Geert Lovink on Sat, 28 Nov 1998 08:35:41 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Lev Manovich/Geert Lovink - Digital Constructivism

[this e-mail exchange took place as a preparation of a lecture by Lev
Manovich about the same topic which will take at De Waag, the Society for
Old & New Media, Nieuwmarkt 4, Amsterdam, on December 2, 1998, 8.30 pm]

Digital Constructivism: What Is European Software?
An exchange between Lev Manovich and Geert Lovink

GL: If we look at the hardcore IT-sectors, the U.S. seems to dominate the
market. How do you see recent developments on the European continent? For a
while, it looked like continental Europe was determined to become a dusty
"history belt," obsessed with its own micro difference, driven by the
passion to decontruct its own past, including its current projects. Europe
is culture and cuisine, but also war and poverty. Defined by Hegelian
forces, still very much stuck in the 19th century, despite all its attempts
to leave this tragic realm, full of (fatal) grand ideas. But now it looks
like there may be a slow recovery--for example, Airbus is beginning to
compete very seriously with Boeing, one of the mainstays of U.S. military-
technological hegemony (on the other hand, Mercedes-Benz merged with
Chrysler), the Euro is coming, things like this. And, of course, European
computer networks are on the rise, though still not as vast or saturating as
in the USA. Do you see European ideas blossoming before the recession 
hits us? Will there be a short summer of digital constructivism?

LM: It seems that until now Europe was about two years behind as far as
internet is concerned. At the same time, this notion of "behind" is
complex, because in some areas related to computer culture, such as user
safety and new media theory, Europe has had a lead for quite a while. And
obviously there are substantial diffirences from one European country to

Concerning the notion of European software: it's easy to adopt the idea of
U.S. software design dominating the world. I myself am guilty of it. For
instance, I wrote that just as Hollywood cinema dominated global imaginary
for decades, today the U.S. is doing this yet in another way: it dominates
people' vision of what computer is by exporting a particular human-computer
interface to the rest of the world. But how true is this?  Given how easy it
is to customize software--think of Netscape's release of the code for its
browser--the simple concept of "domination" isn't adequate.  At the same
time, it seems to me that U.S.-designed software reflects sociological and
ideological specificity of the U.S. in many ways, which is a phenomenon I'm
trying very actively to understand. Take computer games as an example: The
popularity of the navigation through space idiom in the U.S. games can be
related to the traditional U.S. idea that you travel through space to build
a character and to find your identity. In contrast, Japanese games seem to
focus on competition between two subjects, something which I assume is
central to Japanese definition of identity.

I read internet software as also reflecting forms of social communication
that are specific to the U.S. (or, lets say, specefic to capitalism in its
most pure form, unencumbered by traditional culture). It is very easy to
establish communication, to enter into a dialog with one person or a group
(email, news groups, chat); but it is equally easy to exit it without any
responsibility. You make immediate "friends" who you can always "drop" at
any time. And this is how social communication in the U.S. works in real
life as well: contact is easily established but easily broken as well. You
move and you never hear from people whom you used to know in the old place.
I can't help but think that here the design of software caricatures/brings
to the extreme particular social forms.


GL: If space is American and the play with identity Japanese, would
"history" therefore be the European equivalent? A mix of war, poverty, and
tragedy? Big gestures, dialectics, rising and falling empires, the

LM: History, yes. And also, the cultural and linguistic diffirences between
all the different people crowded together in Europe. So I would like to see
a design for a Renaissance interface, Baroque interface, Neoclassical this I mean an interface that, on the one hand, reflects the
visual mentality, so to speak, of a particular historical period, and, on
the other hand, that period's semiotic worldview, the way world is
understood and mapped out in discourses in each period. As a design
document, we may use Wolfflin's classic _Principles of Art History_ (1913),
which plotted the differences between Renaissance and Baroque styles along
five axes: linear-painterly; plane-recession; closed form-open form;
multiplicity-unity; and clearness-unclearness. Another exellent design
document is Michel Foucault's _The Order of Things_, in which he analyzes
three epistemes: Pre-Classical, Classical, and Modern. I would like to see
an interface based upon Classical episteme, for example.

GL: You presume here that software and interface designers know these texts,
have "conceptual access" to them and are able to freely use and manipulate
them, in order to intergrate them in their own environment. Do you think it
is realistic to expect that? I doubt it. We are talking here about a high-
level synthesis of the arts and technology disciplines. Only a few, closed
institutions can attain that level, whether in Europe or in the U.S.
Like Bauhaus? Moscow in the early twenties? MIT from 68 to 73?

