Geert Lovink on Thu, 7 Nov 96 22:38 MET

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nettime: closing debate of Metaforum 3

The Best Content Money Can Buy

Final Debate of Metaforum III: 'Under Construction'
The Budapest Content Conference, October 13, 1996

Participants: Mark Stahlman, Oliver Marchart, Erik Davis, Richard
Barbrook, Pit Schultz, Manuel Delanda and Geert Lovink (Chairman).

Geert Lovink: I would like to make a distinction between the content
economy amongst ourselves; the way we, as a tribe, relate to the
outside world and sell it our work; and the general models for a
virtual economy and the society as a whole. For me, these are three
different things. We are here not only to speak about general models
but also to find new strategies. Mark Stahlman, could you react on the
previous speeches of Richard Barbrook and Manuel Delanda?

Mark Stahlman: I am not a social democrat, but I am not an apocalypist
either, although we have heard something that begins to approximate
that. We have referred to the fact that China is now the fastest
growing nation on earth. The fact is, of course, that China is the
only large growing country because the decision was taken--maybe 20,
30, 40 years ago--to not grow anymore. One of the principal tenants of
the New Religion that H.G. Wells described was 'no growth'. This may
be the main difference between Manuel and Richard. From Manuel I heard
much discussion of the ways in which we can begin to grow in a real
way. Richard, on the other hand, stated that we cannot afford to grow
anymore. In America, we can no longer afford health care, poor people,
science, government and a whole range of other things because wages
have been flat for 20 or 30 years. These questions of social control,
in particular the 'Ideology of a New Dark Age' which I introduced
here, are in the conversation, because in some people's view we can no
longer afford to grow, and therefore we must accept that we will all
become darks.

Oliver Marchart: I would like to reconnect the most impressive
presentations of today, not the speeches but the ones about,
with the economic theories. I did not even know that I had an economic
theory until this afternoon. Suddenly, it came to me as a surprise and
a revelation that capitalism is exactly the same as art criticism. I
agree with Manuel that there is not such a thing as Capitalism. There
are Capitalisms. Even on the Internet you can find many Capitalisms.
There is this Post-Fordist flow of financial capital and early
Capitalism existing at the same time. At the end of the day, the
common denominator of all these forms of Capitalism comes down to one
single question: How to turn crap into gold. We know from what Rachel
said this morning, that 99% of is crap. But this does not
count for art on the Internet only. In museums and galleries it is the
same. As soon as art enters the museum it has been turned into gold by
the work of art critics and curators. What is now going on, concerning, is a kind of transformation into gold, not done by art
critics but by Capitalists. We do not need art critics to see that
Olia Lialina's Cinemafantom or the Refresh project works. Vuk's
question, 'What will happen with projects that indeed work?', is
highly important. What would happen if you would sell such a work to a
web journal for an amount of money far less than a normal article
would get? What kind of Capitalism is this? It is a commodification of
labour in the form of exploitation, to use an old-fashioned word. A
strategy would be to find some form of organisation among artists
about how to proceed in these cases. Or to produce something like
Refresh. This art form is difficult to be buy and sell because it is
located on different servers. It is charming and has an appeal because
everybody wants to be part of it. This is not about content but about
a form of communication, about linking. It relies solely on

Manuel Delanda: Sparks that do not fly spontaneously are totally
artificial. I never called myself a social-democrat. But defining it
as Richard Barbrook has done before--a social- democrat being someone
who believes that a heterogeneous economy is our only choice at this
point--then, yes, we cannot outlaw large corporations, and we cannot
outlaw the government. I admit this because of my deep distrust of
radicalism. Much of it has become radical chique: big pronouncements
about revolutions and big apocalyptic things to come. It implies much
more serious work and care to sort out the details about pushing
society bit by bit into better shape towards a less oppressive, fair
structure than it does to have Che Guevara-dreams of solving
everything in one big cathartic moment.

Pit Schultz: I agree with Manuel about this radical chique. Attila
Kotanyi was telling me in the break that current youth culture
assembles to the rise of Nazism. The Nazi propaganda apparatus
understood very well how to make uniforms popular because girls liked
them very much. 'They knew how to work with media, like youth culture
nowadays', he said. But one has to make a distinction between
radicalism as a style on the level of design, interfaces and
propaganda, and the level of models and ideas. What we face in the
case of the Internet is a very radical idea of public domain (or
shareware) which is disrupting the distribution system of the software
industry. Microsoft and Netscape are not altruistic Christians. They
are giving software away in order to dominate the market. They are
commodifying the idea of shareware, which was developed as a radical
strategy against the software market by geek hackers such as the Free
Software Foundation. This is perfect example how Capitalism dynamises
itself by internalising radical models. But such radical models do not
pop up out from nowhere; they need a hand, which helps these little
monsters to come out of the soup. Perhaps Mark Stahlman could tell us
something about the cultural patterns (I would not call them
conspiracies) behind the content-industry and their behaviour on the
financial (anti-) markets.

