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<nettime> An interview with Geert Lovink
snafu on Sun, 7 Oct 2001 03:26:23 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> An interview with Geert Lovink



dear nettimers,

the follwing is the integral version of an interview/dialogue between Geert
Lovink, Snafu and Subjesus. It was made in July for the portal of the
Italian pubblic Television Rai.it.
(Italian abridged version at
http://www.rai.it/RAInet/smartweb/cda/articolo/sw_articolo/1,2791,137,00.htm
l)

In this text Geert touches a variety of arguments, from the first
development of the digital public domain, to the recent evolution of
Tactical Media passing for an analysis of the dotcom burst and of the
possible development of independent platforms and infrastructures.

-------

Interview with Geert Lovink
By Snafu and Subjesus

Q: You took a part in several media-related experiences, mostly in the
Netherlands: the Adilkno group of media intellectuals, the pirate radio
movement, tactical media conferences, the Amsterdam-based community network
The Digital City and so on. Could you give a short yet detailed outline of
your past activities, and a glimpse at your present days, as a member of a
global/local networking culture?

A: Is this a job interview, or what? I am not sure if my personal biography
is all that significant for the theory and practice of "becoming media".
Certainly I cannot see an accumulation of knowledge or even experiments in
our "alternative" network sector. Growth in the digital arena is more
spasmodic than linear or dialectic. Yet, there are waves of change, intense
periods in which History and the personal biography seem to fire each other
up. In the meantime there is just boredom--the usual, eternal, repetition
of the same old topics and patterns in which thoughts and movement come and
go. We are now in a golden age of net activism, and we should all enjoy
this rare and special period.
In my biography the year 1980 was of significance, the squatters movement
in Amsterdam and Berlin, urban autonomy in a post-ideological and post-68
condition. Leftist models occurred at moments of regression. They were
responsive and regressive, not strategic, imposing dogmatism is in a
precious situation where something new was about to emerge. At that time
the left had split into a pragmatic faction and an intellectual ghetto
within academia which was only able to analyze its own defeats and failures
(which is, I agree, a study in itself). Just imagine how different
Baudrillard would have been if he would not have had the boxing ball of
1968. The same can be said of Deleuze and Guattari. One cannot understand
their intellectual position without basic knowlegde of the French political
landscape in the sixties and seventies (which was dominated by the PCF).
In the age of ecstatic normalcy, lacking opposition the theory without
enemy, without reference, has become a self-mirroring text regime.
Activists in this context are, almost by default, forced to respond
anti-intellectually. This tendency started in the late seventies with punk.

If you have the impulse to do something you have to stop deconstructing
yourself. Just do it, as the Nike phrase correctly states. Hit and run. See
how authorities and their sign system respond. Trail and error. Ignore
those who tell you that all activism ends up in building concentration
camps. This is moral blackmail from those who are not involved anyway. Take
the moral highground in such situations and respond with a sovereign
silence. It is not worth the anger. This also counts for the hacktivism and
net.activism debate. Let's not be afraid, neither for radical action, nor
for radical theory--and leave the pc knights outside .
Theory is not an ersatz religion. It won't tell you what to do--nor what to
think. It has truely become a Foucaultian toolkit, that is, one which stays
in the wardrobe for most of the time. Forgotten pearls. Beautiful but
unworn. In this situation the Event becomes an almost holy entity. For
many, Events are just falling from the sky because they are no longer
created by some Party or Vanguard. Cracking the events therefore becomes
precious knowledge. Most people just live their lifes. They wait and see,
until something happens: 1989, raves, Seattle, a squat, a riot on the first
of May (or not). This eventism can also be found at the media level, with
the Internet, or local radio, suddenly creating zones of possibilities,
which then fade away, after a wild night, some exciting months in a media
project, or however long it might take. That's my biography. The
development from print to radio to Internet, in my case, is not an
interesting one. What is interesting is the ability to metamorphorize, as a
person, using (new) media, in the way Klaus Theweleit described this
process of personal "growth", using "techniques". Sometimes one succeeds,
in some cases in all seems to fail, ending up in (in)significant misery.
The hardest part for me is to judge my conceptual work. The realm of ideas
has lost so much of its significance, despite all the warm hearted
compliments of theory sympathisizers and reassurements from the side of
industry that "one day your good content will rewarded."