LM: Well, in the U.S., all art students during the 1980s (although less now)
were required to read Foucault, Barthes, etc. How much they understood and
whether this led to better art is another question. In the 1990s, the U.S.
saw a certain antitheoretical turn in the art world; but at the same time, I
now start meeting Ph.D. students in different disciplines such as
communication or film studies who also are quite proficient with multimedia
and JAVA programming. I would hope that they will be able to synthesize
theory and new media. Do you see any such turn of events of this happening
in Europe?  What is the relationship between "theory" and art schools, or
theoretical departments and new media?

GL: The specific balances between living theory and true, embodied practice
is exactly what makes Europe such an interesting place. It can be
fundamentally different every few hunderd miles (or less). I do not see this
rich culture of confusion (called "difference") diminishing. I am a biased
lover of German-speaking countries (as some might have noticed), and rather
skeptical about my own country (as are most Dutch who work abroad).  I see
plenty of possibilities for Central and East European cultures, and not much
coming yet from the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon regions (when it come to
theory-practice). I don't know enough about Southern Europe to talk about
their potentials when it comes to developing a particular theory and
practice. In general, I prefer melancholic attitudes about and around such
slips into solid modernity--let me say, a profound ambivalance combined with
a clear, decisive expression. A sense of a cultural elitist knowledge with a
mission, not the banal and rude style of people who anyway already know the
tastes of the masses. This vulgar market way of thinking is mostly
anti-intellectual, something I really detest. I can critique conservatism and
elitism, not but populism; but it's not clear that it's sensitive enough as
an approach.


LM: Now, for cultural differences: What would French or Italian or Dutch
interfaces look like? One glimpse of is provided in the works of St.
Pesterburg Neo-academist artists, headed by Timur Novikov. They reject
twentieth-century modern art and return to the nineteenth-century models in
order to reclaim beauty and academic ideals--but they use computers.  Thus,
Olga Tobreluts's films superimpose nineteenth-century neoclassical visuality
and digital compositing to create a distinct aesthetic that can be called
"neoclassical digital."

GL: Well, first of all, this presupposes that there is in fact a genuine
West-American style, which, second, is embedded in and embodied by the
Windows (and Macintosh) user interfaces. We tend not to think that way. The
operating systems, icons, menus, interfaces are regarded as somehow "global"
elements, both omnipresent in the interface and ubiquitous in computing.
That is in fact how the softare and hardware is produced: in India,
Malaysia, Ireland, Mexico, China... Intellectuals, myself included, are
often suspicious about a global culture, whether "really existing" or even
possible; I--and I'm far from alone--make a hobby of recognizing which
elements in any given situation are local and historical, and the dynamics
those elements suggest.

LM: Your point is well taken. But what is local? We can, for instance,
postulate a certain "Silicon Valley culture" which extends beyond Silicon
Valley itself to crop up in certain places in India, Malaysia, and so on.
Would this be a global culture or American culture?

What I am really interested in--and I dont care too much how to get there,
through theory or history--is seeing really different ways in which people
imagine a computer can exist and function; not just different flavors of the
same interface but fundamentally different constructions (my call for
"national" interface was one way to approach this problem). In my own
teaching, I tend to rely more on history--history of media, art,
architecture. For example, we look at nineteenth-century pre-cinematic
technologies to think about new ways to do multimedia;  we look at the
history of twentieth-century architecture to think about new ways to
construct virtual spaces; we look at early twentieth-century modernist
literature to think about new ways to do interactive narratives.  Next
semester, I will ask my students to do a multimedia "translation" of one
paragraph of Proust. If different historical periods, different cultures,
and different artists had their own worldviews, their own response to the
world, how can we achive this in new media? One way to start, in my view, is
by simply copying the best examples from the past, recreating them in new
media. In order to reach the future we need to go the past. (One example
from my own work: in my forthcoming book _A Language of New Media_ each
principle of new media will be illustrated by a still from Dziga Vertov's
1929 film "A Man with a Movie Camera"). This is an area where Europe can in
principle lead: it has all these museums, people are surrounded by history,
they live--very literally--amidst different epistemes, manifested in
architecture, town planning, landscape...

GL: So do you believe in formal structures, metaphysical constructs that
might even exist outside of the technological realm, which we only have to
uncover, assisted by (trans)-European intellectuals and artists? Most people
would argue, to the contrary, that culture compensates for ugly, work-related
technologies. There is a huge gap between these two views. "Only Proust can
save us from the internet"--that's the dominant view within Western elites.
But instead of a real fight between these schools, I see a lot of ignorance,
arrogance, confusion, and misunderstanding. Aren't you a bit to optimistic
about the synthesis of the artist-engineer-intellectual (and worker, one
could add...).


