Geert Lovink on Tue, 21 Apr 1998 00:28:11 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Current Media Pragmatism

Current Media Pragmatism
Some Notes on the 'Cyber-economy'

by Geert Lovink

"You may not be interested in economy, but the economy is interested in
you." -- Andre Simon

The simultaneous condemnation and embrace of the pragmaitc approach has
resulted in a state of confusion within our brand of cyberculture.  There
is a new belief system on the rise, sandwiched between cold cynicism and
overheated optimistic theodicies. Here comes the blurry logic of
communicative capitalism. What are "new media"? Especially what is there
beyond the hype inherent to their embryonic state? Where stands media
theory now that the the age of speculation is behind us? What is
interaction beyond the fascination of demo design? Game over, next player?
Will the developers of the early media architectures slip back into
mainstream-as-usual? Or will they display a modicum of 'civil courage' and
reinvent the notion of underground once again?

Well, it is neither/nor, in fact. This is the age of cybernetic
promiscuity of concepts after all, exploring the deep, gray spaces of the
new economy is its motto. Innovative media cultures are connecting many to
many, business models that is, and as long as it works. We are witnessing
a magic blend of art, design, music and radio, content merging with
software, or with TV, or with the internet. Even dramatic failures get
praised as instructive endeavours. What is important now is quick and
dirty production, and not the unique 'concept' as such but rather 'serial'
manifacture fueled by the hope that one of the mixes will turn out to be
the Killer App, the Next Big Thing, the Golden Mean, the Ultimate
Combination. Welcome to the fast expanding universe of radical pragmatism. 

"We shape the things we build--then they shape us". Starting point here is
the ambiguity we feel towards pragmatism and its successes.  This applies
to the accelerated growth of the mediascape in particular. It comes as no
surprise that the big corporations are taking over, and that nation-states
try to respond with regulatory messures. Yet what puzzles us even more
are the arrangements of our own micro-economy. How to run a media lab, a
(preferably profitable) ISP, a radio station, a design studio, a media
cafe, or even a website or a mailing list? There are so many models out
there, so many different traditions--some local, some national, some
international or cosmopolitan. There are in fact so many of them that it
is becoming less and less clear what is meant when we speak about
exchanging 'concepts'. Recently, the cyber conference circuit spent a
great deal of time--maybe too much--demoing successful projects. Now the
time has come time to look at the failures also and to assess them in
the same way. 

Take for instance the celebrated city metaphor. Whereas the Dutch 'digital
cities' were quite successful as public-access 'freenets'--though not
without their own share of trouble--similar projects in Vienna and Berlin
floundered and disappeared, and still other cities have their own stories 
to tell. 

VIENNA In the Viennese case, the BBS (mailbox) system 'Black Box' had
started an initiative to bring together local users and content from the
arts, culture, and politics. However, this construct did not work out in
practice. Some people saw the project as being too closely tied to the
city council (and to the ruling social-democratic party in particular). 
This nonetheless, did not prevent the big municipal agencies to develope
their own system. In the end, the users set out to decide the future of
the project. That is: They stayed away, partly also because the good old
Black Box BBS system (now with an e-mail gateway) kept on doing well. In
the end it was the art content server Public Netbase that survived all the
storms and still continues its public-access functions. 

BERLIN The 'Internationale Stadt' found its origin in 'Handshake', an art
project which connected several techno-clubs over IRC (chat rooms). It
later merged with the small Internet provider ''. But the
concept of IS was blurry from the start. Sometimes it claimed to be a
public-access network freenet-style, yet, by and large, it kept presenting
itself as a content provider for culture and the arts--which was closer to
the truth. As an access provider, it never grew beyond 300 paying
customers, but this was not perceived as a problem. Their connectivity
problems, on the other hand, were legendary. In one case, they were
offline for a full three weeks. Insiders may have a good laugh about this
genially amateurish gesture, but one should keep in mind that Berlin is
not an easy place to work from as a far as connectivity goes.  So, in the
end, IS turned out to be a work-in-progress project, in the 'hacker'
sense--endlessly tweaking the interface, but never really concerned about
the commitment to the customer implied in the idea of 'service'. Indeed,
'not-working' was proclaimed to be part of the work of art (a perfectly
legitimate position, by the way).

When Internet-hype eventually hit Germany in 1996, IS transmuted itself
into a private company and took on several big clients. In a perfect
world--or maybe in a just slightly better one--this commercialism might
have cross-subsidized the non-commercial public service part of the
venture. But it did not work out that way. Being a collective, IS ran into
the attenant, severe management problems, and before soon the artists
began to leave. The famous Kassel-based international art show Documenta X
played a mysterious part in these developments. IS as such was not awarded
the Internet provision contract as had been hoped, but two IS
collaborators were individually appointed as 'net artists' instead. The
Real Audio server 'Radio IS', a remarkable rich collection of samples and
audio files, was a success. Yet, at the same time, the commercial aspect
became prominent (with contracts for the new Leipzig Fair etc.), and IS as
a whole lost direction. The by now bankrupt Berlin city hall never very
much understood anything about the dynamics of cyber-economy, obsessed as
it was with its stolid stoneware. The IS-group eventually fell apart, and
the members returned to their previous occupations as 'true' artists,
videomakers, programmers, and so on. Internationale Stadt finally shut
down on April 1, 1998: a black day for independent European cyberculture. 
And for everyone who collaborated with them internationally, an
unfortunate occurence, comparable to the closure of the Berlin station
'Radio 100' in 1990, just as the techno club scene in the Eastern section
began to flourish. If you understand how long it takes to build up such
lively, informal networks in which artists, musicicians, activists and
critics can work, you'll understand how much was lost. 

But what emerged from the rubble of IS was the '' server, and the
'mikro' group--a project that will first and foremost focus on the
(re)organisation of the Berlin indy-cyber scene on a grassroot level.  Yet
it still remains to be seen how long an electronic culture like this one
will last in such a big metropolis, without its own technical (and
economic)  infrastructure.

AMSTERDAM Fancy of Europe, with its post-welfare so-called
'polder model' that fostered an economic boom of sorts (depending on how
you read the statistics). Yet, Internet business in Holland is just as
shaky as elsewhere. Start-ups go bust as easily as anywhere else. And in
Holland too, cultural capital and venture capital make strange bed
fellows. 'Netural Objects', that business spin-off spawned by the Society
for Old and New Media is a case in point. The story starts in the heady
beginning days of the Digital City, which in 1994 commissioned a number of
specifically designed furniture for public terminals.  These work stations
were to embody the ideal of public access in libraries, cafes, and
schools. Then, in the wake of the spectacular rise of both public and
commercial IT activities in Amsterdam, the Society for Old and New Media
was formed by a group of activists, designers, programmers and other media
enthousiasts. They took over De Waag, a decrepit castle right in the city
center. One of their first achievements was the 'Reading Table for Old and
New Media', a revolutionary public terminal providing free internet
access. The prototype was installed in the cafe/restaurant downstairs in
De Waag castle. The developers worked from the ground up, assembling a
physical and virtual interface. They were rewarded with the prestitious
Rotterdam Design Prize in 1997. Soon thereafter, the Society's management
decided to start serial- and mass-production of these 'kiosks'. However,
not enough market research was undertaken. The business management style
of the venture capitalist also proved a bit too fast a track. The rate of
return was pegged too high too quick. Within half a year (february 1998),
Netural Objects met its demise, chasing too few customers with a product
plagued by too many flaws that was not ready for the market. Fortunately
the Society's commitment to the public domain didn't suffer too much from
the fiasco. The bitter-sweet taste of realism set in. 

The encounter with venture capital and its brash business methods has put
the limits of enterpreneurialized political culture in stark relief. Was
this the Waterloo of 'Dutch digital imperialism' afterall? Probably not.
Even in the legendary Silicon Valleys and Alleys and Gulches and Glens,
only a handful of startup companies survive, let alone prosper. But for
the thrifty protestant conceptualists involved, the process--and
especially the result--was a kind of shock therapy they never expected.

NEW YORK February 1998: the Ada'web website, "one of the most dynamic
destinations for original Web-based art", has come to an abrupt end.
Co-founder Benjamin Weil announces that Digital City Inc., the site's
sponsor, had withdrawn funding. So, Ada'web will cease to produce new
artistic content (Ada'web presented about 15 Web-specific projects by
"high-profile" contributors as Lawrence Weiner and Jenny Holzer).

No sooner had Weil had stated his point than a fierce debate erupted on
the nettime mailinglist over (net)art's dependence on corporate money. 
Video/net activist Paul Garrin stated that corporate sponsorship
necessarily results in censorship. So, "next time you get caught off guard
and lose your "free" net resources or your sponsorship.... don't be
surprised!  There is no free lunch. Everything has it's price." Weil's
response was:  "This reminds me of those people who keep on saying that
artists have to starve in order to produce good work. It is at best
romantic, at worst idiotic. Art has *always* been supported by wealth, may
it be individual patrons, corporations, of the state [..] The whole notion
of a disinterested state that is so much better than the corporate world,
in that it supposedly does not have any agenda, is again one of the most
worn out and preposterous statement that can be made at this point."

Now here is a prime example of everyday pragmatism. Are you able to pull
your own weight, or will you go for sponsors or state funding?  Now that
the wild Wired years of speculation about the metaphysicial essence of the
'Le Cyber' are over (as our French friends put it so charmingly), the mean
and lean years of survival have begun. So, who will survive?  Will it be
the long-term non-commercial projects on a small scale? Or will it be, on
the contrary, those projects which are going for economies of scale? The
Belgian web designer Michael Samryn has a clear answer: "Nowadays culture,
society, and capitalism have become our 'nature'. It's our environment. 
Ignoring this is not revolutionary. It is silly and there is no point to
it. You can fight nature but you cannot win from it. Your best option is
to try and make it more comfortable, maybe even fun. Marginality equals
non-existance." Keith Sanborn disagrees: "To equate the corporation, the
state and the individual might be called "cynical or disingenuous," but I
would say it is simply non-sensical. [Weil's] line about "wake up and
smell the coffee, it's the 90s, not the 60s" is precisely the smug "end of
history" rhetoric of a Fukuyama or Bloom. Therefore, are we to conclude
that we should all lie down and accept the "inevitable"  march of history
over our dead bodies towards the greater glory of capitalism in this best
of all possible worlds?" Instead, Sanborn called on us to make your own
websites: "Start your own war. Or else pursue that hybrid corporate
museological career and don't forget your most Bohemian tin cup." Ted
Byfield (New York) found a way out. His nettime contribution a stressed
the fluid networks, rather than the nodes of the cybereconomy: "Just
'where' is nettime? At At The Thing in New York? In Ljubljana? In
Berlin? In London? In Budapest? To be sure, this distribution--as much
between *people* as between sites--is both our strength and weakness. In
the wake of our meeting in Ljubjana, I heard some grumbling about
disorganization, about how there were no solid resolutions, no definitive
programs or advances. And I thought to myself that this was great: it's
very easy to cement social organization around Programs, but harder to
preserve looser bonds--loyalties, trust, a certain faith." 

The invisible, social network aspect is what makes the Internet so
different from previous broadcast media. And yet, perhaps there are not
any fundamentally new aspects to the 'cybereconomy'. After all, business
is business, and the same goes for politics, culture, the arts, and so on.
The magic of (shared) communication in itself remains untouched by these
developments. What counts are illusion and imagination, in whatever
environment. But these fluid, untamed elements are precisely what is
endangered now. We cannot revert to previous pronouncements of visionary
sales talks or neo-luddite anti-technological persuation. Now the time has
come for sophisticated forms of negative pragmatism. Living paradoxes
rooted in a messy praxis, unswervingly friendly to the virtual open
spaces that are being closed everywhere else.

(thanks to Patrice Riemens, Ted Byfield and Linda Wallace)

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