Q: You have written a lot about the digital public domain, often with a
realistic and disenchanted view. Yet, if we look at experiences such as DDS
and xs4all, we have the impression of an early European net.culture able to
highly influence the digital innovation, by acting as a subject of the
early networks. Nowadays the mediascape has clearly mutated its outlook.
Despite the apparent crisis, dotcoms and telecom are monopolizing and
re-shaping the net. Yet, we feel that many issues raised by the digital
avant-guards (if we can use this term.) have been absorbed by mainstream
new media: access for all, low costs of connection, availability of
webspace and various facilities are on the agenda of any big corporation.
In the context of the Next5minutes 3 you launched the "free for what?"
campaign (www.waag.org/free), which was exactly focusing on these issues.
At which level the ideology of a generalised free access have been absorbed
and emptied of its idealistic drive and at which level it has positively
influenced the economical development? Did that ideology help to reduce the
digital divide, or the market continued to be driven by its own logic,
without being affected at all by social dynamics?

A: Let's not be overly afraid of co-optation. I don't think it is all that
interesting to design memes which cannot be used by the evil forces of the
state and the market even though it is quite a challenge. We did serious
work into that direction with Adilkno and our "strategies of failures" were
certainly not the most popular. Amongst your peers it is not widely
appreciated to be on the "heights of despair" (Cioran). Utopian ideas speak
to the people. This is simply the case, despite half of century of
organized disgust of utopianism. Even amongst distinguished scholars
negativism has never been popular.
I have always been willing to take the risk of promoting digital ideas,
knowing that, at the end of the day, they would be perverted, not just be
third parties, but also by classic infightings within the alternative
ghettos. Increasing the media-cultural complex needs new ideas, just to
feed itself, with regardless what. One day you are their "content", and
next day you don't exist anymore. It is our normal state to be ignored.
Only the scandal will bring you in the spotlight of the Spectacle. There is
really nothing special about this media law. Nothing to be upset about. In
the case of the demand for public access to information and the
communication networks it is a broad and diverse new media culture which
counts, in the end. The projects themselves are interesting enough. Some of
them are even really exciting! What then counts is to leave that particular
stage or project early enough not to get bitter or cynical.
When we are speaking about the birth of (public access) media it is all
about the Art of Appearance and Disappearance. I know, these are ugly terms
from the postmodern eighties. Too bad. But they really make sense (combined
with a healthy dose of economic theory from both liberal and critical
perspectives). You want your ideas to spead and you don't want to become
complicant. Fine. Your choice. Then don't blame others for making money
with them. If the gift economy gets corrupted, move on. If everyone has
Internet and the revolution still hasn't arrived, too bad. Change stage.
The idea of a Digital Commons is still there, despite IBM and HP buying
themselves into the open source movement.

Q: Your last book is a collection of interviews entitled "Uncanny
Networks". You highly contributed to the development of networks in Europe.

The original idea, if I'm not wrong, was to create a field of convergence
where artists, activists, programmers, designers, critics and academics
could meet. Over the years "the tactical media" space has been filled with
a variety of events and solutions, from the Next5minutes to the Browserday,
from a diffused net plagiarism to the Toywar. On the other hand, in the
introduction to your book you say "multi-disciplinarity remains an idle
goal, not a daily reality. The division of labour is still there, due to
the highly specialized knowledge of each field." What are the results of
the efforts of weaving these networks over the years? The process of
crossing the fields is still too young or is already gone?

A: You are right. Where does our fascination to work with other disciplines
originate? Why this is a passion so many people share, comparable to the
common hateress against the Microsoft monopoly? Are we really locked up in
the cages of specialized fields of knowlegde? Discontent about the division
of labour is certainly there. Does it come out of a false hunger for
totality, a holistic drive towards a unified existence in which everyone
can do anything at the same time? I can only ask questions here. Perhaps
working with Others is what people really want compared to the demand for
social change in the first half of the 20th century. Specialists constantly
need new imput in order to remain creative and competitive. The underlying
idea of working with the professional Other is that he or she has hidden
ideas and energies which will collide and fuse with ones own. In the office
world and the work floor having to others is not all that special.
Multi-disciplinary task forces are pretty common. The strategy of mixing,
creating temporary, hybrid solutions and (art) works is only shocking for
those who have something to lose, aka those who are running institutions.
Internet does not belong in visual arts, theory is not activism, real
technology does not need art, etc. But people do not fit in categories and
some resist the constant need for qualification and the specific education
and reward systems. Undermining self-referentiality within disciplines is a
somewhat bizarre, not very rewarding hobby. It is of course better
carreerwise to stick to the rules of the administrators rand just do your
own art, cultural studies, television or radio and not behave like a mad
scientist in search of the recipe for making gold. Because what should the
outcome, for example in the case of multi-media, look like?