LM: I'd like to see Proust and computer come together for four reasons.
First, the human-computer interface is a cultural language that offers its own
ways of representing human memory and human experience. This language speaks
in the form of discrete objects organized in hierarchies (hierarchical
file system), or as catalogs (databases), or as objects linked together
through hyperlinks (hypermedia). In short, just as any real artist or
artistic style models the world in a particular way, existing
human-computer interfaces offer a particular model of the word. I think
that in order to imagine really different models we need to go artists who
have already developed such models--such as Proust. Proust also seems
appropriate because of his obession with memory. Obviously, this is closely
related to computers, particularly as they are used in our society:
the computer is mostly a memory machine that stores our records, our "old

Another reason I would like to see this is the high-culture/low-culture
split.  Until recently at least, intellectuals and the art world were
suspicious of new media because they saw it as low culture. So let us serve
them multimedia Proust! And a anl reason: despite new media's "postmodern"
technology (for instance, hyperlinks which appear to deny closed text and
final signification), new media are, artistically, completely premodern.
Compare, for instance, characters in nineteenth century with characters in
computer games. The latter have no psychological depth; all they do is
act--like heroes in fairytales and myths, the ancient forms of literature.
New media still need "go through" modernism. Here one problem that
particularly interests me is the fact that one of the great achievements of
literary modernism was developing new ways to represent our mental life in
art.  Montage, multiple viewpoints, and narrators, stream-of-consciousness,
and other techniques allowed us to render the human mind with new fidelity.
Computers make it possible to combine written word with audio, stills,
digital video, and even three-dimensional spaces--so how can we take
advantage of these new abilities to surpass the achievements of modernism. In
short, how can we "jump over" Proust? (For more on this, see

This is just one (negative) connection between new media and (European)
modernism. We may recall that, to a large degree, this European modernism in
the 1910s and 1920s was a response to American technology. For example,
Mayakovsky, the Russian futurist poet, was fascinated with New York
skyscrapers; and then there are the Bauhaus artists. Is there something similar
happening today, in the way Europe approaches new media and the internet?

GL: No, Europe still is in an early stage of awakening (see Sloterdijk,
Enzensberger, and so on)--it's still obsessed with its own history and
inferiority complexes. Economistic views have taken over; culture in general
is in a defensive posture, it lacks the resources to defend itself on this
terrain. All cultural expressions, even the most marginal and contemporary
ones, are in immediate danger of being absorbed into the museum and
transformed into "heritage." Intellectuals are way behind in all the urgent
current political and economic topics. No one knows if the European Union,
the Euro, the immigrants or the integration of Eastern Europe will work out.
There is a strong sense of irony about failed technologies that are
exclusively European in origin. The French sense of superiority toward the US
is so sweet, so cute (and so deeply touristic as well, and above all and
irrelevant). Two world wars, the Holocaust, Stalinism, the process of
decolinazation and the Cold War have seriously weakened Europe's ability to
come up with any radical concepts that would combine negative thinking and
utopian designs. Much too much is still about containment, regulations, the
ballast of the past, whether it is fascism, the burned-out sixties, or the
divestitutres of the neoliberal 80s and 90s (a period whose damage still
needs to be investigated). All we can do for now is profit from all the
failures and miseries of the past and the present. I strongly believe that we
have a period of (digital) modernism ahead of us--if we approach it
positively. We have to try; I'm not afraid of avant-gardism. It's time to
close the chapter of postmodernism. Everything has come to an end, even the
twentieth century--that was never a secret. Still, the world keeps on
turning, and we have numerous new recessions and crises ahead of us. And
don't the heatwaves and storms. So let us welcome them, and sharpen our
analytical tools so that we can act accordingly once the "integral accident"
(Virilio) happens. What we need is an early-warning system, built into the
systems and architecture--a scanner program. That would be post ideological

LM: Do you mean "scanner" in the sense scanning for the future, or in the
sense of scanning and filtering for U.S. biases in the software? A kind of
ideological filter through which you can put, say, Microsoft Office, and
get back to Amsterdam Coffeehouse culture? But what would this filter do?

