answer would be: that it still is a
deeply religious 18th Century society, full of secret societies, rivaling
schools and tribes, with little or no public intellectuals and debates, in
short, a public space, which would perhaps be better equipped to analyze
the superstition a la Moravec and Minsky, and at least distinguish it from
the no nonsense business agenda of the New Economy generation. The dotcom
gold diggers may perhaps not openly criticize the cyber spiritualists for
their mumbo jumbo, they certainly would not risk to include such concepts
in their business plan.  The formulas of the previous visionaries is no
longer part of the public dotcom vocabulary. Actually, surprising little
of it has remained.  Libertarians with their harsh New Age agendas have
all but disappeared into invisible think-tanks, company boards and closed
discussion forums. Their role has been taken over by strategic management
consultants. 

What does make Wertheim's book interesting is her historical genealogy of
space, the leading metaphor of Internet's transitional stage from myth to
accessible medium in the early-mid nineties. Having presupposed the
dominant position of the School of Consciousness, if I may calls these
cyber believers as such, Wertheim states that "this new digital domain is
an attempt to realize a technological substitute for the Christian space
of Heaven." Similar to the early Christians, to whom Heaven was a realm in
which their souls "would be freed from the frailties and failings of the
flesh, so today's champions of cyberspace hail their realm as a place
where we will be freed from the limitations and embarrassments of physical
embodiment." And like Heaven, "cyberspace too is potentially open to
everyone," a crucial political statement of libertarian factions against
state policies intending to bridge the "digital divide" (because it is the
market which will eventually bring equality). The main drive behind the
spiritual desire onto digitized space "is coming from people not content
with a strictly materialist view." This discontent, according to Wertheim,
derives from the Western scientific world picture, which entirely
monistic, "admitting the reality of the physical world alone and rebels
against the "pointless physical void." Using David Noble's "Religion of
Technology"  Wertheim states that the cyber-utopianism is making a full
circle, going back to late mediaeval utopias of a man-made New Jerusalem -
a fictious city in which technology is playing a vital role, as Noble
proves. What it would mean if the Internet would drop us back into the
Twelfth Century and its totalitarian utopias, is not being discussed. 

Wertheim clearly had more fun in analyzing Dante's Divine Comedy as a soul
space and Giotto's Arena Chapel in Padua ("physical space") leading into
Einstein's relativistic space and the multi-dimensional spaces, then she
had to understand new media. It is indeed tempting to draw parallels
between the nineties cyber-gnosis school and Hermeticism or the
Pythagoreans who were interested in the numerical forms that inhered in
the material world.  Wertheims's reading of the cyberculture canon does
not go beyond the obligatory such as classics, William Gibson's
Neuromancer (1984) and Michael Bendedikt famous "Cyberspace" anthology
from 1990. Some of the obvious reference texts are quoted (Turkle, Davis,
Rheingold, etc.) but her passion obviously lacks to really dive into the
issues. Perhaps because the current cyberspace is so surprisingly secular
and down to earth when it comes to its aims. The emphasis on cyberspace,
notably in the book title, may as well have been a promotion trick of the
publisher. The main message is a Gnostic one: Internet is there to leave
the dirty world of physics. 

The one techno feature Wertheim is getting excited about is 3D role
playing games such as ActiveWorlds where she finds evidence that indeed
"cyberspace is another space", referring to its nonphysical nature. The
fact that Internet is actually moving away from William Gibson's
cyberspace vision, back into the hands of the media industry and their
newspaper and shopping mall models. There is no money to be made with
these 3D immersive environments as long as they not incorporate into
PlayStation type of computer games. A commonly made parallel between
cyberspace and the urban space hardly gets mentioned and clearly does not
fit into the spiritual, anti-monistic agenda of Wertheim, because that
would only lead into social, political and economic issues of
infrastructure, globalization and other earthly matters. 

