Felix Stalder on Mon, 17 Apr 2000 06:15:51 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Cyberculture in the Age of Dotcom.mania

As Geert's essay eloquently outlines, the state of Internet-centric culture
today is characterized by three concurrent trends. First, and most
spectacular, is the recent downwards slide of the financial markets,
particularly for Internet-related stocks.  Less spectacular but also widely
noted is a change of attitudes of the once fierce and brave libertarian
technologists. The 10th Computer Freedom and Privacy (CFP) was the latest
and, perhaps, strongest sign that Larry Lessig's message "The internet has
no nature and does not take care of itself" [1] is being accepted as the
new common sense, superseding last decade's credo that "the Internet views
censorship as a damage and routes around it" (John Gilmore). Lastly, and
not spectacular at all, is the growing disillusion with cyberculture and
its liberating promises among cultural innovators.

Underlying these trends is a common theme,  one that I believe is positive.
The common theme is that of a growing understanding that the Internet
itself is not a social space in any  meaningful way. Or, at least not one
that can be considered in isolation. Outside of the Internet and it's
overblown rethoric, this is pretty obvious. The social space of print is
not the book, but the library and the school; the social space of film is
not the movie itself, but the cinema and the film festival; and, the social
space of TV is the living room and the studio, not the tube itself. The
consequence of this view is the regaining of a lost sensibility: ultimately
important is only what constitutes that part of the social space that human
beings inhabit, the space outside the computer networks.

Consequently, there is no "new economy" that magically transcends the laws
of gravity by balancing consistent and systemic operational losses with
ever increasing stock evaluations. Ultimately, fundamentals matter, that
is, what people actually do, rather than what they would like to believe.
It boils down the fact that the laws of capitalism are indeed, well, laws.
There is no such thing as the "long boom", and the "law of increasing
returns" does not mean that we are all going to get automatically richer,
but describes the dynamics of monopolies.

Similarly, technologies are not autonomously evolving in a predictable way.
There is no way that we can let the Internet alone. If we would, it would
simply disappear, one server crash after the other. And if the Internet is
not an organism, then it is a built environment, with all the lame old
questions of who builds it, for what purpose and with which consequences.
In a way, what happens with the Internet is not so much commercialization
than gentrification where high-income owners drive out low-income tenants
(with artists playing their usual role as "avant-garde"). Such problems
cannot be addressed by the lone hacker genius, but, god forbid, by the
concerted, deliberate action of a lot of people (a vision that Withfield
Diffie, hesitatingly, outlined at this year's CFP).  In other words, social
issues remain social issues, and even on the Internet, censorship is a
social and not a technical problem.

Consequently, the fact that we can "re-invent" our identities online, and
that "cyberspace knows no distance" is of little meaning if it goes hand in
hand with an increasingly harsher meat-space reality in which culture is
down sized and reduced to "shocking" exhibitions put together by
advertisement execs and the immediate taming through commodification of
every even remotely original idea.

This does not mean that the Internet is not important and that we should
simply abandon it as a strategic site for intervention.  Media matter, but
they do so in very specific ways. Geert deplores the demise of
sophisticated interface design, but what that indicates is simply that the
interface doesn't matter all that much. What is most important of the media
is not what is in the media, but the way media re-organize life around
themselves. What they get people to do, or not to do, is what is most
important. Isolated media are a contradiction in terms, they mediate
between people, but they do not substitute them. It's the difference
between having this post read by someone or indexed by a crawler. It's not
a simple either/or, either people or machines. I'm all in favour of
crawlers, since they will help more people to find this message, but unless
someone does take the time to read it and to think about if it matters for
his/her own life, for what they do, all the indexing in the world is

What the Internet really promises is to change the way people organize
themselves and coordinate their actions. The Anti-MAI campaign, Seattle
last fall and now Washington, but also the dynamics of Clinton-Lewinsky
scandal are glimpses of things to come.

It seems that what we begin to learn is that the real message of the
Internet is not artificial intelligence but new forms of social
intelligence. And, perhaps, that doesn't need fancy interfaces.

Hands up, how many of you read this through a telnet connection?

[1] Lessig, Lawrence (1999). Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York:
Basic Books

Les faits sont faits.

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