Mark Stahlman: I spent my life with computer people and growing as
those companies have grown. Speaking about new media, it is quite
clear that the same is going on as once with television, trying to put
radio plays on television, while radio began by trying to broadcast
theatrical performances. The entrepreneur has a remarkable advantage,
especially when you are not so successful in your life but driven by a
need to create something new. It cannot come from any large
corporation. I am an optimist: I am greatly hopeful that we do not
have a world-wide financial collapse. We will come together again and
have a decade or more to work through some of these questions. But
what we will see in the new media over that time period will be the
failure of Microsoft, Time-Warner, etc., to come to grips with what is
going on here. They cannot imagine inventing something new. They will
try to jack up their business, pull off the wheels and pretend that
they have a new shiny set of wheels. They will try to drive away but
it will crash. There is roughly 10 billion dollars in what I call
'funny money'. Some of it is R&D. Some of it is part of the desire of
the average American investor to ride the next wave of investment.
Some of it is government money. As rules have changed, money has been
taken away from the military apparatus. Even though we cannot afford
many things, we can afford the National Information Infrastructure
because it is part of the Al Gore Program. Al Gore is for me very much
the heart of the problem, much worse than even Newt Gingrich. Al Gore
might become president in the year 2000. He is a representative of
this New Dark Age Ideology. So the large corporations will fail; they
cannot turn this Internet into their own creature. Bill Gates cannot
buy it, and he cannot even figure out what to do with it. He will
stumble. This is the history of the effect of digital electronics.
George Gilder truly misunderstands this process. I have debated him
publicly on this question. It is the greatest irony about Gilder, his
total incomprehension of the entrepreneur. It may be because Gilder is
the adopted son of David Rockefeller, and he may never get rid of that
baggage. The Entrepreneurs of Silicon Alley (in New York) and the
question of real economic development Manuel raised, is so critical,
not only for the bread on our tables, but for all the worries we have.
It is in our hands. We do not have to fear the oligopolies: we just
have to really build upon our dreams.

Richard Barbrook: The point I was trying to make was to critique this
idea that it was simply going to be small scale businesses. If you
have a 120 billion infrastructure project, which is what Al Gore is
talking about, this involves employing large number of people to dig
holes in the road and fill them in again. It is a classic Keynesian
jobs creation scheme on one level, just as Al Gore's father helped in
the New Deal to build the original superhighways, which is why they
use this analogy. If you create these sort of technologies, it is not
a movement from competition to monopoly but a movement back and forth.
It is a dynamic process. If you are creating a global economy,
companies like Intel or Microsoft create economies of scale because
people want to buy cheap computers. This gives them this incredible
power in the marketplace. They might rise and fall, like ecologies,
but there is a certain rationale behind mass production. I don't think
there are going to be lots of different companies building the
information superhighway. But we, the content providers, are in a much
stronger position. For us it is both about commodification and the
escape from it.

Erik Davis: I have no economic theory, but I can tell you something
about San Francisco and what happens to the extraordinary creative
people, when there is so much money available for your labour. What I
liked about Richard's talk is the inclusion of the positive function
of the Do It Yourself(DIY)-culture, not merely as a celebratory way to
escape for a few hours from the internal rain of labour,
commodification and money but as an active force, permeating this
new society and creating a lasting place, not only for people to
enjoy their lives more, but to actually slow down things that are
rather inciduous. I found people who are sucked into this machine,
not just because they are making money, but because of the tremendous
excitement. They have the opportunity of plugging their creative
energy into the forefront of technological development, developments
that you might not see for another year or two. It is a very strange
and peculiar place, to see this tension among large corporations who
want to culturally monopolise the Internet by ceasing large scale
technological development and absorbing content critical aesthetical
ability as a way to charge up their spaces. The avatar worlds are a
great example because there is such a tremendous amount of obvious,
popular, mass appeal of these worlds. It is like a mall. You can play
around. And there are tremendous possibilities on the sexual dimension
because you deal here with imagery and speech in real-time. Corporations
like Sony and other Hollywood conglomerates are sucking in people who are
extremely creative, technologically speaking, and working on that very
fine edge. Most of the art we have seen here is a little bit more
about art and less about technology per se versus the creativity of
technological development itself. The best art in San Francisco is the
technology itself. These people are acid heads: they are bohemians.
But what remains interesting is how you mix it in your own practice,
maintaining a connection with the DIY while breaking apart some of the
temptations to be drawn into these other worlds. Corporations are not
really sure if people are going to buy their stuff. These real-time
interactions between people should be fun place to be, not just fun
places to buy. The DIY- values have to be forced into the heart of the
kinds of mall-like environments that they want to make, where all of
your interaction is again filtered through buying and selling
commodities. But I don't think that it will work. Youth culture has
historically been places for non- commodified exchanges (or in a
peculiar, local, artisan way), and we really like that model. But
there is no question that even crude, three-dimensional, interactive,
Neil Stephenson-like cyberspaces will become a very dominant location
for the mass of people going on-line.