For those allergic to US-American corporatism, the above sketched
reduction of Internet to a money machine might be depressing. Time to
withdraw and resign? Ignore the overall image and continue to work on what
needs to be done? Sitting on top of the hill, watching the state-monopoly
capitalist destruction of the Net passing by? Is any utopian vision of an
equal (re-)distribution of knowledge, resources and power not in immediate
danger to be incorporated by the same forces, this time with a Third Way
label on it? We may not wish to fall back into anti-American luddite
positions, nor sell cheap, outworn solutions which may, or may not,
appealed to the early adopters, the so-called post 89 Generation X, five
or ten years ago. 

According to Hannah Ahrendt, this conflict, the one between utopia and
negativism, cannot and should not be solved. To paraphrase Ahrendt's
reading of Plato's Republic, we could say that we should not seek the
immediate beauty of new media concepts. The Internet must be chaste and
moderate if one is to sublimate his or her erotic drive and profit from
it. If we follow the analogy further, cyberspace should supplement its
knowledge of Ideas with knowledge of the shadow of the realm of the
Digital. If the Internet is to illuminate the darkness, not add to it, it
must begin by taming its own utopian promises. The (self)containment of
cyberspace should be rooted in a call for responsibility, not in passively
delegating power to the state or the market. One could call this strategy
the "civic hedging" of cyberspace, "das Aufhalten des Netzes" in German.
In times of hyper growth, the proposal to hold up the development of a
technology may sound conservative, and is done into protect it from being
reduced to one single quality, one idea (shopping mall, money machine,
just work or just entertainment environment).  This first of all means
upholding the childish dreams, with its seamless possibilities of space
after space, thrilling experiences, and fortunes to be made. Upholding
technology is always be one of the available options. The aim here is to
prevent Internet of turning into a nightmare (from which it then has to
awake). In order to achieve this, neither the utopian vision has to be
eliminated, nor do we need to withdraw onto the apocalyptic pole, which
states that the world and its network will collapse anyhow -- with or
without our interference. The conflict between utopia and negativism
Hannah Ahrendt is aiming at, needs to be played out. The deeper we are
drawn into the Virtual, the more there is a need to stage its inherent
paradoxes and contradictions. A willing suspension of belief. 

In the pragmatist view, principles are "abbreviations of past practices" 
(Richard Rorty). The same can be said of the Internet dictum of open
architecture, decentralized structure, copyleft etc. These features,
formulated under the spell of post-68, Vietman and the Cold War, need to
be historically framed, in order not to be turned into a crusty, moral
belief system. It would be naive to hope for a computer network "which
cannot be used by the political right, one which will lend itself only
good causes". I am following here what Rorty is writing in his book
"Philosophy and Social Hope" about the leftist exceptions towards
philosophy. Pragmatists, according to Rorty, do not believe there is a way
things really are. This also counts for the "nature" of the Internet,
which is either good, balanced by market forces or evil, that is,
dominated by monopoly corporations, in close alliance with government
bureaucracies. Rorty here distinguishes merely between descriptions (of
the Internet) "which are less useful and those which are more useful." We
can think about the question of the metaphor, some of them being useful
and productive for a while, whereas in other contexts they may become
meaningless and boring. We can think of the city metaphor, references to
the (virtual) body or Internet as a safe haven for the Self and other
spiritual motives. The future according to Rorty should not conform to a
plan. John Dewey, in his context of philosophy, formulates "growth" as the
only moral end. Pragmatists reject any teleology and hope that the future
(of the Internet) "will astonish and exhilarate. The vista not the
endpoint matters." If we do not impose absolute values upon the directions
new media might take, more realms of possibilities might reveal
themselves. It is the role of theory to draw these images, not to impose
them on reality. 


Tim Brenner-Lee (in collaboration with Mark Fishnet), Weaving the Web,
London, 1999
Richard Rorty, Philosophy and Social Hope, London, 1999
Margaret Wertheim, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Sydney, 1999





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