Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> Gift(wrap)ing New Media
Ryan Griffis on Mon, 24 Feb 2003 22:30:55 +0100 (CET)

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

<nettime> Gift(wrap)ing New Media

this is a draft for a text that's part of a larger
project ( http://www.artofficial-online.com/contextin
). it's kinda long, and probably not the most clear,
but i'm trying to apply some of Rosalyn Deutsche's
arguments about spatial politics to "New Media" and
"Gift Economics" in terms of the culture industry. any
response would be welcome.
thanks + take care,

ryan griffis
Gift(wrap)ing New Media (in an Authentic Chilkat

"The Internet is actually a social condition where
everyone in the network society is connected directly,
without intermediation, to everyone else."
Eben Moglen 1
"Totalitarianism ruins democracy by attempting to fill
the void created by democratic revolution and banish
the indeterminacy of the social."
Rosalyn Deutsche 2

	A lot has been written in recent years about the
"Gift Economy" operating within the confines of
networked art and culture. This economy of information
and ideas works in contrast to the monolithic economy
of financial capital, or so it is said by many of its
proponents. The electrified art world has seen the
rise (and some say the decline) of large-scale
projects based on cultural capital trading like
Rhizome.org, the Nettime lists, and various components
of international festivals and conferences. There are
counterparts in the business sector, in the
proliferation of open-source products and services
like Linux and the late Napster, and links to the
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) tradition of punk, indy and craft
cultures as well as the politico-philosophy of
	Critiques of the "cyberlibertarianism" of the
high-tech industry have spelled out the paradox that
is the dominant ideology of the Wired world. 3 The
desire for "free markets" from the neo-liberal,
high-tech sector has been criticized for taking from
the commons, but not giving back. In tandem with this
"cyberselfishness," some camps put forward theories of
anarchy and information as a naturally open system.
Unlike the traditional libertarians, who believe in
traditional methods for keeping the market "free" and
"competitive," proponents of open-source movements
prophesize the (natural) death of copyright law. The
restriction of information through legislative methods
is an anachronism that stands in the way of the
natural, unimpeded flow of technical progress.
	This brings me to the use of the opening quotes
above, neither of which are actually all that recent
(in Net years anyway). At first glance, I don't think
there's much of a relationship between them,
oppositional or complementary. However, there's been
something about the utopic/dystopic/cynical debates on
"New Media" that has kept me going back to Deutsche's
critical analysis of re-masculinizing, totalitarian
calls for a unified "Public Space." Her critique of
the depoliticized rhetoric of the public sphere, and
its slippages in representation, seems to offer some
insight into our current debates over electronic
"space." While Moglen's, and others', utopian belief
in anarchy and the direct democracy offered by
Networked culture would seem to suggest a belief in
heterogeneous and decentered politics, Deutsche warns
us to be skeptical of utopianism, especially when it
seems to have solutions for the "problems of
democracy." As Deutsche's "Agoraphobia" argues, claims
of solutions to social and political instability -
whether of the nostalgic or futuristic kind - often
have authoritarianism as models, that is, the desire
to eliminate conflict. Well-intentioned Great
Societies should, by now, generate some apprehension,
especially when technology is claimed as their New
	"...if you start from the facts the facts are always
on your side. It turns out that treating software as
property makes bad software." (Moglen)
A major tenet of this techno-anarchist philosophy
(which is by no means monolithic) is that copyright
law is not just wrong because it controls access to
information, but also because the results of
practicing the law result in naturally inferior
products. If more people have access to the means of
production for software, then more flaws will be
designed out and the software will be adapted to more
individuals. A basic bottom-up design structure,
designed as evolution, no?
	This all sounds very good, and even sensible, but how
does the "infowar" between the cyberlibertarians,
technoanarchists, and old-school managers get played
out? And what, exactly, is a qualitative statement
like "bad software" to mean when many don't equate
making money from work to be "bad." Outside of the
debates over digital information distribution, another
group of activists has aligned themselves with some
notion of anarchist philosophy in their resistance to
the neo-liberal economic order. Seeing themselves in
direct combat with consumerism and corporate
conglomeration, they wage battle on a local level,
with their eyes on its global, historical
significance. In the turn of the millennium street
protests in the US, Genoa, Prague, etc., a relatively
small group of self-described (and press-labeled)
anarchists decided that marching was not enough.
Breaking windows, spray painting, and other tactics
were used, the most publicized US incident being their
minor part in the 1999 WTO event in Seattle. This form
of property destruction served two purposes for
participants: the literal and symbolic breaking of the
sanctity of property; and the infliction of real
monetary damage to the corporate infrastructure -
hitting them "where it hurts... the wallet."4
	My problem with the so-called anarchists' acts of
property destruction is theoretical, as well as
pragmatic. Aside from the obvious arguments made by
many of the "peaceful" civil disobedients that
property destruction resulted in the state coming down
harder (literally) on other protesters, the
theoretical understanding of their actions reveals
other significant issues. The tactics of direct action
and property destruction in the US, goes back at least
to the work of groups like Earth First!, Greenpeace,
the Animal Liberation Front and the Earth Liberation
Front, as well as the direct action panhandling of the
German-American Anarchists of the Haymarket era. These
groups practice(d) direct interventions, like road
blocking, tree spiking, breaking and entering,
destroying GMO test fields, and general monkey
wrenching, that are designed to directly interfere
with corporate activity they disagree with, and in the
mean time, and slowing down the machine enough to open
public dialogue about those activities through media
exposure. Those that attack property as part of street
demonstrations on the other hand, claim that their
actions will force corporate behavior to change
through threats of further financial damages.
	What is dangerously absent from their analysis of
such actions is an understanding of the contexts in
which they exist. Any amount of damage that can be
inflicted on any number of Gap, Starbucks, or
McDonalds stores is little more than damage to the
surface of an economic and cultural superstructure.
While potentially successful as symbolic actions
(breaking the "spell" of bystanders) the benefits may
actually be minimal compared to the negative
consequences. In other words, forcing the corporate
state to show its authoritarian face can only be good
if it will be rejected by the mainstream, which
requires (at least) sympathetic media coverage -
hardly something that can be counted on for any
demonstration against capital.5 In the meantime,
workers and the state subsidize the costs incurred by
street-level destruction. Corporations will get
financial incentives to reestablish more secure,
developed retail districts and the state will more
rigorously enforce property protection, much like what
has happened to post 1992 LA.6
"...the most significant difference between political
thought inside the digerati and outside it is that in
the networked society, anarchism is a viable political

What does a "viable political philosophy" mean when it
is dependent on the acceptance of a technological
superstructure that, for most, cannot be separated
from the dominant economic infrastructure? And how
viable is a politic that is confined to a
technological dream state that is not, nor can be,
universally enjoyed? Such dualisms ignore the
complexity of relationships between different
ideologies and populations to technology.8
If you're not part of their solution, where are you?
Where are the "un-plugged" (to steal Ars Electronica's
last theme) and the welfare recipient in these
"alternative" plans for the "cooperative and
ecological societies of the future"?9 As capital
cannibalizes itself, an economic Call to Order can be
heard in the gasps of "pull media" as it's suffocated
by mega-mergers. And while "information wants to be
free," not many are finding the same to be true of
food and rent. 

"Subjective freedom, autonomy of conscience and the
empowerment of individual will is matched to an
inverse degree by economic and social dependence. This
dependence is only partly a result of the atomization
of artists... Its greater part lies not in relations
of distribution but in the mechanisms of the system of
belief which produce the value of works of art, and
affirm the legitimacy of our activity."
Andrea Fraser10 

As Fraser pointed out almost 10 years ago, we
(cultural producers) may want to start considering
some of the problems faced in the navigation of
technology and culture as more than ones of
distribution. The recent Verio plug-pull of NY based
service provider the Thing because of nothing more
than a DMCA threat by a large transnational
corporation, should illustrate the weakness of the
technological Net that supports the free sharing of
critical cultural capital.11 "ICTs do not lend
themselves to be hired for shared speculation on
democracy without steep interests attached and monthly
payments in hard, cold cash."12
One of the major tenets of gift economics is that the
winners are those with the most to give away. It
shouldn't take too much to see some of the practical
problems of interpreting this as emanicipatory for
anything but capital, or even as a more egalitarian
form of cultural distribution. The ideology of gift
economics has often been couched in ethnographic and
humanistic sentiment that stakes its claims in
apolitical and scientistic ethics. The reference made
by many to the Potlatch ceremonies of the US Pacific
Northwest cultures as somehow proof of another form of
wealth distribution is telling. Rarely do such
arguments attach a political economy to either the NW
cultures, or to the desire to find a universal
referent for our current situation. While it may be
useful to point to specific models, it is dangerously
authoritarian and utopian to assert the immanence of
any cultural system. Libertarian and anarchist
theologies both lay claim to innate human tendencies,
then cry fowl when someone else with more power acts
contrary to the pattern. The Fittest apparently don't
care for theory, whether political or evolutionary.

"The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion
has it for government, because the more does it
regulate its own affairs, and govern itself..."
(Thomas Paine, quoted in Barbrook)

Many of those benefiting from high tech gift economies
have become tiresome of critics who point out the
"dark side" of the Net. Dystopic rants on
surveillance, privacy, conformity, homogeneity, and
more have been dismissed as unfounded by many. And the
"digital divide" argument serves as both a
conservative and neoliberal tool for diverting
attention from the structural problems of social and
economic inequity by insisting that the problem is
merely access to technology. The digital panopticon is
said to be antithetical to the current direction of
media history, a relic of Cold War fantasies of "Big
Brother." According to those making these arguments,
"almost everybody prefers the bottom-up Net over this
top-down version," and "even neo-liberals are
realising that the trading of physical commodities is
much easier outside the digital panopticon."13 Are we
to gather from these statements that AOL really
represents a "bottom-up" approach, or that the "almost
everyone" in question is really a more selective group
than it sounds. An understanding of the panopticon
that positions it in opposition to the interests of
"free trade" would seem to be missing some of the
significance of the development of capital as an
evolving system. Clinging to a long anachronistic, but
still rhetorically functioning State vs. private
property dichotomy, these arguments gloss over the
fact that neo-liberalism is the ideology behind the
WTO, FTAA, EU, WBCSD - organizations designed to
overcome the boundaries of nation states, and hence
obligations to the welfare of their governed people.
It is not the State that sits in opposition to free
trade, it's people. Those that think governments are
the sole beneficiaries of the panopticon must not be
paying attention to where most surveillance and data
collection occurs, namely commerce. It is also
important to restate one of the crucial components of
the panopticon theory, that of "self-governance."
While Barbrook's use of Paine's words suggests a more
anarcho-utopian philosophy, the social goals of the
panopticon are self-regulation and internalized
control - that's what makes the unmanned tower more
efficient. Ironically, a Dow representative once said,
"People do things more effectively when they want to
as opposed to being coerced to do them."14

This reevaluation of privacy and surveillance has its
avant-garde cultural arm as well.
0100101110101101.ORG, a net.org collective has applied
some of the concepts of the Gnu General Public License
to their works of art. Their project "life_sharing" -
based on the activity of file sharing between computer
units - opens up the contents of their computer to the
Internet, via a Web interface, The collective
maintains that the entire contents of the computer in
question will be available for perusal and
downloading. They position the work as an exercise in
self-portraiture, with larger and universal
implications. As they say, "...a computer...ends up
looking like its owner's brain. If you accept the
assumption...you will also assume that sharing your
computer entails way more than sharing a desktop or a
book, something we might call life_sharing."
This human-computer personality complex is derived
from a universalization of the human condition as mere
information. With obvious connections to genetic
sciences and the (attempted) complete quantification
of experience, 0100101110101101.ORG's project
represents data as transcendent and self-sustaining,
as life itself. Ironically, it is similar analogies
that are being used by the corporate state to regulate
civic activity online. As hearings on "cyberterrorism"
and "cyberprotests" make clear, the rhetoric against
electronic civil disobedience relies on the ability to
equate computer crimes with acts of violent terrorism
against human bodies.
Along with the project's linking of life and art, as
commodified lifestyle, there is also an attack on
conventional privacy. Josephine Berry wrote of
"In a more overtly political sense, the project
identifies the attempt to ring-fence and protect
information as both a futile exercise and a fearful
capitulation to the myth of individual identity."15
Maybe the collective says it more clearly, " The idea
of privacy itself is obsolete."16 Not wanting to seem
like a total surrender, these claims are buffered by
claims that the saturation of data prevents any
wholesale mining and utilization of personal
information anyway. 
I know such grand standing is aimed at technocrats and
the "digerati," but the decontextualization of issues
like privacy are troubling nonetheless. The people I
know that work in social services would argue that
many of the people they work with have already given
up any claims to privacy through violently intrusive
interrogations and constant surveillance. Their
identity is already intricately linked to data
networks, and they're acutely aware of it - it's not
hidden from them. Against this total digitization of
life, The Institute for Applied Autonomy's "iSee"
project identifies many groups (which seem to cover
just about everyone) that may be concerned about
surveillance, and ways to avoid the constant
collection of data, if only for a moment.17 Certainly,
the ideology of isolated individualism, the
public/private dichotomy, and the openness of
information are areas much in need of further
critique, but such discourse should be aware of
differences in privilege. For many, privacy has long
been (made) obsolete.
A notion of a gift economy, whether functional or
symbolic, has been a part of art world discussions
beyond the Net. In a review for the Nation, Arthur
Danto claimed the emergence of a new generosity in
contemporary art that could be seen in the last
Whitney Biennial.18 Looking at the work of certain
included artists, Danto chose to see a new humanism
and spirituality being celebrated. Consider his
interpretation of William Pope.L's five-year crawl up
NYC's Broadway as having "the aura of certain ritual
enactments that require worshipers to climb some
sacred stairway on their knees." What Danto sees in
this work is a kind of martyr-like redistribution of
spiritual wealth. Mundane acts of caring service
elevated to the level of avant-garde art with recent
roots in Felix Gonzales Torres and Rirkrit Tiravanija.
Geert Lovink points out that online content providers
now find themselves in a situation of mandated
"sharing." Getting paid is often not an option. But,
here, as in the development of free software, cultural
content is provided by those that can afford it. The
problem, or rather my problem, is that this "gift
economy" that exists in a fairly contained portion of
a capital-based infrastructure is being rhetorically
universalized. While I would usually respond, "What's
wrong with a universalized gift economy?", it seems
that this gift economy, though beneficial to many
areas of independent research, production, and
distribution, can also become a tool for
marginalization and even suffocation of independent
cultural forms. Of course, independent culture doesn't
require much funding for a local scale, but when that
culture is technologically dependent and at the mercy
of a larger infrastructure, it can be a fragile thing.
If one makes the small analogical leap from
information trading to many of the activities
supported by non-profits and state-run agencies, in
terms of gift economics, it doesn't look so good. That
is in fact what Bush's volunteer and faith-based
initiatives, given steam post 9/11, are meant to do19.
And while such programs offer much needed services to
those in need, their sustainability (at least
democratically speaking) is another matter. This is
capitalism working at its best: the social costs of
profit are visibly marginalized and largely paid for
by those that can least afford it. And as many (though
probably not enough) have pointed out, even the
information economy rides on the fleshy backs of labor
that remains mostly invisible in the flowing data
All of this I'm saying must be taken with a grain of
salt, as I'm a benefactor of much of what's traded in
the gift e-conomy. My participation in online
organizations like Rhizome.org has been extremely
rewarding. I didn't flinch before pitching in my
(whopping) 50 bucks when I heard they were in
financial trouble, and before the membership fee was
mandated. Yet, this was firstly dependent on my
perception that such activity would be personally and
professionally beneficial to me, and secondly, on my
current financial security. When theorizing of gift
economics, maybe we should run the theories through an
ideological translator (the Bureau of Inverse
Technology may have something for this already21)-
something that reminds us that we create and recreate
the systems that govern us everyday. The desire for
technological progress to be evolutionary is blind
utopianism at best and violently authoritarian at
worst. To be sure, I don't want to criticize the
practice of a gift economy, per se, but rather the
belief that such an economic system exists apart from
the necessities of expanding capital, with all its
contradictions. One question I pose to myself is how
to deal with the agoraphobia brought on by the "public
spaces" of New Media, while hoping at the same time
that the space for conflict grows, as history gives us
reasons to fear the space that seems free from
1 Moglen, Eben, "Anarchism Triumphant: Free Software
and the Death of Copyright," First Monday.
2 Deutsche, Rosalyn, "Agoraphobia," Evictions, MIT
Press, 1996.
3 See Lovink, Geert Dark Fiber, MIT Press, 2002;
Borsook, Paulina, "Cyberselfish," PublicAffairs, 2001.
4 I certainly don't mean to speak for all those
involved, as I'm sure some participants have their own
rational, however, I'm making generalizations based on
interviews and statements by outspoken participants
and supporters. See the videos "Breaking the Spell,"
Pickaxe Productions and "This is What Democracy Looks
Like," Big Noise Films.
5 Critical Art Ensemble, in Electronic Civil
Disobedience, has written about the problems for
symbolic acts of civil disobedience that take on the
force of authorities directly and publicly. The post
9/11 political climate makes the seeming successes of
Seattle and even the current anti-war efforts seem
6 Mike Davis's Ecology of Fear, (Vintage, 1998)
recounts the reaction to the LA riots of 1992 by the
state and commercial interests - retail subsidies for
relocation and more privatized security, the
fortification of downtown, rigorous zoning, and
pulling money out of the areas most in need of
infrastructural development.
7 Moglen, Eben, "Anarchism Triumphant".
8 As Cyberfeminists, like subRosa and The Old Boys
Network, point out (and work to overcome), the old
gender bending spaces of the Net have remained fairly
masculine and Anglo-centric.
9 Barbrook, "The Regulation of Liberty: Free Speech,
Free-Trade, Free Gifts on the Net", www.nmk.co.uk.
While many are fighting oppression using electronic
means, social worker friends tell me that many more
are numbers in vast databases that decide whether they
get into a section 8 house or not.
10 Fraser, Andrea, "How to Provide an Artistic
Service: An Introduction" 1994
11 www.theyesmen.org/dow.
12 Flagan, Are, "The RGB Rainbow,"
13 Barbrook, "The Regulation of Liberty".
14 Tom Smolarek, Global Director for Environmental
Health and Safety Operations, Dow Chemical Co., from
www.dow.com, 1999.
15 Berry, Josephine, "Bare Code: Net Art and the Free
Software Movement".
16 artists' statement, 0100101110101101.org.
17 "iSee," appliedautonomy.com.
18 Danto, Arthur, "The Show They Love to Hate," The
Nation, 4.29.02.
19 see: usinfo.state.gov/usa/volunteer ;
20 The work of the SiliconValley Toxics Coalition
(www.svtc.org) is just one group working for
environmental justice in the US. Prema Murthy's
"Mythic Hybrid" is also interesting in its cross
referencing of new media theory and current realities
for high tech women workers of India.
21 www.bureauit.org.

Do you Yahoo!?
Yahoo! Tax Center - forms, calculators, tips, more

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net