Geert Lovink on Tue, 21 Jul 1998 18:01:02 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Net Criticism 2.0: a dialog

Net Criticism 2.0 A Fast Conversation of Two Moderators
with Ted Byfield and Geert Lovink

[in preparation for the 'nettime bible', the upcoming
book which will be released in november at the Dutch
Electronic Arts Festival, V2, Rotterdam]

GL: So let us have an exchange about the current and
possible 'net criticism' and how we think this genre
should be (further) developed. Who are your masters,
big examples? Is NC different from IT-business
reporting, investigative journalism, essays? I wonder,
for example, what you think of all these books with
examples of 'successful' websites and their design. Few
people question that genre and discourse. The same
counts for software manuals, the dummy books etc. Well,
there is (or was) a Wired critique, yes. But how to get
beyond that?

TB: You may remember that when phrase like 'net
criticism' and 'net discourse' first cropped up, I was
pretty skeptical about them. Not about the work being
done under those rubrics, but about the possibility of
these fields or disciplines: whether the subjects or
objects were understood clearly enough to hold together
as a project. At the time i drew a parallel to a
distinction floating around in some newsgroups devoted
to various problems of the net, between abuse *on* the
net (flaming, basically) and abuse *of* the net (spam,
forged cancels, etc.). We still see this ambiguity, in
efforts to elaborate genres that are somehow 'native'
to networks and claims that 'the net was used to
organize the opposition in Indonesia.' There is that
kind of confusion, which hasn't really been worked out,
and then there's another kinds of confusion that stems
from how quickly the medium (however you want to
understand that term) has changed. So I don't think
these efforts have come together clearly, but the more
recent confusion may be a sign that, as you've called
it, a 'Net Criticism 2.0' Is coming together. It's
certainly needed.

GL: I wonder if we can harass the masses to join a
competition about 'net criticism 2.0' and what it
should be all about. Or is this already too
self-referential? the problem here is really one of
positive or rather negative role models, types of text
one falls in love with, mind-blowing critiques that
shake the fundaments of the current Net (business)...

TB: That's a question for future historians to ask,
whether it was all too self-referential. As for
'harassing the masses,' who knows? This relates to
another ambiguity, namely, what is the net for? Is it
instrumental, a means of communication? Is it a medium,
whether for art or for publishing? Is it an empty
notebook, or a television, or a telephone, or an arena?
It's very easy to think of a particular forum on the
net as a kind of context, but what's harder to
understand, I think, is the reception of that
context--as something for passive edification or
entertainment, or as a 'push-back channel' for finished
works, or even as a testing ground for unfinished
experiments? Some combinations of these possibilities
are very vital, others not so vital. So the question
might be what's the most vital option? But maybe *that*
is too self-referential.

GL: The best discourses are perhaps those which
cultivate and differentiate their language and internal
reference system without becoming completely obscure, a
seductive game of closures and openness. The relatively
closed system of the mailinglist can be a good
environment to develop a rich set of ideas, before the
army of recyclers like academics, journalists, and
cultural mediators take over. But by and large it is an
irrational process that can not be simulated or even
staged. And it should have a certain radical approach.
Moderate voices can only come up with sweet synthesis
at the end. So the NC 2.0 Is in need of new forms of
narrowness. The cyber ideology now needs new
directions, enemies, targets, and positive goals also,
of course.

TB: I used to wonder if, as the net became a normal
part of life like the telephone, the possibility of
'net critique' would somehow seem like 'phone
critique'--a quaint historical wrong turn. But I don't
think so: one reason net 'exploded' was the possibility
it opened for circumventing the various establishments
of only slightly older generations who had become quite
comfortable in their professionalized forms of
discomfort: enforcing suddenly stratified structures in
academia, journals, galleries, activist organizations,
and so on--very much at the expense of those who sought
to continue critique, if not 'follow in their
footsteps.' And so we saw this fast proliferation of
soapboxes, networks, and so on. I don't believe the
dissatisfactions and ideals that drove that move are
gone, done, settled, we're all happy now, no more
problems, everyone is all of a sudden moderate. So
there is your potential radicalism. But what are the
frustrations and goals these few years later?