GL: You mean the hash cofee shops or the regular "brown" cafes? I meant
scanning in the sense of detecting, with an in-built critique mode.
Suspicious of any sort of "goodwill," exploring and testing all sort of bugs
and holes in the system, enjoying all forms of imperfection, silly sales talk
and the poverty of office culture.


LM: Like you, I also believe in digital modernism or avant-gardism. Let me
try to explain how I understand it. I'll begin with a question. To what
extent can the computer revolution can be compared to the modernist
revolution in the beginning of the twentieth century? During this revolution,
all key modern visual communication techniques were developed: photo and film
montage, classical film language, surrealism, the use of sex appeal in
advertising, modern graphic design, new typography. But no fundamentally new
approaches emerged after the 1920s; we are still using the same techniques,
and the shift to computer media has not brought with it any new ones. Why?
More generally, if historically each cultural period (Renaissance, Baroque,
and so on) brought with it a new expressive language, why is the computer age
satisfied with using the language of the previous period?

Part of the answer is that with new media, modernist communication techniques
acquire a new status. The techniques developed by the artistic avant-garde of
the 1920s became embedded in the commands and interface metaphors of computer
software. In short, the avant-garde vision was materialized in a computer.
All the strategies developed to awaken audiences from a dream-existence of
bourgeois society (constructivist design, new typography, avant-garde
cinematography and film editing, photo-montage) now define the basic routines
of postindustrial society--that is, the interaction with a computer. 3D
visualization, windows, "cut and paste," and hyperlinking: these are all
examples of the transformations of avant-garde techniques into the techniques
of human-computer interface.

Does new media, just as postmodern culture in general (such as MTV)
simply naturalize the old, modernist European avant-garde? No, but it does
introduce an equally revolutionary set of communication techniques. The
new avant-garde is quite different from the old. The old avant-garde came
up with new forms, new ways to represent reality and new ways to see the
world. The new avant-garde is about new ways of accessing and manipulating
information. Its techniques are hypermedia, databases, image-processing,
search engines, data-mining, and simulation. The new avant-garde is no
longer concerned with seeing or representing the world in new ways but,
rather, with accessing and using previously accumulated media in new ways.
In this respect, new media is postmedia or supermedia: it uses old
media as its primary material. From "New Vision," new typography, new
architecture of the 1920s we move to New Media of the 1990s; from "A Man
with a Movie Camera" to a user with a search engine, compositing program,
image-analysis program, visualization program; from cinema, the technology
of seeing, to a computer, the technology of memory.


GL: Aren't your Californian students protesting when they hear you making
these statements? Do they believe in the "digital revolution" and all the
Wired-Third Wave-Long Boom talk? It seems rather confrontational to
admit that the entire US computer industry is merely a child of the
European crisis of values that occured during and immediately after 
World War I. Isn't the twentieth century the "American century"? Isn't its
"genius" to use some odd ideas to make a quick buck? Why is the (secret)
history of concepts so important? Why not admit that there is indeed an American
hegemony, or imperialism--especially in the fields of the military and
finance, two field in which computer networks are playing such a key

LM: I would not say that the entire US computer industry is merely an
extension of European modernism--I am merely drawing a connection between
modernism and the features of human-computer interface. The industry as a
whole of course came about in the course of Cold War, and most of computer
technologies were developed for military use (this is documented in Paul
Edwards' _The Closed World_ [Cambridge, Mass: MIT, 1996]). In my own
forthcoming book based on my Ph.D. dissertation I will also be discussing the
military origins of computer imaging: image-processing, computer vision, 3D
graphics. In a recent conference I organized at my university, I juxtaposed
Vertov's "Man with a Movie Camera" with a tape of real-time computer graphics
for military simulators (Evans and Sutherland, USA, early 1990s).  Military
and flight simulators have been one of the main applications of real-time 3D
photorealistic computer graphics technology in the 1970s and the 1980s, thus
determining to a significant degree the way this technology developed. One of
the most common forms of navigation used today in computer culture--flying
through spatialized data--can be traced back to simulators representing the
world from the viewpoint of a military pilot. Thus, from Vertov's mobile
camera we move to the virtual camera of a simulator, which, with the end of
the Cold War, became an accepted way to interact with any and all data--the
default way of encountering the world in computer culture.

This is just one example of how the European avant-garde, the Cold War, and
current human-computer interfaces can be linked together. I thought that my
connection between the avant-garde and the interface will be relevant to our
conversation because, in a certain way, it makes Europeans responsible for
the American interface. So, why not say that the trajectory that leads to
Silicon Valley begins at Bauhaus, and that in this sense all software is
European software?

GL: Isn't that a very bold Eurocentric idea? Wouldn't it be better to be
radically different, to *not* imitate America and instead work with different
premisses? Ha, there the word "different" shows up again... (It's hard to
avoid in this context!)

LM: OK, let's try to connect what we've talked about to the larger cultural
dynamics of the last two decades--this may give us another way to think about
what a "different" European software might be. When I arrived in the U.S.
from Moscow in 1981, I soon discovered that here there are basically two
cultures here: mass culture, which follows scripts and stereotypes, and a
small, academic, New York-based high culture. There was very little in the
middle, between the cliches of Hollywood, on the one hand, and the
self-centered experimentaion of New York downtown and university campuses, on
the other.  You either had multiplexes or downtown spaces where two dozen
people gathered to watch experiemntal films. One could count on the fingers
of one hand the people who existed in between, like Susan Sontag or Philip
Glass. In contrast, my sense of Europe was that it had a much larger middle
stratum.  So what happened over the next two decades? It is often noted that
the 1990s has been a decade of global business, of corporations--that's where
all the cultural actions seems to be. At least this is the view one gets from
the U.S. Does this mean that experimental highbrow culture is over, and that
cliches have triumphed? I don't think so. What actually happened during these
decades is that mass culture became much more sophisticated: it incorporated
much experimental energy. From editing music videos to Baroque aesthetics of
graphic design to websites, contemporary mass culture is not what is used to
be. When Peter Greenaway's "Pillow Book" plays at your local multiplex, you
have to realize that something very fundamental has happened.

So how does this relates to software? This is an interesting moment because
computer products is finally beginning to follow the logic of the rest of
consumer culture. In other words, product differentiation now relies on
styling. Presently, this is beginning to happen very explicitly with
hardware: if you pay $2000, you are going to get pretty much the same system,
regardless of the manufacturer--so styling has to be the key.  The success of
Sony laptops and the iMAC illustrates this very well. But this process hasn't
happened to software yet.  However, it's not hard to imagine that in few
years I will buy a particular word-processor--and will pay extra- because of
the styling of its interface.  Can this be an opportunity for European
software?  Imagine interfaces designed by Scandinavian designers or Italian
industrial designers. Or an Interface by Prada!

On another level, as software becomes an important part of culture, are we
going to see the emergence of "middle culture" of software based in Europe?
Today we have "mass culture" software (Microsoft Office, etc.) and maybe
"high culture" software--for example, tools used by hackers and programmers.
Can we imagine "middle culture" in software, an equivalent of "art house"
cinema?  Just as Europe gave us Fellini and Greenaway, can it give us "art
house" interfaces and programs themselves? (I'll be the first one to buy

GL: Sure--I could see that happening under the rubric of a "democratization
of software." Let's think about the dynamics we now see, and now they could
feed into such a development. For example, people find meeting and
negotiation culture disgusting these days--consensus is tired as hell. There
is an organized and staged willingness to do anything, something, a simulated
decisiveness.  But at the same time ambivalence is on the rise. We can
overcome both bold gestures and numbed consumerism. I strongly believe in
public-access initiatives, a lot of small, diverse media labs and a high dose
of activism, craziness, and freedom.  Business will not provide this, and
neither nor big, lame institutions.  Perhaps something might change through
the magical word "education." Still, most creative energies are being
absorbed or sublimated into fashion, techno, image-driven industries, these
kinds of things. It's only a matter of time before it jumps on software
itself. And I can't wait.

LM: Yes, that's a very good way to put it I do hope that the new generation
of students who are growing up with computers will use them as a true medium
for the cultural expression of the generation--but not simply to make videos,
arrange music, or design clothes--but, rather, to design software and
interfaces themselves. In other words, they might express themselves throgh
software design the way previous generations expressed themselves through
books and movies.

Here's something concrete that exemplifies many of the issues we've talked
about.  Today one of my undergraduate students stopped by: he took a few
digital arts classes here and then spent last year in Paris at the Sorbonne.
He said that after a while he dropped out of Sorbonne because he was hired to
teach Paris photographers Photoshop. Now he is back to finish his degree
here. He talked to me about the computer animations he's working on, about
Bentham's Panopticon. Not only did he read Foucault but he also read Bentham
himself. We talked about how to represent Gase--which does not belong to
anybody--through the movements of the virtual camera. He is only 20. So, I
cant wait for the future as well. If the early twenty first century will be
anything--even a bit--like the early twentieth century, some pretty exciting
times are coming!

[edited by Ted Byfield]
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