Geert Lovink on Mon, 23 Nov 1998 21:39:52 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> intro of readme!

[Last Thursday, the new nettime book Readme! Ascii Culture and the 
Revenge of Knowledge. Autonomedia: NYC, 1999 was presented in Rotterdam 
at the Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF). This is its intro.]

"Nothing is spectacular if you aren't part of it." 

Welcome. Bienvenue. Guten Tag. This is an anthology of Nettime, an
internet mailing list-an attempt to transform thousands of emails,
articles, and comments into book form. But what is "Nettime"? 

Once upon a time, an unlikely group of people gathered around a table in a
house somewhere in a German forest. Around the table sat a group of men,
all eating, talking, drinking, sampling each other's ideas. The language
was German. The hours passed, and the table burgeoned under a mass of
papers, notes, books. At the end, they cleared the table, taking various
notes with them as they returned to their own desks, scattered across
Europe, from Amsterdam to Budapest. 

The months passed; email was exchanged. Another meeting was planned for
late spring 1995-this time in Venice, the floating city, during the
Biennale in the Teatro (Malibran). By night it housed an imported Berlin
club scene; by day, the men-and now a few women-gather. The languages are
English, fast and slow, sometimes broken, and also some Italian. The days
pass, and once again the table disappears under the papers, notes, books,

It was at this second meeting of the Medien Zentralkomittee (ZK) that the
Nettime mailing list is conceived. The ZK itself was a parasite attached
to the main body of the Biennale; it had a small budget to invite a
eclectic group of international activists, artists, organizers,
theoreticians, and writers, all involved with the net, for an intense
three-day, closed meeting. The name: Nettime. The topics: the city
metaphor versus the life metaphor, the labyrinths of real and virtual
worlds, wandering websites, the city-state, a critique of the political
agenda that would come to be called the "Californian Ideology," and the
perennial question of art.  Nettime became a reality at this meeting. 

Or so one version of the story goes. Since this is the story of a network,
there is a network of stories about the its multiple beginnings. Some day
someone will think of a way to write a history of such a network. For the
time being, this fable will have to do. 

The Venice group cleared the table and departed for the desks and screens
back home. The passing days turn into weeks, then a month-traffic began to
rise on the Nettime list. Over a series of meetings, festivals and
events-in Budapest, Amsterdam, Madrid, New York, Ljubljana, and countless
railway stations in between-the social networks began to self-organize to
launch a new type of discourse for probing the space of the media
networks, carving out niches for mixed modes of autonomous living and

The list grew from 20 to 30 and to 100, 300, on to 850 subscribers as of
November 1998. Not a whole lot, now that the internet hits the final curve
on the way to mass-medium status, but Nettime never really cared about
numbers. Nettime isn't much concerned with the mass distribution of a
product. It's more about the self-organization of a process. We
tentatively call the process "collaborative text filtering." 

Who are we? Who is Nettime? A saloon? Journal? Bulletin board? Billboard? 
Web archive? Community? System? Soapbox? Warehouse? Parasite? Real-time
oral history? Spittoon? Bitbucket? Open-mike night? A small world after
all? A splintery glory hole? A modest means of self-promotion? A dead
weight oppressing fresh blood? Net.crit chicken hawks? An invisible
dictatorship? A typing pool? 

All of those and more. It's a collective subjectivity with no fixed
identity, made up of the people who come and go from the Nettime list, who
contribute more or less to its characteristic ideas and expressions. 
Nettime is always different from what it was a moment ago; it's always
discovering something new about itself. As such, it is a working
implementation of what subjectivity might become in an online environment. 
Then again, some or many of the participants whose ideas form parts of
Nettime will almost certainly dispute this. Nettime is made up of the
differences between the ideas as to what it is or might become. 

Send a message to the majordomo software that runs the Nettime list and it
will promptly respond with this very out-of-date message in reply: 

"Nettime is not only a mailing list, but an attempt to formulate an
international, networked discourse, that is neither promoting the dominant
euphoria (in order to sell some product), nor to continue with the cynical
pessimism, spread by journalists and intellectuals working in the 'old'
media, who can still make general statements without any deeper knowledge
on the specific communication aspects of the so-called 'new' media. We
intend to bring out books, readers and floppies and web sites in various
languages, so that the 'immanent' net critique will not only circulate
within the internet, but can also be read by people who are not on-line" 
Geert Lovink, Pit Schultz, 27th February, 1996

Another version of this trajectory might go like this: Once upon a time
there was a rather tired and ailing political agenda called leftism. It
had some fixed ideas in its collective head about the media, about the
arts, about theory and practice. It got itself stuck in academic ways of
thinking sometimes, and other times it snorted too much art. The mash of
papers on the tables, the lives of the people around them and the emails
going between them pointed toward something else. The purpose of the
undertaking, was "net critique," a species of radical pragmatism (or
perhaps of pragmatic radicalism) for working late and deep in the
"information age."  This type of critique would seek-in a way that is by
no means necessarily an innovation-involvement at the root level rather
than getting stuck in endless repetitions of formal introductions and
quack diagnoses. 