GL: Avital Ronell would love your 'phone critique', but
anyway, the question now is if we, the users of the
Net, simply accept the standard as are now being
developed. No more research and development. This is
also the starting point of that brilliant 'anti mac'
piece that was on nettime a little while ago. It states
that the Apple Mac interface has not changed for a long
time and that the human-machine interface are lot
likely to be revolutionized some time soon. The same
can be said of Microsoft and it critics. We are in
danger of getting stuck into web normalcy. This could
be the point where the real existing frustration comes
up. After all the sell outs, mergers, bankruptcies we
can think of organizing the discontent of the more
experienced users that did not get trapped into cheap
cyber fascinations, through new models of trade unions,
consumer organizations, and the appearance of the
dissatisfied masses that are committing 'electronic
civil disobedience'.

TB: I wish I could say that I loved her _Telephone
Book_, but no--in part because it 'anticipated' in
print some of the big dead-ends that have trapped
electronic media ('event' instead of continuity,
melange instead of synthesis, hype instead of
substance, etc., etc.). There's a danger in falling for
the seductive cosmopolitanism or worldliness that the
net offers: eclecticism very easily devolves into a
reactionary mode, but rarely reveals itself as such
because its concern for input and reception provides no
basis for saying 'OK, enough for now, we know what our
principles are, time to act on them.' I think this is
the fascination with the free or open-source software
movement: ah, this eclecticism has paid off, now we've
found an ideal that's native to network. All well and
good, but then these forces come out with a silly 'Open
Content License.' it's like they jumped through Alice's
mirror and into the wonderful world of hypertext, but
they're 'back' button is grayed-out: they forget that
content always was open and still is. Some freedom: so
now the _Communist Manifesto_ becomes the compiled
binary, and you can only distribute it under OCL, with
the _Grundrisse_ 'comments' and _Das Kapital_ 'source
code.' David Bennahum jokes about the 'gif economy' and
'wysiwyg society'; what I'd like to see is an 'ascii

GL: OCL is one thing, but have you seen the expensive
coffee table edition of the Communist Manifesto,
published for the 150th anniversary of that text? ascii
is now what pulp for the newspapers used to be in the
19th century, a fundamental resource which is driving
all these virtual and spacial revolutions forward. But
this is not obvious! Code is rapidly becoming less and
less visible. We are essentialists in that we like to
believe that the elements behind the spectre is that
which counts. The same can be said of certain media
theories stating that war is the mother of all media
technologies. That might be all be true. But the
on-line masses are blinded by interfaces, funky
imagery. Net Criticism cannot only have that one
strategy, to constantly 'uncover' and deconstruct other
people's java scripts and clever HTML... We should also
understand and 'trust the masses' in their cheap
admiration for the ephemeral.

TB: It'll be interesting to see whether the trend
toward making code visible (open source) will make it
more legible. For many, no: it will be like
transliterating hieroglyphs into phonetics. But
literacy is a 'technology' too, and from the 11th
century it went from being rare in the 'upper classes'
to a basic tool for tradesmen; and that 'renaissance of
literacy' brought about a 'renaissance of
heresy'--people exercising literacy outside of the
institutional structures that taught not just the
technology but how to interpret, explain, and apply it.
(And this wasn't the result of a programmatic push by a
progressive intelligentsia; on the contrary, the
'intelligentsia' *fought* it.) So maybe there's a
historical wisdom, a new kind of technology in this
melange of barely understood code, funky graphics,
ephemera--maybe somewhere in that combination that
seems so disorderly is the historical force. Let's
assume for a minute that the model we've been taught to
trust--an intellectual vanguard that supposedly learned
compassion from its excesses and respect for 'the
masses'--is in fact a reactionary force trying to
protect its political patrimony by imposing traditional
interpretations and ideals. What could come from this
incredible soup of visual and instrumental techniques?
We complain and worry about how interfaces are
'stopping' people--but what if those interfaces don't
matter at all?

GL: That would be heaven, perhaps even the end of the
NC project. Instead of an ecstasy of collective net
constructivism, we might expect a return of the
(cyber)cultural pessimism. In the end, all the cynical
outsiders will be right. But that's unbearable.
Recently I was inspired by the idea that the virtual
class, venture capitalists and all these suits are not
more than 'paper tigers' we should not be afraid of. We
still have the ability to organize ourselves (in new
ways, yes) and claim hegemony against microsoft, apple,
UUNet, compaq, netscape, sun, worldcom and whoever.
This had not even been tried. The lonely freelance
subjects are so tamed, numbed, still captured in old
stories but that will change as soon as this 20th
century is over and certain traumatic events have faded
away. NC 2.0 should be social science fiction and be
ready once the temporary lapse of reason (over the
Question of Organization) will be over.

