Geert Lovink on Fri, 24 Jul 1998 19:04:39 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Radical Media Pragmatism (For the Ars Electronica 'Infowar'

Catalogue 1998)
Precedence: bulk

Radical Media Pragmatism
Strategies for Techno-social Movements 
By Geert Lovink

For the Ars Electronica 'Infowar' Catalogue 1998

		Die Architektur der globalen Oekonomie geht Hand in
		Hand mit der Entwicklung eines Netzwerkes einer
		medialen Globalisation. Dementsprechend ist auch der
		Aufstieg eines globalen Medienmarktes in den spaeten
		80er Jahren erfolgt. Die neue Missionare des Kapitals
		erkannten zunehmend die Bedeutung einer globalen
		Medienkultur fuer den liberalen oekonomischen Markt.
		Globale Telekommunikationssysteme und das weltweite
		Internet dienen daher nicht den bisherigen kulturellen
		und aufklaererischen Zwecken oeffentlicher
		Medienanstalten. Umso wichtiger wird es sein, ueber die
		sozialen Konstruktionsmechanismen von Medien und die
		medialen Konstruktionsmechanism von Sozietaet
		informiert zu sein. Daher sind Medienkritik und
		Gesellschaftskritik nicht mehr von einander zu
						--Peter Weibel

I recently found a book in a secondhand bookshop in Amsterdam, _The
Information War_ by an American journalist, Dale Minor, published in 1970. 
He defines the phrase as the "seldom physical but frequently bitter
conflict between reporters and government of ficials" who both worked in
Vietnam. More specifically he views this clash between journalists and the
authorities as part of a broader and more profound conflict "between the
democratic imperative of full public disclosure and those forces and
tendencies which act to constrict, control and manipulate the information
the public gets." The "mass media"--which today play a very instrumental
role in theories of information warfare--he dismisses out of hand: very
little of it, he argues, bears any relation to gathering and reporting of
news. He condemns these media not for their top-down/one-to-many model as
such but, rather, for their lack of critical content. For Minor, the
"press" is more than a sum of its!  parts, it embodies an Idea: "The
institution of the press is the central nervous system of democracy." 

By now, the late nineties, this kind of phrasing has come to sound quite
empty. The "media" of which Minor was so critical have entirely pushed
aside the concept of "the press" as an organizing principle, and with it
all the imperatives of centrality and responsibility. And the censorship
Minor's press faced has changed with it: censorship as such may exist
under dictatorships censorship, but elsewhere its effects are, precisely,
business as usual. To be sure, journalists are murdered occasionally, but
ge nerally speaking the media worldwide have turned into an infotainment
business. For generations unfamiliar with the Vietnam-era struggles over
openness, the idea that media and democracy have an intrinsic relationship
may seem odd--new, even.

For content-based work of artists, activists, and journalists, this is a
growing problem. The information industry needs reports (and most of all
imagery), but ideas of what is salient have changed dramatically through
this process of commodification and technical/editorial transformation. As
technical advances have permitted "up-to-the-minute" reports, live
coverage, "real-life" footage, the task and form of synthesis has shifted:
synthetic, systematic analysis--which used to be the press's reason-for-b
eing--is now the problem of the "information-overloaded" viewer, and
ethics, once a driving force, have become a matter of regulatory
compliance. More news, more indifference. Information became our
neo-natural environment. Data clouds race across the sky : sometimes
they're threatening, but mostly we adjust to this strange new weather. 

This is the unbearable lightness of the exploding media universe: more
channels, less content, less impact. The Big Digital Bang is threatening
to crush (or "liberate") all meaning, to push every cry against injustice
out of band and out of broadcasting r ange. At least, that is the daily
despair of a group--perhaps a diminishing group--for whom "media" means
more than just a job processing other people's data. But through this data
smog and processing fog, the lessons of the Cold War were learned and univ
ersalized: through this haze of the "media" we see the vague outlines and
traces of invisible psychological warfare, without clear fronts, with a
few low-intensity conflicts on the margins. Infowar precludes the
friend-enemy distinction, which according to Carl Schmitt is the basis of
all politics. But for how long will this go on, we should ask? When will
the protective shields of Baudrillard's "silent majority" deteriorate and
the general revolt against the Organized Trash. Today's indifference of
the popular can be interpreted as the outcome of specific historical
conjunctions (consumerism, democratization). It is not a "natural state"
of the masses. The "rage against the machine" will ultimately crush the
powers behi nd disinformation, there's no question.  So do we simply wait
and gamble on the accumulating alienation that will ultimately turn into a
peaceful implosion of the media? Should we, in 1998, wait for "1989" to
recur? That scenario probably won't repeat itse lf.