Q. I'm not very interested in "professional" cooperation.
Ultra-specialisation of labor makes multi-disciplinarity necessary, if not
vital to exist on the market. My question was more referred to people (like
you) that decide to cooperate following a desire, a tactical line of
flight, a trajectory which is meant to lead somewhere or nowhere else.
Tactical media was naming many different spaces of invention. This
definition wasn't only indicating what to do in "the next five minutes
". It
was the expression of a new infrastructure and a new way to communicate
amongst real people, through space and time. Not for the sake of "cultural
innovation", but with the intention of building a shared code, a procedure
of attack. This chain of reactions worked perfectly with the Toywar, for
instance. But, is it always necessary to wait for an emergency to verify
our power? What is the network doing for the rest of the year? According to
your experience, is it stronger than 5 years ago? I know it's very hard to
make a complexive balance, but you are one of the few people who really
travelled through many central experiences. [Sorry, to be so specific but
this is the real core of the book. I was talking to Ricardo Dominguez
recently: he said that one of the netstrike tools is to upload questions on
the target server, like "Is democracy.html on this server?" And the answer
would answer "democracy.html is not found on this server". 404, a tipical
net.art gesture becomes in this way part of a tactical action. What is
usually considered a physical attack, shift into a syntactical one. This is
the space where single gestures become rings of a chained discourse. It's
the space where net.art meets hacktivism or where hacking meets net.art,
e.g. life sharing by 01.org. I'm very interested in this space, it's my
favourite one, because it keeps the heritage of the XX century
avant-gardes, but being much less elitist to me. I want to understand if
these different communities meet just occasionally or are building the
conditions for a paradygm shift. On one hand, net.art seems to dig more and
more into conceptualism, interface design; hacking is all focused, at least
in Italy, on writing softwares under GPL; hacktivism seems an endless count
of online actions more or less related to the current "anti-glob" agenda.
Here the function of the networks become crucial. If you read the subjects
of Nettime you have the feeling of a very balanced, integrated world; on
the other hand, anyone keep following h/er own thread; i know that the
network doesn't have a personality, it's not a subject or a party. I don't
want to reduce it to a definition, but in the last 5-6 years many things
changed inside and outside of it=85 i'd like you to paint a fresco of this
shift, frome the point-of-view of an insider=85]

A: The Web is not the Party. It is not even a movement. What we face here
is an increasing uncertainty over the political. There has been a shift
over the last twenty years, away from clearcut political structures and
activities towards a much more blurry field of "cultural exchange". Others
have written at length about the shift from politics towards arts and
culture, specially in Germany. The somewhat closed circles around magazines
such as Spex, Texte zur Kunst and Starship have reached a sophisticated
discourse around that topic (however, not (yet) accessible for non-German
audiences).
The uncertainty on the Net is a big issue, as far as I can see. Will the
Other answer? The essence of networks, one could arguably state, is
collaboration. Not just communication or exchange of information. However,
the cases of a successful collaboration remain rare. This is partly because
so many are new users are not yet accustomed to the Net. They merely use it
as a tool (making money, for example). This is why I am hestitant about
using the Net for attacks. It is not very creative and sophisticated, at
least not at this moment. In my opinion the density of self-organization
has got to rise first. The lose cultural networks we see at the moment are
going nowhere. They may create a bit of discourse, but that's all. That
even counts for the activist sites such as indymedia.org. They still have
to reach the level of workgroups. It will start to get interesting if
netizens, the global online citizens will have their own intranets.
Substantial islands within the net, also software-wise. That will not so be
ignored or knocked-down. I am not if the invisible, tactical strategies of
the Deleuzian age will last forever. They were written in response to the
declined, at that time still powerful structures of the communist parties
in France and Italy. Such entities do not exist anymore. We are living in
the post-89 world in which micro-politics and rhizomatic strategies have
become almost hegemonic concepts. It that sense it is right to say that
this a Deleuzian Age. But I am not the kind of person to obey the Deleuzian

State Region. Neither would Deleuze, I suppose. It's hard to deal with
fashions if you like them.
As many have noticed before, viral marketing has become a mainstream
corporate strategy. I am very concerned with the lack of infrastructure in
the net culture. Virtuality alone will not do it. We have to physically own
and develop (or hack, steal, etc.) cables, satellite, offices to work from
and not buy into the advertisement of the happy mobile nomad. This is also
means that we have to go beyond the somewhat primitve and moral critique of
institutional politics. I am keen to see how complex and diverse
superstructures, virtual institutions can be developed. Not just a website
plus mailinglist. We should not get stuck at that level.