The theories of the media the leftism relied upon were the product of a
certain kind of history, with political, cultural, intellectual, and
technological dimensions. Net critique aimed to rethink the legacy of
leftist media theory and practice. Nettime was a vector for experimenting
with net critique that would confront it with the possibility of inventing
new forms of discourse and dialogue in a new medium. 

Consensus is not the goal. There's no governing fantasy according to which
the differences within this "group" will on some ever-deferred day be
resolved. The differences ///are Nettime; they might be dialectical,
implying each other, or they might be differential, making absolutely no
reference whatsoever to each others' terms. 

Net critique, if understood as a shared practice in and against a never
predefined techno-local environment, contains many modes of possible
participation. Conventional cultural criticism, as an academic discipline,
contains no imperative to actually do anything beyond the continuation of
polite footnoted complaint. Nevertheless, libraries contain sources of
knowledge that can be newly selected and contextualized to gain momentum. 
Nettime will always contain the writings of genuine insects trapped in the
amber of their own writing-habit, but it is also very much about the
examination and development of other bugs in the system. 

One discovery is that the relatively closed system of a moderated mailing
list can be a good environment for developing a rich set of ideas. It is a
certain kind of milieu, a plane upon which certain kinds of work
flourishes. The best moments on Nettime are perhaps those when
contributors cultivate and differentiate their language and internal
reference system without becoming completely obscure. 

The discursive interactions on Nettime appear as a fluid process that
can't be simulated or staged. The list is a milieu that encourages a
certain radicalism of approach: miscellaneous ex-East going on ex-West
ancien-regime misfits turned NGO-perfect-fits, fun-guerrilla playgirls,
connected autonomists, entrepreneurial molto-hippies, squatters turned
digital imperialists, postcynical berks, slacktivists and wackademics,
minimalist elitist subtechnodrifters, name-your-cause party people,
name-your-price statists, can-do cyberindividualists, can't-won't workers,
accredited weird-scientists, and assorted other theoretical and practical
avant-gardeners, senders, receivers, and orphans. 

Over the years, Nettime has mutated, survived, and escaped its Oedipal
relations to leftism by oozing along new vectors. Nettime always distanced
itself, sometimes dialectically, sometimes absolutely, from the
"cyberhype"  propagated by Wired magazine, which in any case exhausted
itself and declined intellectually. Neither the emergency rhetorics of the
old militants about the threat of the internet, not the technoboosting of
the military-entertainment complex appeared, in the end, to be all that
intellectually interesting. As Nettime continually suggests, the action is

Instead, Nettime has created a milieu in which a collective process of
thinking, or sometimes just a collective migraine, could pose again some
questions of itself and to itself. What is actual? What is possible? What
can we hope for? What seemed important was to maintain of a milieu that
enabled a certain continuity and reliable instability. 

Full-time, or even part-time, Nettime requires a certain intellectual
modesty. It avoided the sillier behavior of the net's "teen
years"-flamewars, axe-grinding, and the spiraling noise of chat-through
light moderation semidemocratized (or at least randomized) by a rotating
group. It's hardly the first list to work through issues of openness and
closure, democracy and justice, free speech and fair speech; but it
doesn't seem as though most participants have fetishized these issues. 

Since its early days as a parasite event on various art festivals, Nettime
has thrived as a mixed economy. It isn't a commercial project, although
its participants certainly have mixed motives for contributing, and those
motives don't at all exclude gain. Various kinds of economy sustain it,
and this hybridity may be a contributing factor to its sustainable
autonomy.  The way to avoid capture by the state or the market is to be
neither one thing nor the other. 

Not every kind of difference can be accommodated directly within Nettime. 
Projects dip in and split off. Cyberfeminism logs in and logs out, a
sometimes parallel, sometimes intersecting project. Ideas, concepts,
experiences are given away in large quantities and uncertain results. 
Rarely new, sometimes stolen, and often borrowed, ideas, concepts, and
experiences are given away in large quantities, with uncertain results. 
Some fall on deaf ears and spark no reaction whatsoever; others drift off
into other channels, and disappear from the radar for a while, to return
morphed as something else; still others provoke heated debates, some of
which have been quickly quoted in the mass media as "the voice of the

But the voice of the net is a silly idea: it has much more to do with
broadcasters' need to represent than with what is represented. The Nettime
project moves in the opposite direction: not a voice, but voicings, less a
melody, than a sound. Net Critique isn't dogmatic-it can't be, because it
isn't even a synthetic set of ideas, let alone a twelve-step program for
instant cyberculture. Rather, it's a series of interventions, some
theoretical, some aesthetic, some technical, even some with a soldering
iron-a network of ideas-in-process. 