Better to search for patterns and concepts that will amplify and embody
the rise of potentially strong techno-social movements. For this occasion
I would like to formulate a framework for a radical pragmatic coalition of
intellectual and artistic forces-- forces that, so far, have been working
in different directions. It is time for dialogue and confrontation between
media activists, electronic artists, cultural studies scholars, designers
and programmers, media theorists, journalists, those who work in fa shion,
pop culture, visual arts, theatre and architecture. All these branches,
discourses, and traditions are now subjected to the same process of
digitization. The benefits and problems of computer networking and
mediazation differ across these fields, b ut their integration into media
"synergy" is visible everywhere. Even yesterday's (literally
*yesterday's*) skeptics are getting on-line--just as the "early adopters" 
begin to recognize the formations of newer, subtler threats!  ! 
 in general computerization.

It is time to overcome the ongoing "culture wars" between disciplines,
platforms, and generations. This doesn't mean establishing a political
party or a unifying ideology--we don't need either, in fact the effort of
establishing them could very likely be counterproductive. We can settle
for something more practical: mutual understanding and coordination
between different forms of expression would be a huge step in itself, or
many, many small steps. For the purposes of Infowar, this means new
groupings, new exchanges: between artists and engineers, on one side,
working on an effort to formulate principles for interactive design, and
the old school critics of mass media content on the other side. In the
past, the Internet used to be "new" whereas what came to be called "old
media"--mass propaganda--served the establishment. But the situation has
been turned upside-down before our eyes: with the rise of "push media",
the "digital revolution" of content giants like Time-Warner, News Corp.,
and Bertelsmann and the near monopoly of Microsoft and WorldCom, the
supposed opposition between old and new media is questionable at best.

We don't need network idealists nor Luddites. As Michael Heim points out
in his book _Virtual Realism_, "The Luddite falls out of sync with the
powerful human energies promoting rationality for three centuries and now
blossoming into the next century. The Idealist falls for the progress of
tools without content, of productivity without corporeal discipline." The
signposts Heim puts up to guide us in overcoming the backlash against
cyberspace can be useful in this context (even if, strictly speaking, his
subject is virtual reality [VR]). For instance, he distinguishes between
virtuality in the strong and loose, popular sense--and warns that "sloppy
semantics leads to false panic and confusion." Rigorous or methodical
criticism, on the other hand, can help to tear away at the destructive
mythologies that both sides push. The other advice he offers is also
helpful... We should avoid glib exaggerations such as "now we're cyborgs"
or "everything's virtual reality"; reject any monolithic fear an
all-persuasive technology monster; not pretend to re-present the primary
world; observe closely those points where VR touches earth-centered
applications. "Denouncing artificial worlds as distractions is just as
off-balance as wanting to dissolve the primary world into cyberspace."
According to Heim, realism in VR will come from pragmatic habitation,
livability, and dwelling. "Social transition to cyberspace is as important
as the engineering research." Perhaps there is enough of this soft New Age
preaching around. But the former "leftist" forces that oppose
neo-liberalism and global capitalism certainly need some "healing"  and
harmony if they want to defeat Babylon.

Lately--since the mid-eighties--it has fallen out of fashion in the West
to speak of "propaganda" and "media manipulation." The "manufacture of
consent" (a phrase Noam Chomsky takes from Walter Lippmann) has become an
abstract, invisible process, without apparent agents or their critics. 
There are fewer and fewer social movements and organizations that "beat
the press." The symbiotic ties between investigative journalists,
alternative press, and organic intellectuals within the state or political
parties become looser with every day that passes, to the point of
dissolution. Grassroots initiatives have fragmented into islands of
NGO-nets while, at same time, becoming increasingly professional in
orientation and visible in the media. Counterinformation that would
challenge corporate and governmental policies hasn't disappeared, but it's
very quickly losing its vehicles and messengers. We can clearly see this
in the diminishing size of the alternative networks of bookshops,
distribution firms, publishing houses, and presses. Newer media--video,
local radio, public access TV, and the Internet--haven't been able to
compensate this crisis in alternative _Oeffentlichkeit_, in part because
activists haven't been able to grasp these technologies as "media" in ways
their accustomed to.

On the other hand, though, activists *have* begun to recognize the viral
qualities of information. For instance, one can, over time, undermine the
images of multinationals by circulating do-it-yourself investigations in
small doses; huge demonstrations, boycotts, blockades--organizational
nightmares--aren't necessary. There's a historical logic to this shift
from mass and class phenomena to smaller-scale efforts: proper, justified,
clear arguments of the kind familiar from nineteenth-century reformist
movements--it never hurts to have these at one's disposal, but they're not
sufficient. And nor does one need to saturation of images, ideas,
arguments: a small negative info-virus can have devastating effects as
companies, which depend more and more on "public relations."

This strategic move from the streets to subtler, less obvious
spaces--among them cyberspace--has been discussed by Critical Art Ensemble
in their "Electronic Civil Disobedience and Other Unpopular Ideas". 
"Resistance--like power--must withdraw from the street.  Cyberspace as a
location and apparatus for resistance has yet to be realized. Now it is
time to bring a new model of resistant practice into action." The
political collective identity "Luther Blissett" is one such form of
cultural sabotage and "semiotic terrorism." The German autonomous
a.f.r.i.k.a. group has gathered these strategies together in a handbook
for the "communication guerilla"; these strategies vary from classics like
fake letters and pie-throwing to ironic demonstrations of support and
"image destruction campaigns." 

Politicized computer hackers turn up in these stories every so often, but
they are still an elusive breed whose potential remains for the most part
in the realm of speculation and science fiction.

The information counterstrategy of guerrilla warfare has been on the rise
in the last decades. It has tried to squeeze into the Deleuzian currents
and has explicitly positioned itself in the realm of pop culture and
visual arts (in the case of neoism). But in part these were just
artificial constructs to compensate for the loss of lively social
movements. Hit-and-run actions need a mass basis to operate from; out of
context, though, these semiotic sabotages are merely survival tactics with
which small groups bridge long periods of boredom and directionlessness. 
Until the events appear suddenly: a rave party, a sudden revolt of the
unemployed, a protest against rising fascism, road constructions, nuclear
transports, Euro policies, airports, social exclusion, immigration laws, a
boycott action against Hennes and Mauritz, the eviction of a squat. These
things all happen. For the majority, though, these forms of resistance are
all but invisible and, therefore, nonexistent. At most, we see an image of
some youngsters, defined through their dress code (post punk/neo hippies),
rampaging against the already weakened infrastructure; and we usually see
these images in a context that supports demands for more "control."
This is the trap of identity politics. Some threads of protest led into
the corridors and offices of invisible NGO-network offices; other threads
unraveled onto the urban streets, where various "factions" dressed up and
merged with the fashion landscape. 

Neither type is the kind of "meme" that multiplies in any clear way.  This
diversification of oppositional politics hasn't led to a "rainbow
coalition." On the contrary, it fueled and was fueled by mutual suspicion: 
"Who is selling out?" "What has been appropriated? By whom?  Who's to
blame?" "Who's on our side and who isn't? Who's in our circle and who
isn't?" Within this paranoiac PC-system, it has become almost impossible
to work on the fly or in temporary coalitions with journalists and other
media professionals. They've turned out to be on "the other side," not the
mediators they once were. This shift, this mechanism, is described in
Adilkno's "Cracking the Movement" which deals with the rise and fall of
the Amsterdam squatters movement and its changing media tactics. But the
"anti-media" attitudes that came of it, which were given explosive power
by the lies of the Gulf War, haven't brought about any deeper
understanding of "data deprivation" (Herbert Schiller). Nor have more
recent alternatives--for example, the radical "net criticism" of the
nettime mailing list (since 1995)--been able to correct this situation.
Rising above this diversification are those voices booming with fairy
tales and diagrams:scientific specialists, artists, and "visionaries" who
still the downfall of "top-down television" (as George Gilder did in his
"Life after Television").