TB: OK, a compromise definition: NC 2.0 should be the
atomized foundations of a future we can't imagine. But
what we *do* know is that new forms of organization
will get caught in the same old traps if they rely on
same old analytical tools. So let's break some of
those. I nominate the 'Conspiracy' as the first idiotic
idea to smash: it involves everything you
say--pessimism, suits, hegemony, and a lonely freelance
subject captured by old stories. What is a
'Conspiracy'? An organization that's effective,
hierarchical, doesn't talk, and plans to 'rule the
world.' So, if someone opposes this organizational
model, what values is s/he *supporting*?
Ineffectiveness, a happenstance program, hype, and
individuated powerlessness. Oh, and 'Conspiracies' are
'Evil.' But what does that mean, other than attributed
motives? Yeah, killing people, imprisoning people,
people, and exploiting people are unethical--but do we
need to consider 'motives' to condemn these things? No,
we can condemn them on objective grounds. So what if we
ignore this motive of a 'Conspiracy'? We end up with
the idealized model of a corporation: effective,
responsive, organized, forward- thinking, and growing.
Perfectly good ideals for many social organizations. So
let's throw this idea of the 'Conspiracy' out--and
throw out this fascination with 'motives' while we're
at it. So that's my nominee for how to proceed with NC
2.0. What do you suggest?

GL: Conspiracy theories do not honor the Enemy, they
want to erase, kill, and delete. But you do really
suggest that this line is dominant these days? Because
there is little else? I can see similarities with the
'ascii movement' in the sense that it is all about
tearing down the corporate-state masks under which a
self-explanatory truth will reveal itself, without
answer the urgent question of new ways to organize and
gain hegemony outside of the neo-liberal project of the
global market. It is prolonging a desperate form of
individualism which is not even suitable for networks.
So NC 2.0 could also be about making free space to
design new forms of (collective) subjectivity.

TB: Dominant, I don't know, but growing? Yes. We're
building tools that we designed with naive, limited, or
idealized assumptions, but the world produces other
conditions: so maybe the tools 'break,' or maybe they
do exactly what we specified but with consequences we
never intended--for example, they will run amok. And
they provide new metaphors for thinking about older
problems, social configurations: society as
agriculture, society as steam engine, society as chaos
theory, society as cybernetic process. *This* is
'interface culture.' So now the neo-liberal global
market likes to talk about itself as 'information
flows,' 'frictionless microtransactions,' etc. There is
no self-explanatory positive truth 'underneath' these
metaphors, just a dialectical relation between them, on
the one hand, and where we are and where we want to go,
on the other. So I think we agree: NC 2.0 should be a
project to articulate and create new powers, new
freedoms. When you tear down a wall, you have to put
the stones somewhere. So when we tear away at a dumb
idea, we find we criticized ideals we need. And you
say: The problem is the neo-liberal project of the
global market. OK, then: Which parts of it should we
tear away at, which parts should we keep, and how do we
reconfigure those parts? The answers to this question
will begin to give us priorities and the seeds of a

GL: George Soros and others have suggested that we introduce
a tax on global trade of stocks and currencies. We
could reduce global trade and traffic, stop the silly
sale of Dutch flowers in Chile and New Zealand (for
example), while at the same time fight for the right of
people to freely move from one country to the other.
Why this the right only of flowers and dollars? One
could focus on local networks and forget the whole
international English media culture for a while. And
re-enter on the global stage, if necessary. Universal
accessibility should not be our principle--it is just
one option among many. Attacking the standardized
department stores, shopping malls and hotel cultures is
another strategy besides the struggles against
multinationals like Shell, McDonalds, Nike etc. (this
is somehow obvious); and at the same time building up
truly numerous transnational networks from below, not
merely to exchange but also to collaborate in a direct
way, without intermediaries, free of ideology and
control, eager to express anger, not afraid to organize
and fight back. That is my, very private, vision of net
criticism, the next generation.
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