Manuel Delanda: I do not believe that the problems of today's society
is the production of commodities, but the production of obedience.
What Michel Foucault has reminded us over and over, that since the
16th century, our schools, hospitals, prisons, barracks and factories
have become the places where not only objects are produced but the
place where people are disciplined, drilled, normalised and
homogenised. And therefore--for as long as we remain strictly within
the realm of what economers call the economy and for as long as we do
not include military institutions and other types of disciplinary
institutions--we may be able to liberate ourselves from certain
aspects of the spectacle, though we will always be part of this
machinery that is producing obedient individuals throughout the day:
disciplining, monitoring, testing, regulating, moderating, and so on.

Erik Davis: I don't see how that is a disagreement. You can image the
most socially active, creative, on-line, graphic MUD in the world, and
you could still look at the individual lives of the people sitting
there before the screen and find a horrorshow of social manipulation.
And in addition to that, one of the main modes of discipline is the
consumption of commodities in particular ways.

Pit Schultz: I just asked R.U.Sirius for a contribution to the ZKP3
reader, and he said that he has big financial problems and has to
write some texts for magazines before he can contribute to ZKP. The
other example is the Quake software, a VRML-killer. People are already
developing software for the Quake engine and not for VRML. It's
functional, commercial and extremely transgressive, violent, not what
I expect from California. It's from Texas. You cannot always trust the
creative soup. Hungary developed a lot of big ideas like the floppy
disk and the Rubik's cube. Von Neumann and numerous other
mathematicians and computer scientists come from Hungary. There is a
strong tradition in creative thinking. But there is also a tragic
history of commodification. I like the stories about venture capital
and acid heads, but in Europe there is a longer tradition about what
Capitalism also means.

Richard Barbrook: I am a little worried when people refer to Foucault
in this way. Basically, history is a bummer, Foucault's analysis on
one level. The disciplinary effects Foucault is looking at is a very
undialectical analysis, because it is also about the creation of
freedom, the general will. The idea of emancipating ourselves involves
also a certain amount of self- discipline as well. I always find it
worrying when people say: 'The corporations are out there. The state
is out there'. Because in a sense, we are them as well. We are the
people who work for them, buy their commodities. We vote. We
participate. It is our desires which have summoned this society. We
wanted to escape from rural poverty; we wanted to be educated. People
might have to sit in lines in classes to learn things, but that takes
a certain amount of discipline and self-discipline. To take this
anarchistic position is almost like a return to a Rousseau-ian past.
And what did Foucault support? The Baader-Meinhoff gang, which is a
very authoritarian organisation.

Erik Davis: A lot of these discourses revolve around the notion of
freedom, a very metaphysical thing. For me, freedom is the creativity
left intact when dealt the fact of limit. The idea of including limit
into our conception of where we are, limited by economic conditions or
by the fact that we are mortal--that freedom is found outside of
limit--is a fallacy.

Manuel Delanda: There is a huge difference between self-discipline and
being disciplined by normalising institutions.

Erik Davis: Responding to Pit, I only spoke as someone who lives in
San Francisco. I was not attempting to once again stand here as a
representatives of the Californians. I am here because I am interested
in what other people are doing, trying to describe the people kind of
like you. I was not being myopic about the nature of San Francisco.

Geert Lovink: During the preparation phase of Metaforum III we wanted
to try to first overcome the perhaps simplistic phase of 'net
criticism', pinpointing certain regions or cities, people's behaviour
there and their cultural patterns and biased views. We have our biases
as well, and Richard was the first to admit that he is from England.
We were looking for economic models that would say something about the
period that comes after the hype in order to bypass the current
rituals of introduction. In what economy do we want to work? We will
not forget the access question, the problem of inclusion and
exclusion, which is a global problem if we speak about new media. But
once you are in, we, the content providers, will have to deal with the
'political economy of the Net'. We see that there is a big need for
critical discourse here, which could include terms like the 'gift
economy' and a radical critique of neo liberalism and global
Capitalism. A space should exist where we can act and critique at the
same time, coming up with productive models that can be attractive for
a lot of people, while using more precise and differentiated arguments
than in the previous beta period of net criticism.

Transcribed and edited by Geert Lovink and Thomas Bass


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