What is needed are autonomous research collectives that critically examine
the social, economic, and even ecological aspects of the "IT" (Information
Technology) business (so praise Adbusters!). The military-industrial
complex, the nuclear and chemical multinationals, and more recently the
garment industry--each is faced with a sophisticated opposition, people
waging "information war" who have backgrounds as activist. But not the IT
business. To build these networks, these collectives, these efforts, we n
eed to go back to classic authors such as Noam Chomsky, Herbert Schiller,
or Edward Herman--crucial works on the manipulative aspect of the global
media. For these authors, "infowar" isn't tied to the latest military
strategies; it's the ability of the ruling class to ideologically dominate
and manipulate media channels in order to dominate the world markets.
Their link with the Pentagon isn't technical in nature.

This isn't to suggest that the analyses we need will be a simple matter,
or that these basic questions don't or won't apply. Take the work of
Friedrich Kittler and his school: these analyses emphasize a "military
determinism" in their history of media, and emphasize the primacy of US
foreign policy over the global media. In this view, technological
developments fit into a strategy of a US-dominated Western imperialism. It
is worth noting that while both the Chomsky and Kittler schools focus on
US affairs before, during, and immediately after the Second World War, the
outcomes of their analyses are entirely different. But nor should we
concern ourselves too much with these old debates: it's quite clear that
the media, and especially their technological branches, are still deeply
rooted in the Cold War. And so are their critics.  "1989" hasn't had much
influence on the discourse of this generation of thinkers; perhaps the
only impact of the Berlin Wall's fall on models of infowar
mass-manipulation practices was to open up new fields of operation and new

A recent example of Chomskian critique of popular journalism comes from
the Australian-British correspondent John Pilger in his book _Hidden
Agendas_. It describes the Tony Blair's "betrayal" of the Labour
government and its ongoing assault on the underclass, the recent backlash
against aboriginals in Australia, huge arms deals with Indonesia, Burma,
and Iraq (also under Blair), the hidden brutal repression in East Timor,
the "invisible" bombings during the Gulf War. Pilger's style is
accessible, moralistic but not nagging. Far from being academic or even
"subversive," he is attacking the news industry from within--from where he
orginates and still works, producing documentary films. For Pilger,
"manipulation" is not an abstract word: he visits the victims of the
English boulevard press, like the striking dockers in Liverpool, and so
on. He uses the phrase "cultural Chernobyl" to describe the disinformation
that's being spread--"newszak" (like muzak), as Bob Franklin calls it. 
Here, Pilger quotes George Orwell, who described how censorship in free
societies is infinitely more sophisticated and thorough because "unpopular
ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need
for an official ban."

For Pilger there is only one strategy: speak out. He doesn't mention
alternative models for dissident media activism. The Internet isn't a
serious option for those investigative reporters and critics of the
Chomsky class who are used to access to the old style
media-for-the-millions (despite their radical critique). Pilger writes,
"Technology and the illusion of an "information society" means more media
owned by fewer and fewer conglomerates. [...] The Internet, for all its
variety and potential, is essentially an elite operation as most people in
the world do not own a telephone, let alone a computer." A cliche, used by
many of his generation, who cannot (or do not) want to see the battle over
the terms under which future generations will communicate. A fight for
equal bandwidth, public access, and content that is *not* controlled by
corporations or governments. Pilger, and many like him, should take care
of the "successor generation," a term used by "atlanticists" to bridge the
old UK-US elite and the new Clinton-Blair mold). Pilger quotes Edward
Said: "The threat to independence in the late twentieth century from the
new electronics could be greater than was colonialism. The new media have
the power to penetrate more deeply into a 'receiving' culture than any
previous manifestation of Western technology." The systematic refusal here
to even mention the existence of back channels is striking. History will
judge, to be sure--but not before we have at least tried to build open
platforms, our own browsers, interactive systems, public terminals, and to
organize net blockades, undermine the dictatorship of identity and the
corporate control over media.


Dale Minor, The Information War, Hawthorn Books Inc., New York, 1970

Michael Heim, Virtual Realism, Oxford University Press, New York/Oxford, 1998

Critical Art Ensemble, Electronic Civil Disobedience, Autonomedia,
Brooklyn, 1996

Adilkno, Cracking the Movement, Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 1994

Mind Invaders, Edited by Stewart Home, Serpent's Tail, London/New York, 1997

Autonome a.f.r.i.k.a Gruppe, Handbuch der Kommunikationsguerilla,
Hamburg, 1997 (see also:

nettime, mailinglist for net criticism,

John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, London, 1998

Herbert I. Schiller, Information Inequality, Routledge, New York/London, 1996

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