Q: That's it. Maybe it's time to go beyond a mere "we want bandwidth" or
"access for all". Server machines could be a good start: if you want to
build a really autonomous network you have to build up your own computer
host, like in the BBS-age when anyone could be a sysop and run his own net.
The recent wave of interest towards P2P systems such as Gnutella or the
much-rumored Freenet seems to signal a sort of growing awareness about
that. Recently, www.wired.com reported a not-so-weird proposal coming from
the Cato Institute, a kind of US libertarian anarcho-capitalist think-tank,
to build up parallel private networks beyond the mounting state-regulation
of the web (muck like offshore states, e.g. Seeland). This funny
convergence between issues and attitudes so different - typical of this
post-all age - may be a symptom. Isn't it time to claim "server machines
for all?"

A: For sure. In a few years we might get there. Now are still in the period
of economic downturn and rollout of bandwidth capacity (both for Internet
and wireless). However, we are no longer living in the na=EFve (Clinton)
years of the cyber plenty. In a time when everything was growing it was
easy to be libertarian.We are now moving towards a period of confrontation,
away from the third-way agenda of consensus in which, for example, such of
Sealand, Wired and Ayn Rand followers such as the Cato Institute perfectly
fit. I am not sure if we should continue the strategy of building temporary
autonomous zones. It is time to be in the world. That's the strategy of the
so-called Seattle movement against corporate capitalism. Confrontation with
the corporate world and its institution, based on decentralized and
networked affinity groups and individuals, coordinated by a power portal
(www.indymedia.org). We have had enough laissez faire laissez passe
politics. Deleuzian rhizomatics was part of that. But the age of "imperial
sovereignity" of the Internet is coming to a close. The Net is becoming a
battleground, not just a market place for ideas and their data. That image
is too simple, too harmonious. Now that the introductory phase of new media
is coming to close (despite further tech revolutions) we return to a real
politik of the networks in which economic interests of telecom giants,
microsoft, governments and regional blocs are becoming real. The recording
industry has to go to court against Napster. It cannot just tolerate it.
Nor will Hollywood tolerate Gnutella. People who are developing and using
such systems have to understand the clandistine nature of what they are
doing and take responsibility, take sides. The time of playing and surfing
is over. If you run a server, fine, do it, but then you are also the
sys-op, and with that comes certain legal and ethic responsabilities. If
one is prepared to accept this, then go ahead! But don't say afterwards, I
didn't know I was only exchanging films and software without knowing that
it's illegal. People have to be prepared to say: "Legal, illegal,
 Schei=DFegal."

Q: What are the economic sources on which to build a really independent new
media culture? According to Negri and Lazzarato, the economics of
information has most to do with the "production of subjectivities". And
this production often needs to assume the form of enterprise acting within
(and in a sense against) the marketplace. Negri and Lazzarato define
"political enterprise" this new agent, and we are seeing some examples of
that rising. xs4All, even after the take-over by the Dutch telecom KPN,
could be one of those. What are your feelings about that?

A: New media culture is producing concepts, not value in the speculative
dotcom sense. Let alone money. And not content either. They are
concepts-in-the-making which need to be tested out first before they can be
used on a large scale to produce subjectivity, as Negri and Lazzarato
describe it. The fun about this test phase is not the some heroic
avant-garde position of showing people the way. I think it is a much more
playful, experimental stage, less pedagogical, in which ideas are getting
hardwired into a small scale technological culture which builds up its own
userbase and rituals and then gets exposed to society and the marketplace
in a later stage. The real test then is to see how robust the "meme" is
which has been collaboratively developed. There can be sell outs, betrayals
and other setbacks. Boredom of the everyday is even more destructive to
good concepts. I am not sure if profit or non-profit really makes such a
big difference, probably in the speed in which ideas can spread. I am
interested in sustainable memes that can constantly change, grow and
contract, without losing its core identity and basic ethics. xs4all seems
to be a good example. What I do not like are people who build up something
precious, together with many others, and then, for some reason, pull the
plug and disappear. To me, all CEOs of dotcoms startups which went bust are
cowards to me. Many of the dotgone companies were "build to flip", ran by
people who only do business in times of hyper growth. Come on. Who's afraid
of a crisis, or two? Those who grew in the seventies and eighties, without
all that easy VC money are ready to take risks, to make something out of
nothing. The dotcom business model is for the unpatient so-called
enterpreneurs who, in the end, only learned how to burn money. They did not
even develop concept, let alone software. What the cultural sector of the
New Economy (RIP) has done in the wild years of 1999-2000 is not entirely
clear. They mainly fought over the definition of net.art so that art
critics could start writing and art collectors could start collecting.
Culture was in a volatile, defensive mode and did not profit whatoever from
the money fountain. It was a time of survival.

Online text archive: http://thing.desk.nl/bilwet, coming soon:
www.laudanum.net/geert

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