As a topology, the Nettime network is a mix of a ring and a star-it's
hybrid in many ways. Open and closed, academic and nonacademic, bits and
atoms, theory and practice. Most Nettime subscribers are in Europe. In the
U.S., Nettime is stronger in New York than on the West Coast. There are
also many active subscribers in Australia. Asia is coming on line, and
subscribers from Japan, Taiwan, India, even China are dropping in. 

There is a different style in using language online, which has mostly to
do with the fact that English isn't the native language of many
subscribers.  English becomes Englishes, and different norms for writing
it rub against each other. A plural standard, emerges where nonnative
Englishes are recognized as valid and coherent standards of English,
rather than a hierarchical one, where native English is assumed superior
to other variants. 

One hope early on was that Nettime could help to shift media theory and
practice into a new communication vectors, to see how they might perform
itself differently in a different spaces. Part of the purpose of this book
is to shift some of the results of that experiment back into the vector of
print media, to see how these efforts looks when re-imagined at a
different speed. 

The practices of collaborative filtering developed on Nettime became the
basis for a practice of editing and publishing. This book was produced as
a collaborative process, by people working on different continents, in
different time zones, at different intensities. It documents the process
not just of Nettime but of net critique applied to itself. It follows the
twists and folds in the information landscape as it is being created,
discovering that things which were remote have suddenly become strange
neighbors. This is what a bottom-up, international, networked discourse
might look like. 

A book of Nettime might seem retrograde. Between old and new media, it
cultivates a zone of fertile textuality which can take the form of a book,
a xerox publication, a private collection of printouts, or an electronic
archive of Nettime emails. Vectors of different texts intersect at
surprising places. Different aggregates of etexts, interviews,
announcements, essays, replies, commentaries, reports, calls, letter,
letters, lists, poems, ascii art, articles, reviews, manifestoes, sermons,
have been cut and remixed. The joy of text finally results in an eclectic
blend of the elements of discourse and dialogue. Social intensities find a
common platform, to differentiate, articulate into an alchemy of desires. 
Giving away time spent on the net and into text, it becomes a collective
source of social, immaterial labor, a "text mine," as well and a source of
elements for new ideas. 

This book is the transformation of Nettime as a time-space into a
different level, where the relative fixity of print allows one (or many)
to measure time in months and years, rather than the minutes and hours of
the net.  What this book is not is an adequate representation of Nettime.
Some of the authors included have never participated Nettime. Some are
dead. They belong to Nettime because they provide important reference
points, historical depth, and continuity. 

Nettime still has centers and peripheries. It has not solved the
structural inequality of global information flows, nor could it. But it is
at least a space that tries to learn through experiment how to overcome
the imperial past of the architecture of global media vectors. Part of the
impetus for Nettime was the desire, after 1989, to create a milieu for
that could pass between Eastern and Western Europe, and to some extent, as
this book shows, that process has produced results. Nettime is part of the
practice of realizing the potential of the net as a means of communicating

Nettime has often been accused of being a white Eurocentric boys' club.
And so it is, to a certain degree. But this perception is superficial. It
is certainly beyond even Nettime's pragmatic utopian capability to solve
all problems of difference and representation. Nettime's open structure
encourages participation and a variety of voices, expressions, lines of
flight. Whoever wants to do the work and share in the joys of text can
simply join in. The male culture of scientific-, business-, and
military-based structures and biases built into communications technology
is daunting and alien to many people from different cultural, racial, and
class sectors. The kind of intellectual and critical text-based virtual
communication represented by Nettime may be wholly unsatisfying and
irrelevant to many whose voices we need to hear. 

Even women with full online access, good educations, and excellent English
writing skills, can find Nettime a difficult forum to crack. Yet Nettime
has made a strong effort to include and address cyberfeminist issues and
texts. The Nettime editorial group has strong feminist representation and
this is reflected in the quality and variety of texts by women included in
the book, as well as in texts from other cultural constituencies which
deal with issues of difference, work, net politics, access, and the
struggle against discrimination of all kinds. Nettime will never be
politically correct; to practice its process it will travel along vectors,
desires, political liquidities, inventive interventions-rich texts of all

READ ME! is structured into several sections which represent some of the
major whirls in the text flows of Nettime.

Software examines the tools with which we build our media environments,
not all of them are computer-based. Markets is a collection of theory and
experiences of living in and out of the grip of this ambiguous and poorly
understood beast. Work presents new theoretical approaches to knowledge
production and some tales from the shady underbelly of the brave new world
of the knowledge workers. Art presents reflections on art and what it
licenses going on and through the net. Local samples the diversity of
living realities, of struggles that are carried out in specific places
along trajectories that are influenced as much by local history as they
are by global media.Neighbors presents other lists, some of which overlap,
some of which are friendly. Sound examines the acoustic properties and
potentials of the net. Subjects ranges across the translucent landscapes
of overlaid histories. Maze is a collection of third-person eat-em-ups for
first-person thinkers. Virus is where critique finally gives up, kicking
off its boots into pure invention. 

#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: