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<nettime> choose-your-own adventure: a brief history of nettime
nettime's mod squad on Sun, 1 Nov 2015 16:36:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> choose-your-own adventure: a brief history of nettime

Eric Kluitenberg and David Garcia asked us to draft an entry/essay
on <nettime> for their upcoming anthology on tactical media, so we
did. But it quickly became clear that if we seriously believed our
our argument, we'd need to invite comments from the entire list. So,
without further adieu, here it is:


If you have a Google login and use it, you can comment with
attribution; if you don't or you'd prefer not to, you can comment
anonymously. Either way, we'll do our best to address or incorporate

In many ways, we think this is the next intuitive step after the
'nottime' April Fool's mail. This essay is very positive, but we've
also tried to be fair in assessing the list's weaknesses and failures.
We hope you'll do be fair as well.

Of course we're aware of the glaring irony that it's a Google Doc.
Like it or not, they're an excellent way to collaborate on a text.
And, as Benjamin Mako Hill pointed out, Google has most of our email
because it has all of yours.

the mod squad
(Felix and Ted)

The list as open collectivity: <nettime> at 20 years and counting

Ted Byfield & Felix Stalder

This is an insider account. Both of us have been deeply involved in
the <nettime> project from very early on, and most of that time on
a daily basis as the list's moderators. So our story is inevitably
biased in ways that we are probably not even aware of; but we hope
to make up for this with a nuanced account of the transformations of
the project which have kept it, for more than 20 years, an important
node in the free-ranging, oppositional examination the cultural and
technopolitical transformations of the present. As the footer appended
to every message states:

# <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
# collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets

Indeed, the peculiar relationship between transformation and
continuity is probably the key to understanding <nettime> and why
it has remained relevant for so long and why we call it an "open
collectivity." By this, we mean a group of people held together by a
shared horizon grounded in common experiences, vectors of interest,
and modes of agency; but rather than relying a fixed internal
structure or charismatic personalities, its interal composition
remains fluid and shifting, in response to desires, pressures, and

In "technological" terms, it has barely changed at all. Since its
founding in late October of 1995, its material basis has been a
mailing list â a simple piece of software, running on a server,
which manages a subscriber list and distributes email to them.
Moreover, <nettime> has always restricted message to the text-only
format. Initially, this convention was driven by communitarian aims
of maximizing access (for users who connected over a low-bandwidth
modem) and minimizing software conflicts. Over time, though, this
became central to the list's culture and, as more communication turns
image-heavy, one of its distinguishing features. So there are no
"styled" formats, no attachments, and no images, sound, or video.
At first, <nettime> used the majordomo software package, then later
Mailman; both are standard (mostly) free software programs. There are
some minor tweaks to mailman so the list can still be moderated using
a command-line interface â arcane but efficient â but that's it.
Nothing special.

Running a mailing list also involves technical decisions and social
approaches that shape not just the daily ebb and flow of traffic
but also the cumulative archive. We recognized this early on, and
formulated a few minimal "policies" â for example, discouraging
"bare" URLs and encouraging people to send complete texts, which over
time ensured that, unlike most mailing-list archives, <nettime>'s
would become an open library of substantial ideas rather than a chatty
jumble of links to bitrot, parked domains, and malware traps. Other
choices have contributed to this unusual resource â notably, the use
of a pseudonymous "digestive system" to anonymize many contributions
and incorporate interesting texts on current (and sometimes past)
events and phenomena.

The list has always been hosted on noncommercial servers run by people
within the open collectivity that formed around the list. First,
at the International City Berlin, then from February 1996 to July
1999 at desk.nl, then after a brief temporary asylum on material.net
(NYC), the list moved to bbs.thing.net (NYC), and since July, 2007
it has been hosted on kein.org (Munich). Its archive, which as of
late 2015 contains more than 22,000 messages, the full traffic since
the list's inception, was hosted first by the Society for Old and
New Media (waag.org [Amsterdam]); since 2014 on servers run by the
media arts collective !Mediengruppe Bitnik (ZÃrich). For most of the
users, whose numbers rose slowly but continuously to about 4500 in
late 2015, these changes in the technical infrastructure where barely

Relying on fluid relations of friendship made it possible to run the
project without involving any financial exchanges, not even donations
or grants. Someone pays for the domain name, but that's it. Everything
is donated in kind, according to ability and according to need. There
was never a compelling reason to develop any formal organizational
structure, and â in light of periodic ruptures in funding patterns
that led to so many failed cultural organizations â many compelling
reasons not to. As an organization, then, <nettime> is made up of
deep, overlapping ties of mutual interest, friendship, respect, and
commitment. For those without such ties <nettime> might sometimes seem
exclusive or even "closed," culturally speaking.

This approach is not without its peculiar twists, to which we will
return, but extreme informality enabled the open collectivity to morph
into numerous shapes, to adapt to changing needs and interests of this
constituency, and to keep everything on a voluntary, self-motivated
basis. Moreover, rather than focus on specific issues or projects,
<nettime> provided a deliberately open context for disseminating,
debating, and documenting the wider range of ideas â digital human
rights, media law and policy, intellectual property, security and
cryptography, media activism, aesthetics and art practice, and the
changing construction of "the artist," to name just a few â from
which local activist practices sprang. As such, for at least some
first-generation subscribers it became a "university of the nets," a
high-signal, low-noise internationalist source for radical theories
and practices.

Thus, while the list's technology has remained simple and stable, the
collectivity and the value it provides to his members, has undergone
subtle but deep changes. This can be summarized by dividing the last
20 years of history into four phases. This periodization is admittedly
somewhat arbitrary, but for present purposes it should serve to
highlight the intertwingled threads of continuity and change.

The Delirium of Networking: the "heroic period," 1995â1998

<nettime> was founded at a time when the Internet was far from
"ubiquitous." Even where it was available it was often hard to reach,
through cranky modems and creaky connections. Once connected, it
didn't take much effort to stumble into raging debates about the what
this "Internet," which appeared to many as a tremendous but vague
promise, was supposed to be. The loudest chorus was American, many of
whom advanced the notion of cyberspace as yet another new frontier and
new territory for cowboy romance. <nettime> immediately positioned
itself against such spatial metaphors.

  The time of nettime is a social time, it is subjective and
  intensive, with condensation and extractions, segmented by
  social events like conferences and little meetings, and text
  gatherings for export into the paper world. Most people still
  like to read a text printed on wooden paper, more than
  transmitted via waves of light. Nettime is not the same time
  like geotime, or the time clocks go. Everyone who programs or
  often sits in front of a screen knows about the phenomena of
  being out of time, time on the net consists of different speeds,
  computers, humans, software, bandwidth, the only way to see a
  continuity of time on the net is to see it as a asynchronous
  network of synchronized time zones.

<nettime> emerged from meetings of European artists and activist
interested exploring the new possibilities of the net for artistic
and political experimentation with a maximum of independence from
established institutions. Initially the list served as way to keep
these discussions going between meetings and to include people
unable to travel at the frantic pace of events. The first years
were delirious as international communication as a daily activity
was new to almost everyone. The self-styled task of creating a new
"European" net.culture was never about geography â it was about
affinities. Those involved included deep connections into the former
East Bloc, which had opened up only a few years earlier, as well
as important contingents from North America and Australia â all
within a medium with no fixed rules or expectation, which contributed
what Geert Lovink once called "the short summer of the Internet."
But not everyone felt content with the new lingua franca, English,
and the vague borderlessness of the Net. Soon, additional <nettime>
lists appeared, as fora for discussions in Dutch, Romanian, French,
Serbo-Croatian, Spanish/Portuguese and other languages. Not all of
them thrived, but some did, for almost as long as the English language

The iconic statement from this early period is still Richard Barbrook
and Andy Cameron's "Californian Ideology," published in Mute magazine.
This essay provided a powerful critique of the "bizarre fusion"
of seemingly contradictory elements: neoliberal worship of the
entrepreneur and the market, irreverence of anti-authoritarian
counterculture, and McLuhanite technological determinism. This
"heterodox ideology," they argued, systematically omitted the crucial
roles of public funding and of grassroots activists in the history of
the Internet, erasing non-market histories and futures.

Given how dominant the internet has become in such a short time,
it would be easy to overlook how the adoption of a mailing list to
connect these diverse people and contexts was itself a form of media
activism. There is an open question whether, over time, the mailing
list has become so normalized as to lose that potential, something
that happened arguably to other "tactical media"â for example,
guerilla video. We think not â and that it's worth reflecting
on unexamined potentials mailing lists may have (say, compared to
commercial and image-driven "social media").

 From the beginning, <nettime> served as an environment for
experimentation with the new medium and, beyond that, as a
collaborative platform to prepare publications outside of it. The
physical fact of these publications latter was seen by some as prima
facie evidence that an effort remained "real" â and its absence
evidence that an effort had somehow lost its way. However that may be,
the combination of continuous exchanges and sporadic meetings (often
"parasitically" attached to larger cultural events) and publication
proved to be productive, flexible, and durable.

This mode of operation enabled a wide variety of people to forge
a core of shared experiences, both personal and collective. As a
result, the list's subscriber base quickly approached 1,000, many
of them significant artists and thinkers in the early net.cultures.
The preferred offline publication format was that of a newspaper:
quick, dirty, and easy to distribute while travelling. Between January
and November 1996 five newspapers were published in connection with
festivals across Europe, and in 1997 another one. In the same year,
the collectivity provided the backbone of the "hybrid workspace" at
the Documenta X exhibition. By 1999 <nettime> was already publishing
its own anthology ReadMe! ASCII Culture and the Revenge of Knowledge;
and in 2001, an edited version of nettime was part of the catalogue of
the Slovenian pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

But summers don't last long, particularly short ones. Two main
fault lines quickly opened up within the collectivity. First,
some sought to use the list to advance narrow personal/political
agendas. Second, open conflict between "net.artists" who sought to
explore the boundaries of the list-format (for example, by what
would later came to be known as "trolling" as an art practice)
and "net.theorists" who insisted the list should be a channel for
ambitious net.criticism. In 1997 a number of net.artists left the
list in protest and founded another, called 7-11. Paul Garrin, a New
Yorkâbased video artist-activist known for his confrontational
style, promoted a series of projects, including an alternative DNS
authority, and hijacked <nettime>'s subscriber base for his own
short-lived "<nettime.free>" list. And, throughout these years, a
shadowy procession of seemingly 24/7 always-on entities variously
known as antiorp, =cw4t7abs, integer, and netochka nezvanova (or
"nn") assailed <nettime> and other forums with astonishing messages
that combined furious bile, ASCII art-inspired deconstructions, and
scathing and often-brilliant critiques of authoritarianism â as well
as promotions of his/her/their software.

These tensions were addressed by switching to moderation mode, a
function that is baked into the mailing-list software. But since
there were no clear rules for how to moderate, and rejected messages
remained invisible, this led to acrimonious debates about "censorship"
and a brief experiment with an "unfiltered" version of the list,
<nettime-bold>. Varied proposals for how the selection process (and
of course who is doing the selecting) could be made more flexible and
spontaneous were advance â for example, by changing platforms from
a mailing list to something else in order to allow subscribers to do
their own idiosyncratic "text filtering" â but nothing ever came of

A third tension arose early on, which the <nettime> collectivity has
never found adequate ways to overcome: gender bias. Nettime has always
been very male â not necessarily in terms of its subscriber base but
certainly in terms of its communication culture. There was quite a bit
of overlap between <nettime> and early cyberfeminism (including the
"faces" email list), but the collectivity never found adequate ways to
provide an environment for explicit, sustained feminist discourses.
And, to the extent that feminist and gender-oriented ideas have played
a pivotal role in broader liberationist movements around the world,
this tacit weakness has marginalized <nettime> as a resource for
younger activists. <nettime> is far from unique in this regard: the
difficulty of addressing often implicit and unacknowledged biases is a
key weakness of the informal mode of voluntary organisation, offline
and online (from free software communities to Wikipedia). Within
<nettime> this problem has been widely recognized and periodically
acknowledged (for example, with citations of Jo Freedman's classic
1971 text "The Tyranny of Structurelessness"), but this has never
translated into substantial practical change.

In retrospect, it's not surprising that debates in <nettime>'s
milieu would anticipate many of the basic operations that underpin
the follow/like economies of social media. However, and particularly
in the context of narcissistic hyperdifferentiation that defines
"social media," it was fortunate that <nettime>'s moderation wasn't
splintered. Rather than relying on a system of technically implemented
(and therefore enforced) differentiation, an open collectivity
communicates in a unified environment where everyone is equidistant.
In <nettime<'s case, it proved to be much more fluid and able to
negotiate imprecise shifts in taste and attention. It was this
implicit vagueness that gave <nettime> a supple adaptability that many
other collective ventures lost in the ensuing strife.

Crisis Intervention: the bombing of Serbia (1999)

All of these debates faded quickly into the background once NATO
started to bomb Serbia on March 24, 1999. As is often the case, mass
media on all side shifted into propaganda mode. (See also Veran
Matic's text in this volume.) <nettime> suddenly turned into a
channel in which people on the receiving end of the bombing campaign,
the members of the collectivity who lived in Belgrade, reported
the terrifying facts in near-real time. This provided an important
counterbalance to the media narratives, which were dominated by the
video-feeds from "smart" bombs and their implied ideology of a "clean"
war. The reach of these dispatches from the ground was considerably
farther than just the list itself, since several members of the
collectivity in the West worked in the media and used this material
in their stories. At certain critical times, the feedback loops
established through <nettime> were much quicker and more accurate than
those provided by major news providers such as CNN. Retrospectively,
this was a pioneering moment for both "citizen journalism" and
"real-time crisis monitoring," two functions are now separated into
blogging and derivative "micro" platforms such as Twitter. At the
time, though, they hadn't yet been articulated as such and were still
unified within email.

At the end of an extremely intensive period, in which the collectivity
had to learn to cope with the relentless and intimate reporting of the
dirty realities of war among friends who suddenly found themselves on
different sides, the collectivity was exhausted. Though shortly after,
energizing events took place in the streets of Seattle and set off
another short summer, that of the anti-globalisation movement which
had forced its way onto the global stage, drawing heavily on the new
modes of horizontal communication provided the Internet.

The Long Bust: the dot.com crash, 9/11, and the lure of social media.

The bursting of the bubble of Internet stocks in in March 2000,
signaled the end of the first irrational exuberance of the Internet.
Things got considerably worse in the following year. The brutal
police crackdown of the massive protests against the G8-Meeting in
Genoa Italy in July 2001 was a turning point in the state's response
to the antiglobalization movement. A few months later, the events of
9/11 not only caught the important New York-based contingent of the
collectivity up close, but it soon became apparent that this would not
only lead to new wars abroad, but also to new repression at home and
surveillance of online communication.

While the champions of the Californian ideology rebounded from
the shock of the stock market with a new label, Web 2.0 and, soon
afterward "social media," the mood within the collectivity remained
dark. The new developments were quickly analyzed as a profound
reengineering of the Internet infrastructure away from the early
decentralized designs towards new centralized platforms firmly in the
hand of (venture) capital. The fact that in early days of social-media
investors were happy to sustain losses in exchange of market share,
barely obscured the new power-relations that were being implemented.

The arrest of Critical Art Ensemble's Steve Kurtz, an important voice
in technoculture in the US and Europe, in May of 2004 was significant
in its own right and also symptomatic of the increasingly humorless
and violent view the state and corporations were taking to the domain
of media activism. After Kurtz's wife died unexpectedly of a heart
attack, emergency workers interpreted the scientific materials in
Kurtz's home in the worst possible light and called in federal law
enforcement agencies. He was subjected to a years-long prosecution
for criminal mail and wire fraud under the USA PATRIOT Act. It
showed to many that criticial cultural practice, as Konrad Becker
put it at the time, "does in fact touch the nerve of occult power
in the techno state" â even (maybe especially) when it operates
on a purely semiotic level. The overblown repression of a critic
of the techno-political power system now appears as a precursor of
the stepped-up repression of hackers and journalists surrounding
WikiLeaks, Anonymous, and other renegades.

During those years, <nettime> was declared dead several times.
In some ways, then, it's surprising that the list, rather than
fading away, shifted gears toward deeper historical analyses of the
networked condition â notably, Brian Holmes's essays on history and
transformations of cybernetics.

By now, one consequence of moderation and its strictly voluntary mode
was becoming clearer. The new social media intensified the speed
and sheer volume of communication, making message lengths shorter
and visual content ever more pivotal; above all, reaction became
the dominant currency. <nettime> by contrast, moved in the opposite
direction â mainly by not changing at all. Moderation necessarily
involves a delay, which, given the contingent nature of collective
efforts, could be as little as a few minutes or as much as a few days,
depending on circumstances. Far from being an obstacle, though, this
often introduced a slight (and manipulable) lag to exchanges on the
list, which allowed time for reflection in reading and writing rather
than reaction. Discussion threads extended over days, sometimes weeks,
and often would be taken up again at a later point. The fact that each
member had a local copy of the list's conversation in his or her email
folder (in addition to the online archive) provided the collectivity
with a sense of its own history and allowed for an uneven accumulation
of collective references and knowledge.

Living the crisis: the return of the (un)real (2008â)

Two events cast into sharp relief some of the basic concerns
that have been important to <nettime>'s collectivity from the
beginning â and showed the brutally bare extremes that power
structures would impose in order to preserve their privilege,
even at the cost of never-ending and expanding crisis. First, the
catastrophic effects of financialization as a core element of
neoliberalism and the willingsness of the state intervene on behalf
of "too-big-to-fail" banks became shockingly apparent in the wake
of the 2008 economic meltdown. And second, the blanket surveillance
of military-communication complex relies on to detect and contain
social unrest which was made public by the leaks of Edward Snowden
starting in 2013. Such issues that had been staples of <nettime>'s
discussions â the role and shape of infrastructures, the materiality
of politics, the continuities and transformations of capitalism, the
possibilities of resistance and imagination of radical alternatives
â and suddenly, they found mainstream resonance.

Particularly in the wake of 2008, as cultural funding dried up in
many countries, <nettime>'s no-money collectivity model has proven to
be resilient and sustainable. In some ways, the double crisis that
marks the second decade of our century, is bringing <nettime> back to
its roots. And intense interest in socio-technical infrastructures
and understanding social critique that is fits the current social
transformation needs not only theoretical tools, but also new forms of
organisation. It is, perhaps, this twin concern, more than anything
else, that has motivated the collectivity for such a long time.

Whether it remains capable of generating substantive contributions to
this distributed efforts that takes place in many contexts and modes
around the world remains an open question. Some serious and absolutely
legitimate criticisms â many of which hadn't been voiced on the list
in years, in some cases because their advocates had long ago given
up â were summarized in an April Fool's prank in 2015, in which we
announced that we were closing the list:

<nettime> has been 'graying.' It's wedded to a particular
Euro-American moment, the so-called summer of the Internet, which has
since turned to winter. Nettime's once-radical embrace of the ex-East
â or, if you like, of the ex-West â barely extends to Hungary
now, and has nothing to say to the decisive conflicts around Russia's
bordersâ. Its early tacit prohibition on ritualized debates about
Israel and Palestine has grown into a complete failure to address the
profoundly important dynamics across parts of the world conventionally
â and reductively â called 'Muslim' or 'Arab.' These areas are too
often consigned to the 'timelessness' of conflict, but there's every
reason to believe that their liberatory struggles could ultimately
define the future of the 'WEIRD' nations. China? Barely a peep about
it. Africa? Nettime is nowheresville. The seas, the skies, the
circulatory flows? Nada. And how about nongeographical 'areas' where
the most moving cultural changes are happening â in the flowerings
of new forms of subjectivity around the world and the new forms of
sovereignty they're giving rise to. Silence. But, really, who cares
what a bunch of straight white cis guys â which is 95% of the list's
traffic â think about those things?

We formulated these criticisms in the context of a failed effort to
stage a new and different <nettime> meeting: farther east than before,
and with a renewed emphasis on learning about where and how (and maybe
when) activist efforts had migrated â efforts that were media-savvy
yet ignored in mainstream media. The list's flexibility, and the
'equidistance' we noted earlier, limit participants' ability (and
probably their motivation) to act collectively.

And, of course, <nettime> also shares other serious weaknesses with
media-activist efforts, sometimes very literally. The list's reliance
on noncommercial and volunteer resources have also made it vulnerable
in basic respects. At times, its minimal infrastructure depended on
servers shared with more radical members â for example, eToy, the
Yes Men, and Ricardo Dominguez's "Floodnet." When their more radical
activities led upstream ISPs to shut these servers down, <nettime>
(along with many other projects and people) came under direct threat.
More recently, its lack of organizational resources has prevented it
from incorporating resources like Twitter and Facebook, which are
widely seen as essential organizational tools.

These weaknesses run the risk of letting <nettime> drift even deeper
into its own peculiarity â as Morlock Elloi, a stauch pseudonymous
in the collectivity, put it in late 2015 â to become just another
group of "self-similar[s] in faraway land," where like-minded people
substitute their irrelevance for the joy of being together. The list's
waning emphasis on face-to-face meetings and media-activist actions
might be a symptom that the list was becoming increasingly "bourgie"
â which it no doubt was, to a certain extent. It also reflected
the aging demographic of <nettime>'s core members â for example,
their growing concern with stable professional jobs (particularly
in arts-oriented segments of academic), raising children, and so
on. Whatever the cause, there's no doubt that less emphasis on
face-to-face meetings has also diminished the spontaneity and force
the collectivity would be capable of.

The question of how to articulate and navigate shifting, contingent
relationships between continuity and transformation, which has always
been central to <nettime>'s success, remains at the fore. Four
time, the collectivity has managed to re-attune itself to changing
circumstances. Whether it can continue to respond in flexible and
relevant ways to newer conditions â and, crucially, to attract
younger contributors â is very much an open question.

#  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: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} kein.org